BADIA MASABNI AND ME
The Golden Age of Egyptian Belly Dance - The Golden Age of American Belly Dance
Badia’s influence on me and my world is more real that I realized.
by Amina Goodyear
Badia Masabni was born in Damascus, Syria in 1894. To make things right and real in my perspective, my grandmother was born in 1890. When Badia was a child of about 7, she was raped and true to Arabic mentality, she was the one to be shamed and to become an outcast. The man who committed the crime was rumored to have been a relative. While he returned to the normal life of a typical Arabic macho male, Badia and her family lived in shame. Seeking to erase the memories of this incident, Badia’s family moved briefly to South America, to Argentina, where she learned to sing, dance and act in a Latin manner.
When she was of marriageable age, her family moved back to Syria; however her reputation preceded her and there seemed no chance that marriage was in her future. I was raised by my grandmother and growing up I can remember how old fashioned, conservative and narrow minded people of that generation were.This wasn’t just an Arab thing.
Badia saw no life or happiness living in Syria and being a precocious teen, she ran off and moved to Beirut where she moved in with a seemingly decent woman. Well, this decent woman turned out to be a madam in a brothel. It was from the frying pan into the fire. Since she was not about to sell her body, and needed to earn a living, she turned to what she felt she knew and that was singing and dancing.
Her mother searched for her and found her living in Beirut. She was convinced that Badia needed to keep moving on and away from the nas…the people, the stories, the gossip... that people loved to tell. Nas means people in Arabic, but it means so much more. In this context, it meant the gossip...“telephone, telegraph, tell an Arab.” So Badia and her mother kept moving and ended up in Cairo because it was the most cosmopolitan city at that time and therefore it was easy to become lost in the crowd. For Badia, Cairo really was el Qahira, the victorious city that allowed her to escape the malicious sideways glance.
She worked in musical comedy theater in Cairo and also occasionally travelled to Beirut. Here there was no shame and she was doing what she loved - acting, singing, dancing, playing the sagat, playing music. She was supporting herself while also fulfilling her artistic needs.Here she met and joined Naguib el Rihani and his theatrical troupe. Naguib was an actor and he introduced her to the theater and eventually they married. Two lovers loving to perform and to love each other. Their love story might be likened to an Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton love story. There was much passion, fighting, reconciliation, marriages, divorces and true to the entertainment industry, money problems. However, even when they were apart, Naguib el Rihani stayed true to her until his death (or so it seems from the biographical movies “Badia Masabni.”
Badia left him and his troupe in 1926 to open her famous sala Casino Badia on Emad el Din Street which was close to Mohamed Ali Street. Nightclubs are called casinos and salas. In this context casino does not necessarily mean gambling. In Italian the word sala means room and in Spanish, sala means living room. Cabaret means something else - not upscale - something more seedy. This new casino was a sensation primarily because she introduced a new concept; a Europeanized show.
I believe that Naguib later took part in her casino where they collaborated and where he staged plays, primarily comedies. At this time Naguib el Rihani was known as the “Father of Comedy” in Egypt. He also began to make the transition into the motion pictures. His last film “Ghazal Al Banat” is considered a classic and is on the list of the best 100 Egyptian films and features dancing and singing.
Between loving and fighting, Badia and Naguib finally separated again and Badia actually moved her casino concept and revues to another location. Her new casino, entirely influenced by her visionary ideas was quite a hit and appealed to both Europeans and upper-class Egyptians. She featured local dancers, regional singers, musicians, monologists/comedians and also imported European acts. She even had a women’s only matinee. I’d love to know what the entertainment was there. I heard that she encouraged the women, her clientele,her ladies, to feel free to dance.
This was precisely the time when the dance started making the transition from raqs baladi to raqs sharqi. Since Badia also featured European acts there were conflicting costume ideas. She needed to distinguish between the different themes and the western and the more eastern style of dancing. But because she wanted to reach out to both the Europeans and the upper class Egyptians, she wanted to headline and feature dancing that was not just from the countryside. This was what we would call the beginning of Orientale or Sharqi with the dance of the ladies. This attempt of a style of restrained and choreographed dancing - attempting to elevate the dance - was called Raqs el Hawanem. She used European choreographers including Kristo Klaadex to bring the lady-like western element into the dance. Also the costuming started changing drawing fantasies from Hollywood and Europe and soon the one piece dress started to be replaced by the two piece bedlah.
Badia, the emerging visionary, changed the format of the dance and its accompanying music from solo dancing in small intricate settings to something more modern and westernized- on large stages just like they had in Europe. There were unique and specialized skits involving comedy, romantic ballads and of course, lots of pretty girls all on the stage at one time and often dancing in unison. She made the skits little pieces of theater, almost burlesque, borrowed from her days with Naguib. She involved choreographies with European and western staging and movement, western costuming and she was the first to allow her club, her dancers, her singers, her musicians, her monologists to be filmed for the cinema. This was at the same time that Busby Berkely’s depression era, pre war (WWII) dance extravaganza movies were filling the theaters in America and abroad.
With her revues being filmed, Badia was looking directly into the future. In the entertainment world all of this was later to be known as The Golden Age of Egypt. In this emerging entertainment world, live musicals, musicals in cinema and audio recordings (records) were as important then as the internet is today. With the cinema and the radio, Badia helped usher in a sensational new era.
This was the time that Mohamed Ali Street bisected the old medieval Cairo with new buildings that ended in the Europeanized Ezbekiya Park and the downtown Ataba area. It was at the end of this grand avenue, Mohamed Ali Street that Badia would open her premier clubs. Her last club, Casino Opera, was in the upscale Royal Opera Square (now a parking structure) near the park. At this time, Badia’s chief protege was Beba Ezzedine and the Casino Opera was to be the club that Beba would eventually buy from Badia.
