Ray, Egyptian Star Samia Gamal, and the Pet Camel

Did you know that Ray Bourbon had a pet camel and was friends with one of the biggest stars of Egyptian films?

On Ray’s UTC album, Around the World in 80 Ways, he included a long list of clubs he appeared at that included “Symia’s” in Cairo, Egypt.  I thought this might be a bit of Ray’s exaggeration for several years until I got the original manuscript of his autobiography and started digging a little further.

The story begins sometime around 1951 or 1952.  Ray was appearing at the Cinderella club in Greenwich Village.  One night at the club, Ray was introduced to Samia Gamal and her new husband, Sheppard King III.

Samia Gamal and Sheppard King departing airplaneSamia Gamal and her husband Sheppard King III

Gamal catapulted to fame in the 1930s and 40s in her native Egypt as a dancer, becoming famous for combining techniques from ballet and Latin dance into Middle Eastern dancing.  She starred in dozens of films with composer, singer, and actor Farid al-Atrash, and some compared them to an Egyptian Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

You can see examples of Simia’s dance work in a few clips on YouTube – in the 1954 Egyptian film Ali Baba (here and here), A Glass and a Cigarette (1954), and this unidentified clip from a film where she appears with Farid al-Atrash.

In 1949, King Farouk proclaimed Gamal as “The National Dancer of Egypt”, which led to attention for her in the United States.  She travelled to the US the following year and appeared at the Latin Quarter, a famous US nightclub, first setting off a national fad for Middle Eastern-styled “belly dancing” in this country.

Samia Gamal publcity photo
Samia Gamal in an undated publicity photograph.

Gamal created US press in November 1951 with her whirlwind marriage to Sheppard King III, part of a wealthy Dallas family that made a fortune in cotton, oil and real estate.  King met her at a nightclub in Paris and proposed three hours later.  King converted to Islam and took the name Abdullah. 

King’s mother opposed the marriage and threatened to cut him out of the family fortune.  Texas socialites weren’t too keen on Gamal either – Houston oilman Glenn McCarthy, owner of the Shamrock, a big hotel in the city, told the Associated press, “Let’s not embarrass anybody, but she would never be booked at the Shamrock.”

Life Magazine photo feature article with Samia Gamal
Life Magazine ran a photo feature with Samia Gamal demonstrating her dancing in 1952.

The couple travelled around the world as Gamal appeared in nightclubs over the next couple of years, then separated and divorced in 1953.

After meeting the couple while appearing in New York, Ray didn’t think much about Gamal until sometime after Gamal’s divorce from King.  Ray was appearing in Miami Beach and got a call from the William Morris Agency in New York with an immediate offer to appear in Egypt.

After the divorce, Gamal had bought a nightclub in Cairo called Bishop’s and renamed it Symia’s.  She offered Ray a twelve week engagement at the club for $1,000 a week with an option for twelve more weeks.  When Ray inquired about an accompanist, he was shocked and delighted to hear that Symia had already lined up Duke Kewish, who had played for Ray several years before.

So, Ray made arrangements to fly out of New York, taking along his six dogs.  He flew to London, Rome, Athens, and finally to Cairo.  Samia met Ray (with his cocker spaniels and two sheepdogs) at the airport in a bright red Rolls Royce.

Ray discovered that Duke had already been playing at the club’s cocktail lounge when Symia bought it.  Duke wound up there after leaving Hollywood when he had a falling out with Ray.  They patched up their differences and enjoyed many of the exotic food and sites Cairo had to offer.

In his autobiography, Ray mentions that he had been to Cairo before, but we don’t have any information on his previous work or travels in the city and when they might have occurred.

“The club was far more beautiful than I’d remembered it, and the stage was enormous.  The touring company of the  Folies Bergère from Paris and big musical extravaganzas from London played there every year.

The show that was playing there at that time was a mixture of Spanish, English, French, and native acts – the absolute best of their types.  The French were mostly nudes, the English were “low comedy”, the Spanish were Dancers (what else?) and the native acts were magicians, contortionists, and two animal acts. There were sixty musicians in the pit. The musicians were mostly European, and some natives that had worked in other countries. One of the finest pit orchestras I’d ever heard.”

Each morning, Ray would have breakfast at the camel market and became attached to some baby camels there.  “There was one little one about three or four weeks old, almost white.  She was my favorite,” Ray said.  “I made the mistake of saying one morning that I’d love to take her home with me.”

Ray was surprised the next day when he got out of bed and discovered the baby camel, courtesy of Samia, there with his dogs.  

“When we’d take the dogs for a ride in the car, we’d have to take the came, too.  They just didn’t want to be separated.  So, they all went.

I don’t think there is an animal in the world that has the curiosity that a baby camel has.  And awkward – they fall over everything and everyone.  Any time we were in the car, she would try to get in my lap.  Although she wasn’t yet as big as either of the sheep dogs, she seemed to be all legs.  And Eat!  She was always hungry.”

Samia was very attached to Ray, wanting him to move to Cairo so he could perform in London and Paris a few weeks each year.  She even found a house for Ray, but he knew living in Cairo wouldn’t work.

Ray decided to head back to the states after his twelve-week contract was up and wanted to take the camel back with him.  Samia got some Egyptian politicians working on the problem and Ray even made trips to the American embassies in London and Paris, but couldn’t make the arrangements.

I know the Camel is still alright.Yet I shall never get over having to give her up.  Even Duke swore that he would look after her as much as if Samia hadn’t all-ready sworn she would.

Duke still lives and works in Cairo, and so does Symia.Every now and then I hear from them. Even to sending me pictures of the camel.

The pictures of the camel were probably tossed out with Ray’s other effects and memorabilia when he was arrested for murder in Texas in the late 1960s.  I’m still hoping someone out there might turn up a photo of Duke, Samia, and the camel someday.


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