Homage to a Belly-Dancer

Edward Said

The greatest and most famous singer of the 20th-century Arab world was Um Kalthoum, whose records and cassettes, fifteen years after her death, are available everywhere. A fair number of non-Arabs know about her too, partly because of the hypnotic and melancholy effect of her singing, partly because in the world-wide rediscovery of authentic people’s art Um Kalthoum is a dominant figure. But she also played a significant role in the emerging Third World women’s movement as a pious ‘Nightingale of the East’ whose public exposure was as a model not only of feminine consciousness but also of domestic propriety. During her lifetime, there was talk about whether or not she was a lesbian, but the sheer force of her performances of elevated music set to classical verse overrode such rumours. In Egypt she was a national symbol, respected both during the monarchy and after the revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Um Kalthoum’s career was extraordinarily long, and to most Arabs it was the highly respectable while very romantic tip of the eroticism typified by the belly-dancer. Like the great singer herself, belly-dancers routinely performed in films, theatres and cabarets, and on the ceremonial platforms of weddings and other private celebrations in Cairo and Alexandria. Whereas you couldn’t really enjoy looking at the portly and severe Um Kalthoum, you couldn’t do much more than enjoy looking at fine belly-dancers, whose first star was the Lebanese-born Badia Massabni, also an actress, cabaret-owner and trainer of young talent. Badia’s career as a dancer ended around World War Two, but her true heir and disciple was Tahia Carioca, who was, I think, the finest belly-dancer ever. Now 75 and living in Cairo, she is still active as an actress and political militant, and, like Um Kalthoum, the remarkable symbol of a national culture. Um Kalthoum performed at King Farouk’s wedding in 1936, and the lavish party was also Tahia’s debut. It gave her a prominence she never lost.

During her heyday as dancer extraordinaire Tahia Carioca embodied a very specific kind of sexiness, which she rendered as the most smooth and understated of dancers, and as a highly visible femme fatale in Egyptian films. When I looked up the actual number of films she made between the early Forties and 1980 I was able to find 190 titles; when I asked her about them in Cairo during the spring of 1989, she couldn’t remember the exact figure but opined that the sum was well over two hundred. Most of her early films included at least one dance number – every Egyptian film that did not pretend to be ‘high drama’ (only a handful did) had to include a song-and-dance routine. This was a formula rather like second-act ballets in 19th-century Paris opera performances: ballets were put on whether or not they fitted the story. In Egyptian films an announcer would suddenly appear on screen and name a singer and dancer; the scene would reveal itself (often gratuitously) to be a nightclub or a large living-room; then an orchestra would strike up the music, and the performance began.

Tahia did such scenes. But they were no more than crude shorthand sketches for her full-scale cabaret performances, the only one of which I actually witnessed I shall for ever remember with startling vividness. It took place in 1950. An enterprising schoolmate had discovered that she was dancing at Badia’s open-air casino alongside the Nile in Giza (today the site of a high-rise Sheraton), tickets were obtained, and four awkward 14-year-olds arrived on the appointed evening at least two hours before she was to begin. The daytime heat of that June day had pretty much dissolved into a balmy, slightly windy evening. By the time the lights went down for the star turn, Badia’s was full, all forty or so tables packed with an entirely Egyptian audience of middle-class aficionados. Tahia’s partner for the evening was the singer Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, a stolid-looking, bald gentleman in a white dinner-jacket who walked out, planted himself on a wood-and-wicker chair in the middle of the primitive stage, and began to sing to the accompaniment of a small takhta, or Arab orchestra, seated off to one side. The song was ‘Mandil-el-Helou’ (‘A Pretty Handkerchief), whose innumerable verses celebrated the woman who draped it, cried into it, decorated her hair with it, on and on for almost a full hour.

There were at least fifteen minutes of this before Tahia suddenly revealed herself a few feet behind the singer’s chair. We were sitting about as far from the stage as it was possible to sit, but the shimmering, glistening blue costume she wore simply dazzled the eye, so bright were the sequins and spangles, so controlled was her quite lengthy immobility as she stood there with an entirely composed look about her. As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic Arab belly-dancer’s art is not how much but how little the artist moves: only the novices, or the deplorable Greek and American imitators, go in for the appalling wiggling and jumping around that passes for ‘sexiness’ and harem hootchy-kootch. The point is to make an effect mainly (but by no means exclusively) through suggestiveness, and – in the kind of full-scale composition Tahia offered that night – to do so over a series of episodes knitted together in alternating moods, recurring motifs. For ‘Mandil-el-Helou’ Tahia’s central motif was her relationship to the largely oblivious Abdel Aziz Mahmoud. She would glide up behind him, as he droned on, appear as if to fall into his arms, mimic and mock him – all without ever touching him or eliciting any response.

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