Habiba Msika, Tunisian Actress and Singer, is Murdered

February 21, 1930

Tunisian actress and singer Habiba Msika, 1920s.

On February 21, 1930, Habiba Msika, a Tunisian actress and singer, was murdered. Often called the “first star of Tunis,” Msika rose to fame across the Maghreb and Middle East because of her beautiful voice and unique talent to entertain. Her life of luxury was brought to an untimely end by her murder by a jealous suitor.

Marguerite “Habiba” Msika was born in 1903 in the Jewish quarter of Tunis to a poor Jewish family. Her parents died when she was young, leaving Msika to be raised by her aunt Leila Sfez, a singer. Under Sfez’s tutelage, Msika received training in Maalouf (classical Andalusian music), oud, piano, and voice. She attended a school run by the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Tunis.

Msika’s career began as a wedding singer. At the end of World War I, her singing career began to take off, and in 1921 she began acting at the al-Shahāma theater in Tunis. She adopted the stage name Habiba, which means “beloved” in Arabic. Among many roles, Msika played Julie in Salāh al-Dīn, Desdemona in Othello, and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Unusually, Msika often played male parts because they often had more time on stage than female roles, and she became known for her nationalist and pro-independence tendencies (at the time, Tunisia was under French rule). During one performance she wrapped herself in a Tunisian flag and sang pro-independence slogans, leading to her arrest by French authorities.

Msika traveled across Europe with al-Shahāma theater’s troupe, performing in French in Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, and Berlin. In addition to acting, Msika also sang; she released nearly 100 phonograph records between 1924 and 1930. Her songs were the best-selling records ever in the Maghreb at the time. However, France soon banned her albums because they “stirred nationalist feelings.” Msika broke many barriers for women entertainers, including demanding a high salary and royalties for her recordings and having many lovers—Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. A group of male fans called themselves Soldiers of the Night and vowed to protect Msika.

In the early morning of February 20, 1930, after singing at an engagement party, Msika returned to her apartment. Shortly afterward Eliaou Mimouni, a Tunisian Jew and wealthy landowner, entered her apartment, poured oil on her bed, lit her on fire, and held her down as she burned alive. Mimouni had been pursuing Msika for years, and she had recently announced her engagement to another man. Msika succumbed to her injuries the following day, on February 21.

Tens of thousands of people attended Msika’s funeral at the Borgel cemetery, and a week later a film depicting her funeral was shown in Tunis cinemas. Tunisian and Algerian singers recorded songs of grief over her murder. A 1994 film called The Dance of Fire follows Msika through the last years of her short life.

 

Sources:

Derman, Ushi. “The Jewish Tunisian Girl Who Became the Legendary Habiba Msika.” Museum of the Jewish People, February 15, 2018. https://www.anumuseum.org.il/blog-items/jewish-tunisian-girl-became-legendary-habiba-msika/.

Elkeslassy, Laura. “Ala Srir Ennoum | Habiba Msika.” Ayin Press, accessed July 6, 2022. https://ayinpress.org/ala-srir-ennoum-habiba-msika/.

Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. “Messika, Habiba.” Accessed July 6, 2022. https://referenceworks-brillonline-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/messika-habiba-SIM_0015200?s.num=0&s.f.s2_parent=s.f.book.encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world&s.q=Messika%2C+%E1%B8%A4abiba.

Hillauer, Rebecca. Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2006.

Machado, Margarida. Habiba Messika: uma biografia (im)possível [Habiba Messika: an (im)possible biography]. Portugal: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, 2006.

Schaar, Stuart. “Reflections on North African History: Abdallah Laroui and his History of the Maghrib.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 53, no. 2 (May 2021): 291-299. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies/article/abs/reflections-on-north-african-history-abdallah-laroui-and-his-history-of-the-maghrib/298B7C5A4086825AA2F9CBCAFEF5F2ED.

Silver, Chris. “The career of Tunisian singer Habiba Messika was cut tragically short in 1930. Her murder devastated her fans, but in its aftermath her records spread across the French-occupied Maghreb, fanning the flames of insurgent nationalism.” History Today, April 24, 2018. https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/life-and-death-north-africas-first-superstar.

Tobi, Yosef and Zivia Tobi. “Mythicization of a Popular Singer: Oral and Written Traditions about Hbiba Msika (Tunis, 1903—1930) / מיתיזאציה של זמרת עממית: המסורות שבעל-פה ובכתב על הזמרת היהודייה התוניסאית חביבה מסיכה.” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore, 19/20 (Fall 2017): 187-210. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23358561.

 

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Habiba Msika, Tunisian Actress and Singer, is Murdered ." (Viewed on May 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/feb/21/1930/habiba-msika-tunisian-actress-and-singer-murdered>.