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Badia Masabny

Star Maker of Cairo

by Jalilah

posted 2-16-09

In 1926 a woman of Levantine origin named Badia Masabny opened a nightclub in Cairo in the fashion of European cabarets. This nightclub, known as "Casino Badia", and another club later established by Masabny, "Casino Opera", were to have a profound influence on Middle Eastern Dance as we know it today. Many dancers have perhaps never even heard the name of this woman to whom we owe so much. Who was Badia Masabny?

According to her autobiography, which appeared in the book “Bauchtanz” by Dietlinde Karkutli, Badia Masabny was born in Damascus in 1894, from a Beiruty father and a Damascene mother. Raised in her early years between Beirut and Damascus, after the death of her father they moved to Damascus. At the age of seven, she was raped by a cafe owner. After serving only 4 weeks in jail, the man’s life returned to normal. Badia's life, however, was changed forever as she was no longer a virgin. To avoid the gossip and shame of it all, the Masabny family emigrated to Argentina. In school there, Badia was happy and discovered her love for acting, singing and dancing.

When she was in her teens, and therefore of marriageable age, the Masabnys moved back to Syria. The events of the past were, however, not forgotten and the family had a hard time finding a husband for her. When Badia finally did get engaged, the neighbors informed the groom’s family about the rape and the groom broke off the engagement.

Feeling she had no chance in a place where everyone knew of her past, Badia decided to run away to Beirut. On the train, she met a nice woman who offered to take her in. Only in Beirut did Badia realize that this "nice woman" was the madam of a brothel! At this time, even women in the West had few opportunities for employment and so much the less in the Middle East. With no one to support her and no real skills, Badia tried to think of something she could do without having to sell her body. She turned to the two things she most loved: singing and dancing. When her mother arrived in Beirut to take her home, Badia persuaded her to accompany her to Cairo instead.

Even then, Cairo was already famous for its culture, music and theater. Badia found work playing small roles with the famous George Abiad Theater Ensemble. She lied to her mother, telling her she had a night job as a seamstress. When the ensemble’s summer break arrived, Badia was offered a bigger role with a traveling theater troupe that was leaving for Said, Upper Egypt. When Badia’s mother learned the truth about her daughter’s employment, she insisted they return home to Syria. As the train that was to take them to Alexandria, where they would board a ship for Beirut, pulled into the station, Badia jumped to the other side of the tracks and ran away as fast as she could. She caught up with the traveling theater troupe just the day before they went on tour.

In 1914 Masabny went to Beirut to perform in the well-known theater of Madame Jeanette, a French woman who employed exclusively European artists to perform for a mostly upper-class Lebanese clientele. Badia convinced Madam Jeanette to let her sing and dance in Arabic. For her debut on September 14, 1914, accompanied by two Austrian women playing oud and qanoon, Badia performed a Syrian folksong, singing, dancing and playing cymbals all at the same time! At this time the female entertainers called Awalim were expected to be able to sing, dance, recite poetry and play musical instruments. Masabny continued this tradition and the audience was delighted. Badia was a big hit and became the feature act.

Masabny continued to work in Lebanon and Syria. While performing in Damascus, she was attacked and almost killed by her brother who believed he was defending the family honor. Badia eventually began working with the Egyptian comedian, actor, playwright and director, Nagib El Righany, and his ensemble. Returning with them to Cairo in 1921, she became the star of the company. A passionate, but turbulent love story developed between Masabny and El Righany and they eventually married. Although it was a troubled marriage, Badia was able to learn a lot about the theater from her husband. After numerous breakups and reconciliations, Badia left him in 1926 and opened her own nightclub, called Casino Badia, on Emad El Din street. (It should be noted that the term “cabaret” was never used in the Middle East except to describe a very low class establishment.  Nightclubs were at that time known as "sala".)

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The nightclub was a huge success. Masabny created a program with both European and Arab artists performing short acts that appealed to European and upper-class Egyptian tastes. Badia danced and sang several numbers herself. She and El Righany got back together for a brief time, but then split again, this time for good. Badia moved her nightclub to a better location and named it "Casino Badia".

A diverse entertainment program featured local dancers, singers, musicians and comedians, as well as various European acts. There was even a matinee in the afternoon for women only. It was at this time that the traditional "Raqs Baladi" began to undergo significant changes.

The term Raqs Sharqi first came about when Egypt was occupied by foreign powers. "Raqs Sharqi", which actually translates as "Oriental Dance” or “Eastern Dance”, was used to distinguish the dance from European, or western, dances. ("Orient” as opposed to “occident”.) In the same way, “Raqs Baladi” was used to differentiate between "native" or "local" dance and foreign dances. At the time of Badia Masabny, the nightclub version of these dances was referred to as "Raqs El Hawanim" or "Dance of the Ladies". The late master instructor Nelly Mazloom once described “Raqs el Hawanim” as being the style that upper class women danced when amongst themselves at weddings and other gatherings.

She went on to describe how young girls sought the attention of potential mothers-in-law by dancing at weddings that were at that time still segregated. The girl sought to dance gracefully and elegantly while appearing refined and modest. Due to the fact that Masabny’s clientele were upper-class Egyptians as well as foreigners, dancers deliberately tried to imitate the style of the upper class women. For this reason the dancing appears to be very restrained and subtle.

