A Pioneering North African Actress and Singer - World Jewish Congress
A Pioneering North African Actress and Singer
Ḥabība Messika (Messica) (1899–1930)

Ḥabība Messika (Messica, Msika) (1899– 1930) was a trailblazing Tunisian Jewish singer and actress who left a significant impact on North African and Middle Eastern music between 1924 and 1930. Born in Tunisia in 1899, she began her career as a wedding singer but had a passion for acting. With the help of Muḥammad Bourgiba, she became a renowned actress and landed leading roles in famous comedies and dramas. 

During the interwar years, Arabic theater in Tunisia experienced a golden age, with European theater pushed aside. In that period, Ḥabība was the leading theatrical celebrity in Tunisia. She starred in several plays, including al-Samawʾ al, which was about the life of the renowned Jewish poet al-Samawʾal ibn ʿAdiyāʾ who lived in sixth-century Arabia. She starred in many plays that highlighted the ability of the Arab Muslim, such as al-Samawʾ al and Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn.

What set Messika apart was that she was one of the first North African artists to record for multiple labels simultaneously, and, unlike most of her peers, she ​​won the right to her royalties. In 1928, the Baidaphon label, established by the Baida family in Beirut, contacted Messika, and she traveled to Berlin to record with them, taking advantage of their electric recording techniques. She recorded patriotic songs and anthems for Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Bey of Tunis, making her popular in Arab society and controversial among the French authorities. 

Habiba Msika and the New Arabic Theater Ensemble, Tunis, early 1920’s
Habiba Msika and the New Arabic Theater Ensemble, Tunis, early 1920’s

Messika's story challenges many basic assumptions about the region's history, including the exclusivity of emerging nationalist movements. She played the male lead in an Arabic-language production of Romeo and Juliet in Tunis in 1924, and later played Napoleon II in Tunis. She also starred in classic European dramas, including Victor Hugo's Lucrèce Borgia and Marie Tudor, Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon, and Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello. She performed in French during the theater company's European tours in Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, Berlin, and other cities, achieving incredible success. 

Unfortunately, Messika's promising career was cut short by a tragic event. In February 1930, her apartment caught fire, and she was severely burned. She identified one of her fans, Eliaou Mimouni, as the attacker and died the next day. Her murder caused widespread shock and led to one of the largest Tunisian gatherings of the early 20th century. Her funeral was spoken of for years, and Bishi Slama composed an elegy for the occasion, which was recorded. Her death elicited outpourings of grief by half a dozen Tunisian and Algerian artists, and the song 'Moute Habiba Messika' was recorded by Tunisian-Jewish vocalist and dancer Flifla Chamia for Gramophone in December 1930. 

Despite the fragility of the shellac on which Messika's history was inscribed, many of her records survive. They quickly became popular across North Africa after her death, and the French authorities viewed them as a potential threat to the colonial order. In fact, the popularity of her records was so great that they helped expand record sales in North Africa, with Gramophone sales alone multiplying by a factor of four by 1929, reaching 200,000 annually. Her records outsold anything else released in the Maghreb since the birth of the recording industry at the turn of the 20th century. 

Although her life was cut short at the age of 27, Messika's legacy has continued to inspire interest and admiration among people around the world. Her music and acting have been celebrated through books, films, and musical performances, and her story has been included in the curriculum of some Algerian schools. Her life and work have also been the subject of academic study, and her recordings are now held in various archives and museums around the world. 

Habiba Msika (1903-1930), Jewish singer born in Tunisia, 1920s (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Abraham Hatal, Jerusalem)
Habiba Msika (1903-1930), Jewish singer born in Tunisia, 1920s (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Abraham Hatal, Jerusalem)

One of the most notable works exploring Messika's life is the film Habiba Msika: The Dance of Fire 1994 directed by Tunisian Muslim director Selma Bakkar (Baccar). The film portrays Messika as a nationalist and feminist, which aligns with the political and social trends of the 1990s. Messika's strength and dignity, despite living in a society that placed men above women, are highlighted in the film, making her an even more compelling figure.

More recently, in 2019, a documentary entitled ​​"Lala Fatma: The Song of My Mother" was released, which explores Messika's life and work through the eyes of her daughter, Fatiha Messika. The film includes interviews with Fatiha and other family members, as well as scholars, musicians, and fans of Messika's work. It provides a unique perspective on Messika's life, highlighting her impact on North African and Middle Eastern music and her enduring legacy. 

  • Yosef Tobi, "Messika, Ḥabiba", in: Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Consulted online on 15 March 2023 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1878-9781_ejiw_SIM_0015200>
About Tunisia

Tunisia’s historic Island of Djerba and its synagogue, which is considered one of the oldest in the world, was a hub of Jewish life since the Roman era. From the Roman era, when Jewish communities thrived in Carthage, to significant populations in Tunis, Sfax, and Djerba, they've been integral to Tunisia's cultural mosaic.

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