serving as a temporary shopwindow. The pressures of a conservative Islamic culture were to blame for this, as were the distortions produced by uneven development. To be a respectably nubile woman was usually to be destined for marriage without much transition from adolescence; to be young and attractive has therefore not always been an advantage, since a conventional father might for that very reason arrange a wedding with a ‘mature’ and well-off man. If women didn’t fall within those schemes, they risked all sorts of opprobrium.
Tahia belongs, not to the easily identified culture of B-girls and fallen women, but to the world of progressive women skirting or unblocking the social lanes. She remained organically linked, however, to her country’s society, because she discovered another, far more interesting role for herself as dancer and entertainer. This was the all-butforgotten role of almeh (literally, a learned woman), spoken of by 19th-century European visitors to the Orient such as Edward Lane and Flaubert. The almeh was a courtesan of sorts, but a woman of significant accomplishments. Dancing was only one of her gifts: others were the ability to sing and recite classical poetry, to discourse wittily, to be sought after for her company by men of law, politics and literature.
Tahia is referred to as almeh in her best film, one of her earliest, Li’bet il Sit (‘The Lady’s Ploy’, 1946), which also stars the greatest of 20th-century Arab actors and