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The Life of Badia Masabni
Part 6: Fame in Beirut and Pain in Damascus

 

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 6, 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/405608. It appeared online on Al Jareeda on August 17, 2010.

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Stardom in Beirut & Pain in Damascus

It was 10:00 p.m. the night of September 15, 1914, the date for Badia to go to Madame Jeanette's Sala to begin working. Jeannette was waiting for her along with the piano player. He was impressed by Badia's beauty as she stood on the stage and chose to sing one of the songs of Mounira el Mahdiya (My Bird Ya My Mother Bird). The audience liked it and they began singing along with the lyrics. Thus began Badia's fame in Beirut as a singer in Jeanette's sala. That night she sang all of Mounira el Mahdiya's songs such as Ya Men3nesha ya Beta3et el Louz, Ya Sham3et el Ezz, Asmr Malk Roohi as well as others. Then Jeannette asked her to dance and she agreed under the condition that she be accompanied by Arabic music, so the pianist played for her a piece that was famous at the time called Ahh Ya Asmarani El Loun Habibi Ya Asmarani, Habibi Wi 3ayounoh Soud Ama el Khol Rabanai. It made her move like a symphony and it blew the audience away.

Badia never forgot this night — its events remained etched in her memory for the rest of her life. It was, for her, the night of her life, the one she'd never forget. Jeannette's sala was packed with patrons, the majority of them from the upper classes, and there were 14 foreign artists. Badia was the youngest one. The audience singled out Badia by a round of applause such as the sala had never seen before since it opened and they shouted from every direction: "Badia! We want Badia!"

After Badia changed her clothes, Madame Jeannette told her to mingle among the guests and collect tips. She was happy because Jeannette put her on the same level with the more important artists in the cabaret, however she agreed to it with hesitation because she was afraid that she might run into one of her important merchant relatives in the club. She walked among the public carrying a plate in her hands. They were very generous with her to the point that someone noticed that her plate had become full of money, so he gave her his hat so that she could complete her round in the sala. When she finished, she returned to the stage overflowing with happiness. She didn't yet know the rules of the profession or that Madame Jeannette had the right to her share in whatever tips were collected. Badia agreed reluctantly and was satisfied with her share of the tips which was the amount of 8 gold Lira. This amount of money was at the time a fortune for her, equal to what she earned in Egypt for an entire month of hard work and weariness. From that day on, there was born inside of Badia the power to challenge the world.

Word began to spread all over Beirut that Badia, a member of the Masabni family, was singing the songs of Mounira Al Mahdiya in Madame Jeannette's Sala. Everyone began to talk about her impressive beauty and slenderness and about the time she'd spent in Egypt and how she'd learned the dance from the greatest instructors. Since Badia's arrival, Madame Jeannette's sala didn't know a calm moment. Her popularity increased and young Beiruti men came from every neighborhood, rich and poor. As soon as Badia appeared onstage the sala was filled with the roar of applause. She wore beautiful dresses and Badia appeared more magnificent than the foreign entertainers.

Badia's songs spread everywhere and were on every lip and tongue. They became an integral part of the Beirut arts scene at the time. Madame Jeannette made a fortune from working with Badia, but Badia began to think about all these riches that were entering Jeannette's pockets and which should really have been hers, especially after she had become the Star of Stars in Beirut. So she decided to open up a café in Beirut that she named after herself (Badia Café) which continues to exist even today with the name Hamra Café.

Badia

 

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World War I

In the meantime, World War I had ignited. Its repercussions had reached Lebanon, which was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish authorities began to recruit the Lebanese by force so young Beirutis escaped to the mountains and the popularity of public places decreased. Among these places was Sala Badia which nobody entered any longer. Sala Madame Jeannette also closed. The war had struck panic in the hearts of the people, prompting many to migrate to distant lands and destruction drew its features over the map of the world.

One night while Badia was lost in thought over the extent conditions had reached due to the war situation, she was visited by a person from el Wajih named Ahmed el Sharkawi who asked her to sing and dance at a party for five gold lira. She accepted under the condition that he must get Madame Jeannette's permission first. Badia began to prepare for the party. She got together with a small band to rehearse the songs until the evening of the event arrived, as this was the first private party that Badia had ever attended in her life, and especially because she knew that very important people that she'd heard about in Beirut would be there since this party was in honor of the Turkish Army Officers.

Badia's attention was caught by a handsome Turkish Army officer named Salah el Din and she followed him with her eyes. He did the same but she didn't know the Turkish language and he didn't speak Arabic. In spite of this, a special connection occurred between them which overcame the language barrier. They became very close and their friendship increased. Salah el Din did not deny Badia anything she requested, and he accompanied her everywhere just as Sayed Bek Zaki had done in Egypt.

This difficult period held people in a stranglehold, except for Badia who was in a better situation. Famine loomed over the people living in the mountains, and the Lebanese resorted to eating the meat of cats and dogs. Hundreds died of starvation, especially infants. All this news increasingly caused Badia's heart to ache with worry for her sister Nazla in the village of Sheikhan, so she asked Salah El Din for permission to go check on her and to take flour, rice and sugar for her and her family. Sala El Din agreed and he sent her with one of his bodyguards.

Badia returned to Sheikhan, the village that had been her refuge in times of distress and a relief for her problems. Now she returned to check on her sister and her husband, bringing food supplies as a small measure of payback. This time Badia went to Sheikhan under different circumstances than before. She didn't walk there due to severe poverty as she had done in the past, but she came riding on a beautiful horse, and behind her came donkeys loaded with food and gifts. People at the time were selling their belongings and their homes in order to buy food, and since her sister's house was located at the entrance of the village, Badia chose to go at night in order shield herself from people's eyes [Translator's note: and not attract attention].

