Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring 20s

16 May, 2021


Cairo’s ven­er­a­ble Wind­sor Hotel enjoyed a revamp in 2010 but retains much of its orig­i­nal 1920s charm.

Mid­night in Cairo: The Female Stars of Egyp­t’s Roar­ing ’20s
, by Raphael Cormack
Saqi Books (2021)
ISBN 9780863563133

Selma Dabbagh

At the cen­ter of this book is a street that I sense I have always known exist­ed and where I feel I have always need­ed to be, but it took a his­to­ri­an like Raphael Cor­ma­ck to show it to me in all its glo­ry. It has cafés, cin­e­mas, bars and night­clubs that range from the high­brow to the seedy. It is place of glam­or and tack­i­ness, pover­ty, poten­tial, and artis­tic inven­tion. It com­bines the louche with the lux­u­ri­ous, the French with the Turk­ish and the Eng­lish, the Amer­i­can, the Arab and the African. It’s Cairo’s Alfi Bey Street in Eze­bekiyya dur­ing the inter­war period.

Phys­i­cal­ly, it is not a street entire­ly unknown to me. In the nineties, I occa­sion­al­ly went for drinks at the Wind­sor Hotel, where the bar­tender would show off his box­ing pho­tographs and I would feel like a dra­ma­tized, more intrigu­ing ver­sion of myself sit­ting in the dark carved wood chairs by the arched win­dows — an Agatha Christie mur­der sus­pect per­haps? Out­side only scant rem­nants remained from the time-peri­od of the bar; Ezbekiyya had few traces of the par­ty atmos­phere of the inter­war peri­od that Cor­ma­ck re-cre­ates in Mid­night in Cairo.

Cairo has had many more seri­ous things to con­tend with since the roar­ing twen­ties: get­ting rid of British rule, putting out fires, encour­ag­ing and dis­cour­ag­ing rev­o­lu­tions, nation­al­iz­ing and pri­va­tiz­ing, the stric­tures of peace deals and struc­tur­al adjust­ment pro­grams with a gov­ern­ment becom­ing increas­ing­ly more repres­sive to its own peo­ple through­out. All this had trans­formed the build­ings and the spir­it of the ear­li­er time beyond recog­ni­tion. The Al Ham­bra Casi­no where Cor­ma­ck tells us the for­mer French Prime Min­is­ter George Clemenceau once pre­sent­ed the singer Naima al Mas­riyya with a bot­tle of cham­pagne is now a shop for auto parts, for example.

I’m always slight­ly uncom­fort­able with the plea­sure I find in being in these colo­nial residues in cities — nor­mal­ly in 1930s hotels — when the city is proud of hav­ing rebelled against colo­nial occu­pa­tion, but the aes­thet­ics of colo­nial archi­tec­ture were designed to attract and to inspire awe, and I am not alone in occa­sion­al­ly falling sway to tan­ta­liz­ing forces of nos­tal­gia. In his sem­i­nal work, Colonis­ing Egypt (1988), Tim­o­thy Mitchell explains the objec­tives of urban plan­ners, by quot­ing the French colo­nial admin­is­tra­tor, Mar­shal Hubert Lyautey who described the need for two Cairos:


Mid­night in Cairo is avail­able from Saqi Books.

“There are two Cairos, the mod­ern, infi­nite­ly the more attrac­tive one, and the old, which seems des­tined to pro­long its agony and not to revive, being unable to strug­gle against progress and its inevitable con­se­quences. One is the Cairo of artists, the oth­er of hygenists and modernists.”

He goes on to quote Frantz Fanon’s dis­tinc­tion between the “the set­tler’s town, a strong­ly built town, all made of stone and steel,” and the “the native town, the negro vil­lage, the med­i­na, the reser­va­tion, is a place of ill fame, peo­pled by men of evil repute.” The impres­sion from Cor­ma­ck­’s Mid­night in Cairo is that this area of Ezbekiyya, for a brief peri­od, pro­vid­ed an inter­sec­tion between the two worlds, where oppres­sion did exist, between class­es, nation­al­i­ties and gen­ders, but where it was chal­lenged and sub­vert­ed by the equal­iz­ing forces of music, beau­ty, the­atre and sen­su­al­i­ty. Cor­ma­ck focus­es on the lives of indi­vid­ual women to reflect on how the lines of bat­tle were pushed back and remolded.

Cor­ma­ck­’s prose style is light, lucid yet mea­sured and he has an eye for col­or­ful anec­dotes. He evi­dent­ly rel­ish­es his sub­ject mat­ter, whilst not fetishiz­ing or exoti­ciz­ing the women he writes about. The style is sim­i­lar to that of Stephen Green­blatt, author of The Swerve: How The Renais­sance Began, telling his­to­ry as a tale, a series of sto­ries to be recount­ed with verve; the sources famil­iar and at hand, but not over­ly ref­er­enced in a way that would detract the read­er from the emo­tion­al pulse of the char­ac­ters’ lives and per­son­al quests for freedom.

