The tale of an unusual dancer
Osama Kamal has been watching the TV dramatisation of the life of Tahia Karioka
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Actress Wafaa Amer personifying Karioka's life in a Ramadan series;|
Dancer and actress Karioka
Dramatising biographies is not always easy. This is especially true when the memories are still fresh in the minds of the living, as the current television series about the life of Tahia Karioka, Egypt's Oriental dance icon, amply demonstrates.
Ever since Promo Media, the show's production company, announced its intention of televising a serial, entitled Karioka, about the life of Karioka, who died in 1999, a steady stream of acrimonious statements has been released by the company and heirs of the dancer. At one point Karioka's family filed a lawsuit to prevent the serial from going on air, claiming that the artist's life was grossly misrepresented. Some say, however, that the dispute is primarily financial in the sense that the family does not believe it was appropriately compensated for the dramatisation of the late artist's life.
The series tells the story of Tahia Karioka's unusual career. Born in 1915, she ran away from her family home in Ismailia to seek an art career in the capital. Luckily for her she met Soad Mahasen, a dancer and singer who knew the legendary dancer and cabaret owner Badia Masabni. Masabni admired Karioka's feisty personality, and gave the dancer her debut at her famous nightclub in 1936.
Masabni also encouraged Karioka to try new dance styles. The young dancer soon copied a Brazilian folk song by the name of "Carioca" with such success that the name of the dance stuck with her for the rest of her life.
It was at about this time that Karioka met Seliman Naguib, a great actor who helped her with her art and coached her on the ways of the big city.
The dramatisation opened with Karioka still at home, and having a rough time dealing with her family. Some of the details in the script have been disputed by Karioka's family, especially those about her half-brother tying her with chains and shaving her head by way of punishment. The script writers based this episode in her life on Karioka's memoirs and her interviews with Al-Kawakib editor Hassan Imam Omar and the dramatist Saleh Morsi.
Karioka did not shy away from the media. When the distinguished Palestinian writer Edward Said interviewed her in 1989, he compared her to other icons of Egyptian liberalism such as Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz, Umm Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.
In the television drama, it is 1955 and Karioka is reminiscing in prison, where she was held in detention on charges of belonging to an underground leftist organisation. She remembers her journey from Ismailia to Emadeddin Street.
The show's director, Omar El-Sheikh, shot most of the series indoors, venturing outdoors only briefly. The outstanding sets are designed by Sherine Farghal, and they and the costumes by Samia Abdel-Aziz truly conjure the 1920s, 30s and 40s during which the early part of the series takes place. The musical score by Radwan Nasri resonates with the hardship and determination marking the early years of the artist's career.
However Alaa Morsi, cast in the role of the opportunistic and sadistic half-brother, appears to be too literal in his interpretation of the character. Alyaa Assaf, in the role of young Karioka, offers a convincing and understated performance. Fadia Abdel-Ghani's rendering of the ageing Masabni brings to life the kindness and natural charisma of someone with legendary fame and profound humanity.
Wafaa Amer plays the grown-up Karioka, but her part in the series is just beginning so it will be interesting to see how well she develops in one of the most challenging roles of her career.
Karioka is one of the outstanding personalities of the last century. Her distinguished acting and singing career is only part of her legacy. It is said that she single-handedly turned Oriental dance from an erotic act into an art of the utmost sophistication. Many admirers recall with admiration her leftist politics and her involvement in the defence of artists' rights, while others will remember her fiery temper, her sweet smile, her many marriages and her interminable optimism.