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In Taheyya we Trust - How an Egyptian bellydancer found her posthumous stage in Berlin

“You should have winked at her,” Aida said dismissively, as if such a possibility had been imaginable for someone as timid as I was. Tahia Carioca was the most stunning and long-lived of the Arab world’s Eastern dancers (belly-dancers, as they are called today).

Edward Said, Farewell to Taheyya

My story with Taheyya begins in the summer of 2016, at Bulbuls Café in Görlitzer Str. in Berlin. It ends two blocks down on Wiener Str 17. 

Bulbuls is a café and art space around my corner that I have grown to like to sit in and drink smoothies (1). He had commissiond us- a crew of Syrian and Egyptian artists, as well as myself, to paint the walls inside the café. El Tenneen (the Dragon) is the one who ended up drawing Sheikh Imam, with the help of Salam Alhassan (known as Salahef/ Turtles) and Sulafa Hijazis (whom we call El Hayya/The Snake’s) beamers’ illumination. The Sheikh sits happily in the place to this day and Crew El-Zoo was born.

Tenneen had the advantage of knowing immediately what he wanted to draw, and so he drew it. Salam and I were trying to get a handle on the space and its many uses, sketching out one thing and then another. He settled on a picture of Umm Kulthūm playing the trumpet, and I began sketching Taheyya Kariokka (or Carioca, depending on whom you ask).

At the time, I knew her mainly as a belly-dancer and actress, having become reacquainted with her through Spring Lessons’ Musiksehen Schwarzweiss event, and “Watch Out for ZouZou”, after many passing acquaintances with her films in my childhood. Preferring to know the context that I am working from, I began to research her life beyond her long and legendary film career. At that point, things became complicated. Not only was I dealing with a famous film star, I was also dealing with a woman whom, were I to meet her in real life, I would only be able to admire and respect. Briefly:

Taheyya Kariokka’s work spans three generations of Egyptian Cinema, 4 rulers and one revolution. And throughout, in spite of the many characters she inhabited in over 200 films, her 14 (or so) husbands, being the only person to dance on Umm Kulthūm s stage and many years of activism, she remained one thing: an Egyptian woman with a deep understanding of the society she was a part of, and the will to be true to herself and her convictions. She remains an enduring example of life that transcends both art and politics, self-respect in the face of power and truth in resistance. 

And therein lie several challenges, beginning with the fact that the material I was working from- low-resolution film stills (2)- left a lot to be imagined and by then I had learned how much value she placed on her costumes and dress. I see it as my responsibility to do justice to the subjects I choose to work on, even if it takes more time, research and effort- if I’m going to do something, it might as well be done as well as I can (3).  Then comes the current state of Egypt, which is, very carefully put, precarious. Would there be a political message attached to this? What was I saying? Did I have the right to say it, or would this be a case of cultural appropriation? What consequences would that message have? 

And finally, possibly most importantly: I did not want to draw her indoors, and it turned out this would not be possible at this location. The Taheyya I envisioned did not belong in a closed room that would not contain her, Umm Kulthūm and a public comfortably. She belonged on the street, not in the salon. In my head, incorporating this painting into the streets of Berlin was a signal to the city that integration- a current topic following the continuing arrival of many victims of forced migration into the city- goes both ways. We learn from each other, to respect and accept each others differences, but also to rejoice in the beauty of other cultures, gain new perspectives and possibilities through them. 

And so Taheyya retired into her boudoir and, realising that I would not be painting her yet, focused on other projects and tasks (4). We both understood (5) this story wasn’t over and met once in a while to think about how to continue it. At some point, I added a second frame from the scene I was working from and loosened the linework a bit, but we were still looking for a suitable stage for this performance. She graced my new year’s greetings and a booklet of calligraphy I made as a gift to friends- we considered it a rehearsal, with love.

Time passed, as it frequently does. I was reminded of Edward Said writing about her, made a poster series and developed the stencil that would be used. Hamdy Reda (of Ard(t)ellwa), El Teneen and I visited a festival to undertake a stencil workshop. Teneen surprised us by making his own beautiful Taheyya (Picture) in Lärz. I hope he makes one for Berlin as well some day. Hamdy and I engaged in a discussion over the two historic rivals, Samia Gamal and Taheyya, their artistic merits and accomplishments. Hamdy ended up wanting to paint a Taheyya of his own. I hope he does, someday soon.

