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The Life of Badia Masabni
Part 1: Queen of Suffering and of the Night

 

Starmaker in the Embrace of Happiness & Pain

 

 

Written by Tarek Hashem for Al Jareeda,

Translated By Priscilla Adum

 

This series of articles by Tarek Hashem appeared in Al Jareeda online in August of 2010. It's a long, but fascinating story. This page contains part 1 out of a total of 14 parts. See the bottom of this page for links to the other parts.

The original Arabic version can be found at http://www.aljarida.com/news/index/404685. It appeared online on Al Jareeda on August 11, 2010.

 

The Star Maker Lived
In The Arms of Pain and of Good Times

Badia Masabni, the Queen of Suffering and of the Night

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

At the beginning of the 20th Century the Arab world began to witness a big leap in many fields: political, social, and cultural. During this stage in people's lives, they began to accept and absorb new things, but with some hesitance.

In those days, there were no radio stations, television broadcasts, or satellite channels, and cinema was in its early stages. Performing arts were somewhat limited like every other art form that later evolved and then spread widely during the last century. Things were so restricted that women did not even leave their homes to get an education.

It was amid these circumstances that Badia Masabni appeared. In just a few years, the blonde from the Levant was able to set the streets of Cairo aflame and transform its night into day through acting and dancing. She was one of the pioneers in the art of dance as well as one of the stars of the stage of the 1930's. She was the leading actress in such films as Oum el Sa3ad (Saad's Mother), Malket el Masareh (Queens of the Stage), and others. She was also the leading actress in many famous theater plays such as El Layale El Melah. She owned the largest and most popular sala not only in Egypt, but also in the entire Middle East, "Casino Badia". She was the owner of a private raqs sharqi school whose graduates included such famous stars as Taheya Carioca, Samia Gamal, Beba Ezz El Din and Hekmet Fahmy among others. Badia was also the leader of a theater group from which emerged such top stars as Ismael Yaseen.

The story of Badia's life is full of accidents and strange situations. She began from zero and faced misery and hardship in her early life. The years of her life passed among waves of highs and lows, in two worlds. She suffered from hunger and poverty and tasted deprivation and rough living, and then she lived a good life in every way. The heads of important men bowed down to her. It was among all the ups and downs and the misery and the happiness, the light and the darkness that Badia lived her life, which we will recount throughout the following chapters.

No one knows for certain what year Badia was born, probably in 1894 in Damascus. Her father was Lebanese, her mother Syrian. Her father owned a small soap making business which was the only source of income for the entire family. The neighborhood in Damascus that Badia was born in was famous for its soap making industry; hence, the family took the surname "Masabni". [Translator's note: "Masabna" in Arabic means "place where soap is made" from the word "sabon" which means "soap" and "Masabni" translates to "Soap Maker".]

Badia's family consisted of seven siblings. Her father worked day and night up until the day he died to be able to provide for the family. None of his children were qualified to replace him. However, they had no choice but to try and manage the soap business that their father had left them, their only source of income.

Things did not remain stable for very long. On a dark night, the soap factory caught on fire and it burned down completely along with everything inside of it.

Shortly after this incident, one of Badia's brothers died of fever. He was the one who had been expected to take over the father's role, so Badia's family entered a life of poverty and deprivation. Sadness fell upon the entire family.

Badia had one brother who was morally corrupt, who became a burden upon the entire family. One night he just left. The family tried in vain to convince him to return so that he could help them out in during this difficult period.

Badia's mother could not find any other way to support the family other than selling her jewelry. But she wasn't able to benefit from this money because it was stolen by thieves.

The shadow of poverty refused to leave this family's home and their nights became darker and their days harder. Badia was a small child at the time, witnessing all these unbearable tragedies.

Badia Masabni

 

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Scandal at an Innocent Age

Badia had an alcoholic brother who used to hang out at a local bar that Badia passed on her way home from school. She would daily pick up a piece of candy from her brother, which made her as happy as any kid with a piece of candy could be.

