Oriental Dance Benefits St. Jude’s
By Gisselle Fobbs
Raised by gentle, loving parents on a large farm outside of a small Syrian town, Madiha developed the characteristics of great courage and strong moral fiber.
Her unshakeable belief in God has been a driving force in her life, and has made her a champion of stewardship and sacrifice for others. Each year she sponsors an Oriental Dance Concert and Seminar fund raiser in the Detroit metropolitan area for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, the same charity which Danny Thomas worked so hard for.
While gleaning through the suitcase full of old magazines, photos and newspaper clippings colored with age from across the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe and America, the life of this amazing woman began to crystallize before my eyes.
Madiha’s mother was of the Awabdi family, originally a royal family in Syria, which can trace its lineage back one thousand years. In the 1800’s, the Atrish and Awabdi families were engaged in a deadly struggle for power. When Madiha’s grandfather, Halil Awabdi, the reigning prince, lost his life in that struggle, the family lost all their power and wealth. Her mother later married into a farming family. Both she and Madiha are entitled to retain the title of “Princess” in memory of their heritage.
Madiha was drawn to dance very early in her life:
“My mother told me that my cousin came over one night when I was about 40 days old and played the rababa while I was lying by the fire in my cradle. While he was playing his instrument, my feet were kicking in time to the music.
“When I was three years old, my aunt brought me to a wedding to sing and dance. When I would go to weddings as a little girl the grown ups would all sit and watch me dance…not Oriental dance, because I had never seen one before, but I would sing and move to the music.”
Her first view of Oriental dance was in a Damascus movie theatre when she was five years old. “The moment I saw Samia Gamal on the screen, I fell in love with her dance movements. When I got home that night I tried to copy those same movements.”
When she was eight, she visited one of her sisters who lived in the city near a night club which was on the top floor of a building. “That evening as I was playing outside with the other kids, I heard music coming from the club. I crossed the street and sat down with my body against the wall of the club. As I sat there with my eyes closed listening to the flute, I felt that my soul was being pulled with the music. I must have had my hand out-stretched because a man passing by thought I was a beggar and put five cents in my palm. When I opened my eyes and saw the money in my hand, I thought, ‘Why is he giving me this?’”
When Madiha was ten years old, her burning love of the dance coupled with the popularity of the transistor radio put her in hot water again and again. “Whenever I heard someone walk by the school playing a transistor radio, I felt compelled to stand up and dance. Every time I did this I got sent home from school.”
After her father died when she was twelve, Madiha and her mother moved to the city to live with two of her sisters. One was a widow, and the other “was a mother to me…I met a dancer who lived near my sisters, and saw the glamorous life she led. Whenever I visited her, I would tell her how much I wanted to be a dancer. She would say, ‘Some day, some day when you grow up.'”
By the time she was fourteen, Madiha had decided to become a dancer: “That was it. I had to dance.” To make her dream a reality, she had to keep it secret from her family. “Many people will probably think that I was dishonest and deceitful when I tell you how I kept it a secret from my family. But I had to dance! It meant everything to me since I was a little girl.” She found an agent and made up a story for her family. “I told my mother and sisters that I was going to go to nursing school. Since I only had a mother and two sisters, no one thought of checking up on me. Later, when it was time for me to have finished nursing school, I told them that I had met a doctor and his wife who wished to hire an English-speaking nurse to travel around the world with them to assist the doctor in his work.
“After my second job, I was fired because they found out I was only fourteen years old. My agent asked me to try and have my age changed on my passport, and gave me papers for my mother to sign. Since my mother was a country girl and did not read or write, she had no idea her thumb print gave her daughter permission to perform on stage. I brought a witness with me to the passport office to testify that I was eighteen, not fourteen, and they gave me a new passport showing me to be eighteen years old.”
After overcoming many obstacles, she finally landed a job in the small town of Humus, Syria. Fatma Akef, sister of the famous Naima Akef, hired her to be a soloist in her dance revue. The first night she got up on stage, her foot slipped and she fell. But that is not all.
“The musicians told me to turn three times and bow to the audience when they gave the sign to stop. When they gave me the sign, I turned three times, stopped, and bowed…to the musicians!…Very embarrasing. That was a disaster, but the audience wanted me back! They kept banging the wooden floor with their feet.”
