On Tahia Carioca

The Dissident Belly Dancer Who Brought Samba to Egypt

Alisa Sikelianos-Carter,”We Could Be Related (You Know Who You Are),” 2021

We want the carioca!” audiences could be heard screaming at Badia Casino. They wanted Tahia Carioca, the Egyptian belly dancer who had been making waves in the Cairo nightclub with her unique style. Carioca got her name by incorporating Brazilian samba into traditional Arabic belly dancing in Egypt. Having run away from her abusive home at around fourteen years old, she became famous in Egyptian cinema for her dazzling dance style. Carioca’s life involved a series of ups and downs: she was married fourteen times and imprisoned for her political activities. While she spent her life building up a massive repertoire of films and becoming Egyptian cinematic royalty, she was also well-known and loved for her dedicated advocacy for the poor and working classes.  

Belly dancing, or raqs sharqi, as it’s known in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world, is a technical dance form that has mystified outsiders since the first encounters between the “Occident” and the “Orient.” It has become associated with so many mythical origins that its history is often misrepresented. Heather D. Ward writes in her book Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition that “belly dance is one of the most beguiling yet misunderstood dance forms in the world.” As British soldiers arrived in Egypt during the colonial occupation, they exotified belly dancing, viewing it as inherently sexualized rather than paying attention to its origins as an expression of femininity and community. 

Growing up outside of Egypt, I was exposed to complex (and often confusing) ideas about belly dancing that came from both within my culture and outside it. I experienced the often unexplainable reality that we could enjoy a belly dance performance, whether live or on television, as children among our families. This was without it having the sexualized connotations that non-Arabs tended to associate with it. Sadly, these outside perceptions created a stigma that has even influenced how the people of the dance’s origins view it, resulting in fewer Egyptian dancers and a domination of the dance form by American, European, and Russian dancers.

But Carioca’s long career encompassed all these complexities and withstood the different and evolving societal beliefs about the art form. She not only mastered it from a young age but also developed her own styles and techniques that would later inspire a whole generation of dancers. Edward Said, the Palestinian philosopher and author of the seminal book Orientalism, described her in “Farewell to Tahia” as having an “essential untranslatability” and explaining that despite her immense fame in Egypt and the Arab world, she was relatively unknown to non-Arabs. “Tahia Carioca was the most stunning and long-lived of the Arab world’s Eastern dancers (belly dancers, as they are called today). Her career lasted for sixty years … through the reign of King Farouk which ended in 1952, then into the revolutionary period of Gamal Abdel Nasser, followed by the eras of Anwar al Sadat and Hosni Moubarak. All of them except Moubarak, I think, imprisoned her one or more times for various, mostly political offenses,” he wrote.

She was born with the name Badawiyyah Tahia Muhammad Karim in 1920 in Ismailia, a city in the northeast of Egypt on the banks of the Suez Canal. She was interested in the arts from a young age but was abused by her brother growing up. In an interview on a program called Banned from Viewing, her granddaughter Ragaa Al-Giddawy (who also became a successful actress) recalls that Carioca still had bruises on her ankle from the time her brother tied her to the bed as punishment when he found her dancing at home. She’d just returned from watching Su’ad Mahasin, a professional belly dancer, perform at a festival and was practicing her dance moves in front of the mirror when her brother found her. While belly dancing has gone through periods of being considered a national art form, traditional and even celebrated, it has also been at the heart of many debates about morality, gender roles, sex work, and sin. Carioca’s brother, who at the time had already been known to be abusive, was scandalized to find his sister dancing and kept her tied up for three days. When she managed to escape after another one of her brothers freed her, she ran away and caught a train to Cairo.

As a fourteen-year-old in Cairo in 1934, Carioca went looking for Su’ad Mahasin on Imad al-Din Street, the epicenter of the cabarets that showcased the city’s dancers. Mahasin welcomed her and submitted her to the tutelage of Badia Masabni, the godmother of belly dancing and who is said to have brought the style to Egypt. Masabni had started a kind of dancing center where she trained dancers to perform in Badia’s Opera Square Casino (also known as Badia Casino) and the other cabarets that she owned and ran. She felt for the young girl and ended up adopting her and affectionately calling her “Tahia.” 

Before one of her big performances in 1933, Carioca had become enamored by the samba dancing she had seen in the film Flying Down to Rio, which had just come out. The main song on the film’s soundtrack was “The Carioca,” to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts danced in the film. Carioca is a colloquial term for people from Rio and has also been the name given to specific urban samba styles that originated there. Carioca asked the choreographer at Badia Casino to teach her a carioca dance number, which, to the audience’s delight, she incorporated into her belly dance routine that night. Carolina Bracco wrote, in an article from Anthropology of the Middle East, that audiences would request Carioca night after night, shouting, “We want the carioca!” Thus her stage name, Tahia Carioca, was born, and it remains the name by which she is remembered to this day.