With a PhD in Egypt­ian the­atre and an evi­dent fem­i­nist bent (so grat­i­fy­ing to encounter in a male his­to­ri­an), Cor­ma­ck divides Mid­night in Cairo accord­ing to the tra­di­tion­al play struc­ture, of three Acts: “Set­ting the Scene”, “The Lead­ing Ladies” and “Cur­tain Call.” The cast of this play is vast and all the parts are lead­ing char­ac­ters, for they are, as the sub­ti­tle alerts the read­er, divas of the high­est order.

The women (and some men) fea­tured, range from the well-estab­lished inter­na­tion­al­ly reknown singers like Oum Kalthoum, to the almost for­got­ten stars of the stage, like Naima Mas­riyya, whose grand­daugh­ter is now tak­ing it upon her­self to res­ur­rect the singer’s name into the annals of his­to­ry through a project in her name. Asma­han, the sub­ject of sev­er­al stud­ies, most notably one by Sher­i­fa Zuhur (Asma­han’s Secret, Woman, War and Song, 2000) is not among those to whom a full chap­ter is ded­i­cat­ed. The final selec­tion Rose el Youssef, Fati­ma Rushdie, Fati­ma Sir­ri, Oum Kalthoum, Muni­ra al Mahdiyya, Aziza Amir and Badia Masab­ni, is excel­lent how­ev­er, as through each one of these stars, the use of dif­fer­ent inno­va­tions and strate­gies are explored: jour­nal­is­tic, entre­pre­neur­ial, legal, those to do with image for­ma­tion and brand man­age­ment, the pro­duc­tion of films, the use of the gramo­phone, the radio and the run­ning of a casino.

An exam­ple of one of the sev­en lead­ing ladies is Rose el Youssef, whose name lives on as a polit­i­cal mag­a­zine in Egypt. A gift­ed vaude­ville star who played the main roles in a series of melo­dra­mas for Egyp­t’s main the­atri­cal troupes went on to estab­lish a mag­a­zine, which chal­lenged social and polit­i­cal norms (not with­out resis­tance, between 1927–1929 of the 102 issues that should have appeared, 62 were banned). Riled by the­atre jour­nal­ists deal­ing with “noth­ing but gos­sip, lies and per­son­al attacks,” El Youssef set up her own mag­a­zine, with her name of course — “she was the star, and she was going to call it what she want­ed.” Like many of the women in Mid­night in Cairo, El Yousse­f’s apti­tude in her pro­fes­sion­al life was matched by dis­as­ters in the per­son­al sphere. She was not alone in becom­ing a sin­gle moth­er. Fati­ma Sir­ri most famous­ly had to pit a com­plex bat­tle against the father of her child for pater­ni­ty, pos­si­bly thwart­ed by the father’s moth­er, Hoda al Sha’arawi, the fem­i­nist icon. The read­er cel­e­brates her tenac­i­ty and ulti­mate win in the law courts. The for­mi­da­ble Rose al Youssef, also stig­ma­tized by her act­ing pro­fes­sion — that was seen to be akin to pros­ti­tu­tion at the time — was divorced while preg­nant and her son, Ihsan Abd al-Qud­dus, spent his ear­ly years apart from his moth­er, although the two lat­er became rec­on­ciled with Ihsan writ­ing for his moth­er’s mag­a­zine. “Fight oppres­sion,” she advised him, “wher­ev­er it is, and always be on the side of the weak against the pow­er­ful. Nev­er ask the cost.”

The Egypt­ian singer and actress Muni­ra al-Mahdiyya (1885–1965), pho­tographed in the 1920s. Cour­tesy the Abushady Archive

In a recent pod­cast for Bulaq, Cor­ma­ck explained that his orig­i­nal idea had been to write a biog­ra­phy of the singer Muni­ra al-Mahdiyya. For those read­ers more famil­iar with the life of Oum Kalthoum, the sub­ject of Vir­ginia Daniel­son’s The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Ara­bic Song and Egypt­ian Soci­ety in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (1997), and the 1999 Egypt­ian TV seri­al­iza­tion of Oum Kulthum’s life, Muni­ra al-Mahdiyya may appear as an unsym­pa­thet­ic choice of sub­ject mat­ter, for she is depict­ed as being behind the neg­a­tive press cov­er­age of the young singer when she arrived in Cairo from her Delta vil­lage in the ear­ly 1920s. Dra­ma­tized ver­sions of Oum Kulthum’s life have depict­ed al-Mahdiyya as venge­ful, tal­ent­less and manip­u­la­tive. Cor­ma­ck how­ev­er, casts an admir­ing light on this enter­pris­ing, cross-dress­ing actress who reshaped Egypt­ian the­atre. There is no doubt how­ev­er, that al-Mahdiyya loved being in the pub­lic eye, atten­tion-seek­ing being the name of her game, and was as self aggran­diz­ing and mys­ti­fy­ing about her pri­vate life, as Oum Kulthum was closed — “she was pub­licly linked to a suc­ces­sion of men, some of whom she mar­ried and then divorced, oth­ers whose pre­cise rela­tion­ship to her was less clear.” Her par­ties were known to attract the polit­i­cal elite and such was her social reach that myths cir­cu­lat­ed that par­lia­ment once held a ses­sion on her houseboat.