One day Badia didn't see her brother there, so she asked the bar owner where he was. The bar owner lied to her and told her that her brother was inside the bar. When she entered the bar to check, the bar owner pounced on her and raped her. Badia cried and screamed for help but it was useless. She returned to her house terribly upset and told her mother, who began slapping her own cheeks and crying. [Translator's note: Slapping one's own cheeks was a sign of sorrow or mourning or when facing scandal.]

Then she took her daughter and went to the bar along with el Hara Sheik (the neighborhood Elder) and she found her son sitting next to the man who had raped his sister. The Hara Sheik apprehended him and the scandal spread. The rapist was sentenced to one year in prison, and Badia's brother was sentenced to six months.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Badia Masabni is wearing a costume representative of the Levant.

Badia's older sister had married before this incident that turned the family's life into hell. Her husband had inherited a house from his father in a suburb of Damascus as well as some money. He depended on that money to live off of, because he didn't look for work. Then the money ran out and life between him and Badia's sister became unbearable so she returned again to her family's home. Her return caused a larger burden upon the already impoverished family. After a short time Badia's sister died, leaving behind a small daughter whom the father took, and they were never heard from again.

When life became even harder for this family, they decided to go to a monastery to get away from the atmosphere of poverty, despair, shame, and scandal that had fallen upon them after the rape of Badia. Her sister Nazla worked as a seamstress. In a short time she became quite skillful and began to search for a place to open a business. Nazla chose the old family home and then began to look for girls to hire as helpers. But the local families refused to send their daughters to the house because of what had happened to Badia. Badia's rape cast a shadow on the entire family and caused them to live in isolation from their neighbors. No one would have anything to do with them, and people would say mean things to Badia's sisters wherever they went. These sisters would then take it out on Badia by hitting her and cursing at her, until it reached the point where one of the sisters threatened to either commit suicide or kill Badia if their mother did not agree to leave the country.

Badia

 

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Emigration to Argentina

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the emigration of Levantine people to South America was at its peak. Many factors, both social and political, contributed to the emigration of a large number of them to that continent, and they became a notable presence there. So many did this that one of them even became the president of Argentina, Carlos Menem.

In order to raise the necessary funds to travel, Badia's mother mortgaged the family home in Damascus for two hundred pounds. And so, Badia left Damascus accompanied by her mother and her sister Nazla. They traveled first to Beirut and met up with her brothers in Der el Natur and walked to the port and boarded a ship in fourth class.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Badia is wearing a Tunisian style of dress.

The trip was long and difficult. Every time the family faced a difficult situation they would look towards Badia and would treat her badly by hitting her and cursing at her and insulting her because they felt that she was the cause of all the hardships they were facing. This led Badia to search for protection among the ship's crew, who defended her and showed her kindness until the family arrived in Argentina.

Badia

 

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In Buenos Aires

And so the ship reached the city of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Badia and her family disembarked, joining many other expatriates who had left their countries as well. The family was not related to any of the passengers who had traveled on that ship and they didn't even know any of the other passengers. They mixed in with the other Arabs who were living in a popular designated Arab neighborhood.

Badia's family took up residence on a dirty and frightening street where only poor people lived. Six people lived in one room because they had no other alternative. Life for the family members was very difficult. They were forced to commute long distances to faraway areas for work and in the evenings they would return exhausted with just a small amount of money that wasn't enough to cover their basic necessities.

In spite of this, they would dance and sing at night, because immigrants are the children of one language with a common destiny and ultimately they had all chosen exile in search of better fortune, though in Badia's family's case they chose exile as a means to escape shame and scandal which they'd had no fault in causing.

Badia

 

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Nazla's Marriage

One day when Badia's two brothers were at work, the merchant that they worked for walked in and a conversation ensued between them. The brothers commented to him that they lived with their mother and their two sisters. The merchant told them that he had not always been a successful business owner but that he had started out as an employee at first. He gave them much encouragement and then asked their permission to visit them at their home because he had taken a liking to them and felt that they were different from most of the other immigrants that he dealt with in his business.

