Tahia Carioca

Egypt's best-loved belly-dancer and star of 200 films

TAHIA CARIOCA, who has died in Cairo aged 80, was Egypt's most celebrated belly-dancer.

Her combination of restrained sensuality, sultry beauty and stubborn integrity made Tahia Carioca one of the great symbols of Egyptian culture in the 20th century.

Her performances as a dancer and as a film actress captivated millions of admirers. They not only cherished her image (that of a country girl who was at the same time a femme fatale), but also held her in great respect.

This was despite, or perhaps because of, a sometimes shocking openness about her private life. Yet she was seldom the subject of scandal since, instead of having love affairs, she promptly married all the men she fell for.

Her 13 husbands, among them the actor Rushdi Abaza and the singer Moharram Fuad, included nearly every male celebrity of distinction in the Egyptian entertainment industry.

Tahia Carioca's career in the cinema began in 1941, with Dreams of Youth, and she subsequently appeared in nearly 200 films. In her early pictures she typically performed a set-piece dance number gratuitously inserted into the story.

Later, she showed a talent for acting, which she first demonstrated after being asked by the Egyptian comedian Nagib al-Rihani to appear opposite him in Li'bet al-Sit (The Woman's Ploy, 1946), now a classic of Egyptian cinema.

Tahia Carioca played a clever seductress used by her wicked parents to snare an unwitting rich man. Later films tended to repeat this role, in which she came to be typecast: the beautiful devil-woman, who was always intellectually superior to her male victim and far too dangerous to marry.

She was born Badawiyya Muhammad Karim on February 22 1919 in the northern Nile delta, and grew up in Ismailia, near the Suez Canal.

Escaping poverty and the overbearing authority of her brothers, she fled to Cairo as a teenager. There she was taken under the wing of Badia Masabni, a well-known Lebanese belly-dancer and dance teacher who owned a cabaret club.

Here Tahia Carioca gave her first solo performance. She later took her stage name from a sequence which the club's choreographer created especially for her and which was inspired by the carioca, a version of the Brazilian samba that had become popular in Egypt after the success of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire's Flying Down to Rio (1933).

Her big break, however, came in 1938, when she performed at the lavish wedding party of King Farouk. She was accompanied by the singing of Umm Kulthoum, a towering figure in modern Egyptian culture, who was a great admirer of her dancing.

Asked which entertainer she would most like to see, Umm Kulthoum named Tahia Carioca - an artist, she said, who could sing with her body.

Tahia Carioca's style of dancing was based on a tantalisingly understated eroticism. "As in bullfighting," wrote Edward Said in an appreciation of her in 1990, "the essence of the classic Arab belly-dancer's art is not how much but how little the artist moves."

Dancing with a small, self-absorbed smile, in a costume festooned with sequins and spangles, Tahia Carioca created an effect of endlessly deferred gratification.

During the Second World War, she remained the darling of Cairo. Badia's cabaret was a favourite haunt of British officers because of the anti-Nazi sketches performed there, and Tahia Carioca's name was romantically linked with that of an American air force general.

But this golden age for Egyptian cabaret ended in 1952, when the monarchy was overthrown by the Free Officers movement, led by Gamal Abd al-Nasser.

Tahia Carioca then began to become equally well known for her political fearlessness. Although she supported Nasser's revolution, in 1953, during one of the new government's purges of dissidents, she spent three months in prison for her membership of the League for Peace, a Leftist organisation with links to Moscow.

With the advancing years, her dancing gave way to acting. Besides making films, Tahia Carioca also had a successful career in popular theatre, and in radio and television drama.

In 1987 she was one of the leaders of a strike by Egypt's actors following a change in the laws governing labour unions. The next year she joined a group of Egyptian and other Arab artists who planned to make a symbolic voyage to Palestine by sea.

The project had to be abandoned, however, when the ship was blown up by the Israeli secret service.

Tahia Carioca eventually retired from public life to live alone in a small flat in Cairo. She dressed in black, her head covered, but made no secret of her colourful past.

She had no children, but two years ago adopted a newborn baby girl that had been abandoned on her doorstep.