Madiha did not know that it was considered improper to become a dancer until the night her fiancée found her working in the club in Humus. Her widowed sister had been keeping Madiha’s secret because she supported Madiha’s desire to be a dancer, since she herself had had the same desire. But when Madiha’s fiancée demanded to know where she was, her sister told him out of fear. When he finally caught up with Madiha, he burst into her dressing room, grabbed her hair, dragged her across the floor out of the club into the street, and put her in the car. No one tried to stop him “because he was so huge and looked like a gangster.”
“You must have been shocked and terrified!” I exclaimed.
“Yes! I thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’
“He asked me, ‘Don’t you know what a dancer is?’
“I said, “What do you mean? Samia Gamal is a dancer.’
“‘So, you want to be Samia Gamal? Not everyone is Samia Gamal.’
“He lectured me for the three-hour drive back to the city on what the character of a dancer was. When I got back home, I quickly left on another dance tour so he couldn’t find me. He never told anyone about my dancing.”
When she was fifteen she had a starring role in a successful Syrian movie. Luckily, her family did not recognize her. She was fifteen the first time she went to Egypt. Farid Al Atrash, who was also of royal Syrian lineage, had grown up in the same village as Madiha. He said, “You are a young, good-looking dancer. I made Samia Gamal. Now let’s work on making you famous.” Madiha said, “All they were looking for was a dancer with a beautiful body. They didn’t care if I could act or not. I was also afraid that my family might find out. I told him, ‘You know, most people believe that your sister was killed by her family for being a singer. Even you had to leave Syria because your family wanted to kill you for being an actor and singer. You’re a man and had to flee the country, and you want me, a woman, to dance in the movies? No. This I will not do.”
For many years, no one in her family knew of her dancing except her ex-fiancée and widowed sister. When she was eighteen, one of her cousins was in love with her and wanted to marry her. He recognized her pictures in the famous Egyptian magazine Acher Saha. The day he came to her house with the magazine rolled up in his hand, Madiha knew the game was up. She decided to admit to him that she was an Oriental dancer in case he changed his mind about wanting to marry her.
He said, “You want to be a dancer?…Fine. I don’t mind. But no one in our family tree has ever been a dancer.”
Madiha told him, “No one was ever good enough until now to be one. For some reason I was born with the talent. What are you going to do? Tell the whole family? What can they do? Kill me? Fine, let them kill me because I’m tired of keeping this a secret.”
She asked him how he knew it was her in the magazine, because she was wearing stage make-up in the picture and was using a stage name. He replied, “I always said you look like Omar Sharif’s ex-wife, Satin Hamama. Anyway, I’d recognize you if you painted your face green, because I love you.” When he showed her the magazine, there was Madiha sitting next to her friend, Satin Hamama.
While they were arguing, Madiha’s unmarried sister walked in. She had thought that Madiha was a nurse and was hoping that she might go back to school to become a doctor. When she learned that Madiha was a dancer, she was very upset and wanted a better life for her. After Madiha explained to her how much she loved dancing, and that she had no regrets and would do it all over again, her sister understood and supported her in her decision.
Madiha’s dance career was filled with fabulous opportunities. How did everything fall into place? “If you believe in God and never try to hurt anyone on purpose He will help you. If I had tried to draw a map of my future, I couldn’t have done it better than God planned it for me. I never stepped a foot on stage without first saying a prayer. If you love God he will give you all the breaks you need. Of course, you need to have a mind for business, too.” Some of her bookings came from agents, although most of the time she did not use agents, and some came from people who contacted her personally.
When she was fifteen, she was in Tehran and other cities in Lebanon, returning there a second time years later. She went to Egypt three times for one to 1½ years each tour, the first trip when she was sixteen. She also danced two times in Libya, two times in Pakistan, three times in India, Bangkok twice, Hong Kong twice, Japan, and Kuala Lumpur twice, Singapore twice, and the Philippines. Whenever she danced in foreign countries, she would start in the capital and then tour extensively throughout the country. She also danced in Rome, Paris and London. She began an extened tour of America in Detroit and Chicago, and had a contract to go on an extensive tour to Spain, Italy, London and Paris, but Madiha cancelled when she fell in love and got married in Detroit.
