EUME Berliner Seminar
Mi 06 Nov 2019 | 17:00–18:30

I Sing for a Living: Untold Stories of Female-Artists in Beirut under the French Mandate

Diana Abbani (EUME Fellow 2018-20), Chair: Oraib Toukan (EUME Fellow 2019/20)

Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin

Bahiyya Amir in Beirut, April 1933
Photo Credit: al-Aṣifa, Bahiyya Amir in Beirut, April 1933.

Often described as ‘Expert of seduction’ and ‘baladine’ [woman with light moral], female singers and dancers fascinated the Europeans travellers who visited the Levant in the 19th century or caused the indignation of the local Beiruti press criticising their ‘decadent’ and ‘corrupted’ world. Their profession remained for a long time a dishonourable and marginalised one, despite the social, political and technological mutations since the beginning of the 20th century. Women gradually marked the local musical scene, and their appearance became more and more liberated in the 1920s and 1930s. Female celebrities, especially Egyptian ones, took the stage, performed with a male musical ensemble, in front of men, women or mixed audiences in various Beirut’s leisure venues. They participated in plays and recorded with multinational and local recording companies. They experienced a certain social rise, and were no longer neglected by the press. Yet their life was full of contradictions: they were women working in the public domain, who use their body and voice to earn their living. Drawing from several moments caught by the Beiruti newspaper al-Aṣifa [The Storm], this presentation attempts to capture the experiences of several female-artists who sang and danced in Beirut’s cabarets, as they voiced it in a series of interviews published in the 1930s.

Diana Abbani received her PhD in Arabic Studies from Sorbonne University with a dissertation entitled “Music and Society in Beirut during the Nahḍa Period”. She holds an MA in History from Sorbonne University and an MA in Political Science from Saint Denis University, Paris. Her work focuses mainly on the social and cultural life in the Levant, particularly in Beirut, at the turn of the 20th century. In her dissertation, she draws a social and cultural history of Beirut’s musical scene in the first decades of the twentieth century and offers a historical rethinking of its cultural and musical history by looking at the relation between music, technology and society through the analysis of a set of primary sources. During the academic years 2018/19 and 2019/20, Diana is a EUME Fellow and associated with the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.

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