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Badia Masabny created Raks Sharki at the Cairo Opera Casino

Artist, club owner and impresario, Badia Masabny melded Hollywood and Folkloric elements to create cosmopolitan entertainment for her Casino guests. Keep up with a FREE subscription to the BABA YAGA newsletter.
Badia Masabny was a noted entertainer and nightclub manager (active in the Levant and in Cairo during the first half of the 20th century) who, in the service of her Casino's cosmopolitan clientele, fashioned the social and ethnic dances of Egypt into the contemporary dance art, Raqs Sharki. Also notable: she was able to hold on to her fortune after her career was over.

The biography on Badia Masabny in the Gilded Serpent states that Badia Masabny was born in Syria. Others qualify that by saying she was born in the part of Syria now known as Lebanon. According to an article by Tarek Hashem, her father and her oldest brother died while she was still a child, the family business (and financial security) evaporated, and Badia was raped by the friend of another brother. Her family ended up moving to Argentina to avoid the social repercussions of poverty, shame and gossip. It was at a boarding school in Argentina that Badia discovered a talent for theatre. The family returned to Syria when Badia was of marriageable age, but her history of rape discouraged marriage suitors and her extended family was unable or unwilling to provide for Badia and her mother. She and her mother eventually ended up in Cairo, where her beauty and her voice (clear and cabable of carrying to the corners of a room during a time when electronic amplification did not exist) attracted an offer from George Abiad to audition for his Cairo-based theatre group.

The translation of the biography by Tarek Hashem, currently posted on Priscilla Adum's Facebook page, reads like a soap opera. One brother was a criminal, another was an alcoholic, and her sister's first marriage was a failure. Badia's mother was an hysteric who blamed Badia for the family misfortunes yet refused to let her marry; and Badia's life with her mother was spent in grinding poverty with a few short interludes of comfort and plenty. Badia, however, reads like she was a handful as well. At one point she found a box of money in their home in Argentina and came to the conclusion that this was bestowed by the spirits so that Badia and her friends could buy candy; it was actually her mother's entire savings. Along with imagination, Badia was a charmer and was not afraid to be admired by and speak with strange men attracted to her beauty, which is how she ended up being interviewed by George Abiad. When Badia received an offer from the El Shami theatre to go on tour in upper Egypt, she devised a ruse that ended up with her mother (who did not know her daughter was an actress and would not have approved if she did) on the train to Lebanon and herself moving in with the El Shami family.

In 1914 Masabny went to Beirut to perform in the well-known theater of Madame Jeanette, a French woman who employed European artists to perform for wealthy Lebanese customers. Badia persuaded Madam Jeanette to give her a chance to sing and dance in Arabic; she was an immediate hit and shortly became the feature act. (Badia's experiences at this cosmopolitan venue would inform her business choices for the rest of her life.) As her fame spread, she was hired by the best cafes and made a lot of money, which in turn allowed her to live large and to assist members of her extended family who were suffering from shortages caused by World War I. Badia eventually began working with the Egyptian entertainer and director, Nagib El Righany, and returned to Cairo in 1921 with him and his ensemble, where she became both the star of the company and his wife.

In his book Mountain Against the Sea, Salim Tamari includes extracts from the diaries of oudist Wasif Jawhariyyeh which mention Badia as occasionally coming to Jerusalem to perform. Wasif describes "several of her risque song and dance sketches, performed in what he terms transparent costume... Wasif, Badia and others often met at intimate parties, either in the mansions of Jerusalem notables.. or in the Hotel St. John. Heavy drinking and cannabis enhanced the atmosphere of these evenings, and both Masabny and Righany habitually used cocaine."

However, partying hard did not damage Badia's natural talent for business. Badia learned a lot about the theater from her husband, which came in handy when, after numerous breakups and reconciliations, Badia left her husband and opened her own nightclub, the Casino Badia. Masabny's new club was a huge success; she incorporated European and Arab dancers, singers, musicians and comedians in short acts that appealed to both European and upper-class Egyptian tastes. There was even a matinee in the afternoon for women only.

Badia lost a lot of money in a film project, went bankrupt, went on tour, and once again reinvented herself as a casino owner when she opened the Casino Opera in Cairo in 1940. The Bellydance Museum web site gives her credit for adapting the dances of the Egyptian ghawazee and almeh for the stage by insisting on high and flowing arm movements, using space on the stage, using choreography, and incorporating the veils and two-piece sequined costumes from Hollywood Oriental-fantasy films into her real Egyptian shows. The simple Egyptian music bands were expanded with violins, ouds, cellos and accordions, and the dance choreographies were amplified to match, with Badia training her dancers herself. Several dancers from her Casino ultimately became popular film stars, including Tahiya Carioca and Samia Gamal.

"What Badia presented in the Opera Casino was a Western theatre-style show, with several top-quality Oriental dancers as well as famous singers. She had both Raqs Sharqi and Western ballroom dancers. Badia also scheduled special shows for women only, and families. She often sat onstage, playing finger symbals behind her Oriental dancers, to see who was with whom in the audience, as well as to keep an eye on her dancers progress. — Morocco, You Asked Aunt Rocky.


Aisha Ali's interview with Sofia Helme (Arabesque Magazine, 1979) sheds an interesting insight on the standards Badia held up for her students. When asked if she considered herself a Ghaziyeh, Sofia answered, "No, I am an Almee— the Ghawazee are second to the Awallum."

The Gilded Serpent has posted a movie clip depicting the music and dance entertainment offered at the Casino Opera. The clip was used as advertisement for the Casino at movie theatres. Badia herself is the star of the clip. Note the choreographed floor patterns, the large movements, the composed music and the two-piece costumes, all Western influences incorporated to appeal to a cosmopolitan clientele.

In 1950, after a series of family and romantic mishaps, Badia decided to sell the Casino Opera. When the Egyptian government demanded a significant sum in undeserved tax penalties, Badia converted all her possessions to cash, flew to Lebanon in a private plane, and once again re-invented herself, this time as a dairy farmer on her own farm, where she lived peacefully (after divorcing her last husband after two months of marriage) until her death in 1975.

Priscilla Adum, of the Academia de Danza Arabe, has created wonderful Facebook albums that contain both the translation of a book about Badia and many pictures of her. The translation is divided into several chapters and each chapter can be accessed by clicking on its respective picture. Priscilla has collected dozens and dozens of source documents to support the content that she features on this Facebook page.

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