While she was fulfilling her aspirations as a dancer, Carioca’s stardom at Badia Casino landed her roles in cinematic dance scenes, and, later, roles in films. She became the first dancer to star as a lead in a prolific 1946 film called The Lady’s Puppet. This was the first of its kind, not only because it starred a dancer as the lead, but also because her character was a dancer, too. Before then, films had never centered on the life of a dancer. This film propelled Carioca to stardom in Egypt and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world as this was during the “golden age” of Egyptian cinema, a time when Egyptian films were beloved all over the Middle East and North Africa and productions competed on the world stage. 

She was one of the first Arab/African stars to have her films featured at the Cannes Film Festival, first for El beit el kebir in 1949 and then for Shabab imra’a in 1956. She became infamous at the festivals for her provocative behavior and outspokenness toward American and European actors. She felt that the Cannes organizers were treating the Egyptian attendees as third-class citizens compared to their Western counterparts. In an act of resistance, Carioca casually wore a traditional galabiya, a robe commonly worn in rural and farming communities, to the evening ceremony, turning heads and stealing the spotlight. Then she is said to have thrown her shoe at Hollywood’s darling, Susan Hayward, who she overheard supposedly praising Israel for being a “civilized nation” in the middle of an uncivilized region and referring to Arabs as “animals.” American actor Danny Kaye got involved in defense of Hayward and was apparently also accidentally hit in the altercation. The incident made news headlines and cemented Carioca’s reputation as a commanding woman with a volcanic personality. 

In the early 1940s, as anti-colonial sentiment was growing in Egypt, Carioca’s political life started to evolve when she became a member of the Communist Party and started holding secret meetings. She was involved in an underground armed anti-colonial faction where she was responsible for organizing and transporting arms to the resistance. When the minister of finance, Amin Othman, who was also the head of the Egyptian-British Friendship Association, was assassinated in 1946, the British started rounding up Egyptian dissenters, and charges were brought forward against twenty-six officers, including Anwar Sadat, a prominent military officer who would later become the president in 1970. Carioca organized for him to be transported across British security checkpoints to Ismailia, where he could hide out in her sister’s home. He reportedly lived and worked on a farm there for a year. Because of this, Carioca and Sadat had an enduring friendship, and, much to the disappointment of long-time fan Edward Said, Carioca involved herself in some of Sadat’s pro-capitalism propaganda projects when he was president.  

Carioca was no stranger to the life of activism and anti-colonial movements. Her family had participated in the struggle against British occupation since the first Egyptian revolution in 1919, when her uncle and two of her other relatives had been killed by British soldiers. In fact, it has been said that even as a child Carioca was tasked with sending secret letters and correspondence between people in the movement.  

Although she had been part of the anti-colonial movement, she wasn’t impressed with the post-colonial leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of the newly independent nation and who was also part of the Free Officers, a group that led the revolution in 1952 against the British and their political puppet, King Farouk. 

Nasser’s era is marked with various contradictions. He promoted gender equality and the education of women and girls by opening up universities to women while also cracking down on and imprisoning feminist activists. Belly dancing seemed to have lost favor with him somewhat, and there was a noticeable crackdown on the art form. Badia Casino was closed down and the portrayal of belly dancers in films shifted to a more negative one. Many have claimed that it was because belly dancers were beloved by King Farouk and the old guard that Nasser pushed back against them. Nasser wanted to completely disrupt the status quo of the old guard and promote his own ideas of art and nationalism.

Nasser is hailed today as one of the most beloved African presidents, one whose socialist policies and progressive ideologies drastically shaped the country and continent. But Carioca didn’t see the kind of impact she expected, and she wanted a constitutional democracy rather than Nasser’s “benevolent” authoritarianism. Her sentiment was that the nation had gotten “rid of (King) Farouk just to have many other Farouks in his place.” 

Carioca’s marriage to an old guard officer, Mostafa Kamal Sidqy, got her imprisoned when pamphlets with subversive principles were found in their apartment, and they were charged with plotting to overthrow the regime. She was later freed of those charges when her husband claimed she had no involvement in his activities, however the true reasons for her imprisonment are debated, with some believing it was actually due to her criticism of Nasser. 

In the nearly one hundred days that she was imprisoned, Carioca engaged often with the other prisoners, reciting poetry and performing for them, and she witnessed firsthand the inhumane living conditions and torture of prisoners. Her activism continued among the prisoners as they worked together to demand better conditions, calling in the Human Rights Committee to observe their plight. The committee attested to her claims and directed the prison to make certain changes, including firing the warden. Carioca also engaged in activities to challenge illiteracy among the other women prisoners. 

Carioca’s political convictions extended to the Palestinian struggle, and in 1988 (after the Palestinian intifada of 1987), she was one of the 120 Arab artists and intellectuals who planned to join 200 Palestinian deportees on the Ship of Return, which would have journeyed from Athens to the port of Haifa to symbolize the return of expelled Palestinians to their land. However, the ship was detonated before the journey could begin and the whole mission could no longer go forward. 