Nazla saw Badia immediately and kissed her as she cried in happy disbelief. Badia noticed that her sister was wearing black and she later learned the Michel, Nazla's husband, had died. Nazla was also surprised by the latest fashion that Badia wore. Nazla tried to convince her to stay for the night but Badia had to return to Beirut to take care of something that could not be postponed. She returned to Beirut where Salah El Din awaited her and she thanked him for everything he'd done.

Badia

 

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Star of the East

At about that time the heat of summer hit Beirut hard and Badia couldn't withstand working in Jeannette's old dance hall so she asked her if she might return to her own sala that she had rented [before] to sing with an Arabic band instead of a foreign orchestra, and this was indeed what happened. The very next day Badia brought in the band that she normally sang and danced with at private parties. The audience was astonished by the sound of this new ensemble and Badia performed much better accompanied by them. She continued to work with Madame Jeannette as well and both of them made quite a profit. This enabled them to ward off the specter of starvation which was an obsession that gnawed at Badia and even controlled her thoughts because of everything she had suffered before.

The summer quickly sped by and winter came with its long nights. A gentleman came to see Badia and offered her work in a cafe called Star of the East.

Badia had achieved such fame that she was very sought-after by everyone who worked in the field. The owners of Star of the East offered to pay her 30 gold Lira which was the highest salary offered to her at the time. Offers began to pour in from every direction and this offer was followed by another... which was, that she would be allowed to keep all her tips, as opposed to having to divide them with Madame Jeannette. In light of these temptations Badia spoke to Madame Jeannette about it frankly. Madame Jeannette warned her that working at Star of the East was not without risks. However, Badia succumbed to the tempting offer and began to work there.

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

The café was located above a shop in Martyr's Square in Beirut. The stage was small and there was a musical group from Austria whose members were quite pretty as well as skillful. However, with Badia's arrival at Star of the East, things changed and she became the focus of everyone's attention. The Austrian's beauty was opaque and Badia alone became their idol. She moved and danced elegantly, standing on the stage as if she owned the world and the audience loudly applauded the beauty of her singing and dancing. A new public began to come to the café, one that had never gone there before. Badia's presence was like that of a fluttering butterfly in the soft sky. The fact of the matter was that not everyone at Star of the East was a fan of tarab or people who liked to listen to songs. Some of them were there to play Tawleh or dominos, but Badia changed that and people flocked from all over. She came to be liked by all Beirutis and her name became famous as no other star before her.

The difficult days of suffering and misery in Badia's life were replaced by days of fame, wealth, luxury and sweet nights free of sadness and worry. As soon as she finished dancing she would sit with the audience by her own choice, as the owner of the sala didn't have any rules about this.

Badia was able to attract crowds to Star of the East and the secret of its popularity was the Arabic ensemble. This prompted Mr. Matar, the owner of the café to ask Badia about hiring some Arabic girls to help her at work. Badia quickly found Soraya and Bahiya Samika, two sisters. One of them played the kanoun and the other played the oud quite skillfully. They were very pretty as well. Badia worked with them for quite some time and together they were very successful. This triggered the owners of cafés in Damascus to inundate them with tempting offers.

Badia

 

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Work in Damascus

One of these offers came from Mr. Abu Fadil, the owner of Café El Koutli in Damascus. He brought the three of them to his café which was a beautiful place, well decorated in a gorgeous style. It had a large stage that allowed the artists to move freely. Badia began to search for novel ways to capture the hearts of audiences at this new café.

However, she discovered that there was a conspiracy against her, as her fellow artists would stand in front of her so that she couldn't be seen by the audience. She complained to the owner of the cafe and demanded that she be allowed to collect tips so as to counter this unfavorable position among her colleagues. He told her that this went against work rules there and the people of Damascus didn't know Badia well because methods of advertising in those days were not widespread and they depended on a town crier to publicize the details of the show and the club.

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

Another thing that Badia thought about while she was in Damascus was, would her family members find out that she was working in the Levant? She even considered letting them know that she was there, because she was afraid of running into them. She asked the owner not to mention the name Masabni when the town crier advertised in the marketplaces. But all her efforts to hide her work in Damascus failed as the news quickly spread and people began to ask, "Is this Badia the daughter of the Masabni family or is it just someone with a similar name?" Badia heard the people talking at her workplace and she was attacked by fear.

The news of Badia's presence in Damascus reached the ears of her brother Tawfik and he wanted to verify it for himself. As a precaution so as not to be recognized by anyone, he went to the El Koutli Cafe in a disguise and he watched Badia's entire show. He didn't recognize her at first but when she descended from the stage he got a closer look, and as she drew near to him he took off the mask he wore. Badia screamed in panic saying, "My brother Tawfik!"

Tawfik attacked Badia like a ferocious monster who wanted to kill her without taking into account the presence of the audience. She began to scream "Help me! Help me! This man wants to kill me!" The people in the café gathered around and dragged him away from her. He was as crazed as a rabid animal.

After people had separated Badia and her brother, he calmed down and said in a broken tone, "I'm sorry. I know I made a mistake," and he left the cafe crying, away from the onlookers. Badia began to remember how much Tawfik had made her cry and how he'd left her during many sleepless nights with tears that never left her cheeks. Since he was the reason for the great devastation in her life, Badia was glad to see Tawfik broken. He was the one who had broken her when she was a child and humiliated her as a young woman, as well as being the reason for their sense of constant humiliation and shame and alienation. Tawfik had been the obstacle to her being a happy wife with a house, when he threw out Elias el Faraan's brother. So what did Tawfik expect now?

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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