On a balmy evening in May, Nora al-Badri, Nikolai Nelles and I were sitting in their courtyard, in a house on Wiener Str, enjoying a glass of wine, a laugh and a discussion about the cultural significance of dinosaur bones appropriated from Tanzania by German archeologists in the 19th century. It turns out Taheyya was listening that evening- and she had her eye on the tagged door of the house we were sitting in. I showed her current state to them and they said they would ask the house’s owner if we could paint her on the door. 

The house was interesting for a number of reasons- and became even more so, the more stories about it and its inhabitants reached me. The obvious reason: it is on Wiener Str. one of the busiest main roads in Kreuzberg, right in front of Görlitzer Park. In other words, this was a place in the middle of a multicultural, former anarchist quarter where she would be seen, and, if the painting job was properly executed, enjoyed. The second was that Peter, the former, now deceased tennant of the flat occupied by Nikolai and Nora, turned out to have a great appreciation for belllydancing. Another inhabitant had been a bellydancer. And the house was occupied by a close-knit group of friends and artists, most of whom had been living there for years. And it was a nice door with a distinct geography and personality- it would present its own challenges, but incorporating her into it… again: Integration, on a topical level, on the level of the canvas she would be painted upon. “You like this place, don’t you?” She never answered the question directly, but events that followed provided the answer- the owners consented to this experiment.

Original sketch of Taheyya + Calligraphy, 2016
We originally chose the Fete de la Musique on the 21st of June as the date for the painting, invited friends and acquaintances to bring t-shirts to paint her on. I ended up hidden in the courtyard, cutting stencils. I’m sure a few of the people I invited are still a bit mad at me, but as they never called, I can only assume they didn’t show up. The couple that did joined in the cutting (6). It was a good day, one that continued until the morning hours- I never realised there was a party going on outside what had become my temporary studio, and left, exhausted but happy, without really participating in it. 

It rained the next day. And continued raining in the days that followed. Bulbul received a poster in absentia- I hope he likes it. It continues, raining. 

A week later, a day between two rainy days dawned. Stencils cut, spray cans at the ready,  that was the day on which the door needed to happen. It did- that is the short version of that day, which somehow passed by uninterrupted by police or any major disturbance. In stead, it was filled with many pleasant discussions and encounters- one Turkish woman had even sat with Taheyya in Cairo and was happy to tell me of that encounter. Nora’s sister played bawwaba (doorwoman) for an Egyptian 10 minutes. A random Italian photographer passed by. One older lady told us about her ongoing adventures in sign language. I was happy to see some children’s eyes light up at the red we had chosen for the background, and at what was happening on that. A plaque is in the works- I suggest you visit the place, if you haven’t yet, in a couple of weeks to find out what it says. 

The door turned out better than I had expected, and the tenants are happy about their new entrance, for the time being.

But still I wonder: what are we saying with this? Why now, someone asked me (7)? As I write this, it is the 30th of June: the fourth anniversary of the popular uprising against the oppressive Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and the ensuing military coup that deposed President Muḥammad Mursī, the elected puppet president of Egypt, with a different kind of petit four. Since then, much of the news from Egypt is bad. 

Does this require another explicit, strongly worded political statement? 

I am not yet convinced that adding more words to resistance will change anything, let me end this way: Taheyya Kariokka was a star and an artist and a woman who managed to overcome many hardships, including her family situation and a disregard for her profession ingrained in society. She interacted with kings, queens, legends and presidents, but never forgot where she came from, or who she originally was (8). She followed her dreams, worked hard- some might say obsessively- to develop her craft. She helped those she could and received love, acceptance and help in return- or was rewarded for her efforts with a harsh slap (9). She risked living according to her convictions, political and other, and remained true to them, under four successive regimes.

I'm really glad I don't have to continue watching that Ramadan Telenovela. 


1- and yes, I am very shamelessly plugging this place and the smoothies. The food is great, a bit expensive for what you get, though.
2- I did end up asking around if it might be possible to gain access to the original film reels. Unfortunately, it would have take a long time to reach them and scan them, not to mention that the Egyptian Film Archive is famous for bad conservation and a lack of respect for the gems it houses.
3- “Nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen”- To the best of my knowledge and conscience. 
4- Also: depressed gaming. See: NPC
5- At which point, I had entered a mental dialogue with the Taheyya built up in my mind, letting her spirit guide how she chose to appear and when. While this may sound a bit esoteric, art is a conduit as well as a craft. 
8- This is what the many anecdotes I collected about her life, as well as that terrible Ramadan Telenovela “Kariokka”, tell me. 
9- In fairness, she reportedly also distributed her share of slaps.
10- A note on the GIF in stead of a still: It's better experienced live :) She is bigger than I am. That makes me happy. But Since you're this far anyway, thank you.


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