At their house, the merchant met the rest of the family members and displayed a particular fondness for Nazla. This stranger, whose name was Michael Gareos, repeatedly visited the home until one day he asked for Nazla's hand in marriage despite the fact that he was more than 50 years old and was already married to two other women. Nazla, however, was dreaming of a young husband to compensate for all the sadness and bitterness that she'd been forced to taste. Michael showered the family with gifts and he even sent Badia to a boarding school, so in view of all these temptations the family decided to sell Nazla to him to try and escape from the difficult economic situation that they faced. And so she married him. However, Badia and her family obtained no happiness from Nazla's marriage which pushed the two brothers to laziness. Each of them pocketed the cash from the items that they sold until their dishonesty and thieving were exposed and the store went bankrupt. They escaped their responsibility in the matter as usual, by quitting their jobs and the matter was closed when they stopped working for Michael and announced that they were thinking of traveling out of the country again.

Badia

 

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Badia and the School

The two young men chose to travel to different destinations and the family was scattered, so the mother felt that Badia must be taken out of school and returned to her home. She went to the school and asked the principal to return her daughter to her. But the principal refused because she did not know her and she felt that the person responsible for the child was Michael. The mother became enraged and began screaming and tried to break down the door until all the nuns came and gathered around her. Her screams became louder until Badia felt very frightened because she did not wish to return home and she loved her life at this school. Badia was returned to her mother with tears in her eyes and fearful of being returned to a home full of torment. She remembered her life at school and the kindness of the nuns, the love that her teachers showed her and their happiness that she had mastered the Spanish language in such a short time. She was heartbroken when she recalled her days at the school theater.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Badia Masabni is wearing a Syrian dress.

Badia's first exposure to theater was at this school where she was given acting and singing roles which she performed perfectly. The nuns discovered how talented she was and they helped her to develop her talent. To Badia, the theater was a beautiful life where she could escape from the darkness that haunted her.

One day Badia took advantage of her mother's absence and ran away from home and back to the school, to the place where she could forget the grief, despair and boredom and where she only knew the meaning of happiness and humanity. She was in a state of exhaustion, constantly looking around like a thief waiting for the police to arrive as tears streamed down her face. The nuns treated her kindly and the principal was very kind to this unfortunate child and she welcomed her and accepted her back at the school. They notified her sister Nazla and let her know that Badia was back at school but they asked her not to tell her mother.

After the mother discovered Badia's absence she went crazy and began searching for her everywhere. She asked Nazla if she knew her whereabouts but Nazla pretended not to know where her sister was. So the mother thought of the school and went there, screaming and crying and begging the people at the school until even bystanders off the street gathered around and sympathized with her. There was no other choice but to hand Badia over to her mother.

So she returned home to the specter of loneliness and despair that filled her with fear. The mother felt that Badia was the cause of all their misery and that she had brought them shame. If it had not been for her, the family would be living with dignity in their house in Damascus. She could not forget how her home had been filled with happiness, and then how empty it became after the death of her husband, then her son and then her oldest daughter in the Levant, and the mortgaged home in the Levant loomed like a shadow in front of her that she dreamed of returning to. Her dreams and hopes of a good and happy life had been dashed.

In the midst of all these thoughts, Badia felt pity for her mother and made an effort to forget. To forget the nuns, her schoolmates, the kindness, the candy, and the peaceful sleep, and she decided to remain with her mother.

Badia

 

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About the Translator

Priscilla is a dancer of Lebanese heritage who enjoys researching the Golden Era of Egyptian dance. She owns a collection of more than one hundred classic black and white Egyptian films which is continually expanding.

Priscilla has also gathered a large library of dance related articles and clippings from Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, many of which she has translated from the original Arabic to both English and Spanish.

Priscilla currently resides in Central America where she is a dance instructor. 

Priscilla

 

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