Up to the 1920’s, dancers had performed mostly in private homes, in coffee houses or at outdoor religious festivals known as "mawalid" (plural of "mulid"). Originally characterized by mostly hip and torso movements, the dance had usually been performed in small spaces. The dance, therefore, had to be adapted for the stage. Masabny employed western choreographers such as Isaac Dixon, Robbie Robinson and Christo, who added elements from other dance traditions, for example, the turns and traveling steps from western dance forms such as ballet and ballroom dance. The late master instructor and choreograph Ibrahim Akif, who also worked with Masabny, identified “shimmies”, undulating movements (including what we sometimes refer to as “camals”), circles and “eights”, as well as various hip thrusts and drops as being the original “Sharqi” or oriental movements. Ibrahim Akef also told me personally that, although the group dances were choreographed, most of the solo artists improvised. According to him, it was his first cousin, the dancer and actress Naima Akef, who was the first to completely choreograph her solo performances. As we all know, choreographing the opening number later on became a stand practice among the better-known Egyptian dancers.

The two-piece costume with beads and sequins, which we now associate inseparably with Oriental Dance, first appeared during this period, inspired by Hollywood films and European nightclubs such as the "Moulin Rouge". It might be added that the costumes were partially created to suit the tastes of European colonists, who didn’t find the original costumes revealing enough!

All went well, both professionally and privately, until Badia's nephew, Antoine, who had become her theater director and was married to her adoptive daughter, Julia, fell in love with Beba Azzadine, a dancer in Badia's ensemble. He and Beba left to open their own nightclub in the same style as "Casino Badia". In spite of this set-back, Badia remained successful, constantly working to improve her program and always recruiting new talents.

Badia Masabny was a tough woman. According to Karin van Nieuwkerk in her book, "A Trade Like any Other", journalists wrote that Badia had no need for a bodyguard as she herself was one, even going so far as to threaten intrusive journalists with a gun. Perhaps her childhood had forced her to become tough.

Tahia CariocaIn 1937 Masabny invested and lost all her money in a film project which flopped. She declared bankruptcy and left Cairo to tour Upper Egypt with her troupe. A young Tahia Carioca, still in her teens, was part of the entourage. In debt, Badia borrowed money to open up her biggest project yet: a nightclub with a movie theater, restaurant, cafe and an American-style bar. "Casino Opera" opened in 1940 and was extremely successful. World War II had broken out and the streets of Cairo were filled with English and French soldiers wanting to be entertained. This, of course, was a great opportunity for “Casino Opera" and the program was adapted to suit the soldiers’ tastes.

Due to the performance of a Hitler parody, however, Masabny was placed on Hitler's list of people to be executed once he took over Egypt. Fortunately, the Germans never made it to Cairo!

The Egyptian film industry was flourishing at this time, producing countless musicals requiring singers and dancers. Many of the nightclub scenes in the films of this era were actually filmed in "Casino Opera" and many dancers were discovered there. The program in both "Casino Badia" and "Casino Opera" featured group dances. The more talented dancers were allowed to dance in front of the others and, if one of them went over well with the public, she earned the chance to be featured as a solo artist. Many dancers who started out as chorus girls ended up as soloists and many soloists ended up in films. Through exposure in these films, as well as in Masabny’s nightclubs, dancers achieved a celebrity status that could never have been achieved in the past.  The most famous of these dancers were Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal, who became popular movie stars in Egypt, and Nadia Gamal, who later became a star in Lebanon. All these dancers and many others, including Ketty, Hoda Shamsadine, Hagar Hamdy and Naima Akef (although, according to Ibrahim Akef, Naima actually started in the nightclub of Masabny’s rival, Beba Azzadine), credited Masabny for helping them get started and for teaching them what they needed to know in the beginning of their careers. According to an interview with Nadia Gamal in Arabesque magazine, Masabny trained her dancers every afternoon at the Casino. She was an expert at "zaggat" (finger cymbals) and played them herself on stage. Not only dancers, but also many well-known singers and musicians, including Farid El Atrache and Mohamad Abdel Wahab, got their start with Masabny.

Badia Masabny earned good money during the war years and Casino Opera continued to prosper after the war as well. In 1951 the Egyptian government demanded that Masabny pay £74,000 (Egyptian pounds) in back-taxes. It was impossible for her to come up with such a large sum of money without being ruined financially. She escaped from Egypt in a private jet and returned to Lebanon. There she bought a small farm in the north, where she, by her own account, lived the rest of her days in peace and tranquility. Badia Masabny passed away in 1975. Very similar details of her life are told in a 1975 film called “Badia Masabny”.

While no one denies that Badia Masabny had a profound influence in the development of modern Raqs Sharqi, not everyone agrees if this influence was positive or negative. One school of thought maintains that her changes elevated the dance to a performing art for the stage. The other maintains that she degraded the original dance form by making the dance more sexually suggestive and by moving the dance into a nightclub setting to begin with. In any case, one can hardly imagine how the dance might have evolved without Badia Masabny!

2018 updates -
Thanks to the Lebanese superstar Amani Amani for additional information and photos.

When Badia escaped from Egypt and returned to Lebanon, she bought a small farm in Chtoura in the Bekaa valley in North Lebanon and opened a shop for dairy products, called Badia Masabni. The shop still exists today (year 2017) on the main road to Chtoura, Badia lived in Lebanon the rest of her days in peace and tranquility (aside from getting married to a young man of 25 and divorcing him after couple of months!) When Badia escaped from Egypt and returned to Lebanon, she bought a small farm in Chtoura in the Bekaa valley in North Lebanon and opened a shop for dairy products, called Badia Masabni. The shop still exists today (year 2017) on the main road to Chtoura, Badia lived in Lebanon the rest of her days in peace and tranquility (aside from getting married to a young man of 25 and divorcing him after couple of months!)

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