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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

The Life of Badia Masabni
Part 5: The Return to Beirut

 

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 5, 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/405420. It appeared online on Al Jareeda on August 16, 2010.

 

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Table of Contents

 

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The Return to Beirut

Joining George Abaid's Theater Troupe in Cairo was Badia's first step towards achieving her life's dream and Azbekia Garden remained special to her. It held significance for her because it was the only place where she found peace of mind whenever she visited it.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo depicts Azbakia Garden. It was taken by Felix Bonfils, a 19th century French photographer who took many photos in the Middle East during his lifetime. He died in 1885, so this photo would have been taken before that, probably in 1880.

Then one day as she was sitting there pondering about her 5 pound salary, she was surprised by a person who approached her, perhaps he too had come looking for peace of mind. His name was Moustafa El Shami and he was the brother of Ahmed el Shami, the owner of the famous El Shami Theater Group. Moustafa walked calmly towards her and began a conversation with her. She told him that she was in George Abaid's troupe for 5 pounds per month and he offered her work in his brother's troupe. He touched her dreams when he promised her that she would be given larger roles in addition to a larger salary and she'd have the recognition and fame that that she didn't have with George Abaid.

He also told her about the tour that the troupe was preparing to make to Upper Egypt and the Delta cities to present their plays. Badia was overjoyed by this news but she remembered her mother and she spoke to El Shami about her. He suggested to her that her mother could accompany her on the tour but Badia told him, "If my mother knew what I was doing or even got whiff of the fact that I am working as an actress, she will kill me. She thinks I work as a seamstress." She felt that the only solution would be to return with her mother to the Levant. She asked him to give her a chance to do this and she'd return to him and his brother's theater troupe. Then she left and promised that she'd be back in about two days or so.

Society in those days looked upon actors as "role players" who had no worth and whose testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. Children from good families were not permitted to be actors and it was considered a low class profession. For this reason Badia hid her secret from her mother but now she found herself in a conundrum. She had a good opportunity for work but she didn't know what to do with her mother.

Ezbekia Garden

Badia returned to the humble room at the boarding house where she lived with her mother, wearing a sad expression on her face. Her mother repeatedly questioned her about the cause of her sadness and Badia said to her, "If you had listened to my words and we had traveled to America, wouldn't we have overcome this poverty and sadness?" And her mother said, "I'd rather die in the Levant than to travel to America, even if our situation is difficult and miserable."

Badia then remembered what had happened to her in her own country and she said to her mother "Death is better than returning with you to the Levant. You go back by yourself, I've been through enough because of you and your country. Leave me here and may God save me from you and from it. Her mother, as usual began to scream and lament, "I will not return to the Levant alone and I will not leave Egypt unless your feet accompany my feet!" The neighbors gathered around when they heard her voice and Badia apologized for her mother.

Badia began to think of some way to finally be rid of her and quickly hatched a plan. She suggested to her mother that they travel back to Beirut and not Damascus, and her mother agreed. In the morning they boarded the train, and when the train began to roll Badia left with the excuse that she was going to search for food. She then jumped off the train, leaving her mother to go to hell.

Badia said farewell to her former life of poverty and misery, but she quickly realized that she could not return to the boarding house as she had left her clothes and everything she owned with her mother so as not to arouse suspicions. Then she remembered her appointment with Moustafa el Shami so she hurried off to Azbekia Garden and she found him waiting for her with signs of worry on his face. She told him what she had done with her mother and then she cried because she was alone in a foreign country where she didn't know anyone.

Moustafa calmed her down and offered to take her to his house. He told her about his family, about his brother's wife and how nice she was and how much she was going to like her. So Badia went with him feeling confident and satisfied. In fact, his brother's wife received her warmly and lovingly. The El Shami family was like a balm for Badia, they made her completely forget that she was a guest and they made her feel at home. Mohamed El Shami told her that he would cover her food and lodging costs and he'd also pay her 6 pounds as a salary. She fairly flew from happiness, and she felt at ease with this kind and simple family.