I asked her about the attitude of the audiences toward her and the dance while on tour in Asia and the Philippines. “The Japanese were very hard to please because they wanted to see lots of skin, a stripper. My agent warned me ahead of time that the Japanese don’t applaud, so that I wouldn’t be offended. Since I was the first Oriental dancer they had ever seen, the club introduced me by showing a short film about the pyramids of Egypt and said that the next dancer is from this land. When I finished dancing I got a standing ovation. They respected the art. While I was in Japan the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” was playing there. That was a great help…
“The Philippines was an interesting experience for me. It’s not safe to look at a man in the eyes because the women can be very jealous. You never know…a jealous woman might have a gun in her purse and shoot you. My agent’s wife warned me of this before I left for the Philippines tour. She exaggerated a little bit, but I was still frightened.”
I asked her to tell me about experiences in her career which were embarrassing, disastrous, or humorous.
“When I was in Lebanon, some friends of mine invited me over to their table before my show and offered me some champagne. I didn’t know what effect it would have on me. I was fourteen years old at the time. I tasted it, and kept saying, ‘Oh, this is good!’…They kept bringing more bottles to the table. I kept drinking and saying how good it tasted while my friends kept laughing because they were playing a joke on me…During my number I went into the splits and couldn’t get up again…One of the waiters, who was like a father to me, was named Samy. I yelled, ‘Hey Samy.’ I whistled. ‘Come over here,’ and motioned for him to pick me up. They all knew that I had had too much to drink. Everyone was laughing at me. So he came, picked me up, and carried me from the stage while the people were clapping and yelling, “More! more!” I tell you…that was embarrassing! The hangover was unbelievable! I woke up in bed the next day and had no idea how I got there. I didn’t want to see food or drink again for as long as I lived. That was the last time I touched champagne. I hate champagne!
“When I was working in Tehran at the age of fifteen there was a cholera out break, and hundreds of people were dying every day. My boss at the club was ninety years old. He was so senile that every night I had to have someone introduce me to him because he couldn’t remember who I was. One day I felt the cholera coming on. He told me the best remedy is to drink lots of vodka. So, I drank a whole bottle. When I got up on the stage to dance, all I did was just stand there and stare at the people. The musicians kept saying, ‘Come on, Madiha. Move!’ I said, ‘What? I am moving!’ This was another disaster where I had to be carried off the stage, but I never became sick with the cholera. They put me to bed and gave me soup made with pepper and hot spices. I sweated so much that night that the next morning they had to change the mattress of my bed because it was so wet. The doctor told me that if I hadn’t drunk the vodka, I’d be dead by now.”
Madiha told me a story about an experience she had one night dancing at a club in Cairo called Sahara City. Some of the biggest name movie stars and dancers were in the audience: Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, Nagwa Fouad, Sohair Zeki, Sulrea Salah, Senak Alwi, Fifi Salama and others. “Here I am, the seventeen-year-old star from Syria who is taking a job away from them. Of course, the dancers all thought they were the best because they were Egyptian. It was only natural that they felt I was a little Syrian upstart who thought she was a dancer.”
Although the Egyptian stars seemed to place little value on dancers from outside of their country, Madiha proudly proclaims that Oriental dance actually originated in Turkey, and was brought to Egypt by Syrians. One of these was Melaki Jajati in the late 18th century to the 1930’s. Bediha Masabni, who opened a night club called “The Casino Opera” in the 1930’s, taught all of the old Egyptian dancers, including Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal. Even Ferid al Atrash worked for her as a singer and oud player when he was twelve years old. She adds, however, that “the Egyptians beat us by becoming better at it.”
When she got up on the stage to dance during that star-studded night, the 4″ heel of her shoe broke, and she fell on stage. “I prayed to God that I could die then and there. When this happened, Tahia Carioca insulted me, and yelled, ‘Get up you___ ___ ___! Are you a dancer or not?’ Now she’s changed, but in those days she was very outspoken and would say whatever she felt, whether it hurt someone or not. So, I took off my shoes, got up, and started to dance on the balls of my feet. When you wear heels to dance, and are all of a sudden without them, you feel like you’re limping whenever you step down on your foot. That was the most embarrassing thing that ever happenned to me in my life, but I still finished my show, and proved my worth as a dancer. Because of this the other dancers said, ‘This girl has courage!’…
“Nothing embarrassed me after that because that was the worst thing that could possibly have happenned to me. Most of those dancers became good friends with me after that because I earned their respect. Tahia Carioca was outstanding to me after that. She used to come visit me whenever I was working, and tell the waiter, ‘You tell that girl her mistress is here and she had better come to pay her respects.’ I would always go sit by her like a little pussycat.”
