In Memory of Tahia

Edward Said

The first and only time I saw her dance on the stage was in 1950 at Badia’s Casino, in Giza, just below where the Sheraton stands today. A few days later, I saw her at a vegetable stand in Zamalek, as provocative and beautiful as she had been a few nights before, except this time she was wearing a smart lavender suit and high heels. She looked me straight in the eye but my 14-year-old flustered stare wilted under what seemed to me her brazen scrutiny, and I turned away. I told my older cousin’s wife Aida with shamefaced disappointment about my lacklustre performance with the great woman. ‘You should have winked at her,’ Aida said dismissively, as if such a thing were even imaginable. 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 sixty years, from her first days as a dancer at Badia’s Opera Square Casino in the early Thirties, through the rule of King Farouk, of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Each of them, except, I think, Mubarak, imprisoned her at least once for various, mostly political offences. She also acted in hundreds of films and dozens of plays, took part in demonstrations, was a voluble, not to say aggressive member of the actors’ syndicate, and in her last years had become a pious (though outspoken) Muslim known to all her friends and admirers as ‘al-Hagga’. Aged 79, she died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital on 20 September.

About ten years ago I made a special pilgrimage to Cairo to meet and interview her, having in the meantime seen dozens of her films and one of her plays, the appallingly bad Yohya l’Wafd, written by her then husband and much younger co-star, Fayez Halawa. He was an opportunist, she later told me, who robbed her of all her money, pictures, films and memorabilia. Robed in the black gown and headscarf of a devout Muslim woman, she radiated die verve and wit that had informed all her performances as a dancer, actress, public personality. I wrote about her in the London Review of Books: her extraordinary dancing career, her power as a cultural symbol throughout the Arab world. Egypt was the capital of that world when it came to such matters as pleasure and the arts of desire and sociability, and Tahia was its representative.

Most Eastern Arabs would, I believe, concede that the dour Syrians and Jordanians, the quickwitted Lebanese, the rough-hewn Gulf Arabs and the ever-so-serious Iraqis have never stood a chance beside the I entertainers, clowns, singers and dancers that Egypt and its people have provided for the past several centuries. Palestinians or Iraqis may level damaging political accusations at Egypt’s governments, but they never fail to acknowledge the country’s charm and the pleasures of its clipped, lilting dialect. In all that Tahia stood quite alone, and not altogether despite her flaws and often puzzling waywardness. A leftwing radical in some things, she was a time-server and opportunist in others; she made a late return to Islam but she also admitted to 14 husbands (there may have been a few more) and had a carefully cultivated reputation for debauchery.

The only other entertainer in the Arab world on her level was Um Kulthum, the great Koranic reciter and romantic singer, whose Thursday-evening broadcasts from a Cairo theatre were transmitted everywhere between Morocco and Oman. Having been fed a diet of her music at far too young an age, I found her songs insufferable. But for those who like and believe in such cultural typing, her long, languorous, repetitive lines, slow tempi, strangely dragging rhythms, ponderous monophony and eerily lachrymose or devotional lyrics stood for something quintessentially Arab and Muslim which I never quite came to terms with.

Tahia, by comparison, is barely known – except among belly-dancers, all of whom today seem to be non-Arab, and who regard her as their major inspiration. Belly-dancing is in many ways the opposite of ballet, its Western equivalent. Ballet is all about elevation and lightness; Eastern dancing, as Tahia practised it, shows the dancer planting herself more and more solidly in the earth, digging into it almost, scarcely moving, certainly never expressing anything like the nimble semblance of weightlessness that a great ballet dancer conveys. Tahia’s dancing suggested (vertically) a sequence of horizontal pleasures, but also paradoxically communicated an elusiveness and a kind of grace that cannot be pinned down on a flat surface. She performed within an Arab and Islamic setting but was constantly in tension with it. She belonged to the tradition of the alema, the learned woman who is also a courtesan, an extremely literate woman who is lithe and profligate with her physical charms. One never felt her to be part of an ensemble – as in kathak dancing, say – but always as a solitary, somewhat perilous figure moving to attract and at the same time repel men and women.

Another thing about her that strikes me now that she has died is how untidy and shiftless her life seems to have been. I suppose this is true of performers in general, who really exist before us for the brief time they are on stage and then disappear. Audio-recordings and film have given a kind of permanence to displays of great virtuosity, but mechanical reproduction can never have the edge and excitement of what is intended to happen only once. Glenn Gould spent the last 16 years of his life trying to disprove this, to the extent even of pretending that a listener equipped with a super-refined amplifier could ‘creatively’ participate in the recorded performance. The idea of play-back, on hi-fi or VCR, is supposed to compensate for the rarity and perishability of live artistic energy, and no doubt all of Tahia’s films are available on video. But what about her thousands of other performances, the ones that weren’t recorded – plays, nightclubs, ceremonies; what about her uncountable appearances at soirées, dinners, I all-night sessions with fellow actors and actresses?

It is probably too much to say of her that she was a subversive figure, but I think that her meandering, careless way with her relationships with men, her art, her profligacy as an actress who seemed to have nothing left of her scripts, her contracts (if she had any to begin with), her stills, costumes, and the rest, all 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. A decade ago, when I spent the afternoon at her nondescript apartment, she seemed to me a great Nanaesque figure who had indulged and then dismissed her appetites, and could sit back, enjoy a coffee and smoke with a perfect stranger, reminiscing, making up stories, reciting set-pieces (‘when I danced, I felt I was entering the temple of art,’ she said with a great deal of mock-seriousness), relaxing but still evasive.

Tahia’s life and death – despite the proliferating videos, the retrospectives of her films, the memorial occasions when she will be eulogised – symbolise the enormous amount of life in that part of the world which goes unrecorded and unpreserved. None of the Arab countries I know has proper state archives, public record offices or official libraries any more than any of them has a decent control over their monuments or antiquities, the history of their cities or individual works of architecture – mosques, palaces, schools. What I have is a sense of a sprawling, teeming history off the page, out of sight and hearing, beyond reach, largely unrecoverable. Our history is mostly written by foreigners – visiting scholars, intelligence agents – while we rely on personal and disorganised collective memory, gossip almost, and the embrace of a family or knowable community to carry us forward in time. The great thing about Tahia was that her sensuality, or rather the flicker of it that I recall, was so unneurotic, so attuned to an audience whose gaze in all its raw or, in the case of dance connoisseurs, refined lust, was as transient and unthreatening as she was. Enjoyment for now; then, nothing.