The Search for the Historical Shafiqa el Qibtiyya
by Heather D. Ward “Nisaa of St. Louis”
posted October 3, 2013
Shafiqa el Qibtiyya (Shafiqa the Copt) is known to many practitioners and historians of Egyptian music and dance. As her name indicates, she was born into a Coptic Christian family – probably sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century. She rose to fame as an entertainer in the salat (entertainment halls) of Cairo around the turn of the century. Popular dance lore posits that Shafiqa was an early pioneer (or perhaps the originator) of raqs shamadan, the candelabrum dance. However, few historical resources have come to light which could inform us regarding the reality of her life and career. This article attempts to remedy the dearth of historically verifiable information about Shafiqa by offering new insights from sources contemporary with this famed late nineteenth/early twentieth century almeh, as well as from traditional entertainers currently living and working in Cairo.
Much of our knowledge of Shafiqa el Qibtiyya is based on stories of her life that were published long after her death – one source being a biopic published in the entertainment-focused magazine El Kawakeb in 1955 1, and the other being the 1963 Hassan el Imam film, based on a story by Jalil el Bindari. Both the Kawakeb article and the 1963 film portray a famous and beloved figure who experienced a tragic decline toward the end of her life. Shafiqa is depicted as an extraordinarily talented dancer and a woman of exceptional wealth and influence during the prime of her life.
The historical accuracy of either of these sources is questionable, though neither should be entirely dismissed. For example, the Kawakeb article uses a portrait of Mata Hari to represent Shafiqa, suggesting that the writer(s) of the piece had no access to actual photographs of Shafiqa and raising questions about the veracity of the rest of the article. On the other hand, the Kawakeb piece mentions that Shafiqa performed at two prominent salat – El Dorado and Alf Layla wa Layla – both documented venues that would certainly have featured entertainers like Shafiqa. El Dorado was located near Ezbekiyah Gardens in central Cairo (Ward 2013), and Alf Layla wa Layla was located in the Rod el Farag entertainment district, close to the Nile (Lagrange 1994: 88, 134). Alf Layla wa Layla was owned by Tawhida, a rather famous almeh in her own right, who published a book of her songs in 1924 (Lagrange 1994: 88, 134; Tawhida 1924). In similar fashion, the Hassan el Imam film mixes fact with fiction; it is replete with historical anachronisms, such as dance costumes, hairstyles, and clothing that often appear more consistent with 1960s style and fashion than with that of the 1910s. Yet, like the Kawakeb article, the film indicates that Shafiqa was a star entertainer at El Dorado.
Hind Rostom portraying Shafiqa el Qibtiyya in the Hassan el Imam biopic.
Note her costume, which is more consistent with costuming styles of the 1960s than with those of the 1910s.
Contemporary sources with firsthand knowledge of Shafiqa do exist, though they are extraordinarily rare. These contemporary sources paint a less than flattering portrait of this famed entertainer. Nevertheless, they make it possible to begin constructing a more accurate and historically-based portrayal of this elusive woman.
One source of particular interest is a circa 1908 Odéon recording of Baheyya el Mahallawiyya 2 , a well-known almeh and prolific recording artist in the early 1900s. The title of the recording is “Raq Shafiqa” – i.e. “Shafiqa’s Dance.” In this piece, Baheyya imitates the style and mannerisms of Shafiqa el Qibtiyya – and not in a flattering manner. Baheyya plays a giggling flirt who is so drunk that she can barely sing and dance. The piece begins with a dialogue between “Shafiqa” and a man named Mohammed – possibly the owner of the establishment where the scene takes places. Their dialogue proceeds as follows:
Mohammad: Please, Miss Shafiqa el Qibtiyya, could you stay at the side for a minute?
Shafiqa [Baheyya el Mahallawiyya]: [giggles] Ya Mohammad, I’m saying hello to your eyes, ya habibi!
Mohammad: And greetings to you, ya habibti.
Shafiqa: I’m so drunk! [giggles] Please send me a sultaniya [type of container] of beer, whatever you like.
Rageb [the waiter]: Yes?
Mohammad: Put a beer on her tab…
Shafiqa: [interrupts Mohammed] Ya Rageb!
Mohammed: …a big sultaniya.
Shafiqa: Ya Rageb!
Shafiqa: Make me happy! Curse whoever makes me sad tonight! [giggles]
At this point, a dance melody familiar to dancers even today, “Raqs el Hawanem,” begins to play, and it is clear that “Shafiqa” is attempting to dance, though her frequent exclamations (“Oh, I can’t! I’m so drunk! I’m sorry!”) make it clear that she is nearly too drunk to stay on her feet. She goes on to sing a comic and nonsensical tune.