Belly dancing has many variants, and raqs sharqi is often conflated with raqs baladi. While they share similar movements, raqs baladi is the way that most people enjoy traditional and indigenous dancing socially, whereas raqs sharqi involves professional dancers who are paid to entertain in public or at private events. The distinction is important because, as Bracco points out, the two follow different trajectories and positions of acceptability in Egyptian society throughout history. It is, however, impossible to know the exact origins and techniques of belly dancing because, as with any folk dance, these customs have been organically passed down through generations and not formalized in any way. 

Professional belly dancing originated from two groups of women, the awalim and the ghawazi. The awalim were known to be highly esteemed, as they were educated in poetry and classical Arabic music and able to sing, recite poetry, and dance; however, they performed only to other women in harims or women’s quarters of the elite and upper classes. Ghawazi might have been just as talented but were not as versed in poetry and literature and performed in public to mixed audiences, including working and rural classes, sometimes at weddings or festivals. These two groups of women became a source of fascination among Westerners who, from the time of the Napoleonic invasion, witnessed and shared stories of them abroad. 

During the French and then British occupation, a number of different groups of businessmen came to Egypt from Greece, Italy, and Armenia, ultimately opening up bars, clubs, and cabarets to entertain the new wave of Europeans settling in Egypt. These places catered to the increasing number of British soldiers who were arriving in Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century, earning much more than most Egyptians, and looking for entertainment. Tales of “exotic” women had been shared among them, so they sought out places that had belly dancers performing, and this became big business for club owners. Many women found a way to earn an income dancing, during a time when there were hardly any work opportunities for women. This environment also created a different sort of belly dance performance than what was customary among Egyptians at the time. 

When Lebanese dancer Badia Masabni arrived on the scene in 1921, she completely transformed the landscape of belly dancing. She trained a whole school of dancers to perform in Cairo, bringing the dance from the entertainment at weddings and social functions of the working and rural classes to a glamorous performance at cabaret shows, royal functions, and hotels. Masabni became so respected and successful that she was able to own her very own cabaret, Badia Casino, where Carioca and others performed. There are tales that King Farouk visited Badia Casino only to be told by the outspoken Carioca that it wasn’t the environment for a king. He would later organize massive private parties in his palace where Carioca and other famous dancers, like Samia Gamal, would perform. 

While theatre was considered the amusement of the elite and upper class, and cabarets were mainly frequented by British soldiers and other rich foreigners, cinema and film became the entertainment that was accessible to Egyptians across class and geography. As television became more common, films were played in coffee houses and other communal spaces. But the popularity of films also meant that they could be used by the state to influence cultural and political ideas. Belly dancers, including Tahia Carioca, were both affected by and implicated in the national project of the time.  

Nasser wanted to rid the country of the decadence of the King, the elites, and the British presence, so he believed their institutions and beloved entertainers would have to be done away with too. However, as Carioca and other famous dancers like Gamal were still so popular in cinema, the roles of belly dancers in films diminished or were changed altogether to be pointedly more sexual in nature. This is clear in the film Samra, where Carioca plays a belly dancer who convinces a young and naive girl, played by Gamal, to leave her family and get involved in crime. This sort of depiction of dancers became more common in the 1950s and ‘60s and had an effect on how society viewed belly dancers, associating them with dubious nightlife and enchanting men to leave their wives and commit crimes. It was in these same films that cabarets were also portrayed as dangerous and immoral places, a stigma that was detrimental for belly dancers who found most of their employment there. It also led to the decline of belly dancing as a profession in Egypt. 

Still, Carioca didn’t seem to mind playing that role, and she may have even relished playing the tougher characters so certain parts of her real personality could shine through. She continued making hundreds of films and mentoring other young actresses while using her influence to do charitable work. While her leftist leanings never seemed to waver, her actions weren’t as clear when it came to her relationships with Nasser and Sadat. Her love for Sadat, who, in a complete departure from his predecessor Nasser, was trying to liberalize the economy and promote capitalism, creates some confusion about her politics. However, even under Sadat’s presidency, she was arrested for participating in demonstrations. And when Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981, she threatened to go on hunger strike if he didn’t do something to change the conditions of the poor. It’s said that he personally called her and pleaded with her, asking her what he should do to stop her. 

Carioca died aged 79 of a heart attack in September of 1999. In his obituary of her, Said wrote  “Perhaps it is too much to say of her that she was a subversive figure, intransigeant by virtue of her imperious way with her-self and her surroundings, but I think that her meandering, careless way with her many male relationships, her art, her prolificacy as an actress…. her stills, costumes, and all the rest, suggest how far away she always was from anything that resembled domesticity, or ordinary commercial or bourgeois life, or even comfort of the kind so many of her peers seem to have cared about.” 

Carioca’s life and legacy challenged the kind of roles women could inhabit in society, and her complexity, promiscuity, and politics disrupted gender norms throughout her life. She stood up to hundreds of men in her lifetime, as well as resisting colonialism and exploitation. Some of her dancing will forever be memorialized in her films, but the numerous uncaptured performances she gave, whether in cabarets, at private parties, or among friends, will only live in the cherished memories of the fortunate few who witnessed her force in person. 

Mary Fawzy