Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 September 1999
Issue No. 448
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Tahia Carioca

Dancing to the rhythm of time

By Youssef Rakha

Front Page

THE DEATH of Tahia Carioca, at the age of 80, on Monday afternoon, marks the end not only of an astonishingly multi-faceted contribution to Egyptian and Arab life, but also of an entire cultural era, and of a kind of female public figure unlikely to ever emerge again.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century her belly-dancing performances, as much as her extraordinary beauty, charisma and striking -- sometimes shocking -- sincerity about her personal life (in the midst of forbiddingly chauvinistic conventions) captivated millions of admirers who not only cherished her image -- a bint ballad from the popular districts of Cairo who was also a forbidding femme fatale -- but deeply respected her. She was seldom the object of scandal because, instead of having love affairs, she promptly married all the men for whom she fell. Her 13 husbands included actor Rushdi Abaza and director Fatin Abdel-Wahab, as well as nearly every other male celebrity of distinction in the Egyptian entertainment industry.

Her acting career, which started in the 1940s, put her on a par with the greatest talents of her time. It also made her name synonymous with the persona of an irresistible me'allema -- the imposing woman of the world, the businesswoman and seductress of popular Cairo. Her bold, if sporadic involvements in politics testified to her capacity for taking matters into her own hands and, if necessary, risking financial and social security for the sake of higher values. From the 1960s on, having put on weight, she gave up dancing and resumed her acting career, opting for a conventionally respectable old age, eventually taking the veil and assuming the title of hagga -- a religious title referring to those who had gone on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands and denoting a high degree of lower-middle-class respectability.

Born Badawiya Mohamed Karim Ali Sayed on 22 February 1919, in Manzala in the northern Delta, Carioca started dancing as a teenager in Ismailia, where she had moved with her family soon after she was born. Desperate with the suffering of an underprivileged upbringing and the overbearing authority which her brothers exercised over her, she ran away to Cairo and soon managed to work under Badi'a Masabni, the great belly-dancer, teacher and owner of a famous cabaret. It was in Badi'a's cabaret that Carioca gave her first solo performance, prompting Badi'a's choreographer to create a sequence especially for her, which was loosely based on the Latin American "karioka" (popularised in the 1933 American film, Flying down to Rio); hence the name that stayed with her throughout her life. In 1936 she danced in King Farouk's wedding procession, significantly to the accompaniment of singing by Umm Kulthoum (Carioca is probably the only other female figure in Egyptian cultural life who achieved comparable status). Umm Kulthoum herself was a great admirer of Carioca's dancing. Asked which entertainment she would prefer on any one night, given the choice, she named Carioca -- an artist, she said, who could sing with her body.

After a series of brief appearances in the cinema as a dancer, Carioca was approached by the great comedian Naguib El-Rihani about acting in one of his widely acclaimed motion pictures. Her role opposite El-Rihani in Li'bet Al-Set (Woman's Play, 1946), now a classic of the Egyptian screen, initially revealed her gift for acting, though she will probably be better remembered as Me'allema Shafa'at, the beautiful older woman who seduces and ruins the life of her boarder, a guileless university student from the countryside, played by Shukri Sarhan, in Salah Abou-Seif's classic, Shabab Imra'a (A Woman's Youth), which participated in the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. More recently, she participated in Youssef Chahine's Alexandrie encore et toujours. Her films, in which she collaborated with the most successful actors, singers and directors of her day, number nearly 200, and her careers in theatre (for a long time she had her own successful troupe) and in radio and television drama were equally auspicious. She received many awards.

As an activist, she played an inspiring role when she went on strike following a change in the laws concerning workers' unions in 1987 perceived as unfavourable to actors. This typified her strikingly independent approach to politics. Unlike most of the belles of her time, she was not a mere conformist, and did not always use her influential contacts to promote her career. Expressing her disagreement with the monarchy, she nonetheless retained nostalgic memories of the old regime after the 1952 Revolution, and was imprisoned for three months in 1953 when she expressed her support for a post-revolution return to constitutional democracy. In prison she went on hunger strike to protest against the possibility of physical abuse. Yet she actively encouraged the revolution. A famous anecdote relates how Sadat hid in her sister's house following his involvement in a political assassination in 1946.

In a fascinating article drawing on his own experience of 1930s Cairo, Edward Said paid intellectual tribute to Carioca, praising her freedom of spirit and her very particular brand of triumph -- the way she managed to be incredibly seductive without recourse to excessive physical effort and without sinking into vulgarity, the way she subdued authority without losing out on respectability, the way she spoke openly and inspiringly about her (failed) experiences with men. She was, Said wrote, her own personal and private history, the larger part of which has not been recorded and which remains radiantly present.

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