Badia

 

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The First Big Break

Badia began to tour with the El Shami group in the Saidi cities and one of their first stops was in Bani Suef where she and the troupe presented five performances in a row. The shows were a huge success and Badia proved to be quite skillful. Despite the fact that her roles were small, the audience anxiously waited for her to appear onstage so they could applaud her with great admiration. Then after that the troupe moved on to Minya and were just as successful.

Sheik Ahmed Al Shami watched Badia and observed her acting closely without her being aware of it. Playing up her talent, he would assign her roles which she mastered and memorized perfectly without depending on a prompter. She performed them with a strong and resonating voice — at this time an actor's voice was his only tool, as there were no microphones or machines to amplify the voice and everything was done naturally. A strong sounding voice was an important element in determining the success or failure of an actor.

Badia proved her talent, so El Shami gave her the leading role in the play The Supernatural Son, instead of giving it to the foreign actress Madame Sophia who was the wife of the brother of Mohamed el Shami. [Translator's note: This likely is referring to a half-brother or a brother-in-law.] Badia was overjoyed by this progress and she played the role tall and proudly, moving about the stage with a confidence that surprised the troupe members. The audience received her warmly, and it was an encouraging start in the world of singing, acting and dancing.

The tour lasted two months. On the way back to Cairo, Badia noticed that someone followed all her movements and sat in a private balcony in the theater, waiting for her to appear, and then would applaud loudly after every scene that she performed in. Her curiosity was piqued and she attempted to discover the identity of this apparently wealthy person.

Badia

 

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Saeed Bek Zaki

One night after Badia had finished her performance in the play, this person came backstage. All the members of the acting group approached him, calling him Saeed Bek, and welcomed him in a way that indicated his importance in society. He quickly went directly towards Badia and expressed admiration for her expertise in acting despite her young age. Then he invited the troupe to lunch at his estate. The following day he sent them his carriage and horses to take them to his estate where he had prepared a table laden with the most delicious foods. He made no secret of his special interest in Badia, and before the troupe members left he approached Badia and expressed to her his desire that they meet again, to which Badia agreed.

The troupe returned to Cairo and reunited with their family members, but Badia didn't have any family or a husband or a place where she could feel safe. Saeed Zaki took note of her uncertainty and he booked a room for her in a hotel and booked another room for himself. She asked him to take her to the theaters to see the older artists and he agreed. Her first request was that he take her to see Sheik Salama Hegazi, and he agreed immediately. At the time, the Hegazi troupe was presenting the play Romeo and Juliet and Badia was amazed by the greatness of the Sheik's performance. Then Saeed Bek took her to the Alhambra Casino where Mounira al Mahdiya the Queen of Tarab was singing at the time. She was at the peak of her youth and beauty and her voice resonated in the place as she sang. Her fans were ordinary and simple folk, and they would not leave the Alhambra Casino before hearing El Sultana.

Badia was so impressed by Mounira El Mahdiya to the point that she memorized the song after hearing it once and she sang it as she accompanied Saeed Bek back to the hotel. Badia quickly became a fan of her voice and she would listen to her always. Then Badia went to the casino Alf Layla we Layla where El Set Tawheda sang and she would often go there and listen to her. But Tawheda didn't captivate her as Mounira did.

Saeed Zaki was a famous lawyer who was interested in art and his friends were from wealthy influential families. He connected emotionally to Badia and he gave her priority even above his work. He spent most of his time with her and accompanied her to casinos and theaters. Badia lived well under his protection and she stayed with him for some time in Bani Suef. But she quickly became annoyed with the situation because she wasn't doing anything. She remembered her work in the El Shami Troupe and how skillful she was in leading roles and she decided to return to acting.

Badia

 

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Youssef Shamoun

Badia lived at Saeed Bek's for a long time. There was no relationship between them. He was neither a relative nor her husband nor even her fiancé and she was afraid of the consequences of this situation. One night Badia decided to again pursue the goal which had brought her to Egypt: art. And so she asked Saeed to return to Cairo to which he immediately agreed.