Pol­i­tics and these pow­er­ful per­form­ers were nev­er far apart; if politi­cians were not guests, polit­i­cal caus­es could be stri­dent­ly upheld by per­form­ers, from the bel­ly dancer Tahia Car­i­o­ca, who mes­mer­ized Edward Saïd in his youth, to Oum Kulthoum. The need to dis­tin­guish one­self from the ris­es and falls in kings and pres­i­dents being par­tic­u­lar­ly mas­tered by the latter.

It would glut this review to try to sum­ma­rize each one of the exu­ber­ant lives of the peo­ple in Mid­night in Cairo, which also includes well-known char­ac­ters like Youssef Wah­bi. Each read­er will have their own favorites, as fol­low­ers of the music scene at the time had sym­pa­thies for par­tic­u­lar stars, close­ly track­ing their per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al careers and the cov­er­age of them. Cor­ma­ck blends in the gos­sip with real­i­ty, being cau­tious about the inclu­sion of unev­i­denced sources, but mind­ful of the pow­er that rumor and gos­sip could play in mak­ing and break­ing some of these diva’s careers. Also won­der­ful are the descrip­tions of audi­ences, their par­tic­i­pa­to­ry role and the need for their inter­ac­tion felt by the actress­es and singers, the notion of tarab, or ecsta­sy being devel­oped between per­former and audi­ence, blend­ing the two into harmony.

One of the most lib­er­at­ing aspects of Mid­night in Cairo, how­ev­er, is the depic­tion of a sense of space, of free­dom of action and move­ment, relat­ed in this zone of Cairo in the inter­war peri­od. “Egypt is a coun­try where the Egyp­tians reign, Eng­lish rule and every­one does as he pleas­es,” wrote two res­i­dents of Ezbekiyya, Bil­ly Brooks and George Dun­can, in a let­ter pub­lished in the Amer­i­can news­pa­per The Chica­go Defend­er in 1923. Hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly been required to play music on bones in a cage with ful­ly grown lions in Bel­gium, the two African Amer­i­can musi­cians may well have had their stan­dards low­ered by the racism of the time, but a sense of open-end­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties, racial and gen­der flu­id­i­ty runs through the deeply love­able accounts in this book.

By the inter­war peri­od, the vast, ram­bling Ottoman empire was no more and colo­nial pow­ers, through the man­date sys­tems and oth­er­wise, were estab­lish­ing the bor­ders of what were to be the Arab nation states that dom­i­nate the region today. Although new restric­tions were in com­ing up every­where, most men­ac­ing­ly with the build­ing of Tegart’s walls around parts of Pales­tine, the sense of a rel­a­tive­ly unbound­aried Arab and Euro­pean geog­ra­phy is exhil­a­rat­ing to the mod­ern read­er, as the musi­cians toured with their shows to Jaf­fa, Jerusalem, Beirut, Bagh­dad and as far afield as South Amer­i­ca. These rel­a­tive­ly open bor­ders not only allowed for per­form­ers to trav­el, but for oth­ers to arrive and with them, new ideas, that were adapt­ed and blend­ed for the appetites (some­times enforced appetites) of the Egypt­ian audiences.

In his con­clu­sion Raphael Cor­ma­ck writes of the stamp­ing out of hope in the 21st cen­tu­ry, “for the most part, by those in pow­er.” He goes on to say that “life in the inter­war peri­od of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry remains so seduc­tive because many of its peo­ple were con­vinced that the world could, and would, improve. The women of inter­war Cairo who made their way into the lime­light were fight­ing to exert their pow­er and be heard. Their strug­gles and suc­cess­es remind us not that things were per­fect, but that they can always be different.”

Cor­ma­ck­’s book achieves what decep­tive­ly appears to be a mod­est endeav­or, by pre­sent­ing these wom­en’s lives sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly, he inspires us to see how the way to the future can be par­tial­ly lit by a knowl­edge of the past. Most of these women start­ed in pover­ty, few grew up with fathers, but for a time, some until their death, they blazed unchart­ed trails though a treach­er­ous land­scape, through inno­va­tion and nerve. Well-researched, even-hand­ed and fre­quent­ly amus­ing, Mid­night in Cairo is a joy to read dur­ing these times where hope is in such short sup­ply. May it lead us to roar through our twenties.


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