Although some may be tempted to argue that this is a representation of Shafiqa in her decline, and that it does not contradict the Kawakeb or Hassan el Imam depictions, there is nothing tragic about this scene. “Shafiqa’s” drunkenness is enacted comically for the amusement of the listener, who would not have been entirely shocked by the concept of a drunken entertainer. The practice of fath, wherein female sala employees – often the entertainers themselves – would sit and drink with customers in order to encourage spending, was an established activity in the salat of Cairo by the end of the nineteenth century. Various sources describe situations wherein entertainers were so intoxicated after an evening of sitting and drinking with patrons that they were unable to perform (Van Nieuwkerk 1995). Baheyya’s recording evokes such a scene.
Another contemporary source of interest is a brief mention of Shafiqa in S.H. Leeder’s Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, published in 1918:
As far as the Copts are affected, a great many misleading statements have been made. It is equally untrue to say, as Lane did in those cruel libels on the Copts which are the sole defect of a book which has so deservedly become a great classic, that the Copts are “abandoned to indulgence in sensual pleasure”; as it is to make a statement so absurd as that of a recent writer, who, quoting it as something she had heard, says: “It should not be forgotten that there is not a Coptic woman of public bad character in all Egypt. … A fallen woman hides her shame by becoming a Moslem.”…This absurdly untruthful statement has been quoted by every subsequent writer, especially those with a Christian bias, regardless of the fact that for years the most scandalous of the public singing women in Cairo bears a name which she has made so famous that I have never met an intelligent person anywhere in Lower Egypt who was not most familiar with it—Shafika el Coptieh, or Shafika the Copt. (Leeder 1918: 107)
Notably, this account would seem to indicate that Shafiqa was still at the height of her popularity some ten years after Baheyya el Mahallawiyya recorded her parody. That Shafiqa was known to a Western observer speaks volumes regarding her notoriety, since only rarely are Egyptian entertainers referred to by name in Western travelogues and guide books from this period.
Note that Leeder describes Shafiqa as a singer, rather than as a dancer. Presumably, if Shafiqa was so well-known as a singer, she would turn up in the catalogs of Egypt’s nascent recording industry, which was booming by the time Leeder wrote this observation. Recorded music, known in Egypt as early as the 1890s, became widely accessible and affordable for the Egyptian public as major recoding labels began mass-producing records with Egyptian artists beginning in 1903 (Fahmy 2007: 143-146; Lagrange 1994, 2009).
Female singers – generally current or former awalem – dominated the early recording industry with their light songs, or taqatiq (Lagrange 1994, 2009). Taqatiq (singular taqtuqa) were originally multi-strophic songs performed by awalem in private, gender-segregated settings (especially weddings). With the advent of the recording industry, the taqtuqa was standardized to a quadric-strophic format to better suit the length limitations of recording discs. By World Ward I, taqatiq were well-established as Egypt’s first commercial “pop” music.
In spite of her fame as a singer, no recordings of Shafiqa el Qibtiyya have ever come to light. Was her repertoire so scandalous that recording labels refused to press recordings of it? This seems unlikely, given the content of many of the popular taqatiq of her day. The early taqatiq, essentially consisting of the traditional repertoire of the awalem, often incorporated coarse and sexually suggestive language (Lagrange 2009). Further, Baheyya el Mahallawiyya’s parody leaves little to the imagination, yet it seems to have done no damage to Baheyya’s career. Thus it seems unlikely that the content of her songs can adequately explain Shafiqa’s conspicuous absence from all of the major recording labels.
Ultimately, what do we know of the real Shafiqa? The Baheyya el Mahallawiyya recording and Leeder’s brief description of Shafiqa paint a portrait of a singer/dancer who probably performed a rather bawdy repertoire in Cairo’s turn-of-the-century salat and who most likely engaged in fath after her performances. Certainly, other awalem of Shafiqa’s day sang scandalous tunes yet went on to be successful recording artists, sala owners, and even cinema stars. Frederic Lagrange writes:
Former ‘awalim, traditionally trained in Egypt and in the Levant, acquired a new status when they became recording artists for the booming 78rpm disk industry, and sometimes bought concert halls (salat) in central Cairo (‘Imad al-Din street) or leisure districts (Rod al-Farag). They erased traces of their past as mere ‘awalim of ill-repute, and promoted an intricate image of sophistication and gentle debauchery. (Lagrange 2009: 228)
Yet by the 1920s, Shafiqa appears to have disappeared from the Cairo entertainment scene. Perhaps it was Shafiqa’s active engagement in fath that hampered her success in new arenas.