I asked her if she ever had any formal training, or did she learn from other influences such as movies or watching other dancers. “The only dancer who ever influenced me was Samia Gamal. I would see every single movie she made over and over again to study her dance movements…She was my idol. Every time I would dance on the stage I would picture her in my mind. I still watch some of her tapes now and then. I don’t do her steps anymore because they’re old-fashioned…Now when I watch Samia Gamal tapes, it is only to remember how I used to dance. In her day she was the best, but times change. No one dances the tango anymore. Everything is fast now. Keep moving. Just keep moving, honey. You’re as good as you move. Thirty years ago dancers used very little movement in the waist, hands and arms. The musicians don’t play this music anymore. Now-a-days you have to dance 200 miles an hour. This is how times change. My style is so different from thirty years ago. My style is what the dance might be fifty years from now. Now I take steps from ballet, Spanish flamenco and rock stars, like Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and adapt them to my style. Instead of watching Samia Gamal to get steps, I turn on MTV and find steps from rock and roll. This is funny, but it is what the people want, and you give them what they want. I love it. I like life. I like things fast.”
What does she most dislike seeing in a dancer? “Some facial and body expressions: winking or lifting an eyebrow, pursing the lips as though the dancer wishes to kiss someone, making hand movements calling someone to her. Another thing I hate to see is a dancer rolling and sweeping or pulling herself along the floor. Yes, you roll on the floor to show balance of a cane or a sword on the head. This is OK. But to roll or pull yourself along the floor is vulgar and dirty. Any Oriental dance movement by itself is sexy. You don’t need to add to it. If you do, it becomes cheap and dirty. I also hate it when a dancer sits on a man’s lap, shakes her breasts in a man’s face, or uses her veil to cover the man and sometimes the man and dancer together. Have you seen dancers who wrap a man in a veil or both the man and the dancer together? What is this? This is not Oriental dance. This is harem dance. The American people still believe in ‘the seven veils’ and stories of ‘1001 nights.’ This is not reality. This is not art. This is a different story…the sultan, the genie, the harem. Oriental dance is an art, not a Hollywood or Arabian nights tale of the slave girl dancing for the sultan to show him what she can do later. Oriental dance is an art like ballet or Spanish flamenco. Why drag it into the gutter? When people say to me ‘Bellydance is dirty and vulgar,’ I tell them, ‘The way the dancer presents the steps will make the performance clean or vulgar. Don’t blame the dance, blame the dancer.’”
Madiha told me that she has always had the same dream throughout her life: to change the attitude the world has about Oriental dance so that it can become a respected art form. “If I convince someone that the dance is respectable and later that person sees a vulgar, cheap dancer, how is he or she going to believe me?” For many years she has wanted to form a union to keep that type of dancer from performing. At one time in Egypt, dancers had to prove themselves worthy of representing the art in order to receive a passport to dance in another country. Tahia Carioca, “the mother of the dance,” was the head of a panel of judges who travelled to Egyptian night clubs to evaluate whether the dancers were worthy of receiving a “vedette,” which meant you had star status. This law was established one year after Madiha’s heel broke at the Sahara Club. Later, when Tahia came to evaluate her for a vedette, Madiha raised her skirt during the performance and pointed her foot while smiling at Tahiya, as if to say, “See? No shoes!” Tahiya enjoyed the joke immensely. Madiha got her vedette. Madiha feels that this type of standard-setting is a way that dancers can “pull together…to put a stop to those who bring the dance into the gutter.”
Madiha also hopes to raise the standards of the dance through her teaching, which she says she enjoys even more than dancing. “I put my heart into it. When one of my students does a step better than me, I feel proud, not jealous. I encourage all my students to teach. Also, I have an interesting style. Why take it to the grave? Why not have someone else take advantage of it, use it, and make a living from it?” Her teaching has evoked powerful responses in those who have been fortunate enough to be her students. In an article about Madiha in Habibi in 1987 (Vol. 10, No. 1), Aida al Adawi, a former protegé of Jamila Salimpour and feature performer in troupe Bal Anat, said of Madiha, “I was deeply touched by the reality that I saw. She truly is an Oriental dancer with the technique and style we strive for. She knows her art and music well, and very devotedly passes it on to those who choose to grow and learn…She is the essence of all the old mothers of the dance and the growth of the modern influences rolled into one fine artist. She is also a very kind and loving human being. God bless her.”
