“I love my work. I love it, really. I don’t love anything in my life but my work.”- Tahia Carioca, 1994
Sometimes in between the mundane and insignificant things in this life, such as musings over how Rachel Brice manages to move her body as though she were an actual snake, or how much of a gymnast one truly has to be in order to pull off a back-bend like Nejla Ateş, comes a truly fascinating story that, among other things, showcases how little human nature actually changes over time and across national boundaries. One such fascinating (perhaps even somewhat sad or tragic) and one-of-a-kind story can be found in one of the darlings of Cairo’s golden age, Badaweya Mohamed Kareem Al Nirani.
Badaweya Mohamed Kareem Al Nirani (1919(?)-1999), professionally known as Taheyya Kariokka (Tahia Carioca), was an Egyptian actress and dancer, primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. Though largely unknown to the Western world, she starred in somewhere around 300 classical Arabic films and is known as a pioneer of sorts to true studied students and enthusiasts of belly-dance.
Coming from a respectable family, Taheyya was the product of a marriage where her mother was forty years younger than her father. Her father apparently went through a few marriages within the family, being left swiftly widowed before settling for marrying an outsider (Taheyya’s mother). Despite her youth, it took Taheyya’s mother a full four years to conceive a child (fertility issues on the behalf of the aging husband, perhaps?), and then- much to her father’s dismay- the child was a girl.
Taheyya’s mother fled to return back to her family soon after Taheyya’s birth, leaving Taheyya to be raised primarily by her paternal grandmother. Soon after her father’s death, Taheyya’s much older brother took custody of her, imposing discipline whenever he would catch her dancing [being a dancer was- is- generally looked down upon in that part of the world, with one of the worst insults you could hurl at a man being to call him the “son of a dancer” and you’d be hard pressed to find many Arab women willing to become dancers as most dancers in the Middle East are actually Western imports] on her in a manner that would be considered extreme child abuse by today’s standards. (Taheyya’s mother reported to the authorities about this behavior, attempting to get her daughter back, though they refused to intervene). She eventually fled from her brother at a young age, leading to a series of events and interactions that would make her one of the most famous dancers of her day.
By all accounts told about her, Taheyya was a rebel and perhaps even the perfect example of the quandary of the modern-day woman. She was famous for her sharp tongue and had quite a reputation for debauchery, having an (admitted) fourteen husbands.
“No, what was clear and unalterable: men had made her life hell! And perhaps the fault was not all theirs. Even when she was young, even when she was broke, I defy anyone to find a picture of Madame Tahaya which doesn’t show her eyes alight with mockery. What love can withstand it’s glare? And as she herself told me in so many words, men did not desire her. At first I heard deserve, but no, desire was what she had said, and desire was what she meant. A soft clap of disdain followed, washing her hands of all men. No, the husbands, all thirteen of them, were in love with “Tahaya Carioca,” whoever she was! And, as if to underline the point, Tahaya treated all of them with a man’s directness, divorced them like a man, paid them off like a man. It was as if only by playing the tough little businesswoman could she underline the gulf between who she was on the screen and stage and who she was in reality.”
Like many modern women, she had a career. Above all, her career always came first for her. That combined with her sharp tongue apparently drove all the men away one by one. Like many modern women, she could attract many men to her, but she could never hold onto them. (Supposedly) not believing in having sex before marriage, she instead engaged in what could be termed as serial monogamy, marrying and divorcing one man after the other in a series of relationships that never lasted very long, until her final marriage to a much younger man finally bankrupted her after an 8-year long court battle.
She was superior in her relationships, and fiercely independent. She took the initiative to divorce and always paid her own way (even with her numerous divorces). One of her marriages was to an American Air Force officer. She followed him to America for a short time before she then apparently became bored(?) with American life, divorced him, and headed back to Egypt.
Her political life was quite interesting. I guess you can’t really expect that a fiercely independent woman like Taheyya would just sit on the sidelines in times of war or political upheaval. But no! She gave asylum to political allies (some even members of her own family), did some time in jail for conspiracy against the crown and even helped in weapon smuggling and training to join the resistance in the mid-50s.
As well, you’d dare not insult a woman like Taheyya, and even royalty were not immune, as it is said she insulted King Farouk and his second-wife, refusing to dance at their wedding by exclaiming “I have already danced at the wedding of the Queen of Egypt!” In yet another instance, reports say that she also slapped the former king across the face as well (some reports say it was because he threw an ice cube down her dress).
Taheyya would grab her shoe anytime she was offended or felt threatened and wave it in the person’s face, and, again, neither royalty nor Hollywood A-listers of the day were immune. Husbands weren’t immune either, apparently. In at least one known instance, she caught one of her many (soon to be ex-) husbands, Rushdy Abaza, with another woman. Off came Taheyya’s shoe as she then began to teach the other woman a lesson before proceeding to obtain a divorce from Abaza and move on to the next man.
But despite her success, fame, and marriages to A-list celebrities and directors, her life was a hard one, and not exactly one to be recommended. She could never conceive children of her own (something that apparently saddened her greatly), but instead adopted a daughter. By all accounts she was well educated, proficient in French and English as well as her own native Arabic. She also had a kind heart, despite her fiery ways, always willing to open her doors to the poor and needy. As she began to age, however, she began to put on a lot of weight, becoming very heavy and, by some accounts, also very crude and vulgar, no longer being the suave seductress that she once was. Later pictures and films that she played in showed her to be very heavy, and the final divorce that she underwent took a huge financial and emotional toll on her, leaving her to seek out whatever menial roles she could find for herself in an attempt to rebuild her life. Towards the end of her life in an interview she was asked by members of the press, “How many husbands?” to which she then replied “Five right ones. I never was happy. My work always came first. For this, they run away. I took two months vacation every year, the rest I worked.”
At the end, in her final years, she returned fully to her Muslim faith, donning the veil before passing away at the age of 80(?) from a heart attack in a Cairo hospital.
More about Taheyya: