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Arab disco on Bukit Bintang
(Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur)

August 2004
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur: Arab disco on Bukit Bintang

This is definitely a "you had to be there" photo. For a few nights there's been a Malaysian cultural festival going on at the corner of Sultan Ismail and Bukit Bintang. They have put on some interesting dance and musical performances, and it winds up around 11pm.

The first night, after the end of the show, the stage crew put on some "show's over - go home now" music, as is often done. It happened to be some pretty lively middle eastern dance music.

Now, at the moment Arabs are by far the most numerous tourists in KL. It's the hot season in the Gulf, it's the cool season here, and being a majority-Muslim country, it's a "respectable" family destination, while at the same time being fun and relaxed.

Also keep in mind that in the summertime, Gulf Arabs keep very late hours. Where they come from, it's too hot during the day to do anything, so people often go out for dinner around midnight. Accordingly, for the past month or so, in the late hours this neighborhood is all veiled women and obviously Arab men. All the sidewalk coffee shops are packed until the wee hours.

When the music came on, all the Arab tourist families were doing the Bintang Walk stroll, and when they passed the music, someone started dancing. One turned into two, four, and then dozens. As I watched, the crowd grew and grew until about 300 onlookers circled around a central core of dancers, all men, all very, very into it. Some wore bandanas like veils and danced the women's part, others just dove into it in a joyful frenzy of movement. Every time the stage crew started turning the music down, clapping and chanting rose from the crowd until they put it back on. The first night it lasted almost 90 minutes.

After that, "Arab disco" was informally added to the nightly schedule of events, and the crowd has grown each evening. I talked to the cultural show's emcee and he said the whole thing was entirely spontaneous and unexpected, but I think I saw the kernel of a plan for next year brewing in his mind.

Whenever any brave Malaysian ventures into the dance circle, the cheering is so loud it's almost deafening. The other night an older Sikh gentleman burst in and boogied with the best of them, and I think they were ready to carry him on their shoulders.

At the end of the night on Saturday, everyone called out the names of their cities so others could hear where they were from. Should I be surprised that the funkiest, rug-cuttingest, stayin-alivest dancers were from Jeddah? I'm not really sure.

It's really been a fun thing to go out and see each night. I think the reason I like it so much is that when people think "spontaneous urban dance party" (and who doesn't think that from time to time?), Arabs from the Gulf states - mostly seen as aloof and dour - are probably pretty much the last group who comes to mind.

The photo doesn't come close to doing it justice. I used my digital camera's video powers to make a little movie of it which does a (slightly) better job of conveying what a great time the street party is, but beware, it's a 9-megabyte download.

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