What is Madiha’s philosophy regarding the dance? “It is a form of worship to God. I make each movement as a prayer. I revere God through my dance. I then dedicate my performance to honored guests, and finally to the public. I also believe that dancing cleanses the soul. I dance to wash away the effects of stress, frustration, and anger.”
Her advice to aspiring Oriental dance stars: “To be a star, you must be more than just a good dancer, you must be a lady, in action and words. If you wish others to respect you, you must respect them. Have a nice figure: if you’re overweight, the movements won’t look right. Practice as much as you can even if all you can manage is fifteen minutes one day. Fifteen minutes is better than no practice at all. Listen to music around the clock so that it becomes a part of you. And believe in yourself. You must believe in yourself.”
I asked Madiha why she retired from the dance in 1974. “My two-year-old son needed a full-time mother. The other reason is that back then, thirty years old was old. Now fifty is young. Times change. I stopped while I was on top. I’d rather do that then wait until years later and have the public say, ‘Thank God! Finally she’s retired!’” The night her final performance was announced, there was a strong reaction from the audience: “Oh no, not yet!” She received a standing ovation. Her last employer continued to ask her to come back for ten years after her final performance, and just the other day, another club manager asked her to come back.
Madiha’s talent in costume design became a God-send when she retired. “When I stopped dancing, all I did besides teaching occasionally was to sit, eat, watch soap operas, and get fat. My weight went up to 161 pounds, and I am only 5’5″. In order to keep my hands busy so I wouldn’t eat, I started designing and sewing costumes. Before I came to America I hated to sew. If a button fell off of a dress, I’d throw it away. When the time came that I needed new costumes, I had no choice. I had to make my own. I have been designing costumes now for several years. I put my heart and soul into each costume, and never make two designs the same. Each one is styled to compliment the dancer’s figure. Sometimes other dancers don’t want to design costumes for others that are more beautiful than their own. This is not so with me. Jealousy is not a part of my character.” Many dancers go to the annual St. Jude’s Benefit just to see her creations worn by several of the performers.
Strange circumstances inspired Madiha to initiate her charity work for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Originally, her thirteen-year-old son had asked her to help raise money for St. Jude’s. That night before she left to teach her evening class, she opened her closet and found a picture of St. Jude on the door. “I don’t know where the picture came from. Maybe it was a miracle. To this day, my family and I don’t know how that picture got there. I thought, ‘St. Jude? I’m doing a benefit for him tonight!’” Several of her students were more than happy to support her in the effort. The first benefit was held in her home, each student paying five dollars for a two hour class, raising $165.
After that night, she put it out of her mind until her son was in a car accident when he was sixteen years old. The jeep he was riding in rolled four times and was totalled. His friend had 22 stitches in his head, but her son didn’t have a single scratch. “One of my friends who is a nun told me that God spared my son’s life for me. You see, he is my only child. I was so grateful his life was saved that I decided to do charity work in my home with my students.” She did two seminars per year for two years, and gave the money to her church for the poor. But she felt that she was not doing enough, and wanted to do more. That was the birth of the annual St. Jude’s Benefit.
Because there was not enough room in her home the first year, the next year the benefit was held at Omar Khayam’s nightclub, which also was unable to accommodate the 150 to 200 people who came. The following year it was at the Dearborn Holiday Inn, but the tickets were sold out at the door in fifteen minutes, and the hotel was packed. This year it will be held at a much larger hotel, the Botsford Inn of Farmington Hills (near Detroit), on Saturday, November 19 (call 810/478-3456 for more information). She hopes that the event will be sponsored in other states. Last year she announced in the Detroit Free Press, and on TV Channel 2, that she would teach for free at other events as long as all proceeds after the sponsor’s expenses are paid go to St. Jude’s Hospital.
Princess Madiha told me that if she had not been able to be a dancer in her life, she would have liked to have been one of Mother Theresa’s helpers. She has a great love for compassionate service, and receives immense satisfaction from it. “We have a saying in Arabic about a lit candle giving light to all. I have always tried to be a candle that gives light to others. I love to help people in any way I can.”
Gisselle Fobbs is a dancer, teacher and choreographer with over twenty years experience in various dance forms, including Oriental, tap, ballet, modern, ballroom and Indian temple. She spent seven years performing and teaching in Germany.