One day as Badia was roaming the streets she ran into a Lebanese man that she knew, the journalist Youssef Shamoun. He asked her why she was in Cairo and she replied that she was working as an actress. He expressed his desire to see her acting and asked her where she was performing. She told him that she was performing with a traveling troupe that toured the countryside presenting their plays.

Youssef Shamoun began to try to convince her to accompany him to Beirut. He said to her, "I'll find good work for you, although our country is lacking in theaters and troupes. However, if you were to learn how to sing and dance I could find work for you quite easily. She said to him, "Who told you I can't sing? I can sing and I know the takatek of Mounira El Mahdiya and I am also a skilled dancer in both oriental and western [dancing]. Shamoun liked what she said and he told her, "If you're skilled at singing and dancing then come with me to Beirut. You have a good future there. You will be the first Arab girl to both sing and dance, and you will outshine the foreign girls who work in this field." Shamoun advised her to return to her country and he left his phone number for her at the [El Moukatam] newspaper office.

Badia returned to the hotel. The words of Shamoun rang in her ears, and the dream of being the first Arab girl to work as a singer and dancer tempted her. She said to herself, "Why not go to Beirut and be the first singing girl there and become famous and have a big name? I can have revenge on my relatives George and Layan who put me out of their lives. Didn't George treat me like a servant? Why not work freely in art with my own name *Badia Masabni* and give the rich important George Masabni a big slap in the face? People will surely say that the cousin of George Masabni is working as an artist."

While she was bogged down with uncertainty, Saeed entered and noted the concern on her face. He wanted to know the reason for it. She didn't want to tell him at first, but then she told him about Shamoun's offer and Saeed said to her, "Even though I love you very much I won't stand in the way of your future. You are talented and you deserve a greater opportunity. I myself have seen you portraying the most difficult roles. You can work as an actress here in Egypt without losing my friendship, but if you insist on traveling to Beirut then I can't do anything except to ask God to help you to succeed. If you ever find life to be too difficult there you can come back to Egypt and I will be the first one to welcome you. I will await the day that you come back to me."

Zaki was the model of noble heartedness, a kind and generous humanitarian. He not only gave her advice, but in the morning he went to see Shamoun and invited him to dinner. All three of them, Saeed, Yousef and Badia met and discussed the subject of her traveling to Beirut and Saeed looked out for Badia's best interest.

When it came time to travel, Badia ached from the farewell to Saeed, this gallant noble and kind man. But she insisted on traveling to Beirut to find out what happened to her mother, as well as her aspirations to achieve the prestigious position that Shamoun had promised her. It was risky, even dangerous, but she accepted.

Badia

 

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Beirut

Badia returned to Beirut by sea, accompanied by Yousef Shamoun who was betting on her talent and that she'd be a hit in Beirut. Shamoun had agreed with her that he would introduce her to Madame Jeanette, a cabaret owner in Beirut and one of the first to bring the *Music Hall* there. Among the girls she hired there were no Arabs; but rather, they were mostly French, Austrian, Romanian and German. He accompanied Badia to Madame Jeanette's Cabaret. She sat near the stage and watched the dancers and noticed how they flaunted their beauty as much as they could. From sheer happiness she would applaud enthusiastically after each movement that the dancers did. This surprised the people in the cabaret who were for the most part men, as it was not common to see a girl sitting next to a man and quite likely it was the first time something like this happened. Some people thought they might be foreigners, especially because Badia's skin and coloring suggested that she might be European.

During the intermission, Badia was surprised by Madame Jeannette who approached her accompanied by Shamoun. She asked where she was staying in Beirut and Shamoun told her that Badia had just come from Egypt where she had worked with a touring theater group and that she was skillful in both singing and dancing together. Madame Jeannette offered her work, Badia accepted, and they agreed to meet the following day. Jeannette was looking for an Arab girl to the change the foreign atmosphere of the cabaret, so she gave Badia work and made it easy for her. The friendship between Badia the new singer, and Madame Jeannette the Cabaret owner was the beginning of a new phase in Badia's life. Perhaps it would take her to new horizons or to another land, or another world where she'd be happy. Or perhaps it would bring sadness on top of more sadness.

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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