During the period of the 1930’s Badia introduced many future stars who we still look up to today. Among them were singers/composers Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Farid el Atrache, Mohamed Abdel Mottaleb, Mohamed Fawzi and dancers Taheyya Karioka, Samia Gamal, Katie, Hoda Shamsadine, Naima Aket and of course her soon to be arch rival Beba Ezzedine.
It was rumored that Beba and Badia’s nephew Antoine embezzled or cheated Badia out of her money and with that money ended up buying her club. lf you saw the biographical movie “Badia Masabni,” you would see that Beba had an affair with Badia’s nephew Antoine who was married to Badia’s adopted daughter Juliette. Beba, keeping it in the family, Egyptian style, embezzled the available cash from Badia and ran off with Antoine. Indeed since this was in a movie called “Badia Masabni,” therefore it must be true? That is, if you believe all you see and hear. Of course movies do help to change history, so who knows what is really the truth.
Later the Egyptian choreographer Ibrahim Akef worked for Badia while his niece Naima Akef left Badia and ended up working for Beba,who was now Badia’s first and foremost competition. Whew. Complicated? Well, to complicate it further, Naima’s sister Fatma and former dance partner was Ibrahim’s other niece, and Fatma was my teacher and influence here in San Francisco. We worked together at the Bagdad. When Badia moved on to the movies, her sister Fatma travelled the world and eventually settled in San Francisco where I was fortunate enough to meet and study with her.
Coincidentally - to make history more real or personal, I used to work with a singer named Kamellia. She lived in Sacramento and would come to the Bagdad to sing. At the time, I didn’t know that she was also a dancer. I understand now that she only sang at the Bagdad because she was recovering from a serious auto accident and could not dance due to the injuries. Kamellia used to live and work in the movies in Cairo during Badia’s time. In fact, she knew and hung out with Badia and many of her dancers who also became well known dancers in the movies. It's a small world. This included dancers like Taheyya and Samia. Kamellia’s real name is Jodette and Sausan, owner of Al Masri restaurant was her student. I used to work with Sausan at the Bagdad and now with my bands Pasha Band and Caravan Band we all work for Sausan at Al Masri. It really is a small world. Imagine two dancers from Badia’s generation actually living, dancing, and teaching in California and passing on the dance style, ethic and ethos of those times to two of the next generation of dancers in San Francisco.
In the 1950’s, just about the time that I started studying jazz dance and wondering about which middle school I would attend, Badia was in big trouble with the Egyptian government for nonpayment of taxes. This was an incredible period of upheaval in Egypt. This was the time of the changeover from King Farouk who promoted the love of belly dancing to the regime of Gamal Abel Nasser who frowned on it. It was no wonder that Badia was in trouble.
Because Nasser was the first native born Egyptian in power even though Farouk was called the (last) Pharaoh of Egypt (Mubarak obviously wasn't in the lineup yet), he ushered in an era of fervent nationalism. In this semi militarized environment, Egypt jumped years forward into the very modern world of hazard while in fact, Nasser was jumping backwards with the false pride of a mameluke. That year 1951 was just about the time that Badia decided it was time to leave for a better and more welcoming land. Hopefully a land in which memories of her past had faded.
She fortunately left just before the Cairo fire known as Black Saturday. Black Saturday is remembered by all Egyptians who still use the phrase Ya innahar iswid (it’s a black day). Black Saturday that smoked the entire city of Cairo took place January 26, 1952 and marked the burning and looting of over 750 buildings - shops, cafes, cinemas, hotels, restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, and the Opera House in Opera Square. Was her club Casino Opera, now belonging to Beba, one of the clubs burned? I don’t know, but I think it was. Did she feel vindicated or sorrow? I wonder.
Coincidentally, January 26, 2011, one year short of 60 years later, Cairo witnessed what is now known as the revolution. She had left Egypt behind and just in time Badia, always the visionary, left Egypt for a chicken farm and the relative calm of Lebanon. And as a visionary, she left before another (Egyptian) revolution and died just one year short of the beginnings of the Lebanese revolution.
Coincidentally,( one year after Badia died) in 1975, the year marking the beginning of the Lebanese revolution, my friend Hoda and I were planning our own revolution or should I call it a social evolution? Hoda and I wanted to improve how we feuding dancers and musicians (your school versus my school mentality, your club versus my club mentality) by creating an all inclusive love-in festival. To my knowledge, we were the first (in the U.S.) to attempt such an event. And so for our event, Isis, the coming together of Middle Eastern Dance, we invited Sonia Ivanova, who lived near San Francisco, to be part of our Isis Festival. Russian born Sonia Ivanova was a ballet teacher who worked for Badia in Egypt training Badia’s dancers. Her most notable claim to fame was that she had taught Samia Gamal to hold her arms overhead by holding a veil. This addition of a veil was not only widely used in Badia’s choreographies, but is also still an important and integral part of raqs sharqi world-wide to this day. What Badia was doing was artistically correct for the time because the dance veil in her choreographies was used due to the fact that her club was so large that she wanted the people in the back of the room to see something…even if it was only a colorful piece of fabric.
Today the dance seems to be going in another direction, but is it really? We are still innovating, experimenting, fusing and without consciously realizing it, we are almost going full circle. I hope that Badia’s legacy reaches all in a positive manner.
And I am grateful that I can put Badia and her accomplishments in my present memories.