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Revealing the Extraordinary Life of Tahiya Karioka

The Untold Story of an Egyptian Belly Dancer turned Communist, Weapon Smuggler, Pro-Palestinian Advocate, and Former Political Prisoner. Beyond the Glittering Costumes, Unraveling the Intriguing Chapters of Tahiya Karioka's Life, from Dance Floors to Political Frontlines

By: Nour Elshenawy

Tahiya Karioka was born in the Egyptian city of Ismailia in 1915. She started out in life with a humble beginning, but her story soon became entwined with political turmoil and a strong dedication to justice. Set against the volatile background of a bygone period, her compelling biography reveals not just the legendary singer but also an activist, a renegade, and a strong-willed individual.

Karioka was raised in an upsetting atmosphere and experienced a difficult childhood due to her father Mohamed Ali Elnedany's sudden death. Tahiya suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of her half-brother, Ahmed Ali Elnedany, including living in circumstances akin to slavery and even having her hair forcefully shaved. She was desperate to get away, but fate had other ideas. Her nephew Osman Elnedany was instrumental in helping her get to Alexandria and then Cairo, where she was able to find safety from the terrifying situation.

Picture by: Najlasdance

Karioka sought safety in Cairo under the guidance of well-known nightclub operator and artist Souad Mahasen. Due to the dubious reputation of the nightclub, Suad's friends and acquaintances were first reluctant to hire Tahiya until they saw her obvious ability and charisma. They encouraged Suad to cast Tahiya as a chorus girl in the musicals after seeing her potential, an offer Suad reluctantly took. Tahiya's creative career took a drastic turn when Badia Masabni, the owner of Cairo's esteemed "salon," Casino Opera, saw her obvious potential. As a result of Badia's acceptance of her application and admiration for her abilities, Tahiya took on the stage name Tahiya Mohamed. As she grew more skilled, she immersed herself in the alluring Carioca, a Brazilian Samba dance, which cemented her stage persona as Tahiya "Karioka."

Nevertheless, Karioka's path was shaped by more than just her artistic endeavors. Her ascent to prominence and wealth gave her a close-up view of the less glamorous sides of Egypt's royal dynasty, a group that collaborated with British colonial troops to exercise arbitrary and oppressive control. Tahiya's hatred of the dictatorship was heightened by this encounter, which drove her to enlist in the armed resistance groups. Egypt's Minister of Finance, Amin Othman, was slain in 1946 during political turmoil, with Anwar Sadat being the primary suspect. After learning about Sadat's participation, Tahiya was crucial in assisting him in going underground and hiding in Ismailia. Regretfully, Sadat was apprehended and sentenced to two years in prison.

Tahiya played a courageous role in 1948, during the Nakba in Palestine and the run-up to the 1952 revolution. She packed her vehicle boot with munitions and arms and smuggled them into the Canal Zone during the fedayeen's guerrilla raids. At that point, Ismailia had developed into a hub for British weaponry in Egypt, with storage facilities and shelters set up in Abu Sir, Fayed, and Abu Sultan. The 'drop-off' spot became known as 'Tal Tahiya' (Tahiya's Hill) due to Tahiya's regular travels to supply this weaponry. Notably, Tal Tahiya served as both the location of smuggling operations and the setting for Karioka's first dates with Rushdy Aabza, the man she temporarily wed. Once an acquaintance, Aabza was influenced by Tahiya to get engaged in weapon smuggling. He eventually assumed her position in her place and, eventually, proposed to her.

The famous Palestinian philosopher, writer, and activist Edward Said saw Tahiya Karioka's riveting performance at Badia Masabany's Casino Opera in the spring of 1950, when he was just 14 years old. In his postmortem observations, Said emphasized the captivating aspect of Karioka's dance, laying the groundwork for his further contemplations on orientalism. Edward Said and Tahiya maintained their relationship far into the 1990s, thanks to a meeting arranged by documentary filmmaker Nabiha Lotfy when Said was in Cairo. This encounter was a component of Said's planned documentary project, which examined his political and cultural pursuits as well as the phases of his life. Cairo was supposed to be the project's starting point, especially when he witnessed Tahiya dancing in the Opera Casino in Badia.