In a January 2013 interview with Sayed Henkesh of the Henkesh family, a famous family of musicians from Shari’ Mohammed Ali, I questioned Mr. Henkesh in order to learn what the oral history of Cairo’s traditional entertainers may reveal regarding this famous almeh. While stressing that his knowledge of Shafiqa is obviously not firsthand, he stated that his understanding is that Shafiqa first worked on Shari’ Clot Bey, then moved to the Rod el Farag district, where her fame increased. He also suggested that she opened a sala of her own in Rod el Farag, though he did not indicate what it may have been called. During Shafiqa’s day, Shari’ Clot Bey was part of the “red-light district” known as the Wasa’a (meaning “wide area,” but known to English-speaking tourists as the “Fishmarket” because this was the area’s original function) (Dunn 2011). The Wasa’a housed a motley array of brothels, coffeehouses, and low-class entertainment halls that were themselves often fronts for prostitution (see Guerville 1906: 78-79 and Sladen 1911: 22-23, 61,114-115, 118-119 for particularly vivid descriptions). Moving from this area to Rod el Farag and the more reputable establishments around Ezbekiyah would certainly have been a step up for Shafiqa.
Interestingly, Mr. Henkesh stated more than once that Shafiqa was not a great dancer. Rather, he suggested that she was intelligent and charismatic, and able to manipulate wealthy patrons, and that this was the basis for her celebrity. This both affirms and contradicts the depictions of Shafiqa in the 1955 Kawakeb article and the 1963 Hassan el Imam film, since in both she is portrayed as both an excellent dancer and as a woman admired by an array of rich men. Notably, Sayed Henkesh, while encouraging viewing of Hassan el Imam’s film, mentioned that the movie was to some degree a product of the director’s own imagination. If anything, the Kawakeb article and the 1963 film reveal the degree to which Shafiqa el Qibtiyya had become embedded in the Egyptian consciousness by the middle of the twentieth century.
Clearly, there is more to learn about Shafiqa el Qibtiyya. The Baheyya el Mahallawiyya recording and Leeder’s description, combined with the oral history of Cairo’s traditional entertainers, offer tantalizing new insights regarding this legendary figure. However, further research into sources contemporary with this famed entertainer will be necessary to round out an objective, historically accurate picture of who she really was.
Postcard showing Shari’ Clot Bey
Postcard showing a scene in the Fishmarket (Cairo’s "red light district" at the end of the nineteenth century)
Postcard showing the Rod el Farag entertainment district
Top Photo- Black and white photo purported to be Shafiqa el Qibtiyya. This photo has been widely circulated on the Internet, but I have never encountered a source or a date for it.
Nevertheless, the style of the dress she is wearing is consistent with what I have seen in other photos and postcards of turn-of-the-century awalem.
- Baheyya el Mahallawiyya
Raqs Shafiqa. Odéon 45032. Odéon , circa 1908. 78 rpm disc. Thank you to Frederic Lagrange for providing me with access to this recording. Thank you to Mousa Salameh for translating the lyrics from Arabic to English.
- Chafika el Kepteya
Directed by Hassan el Imam. Orient Films, 1963. Film.
- Dunn, Michael Collins
“Historical Discursus for April 2: The First Battle of the Wasa’a or Wozzer.” Middle East Institute Editor’s Blog: A Blog by the Editor of the Middle East Journal. 1 April 2011.
- El Kawakeb
“Shafiqah el Qibtiyyah: The Dancer Whose Horses Drank Champagne.” El Kawakeb 2 December 1955: 28. A translation of this article is available at http://www.shira.net/about/shafiqa-horses.htm
- Fahmy, Ziad
“Popularizing Egyptian Nationalism: Colloquial Culture and Media Capitalism, 1870-1919.” PhD Dissertation, University of Arizona, 2007.
- Guerville, A.B. de
New Egypt. London, New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, William Heinemann, 1906. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).
- Lagrange, Frederic
“Musiciens et Poetes en Egypte au Temps de la Nahda.” PhD Dissertation, Universite de Paris VIII a Saint-Denis, 1994.
- Lagrange, Frederic
“Women in the Singing Business, Women in Songs.” History Compass 7/1 (2009): 226–250.
- Leeder, S.H.
Modern Sons of the Pharaohs. London, New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). <http://hdl.handle.net/1911/9178>.
- Sladen, Douglas
Oriental Cairo: The City of the "Arabian Nights." Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1911. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).
Ṭaqaṭiq al-Sitt Tawḥidah al-Mughanniyah al-Shahirah fi Alf Laylah wa-Laylah. Miṣr: Manṣur ʻAbd al-Mutaʻal Saḥib Maktabat Suq ʻAkkaz al-Misriyah,1924. From Digital Assets Repository of the Library of Alexandria.
- Van Nieuwkerk, Karin
A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
- Ward, Heather D.
“The Search for El Dorado…in Cairo.” The Gilded Serpent. 3 March 2013.
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