A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Egypt's Two Greatest Belly-Dancers, Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal, Together

Samia Gamal (l.); Tahia Carioca (r.)
I've posted frequently on the dramatic change in attitude towards raqs sharqi or belly-dancing in Egypt in recent decades and especially since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the bulk of the 20th century, however, belly-dancing was recognized as a major cultural expression, and other Arab countries looked to Egypt to provide the best talent. Egypt's most popular (though not necessarily its most critically acclaimed) films often included scenes with its best belly-dancers performing, either as an integral part of the plot or just to please the audiences. Its best belly-dancers also doubled as actresses; its most popular actresses who weren't dancers often did a dance if the plot required it, as was the case with Suad Husni in Khali Balak min Zouzou. Even Egyptian cinema's first recurring cartoon character, Mish-Mish Effendi, had a girlfriend named Baheya who was a belly-dancer. (You can see a Mish-Mish cartoon and watch Baheya dance at this earlier post.) As Islamist pressures increasingly limit this traditional art and restrict it to expensive tourist venues, I feel a cultural obligation to occasionally remember the golden age.

Most Egyptians and many other Arabs would agree that the greatest dancer and actress of them all was Tahia Carioca (1919-1999). Rising to stardom at Madame Badia Masabni's legendary Casino Opera, she achieved her greatest fame in the late 1930s and 1940s, dancing for King Farouq and beginning a movie career. A supporter of the 1952 revolution, she fell out with Nasser and was even jailed. She continued to act in films long after she stopped dancing, and lived to the age of 80. Unlike modern Western celebrities, she was a firm believer in marriage, marrying 14 times.

There is perhaps less agreement on the second greatest, but many would endorse Samia Gamal (1924-1994) for the title; she too came from Madame Badia's troupe, and was often seen as a slightly younger rival of Carioca.

Though often seen as rivals, one can find publicity pictures like the one at the top showing them together. But there's also this (1940s?) film clip showing Samia listening to an old style gramophone and imagining Carioca dancing on the lid as on a TV screen; then she imagines herself dancing with her. It's not necessarily the only film of them dancing together, but it's one I can play here:
It is neither a high-quality nor a particularly good clip, but it shows the two greats together. Both were enormously glamorous stars in their day: a "pinup" photo of Carioca, perhaps early 1940s(?):
And a stop-motion shot of Samia performing in her prime (1940s/early 1950s):

And both played love interest to the most popular romantic male star of the era, actor/singer/oud player Farid al-Atrash; Samia and Farid were rumored to be lovers though they never married.  Photos of Tahia (first) and Samia (second) with Farid:

If things keep going the way they're going, we shall not gaze upon their like again.


Al Moxtar said...

You can't attract talent if there is no career path. I have no idea how decent a living a rank and file belly dancer could have made in the heydays, or how respected a non-celebrity dancer was, but at least there was a shot to stardom and glamour. Now, even those jobs at touristy places are filled by Russian and Brazilian girls. No respect, recognition, or even jobs: Egyptian belly dancing is already bygone. Even Dina, perhaps the last dancer to break into fame and movies (and scandal)is 50 already.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Everything you say is true, and an era has long since passed.