Tahiya was secretly married to Mostafa Sedky, an Iron Guard captain, during the 1952 coup by the 'Free Officers,' who overthrew the king and won independence from British sovereignty. Tahiya and her husband were both members of "Hadtu," a communist national liberation organization, and were critical of the Free Officers. During their raid, the authorities discovered political pamphlets with the slogan, "We expelled Farouk but now we have more than one Farouk," and literature that incited violence. In 1953, Tahiya and her spouse were accused of hatching a scheme to topple the government and were put in jail.

In 'The Political Face of Tahiya Karioka,' journalist Suleiman Shafiq uses the account of Dr. Refaat Al-Saeed, a Marxist writer and academic, to trace Tahiya's imprisonment. During her 101 days in jail, Karioka took on the alias "Abbas" and spoke for other inmates, calling for the elimination of torture and the fulfilment of fundamental human rights. She even set up literacy programs for other prisoners, indicating her dedication to improve living circumstances behind bars. Tahiya's imprisonment was accompanied with real-world activity and involvement. She organised hunger

strikes as a form of protest against prison Picture by: Artemisiyadancewear

abuse in addition to speaking up for the needs of the prisoners. Tahiya's tenacity and will in her jail cell demonstrated her steadfast dedication to the values of justice and human rights.

In the decades that followed, Tahiya Karioka's life story became a mosaic of demonization and admiration for her unwavering moral compass. She became well-known as one of a group of artists who walked the streets during the 'arming the army' week, 1955, soliciting money to help finance a weapons deal with the Eastern bloc, after the West refused to arm Egypt. Umm Kulthum and Tahiya both contributed significantly; Tahiya even gave up almost all of her jewelry to help the Egyptian army. Her service was recognized by Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president at the time, who told her, "You are worth a thousand men." "It is all for the best of Egypt, President," was Tahiya's reaction, which demonstrated her commitment to the cause.

In 1968, following the play "Kadabin Al-Zaffa"'s prohibition by Interior Minister Shaarawi Gomaa, Karioka organized a historic sit-in in front of Cairo's Miami Theatre. The play was cleared after protracted talks, but with more than half of the script changed. Tahiya Karioka took up the responsibilities of a senior volunteer nurse at a hospital during the October War of 1973, actively planning and directing the care given to Egyptian soldiers fighting to retake Sinai. She remained devoted to her countrymen's welfare even in the thick of battle, away from the stage.

Tahiya refused to stay in Cairo when the Palestinian First Intifada broke out in 1987. She set off for Palestine with a group of Arab artists, even though Mossad had been threatening to attack the ship as it approached the shore of Gaza. Her readiness to risk everything to prove her support for the Palestinian cause. Tahiya Karioka protested the change of Article 103 of the Trade Union Law, which permitted government intervention in union matters, by going on another hunger strike as part of an artists' sit-in at their union in 1988. The fight was chronicled by director Youssef Chahine in his film "Alexandria Again and Again."

President Hosni Mubarak called the union's headquarters and urged Tahiya to cease the hunger strike, but the protest continued. "Do you want people to say that you lived and ate during the regimes of Farouk, Abdel Nasser, and Sadat, and then you starved to death during Mubarak's?" he said. Like many other things in her life, Tahiya's hunger strike served as evidence of her persistent adherence to her moral convictions. Throughout her storied career, Tahiya Karioka enchanted audiences with her mesmerizing dances and strong characters on silver screens and theatre stages. She was noteworthy for not being afraid of political duties; rather, she welcomed them and thrived in environments where she could discuss social and political concerns. Tahiya saw art as a powerful political instrument in addition to a means of expression, and she felt that it was her primary responsibility to support the oppressed, even if doing so put her in danger.

Tahiya Karioka's narrative is a monument to the transformational power of art and the tenacious spirit of people who want to utilize their platform for social and political change in a world where artists frequently seek to distance themselves from political landscapes. Her impact extends beyond the stage, embodying a life dedicated to justice and action that will always be remembered in the annals of Egyptian history.


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