Badia Masabni

Badia Masabni was a true pioneer of her craft

An iconic figure of the artistic and cultural scene of the Middle East in the early 20th century, Badia Masabni was an innovative artist and businesswoman. She is best known for founding the Casino Badia, a legendary entertainment venue in Cairo, Egypt, in the 1920s. The Casino Badia quickly became famous for its performances of oriental dance, music, and theatre, attracting renowned artists and an international clientele. For this month’s edition of Arab Idols, let’s delve into the history of ‘the entrepreneur of the arts’ of the 1920s, Badia Masabni.

Source: Arab World Institute

The daughter of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, Badia Masabni was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1892. When she was just a little girl, her father, the owner of a soap factory, passed away. Her family found itself in dire financial straits, her brothers sank into alcoholism, and she was assaulted at the age of seven. This tragedy led to the social exclusion of the family, preventing all of them from finding work.

Badia spent eight years in Buenos Aires with her family, who were trying to rebuild their lives in Argentina – at the time, many people from the Middle East were crossing the Atlantic in the hope of a better life – which enabled her to immerse herself in local influences: jazz, Latin rhythms, and rumba. On her return to Damascus, she took this universe full of new references back to her native region. It was at this point that Badia began her artistic career and her quest to becoming the Badia Masabni we know today, moving to Beirut to work as a dancer and singer in a cabaret. There, she met Egyptian director Naguib el-Rihani, who became her first husband and with whom she moved to Cairo.

Source: Danza Oriental en Egipto

In the early years of the 20th century, Badia pursued her artistic career as a dancer in cafés and theatres in the Egyptian capital. Her talent and charisma on stage propelled her to rapid success. She was not only an excellent dancer; she was also gifted at choreography and stage direction. She began to organize her own shows, combining different art forms such as dance, music and theatre. Her elegant and refined style captivated audiences at home and abroad.

This period of Badia Masabni’s career was crucial in establishing her reputation, leading to the realization of her greatest ambition: the creation of Casino Badia – a venue dedicated to culture and entertainment. In 1926, Badia set on her quest of being a true entrepreneur of the arts, opening the Casino Badia in Cairo. She invested a large part of her savings in the project, which quickly became one of the city’s most sought-after entertainment venues, the site of a flourishing entertainment industry and a veritable artistic revolution. The casino offers sumptuous oriental dance, live music, theatre and variety shows, attracting a diverse and cosmopolitan clientele.

Source: Arab World Institute

The first artistic revolution introduced at Casino Badia was the development of sharqî dance, whose growth was felt throughout the Arab world. The businesswoman didn’t stop there, as she invented the Badia dance, a dance that uses the traditional registers of Arab dance while making it “more fluid, by freeing the body, adding arabesques and introducing movements of the arms above the head”, according to historian and researcher Hajer Ben Boubaker in an article for the Institut du Monde Arabe.

“It was she (Badia Masabni) who created the first oriental group choreographies, borrowing from ballet, jazz and modern dance.”

– Hajer Ben Boubaker in the Institut du Monde Arabe

Whereas traditional dancers usually occupy a fixed point in the space, Badia’s troupes move across the entire width of the stage. The jewels, transparent veils, sequins and stripped-down outfits are also there to surprise the spectator and bring a breath of fresh air, and it works. Every detail, from choreography and costumes to body language and music, is carefully considered.

Source: Pinterest

The Casino Badia became a veritable artistic academy, training the greatest dancers of the 20th century. These included the famous Tahiyya Carioca and Samia Gamal. The cabaret was also a career booster, as Badia offered young artists such as singer Farid al-Atrache and actor Ismail Yassine the chance to take to the stage and launch their careers. This cabaret has the capacity to bring together all Egypt’s intellectual and political classes, from writer Naguib Mahfouz to King Farouk. However, Badia Masabni did not put her artistic career on hold; on the contrary, she also became famous in the cinema as an actress and producer. In 1934, she starred in Ibn al-cha’b (The Son of the People), directed by Maurice Aptekman and released two years after the first Egyptian talkie. In 1936, she produced Mario Volpe’s Malikat al-masârih (The Queen of the Music Hall), in which she played herself, giving sharqi dance a new lease of life.

In her final days, Badia gradually and discreetly withdrew from the stage. She died at the age of 82, far from the mad nights of Egypt, on Mount Sannine in the Lebanese town of Zahlé. Thanks to her business acumen and artistic talent, Badia Masabni transformed the Casino Badia into a major cultural institution, helping to popularize Oriental dance and create a space where artists could express themselves freely. Her legacy lives on in the history of Oriental dance and in Cairo’s collective memory as a pioneer of the Middle Eastern art scene.

Selma Chougar is a French independent journalist of Algerian origin who writes for several magazines based in Paris, London, and Dubai. Culture and societal phenomena in the Arab world are her areas of expertise. She contributes to both French and English-language magazines.