Many people reading the first volume of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy may have wondered about the late-night absences of family patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abdel-Gawad who spends a lot of time at musical entertainments while his long-suffering wife Amina waits for him patiently at home.
With the publication of British writer Raphael Cormack’s Midnight in Cairo: The Female Stars of Egypt’s Roaring Twenties, such questions may finally have been answered thanks to his reconstruction of Cairo’s early 20th-century entertainment scene. This was centred around the downtown district of Ezbekiyya, particularly Emad al-Din Street, and from the final decades of the 19th century onwards it became well-known for its clubs and music and theatre venues serving both domestic and foreign audiences.
It seems that Abdel-Gawad’s secret has finally been revealed, with Cormack explaining the background of songs like “Why Do You Torment Me,” “What Will We Know Tomorrow,” and “Pay Attention to What I’m Telling You,” all mentioned in Mahfouz’s novel along with their mostly female singers. “Any one of these songs was enough to bring his intoxication to the boil,” the narrator says of Abdel-Gawad, who has to cut down his visits to Ezbekiyya when it becomes full of Australian troops billeted in Cairo during the First World War.
The singers and actresses working in Cairo’s entertainment industry before and in the decades after the War are the focus of Cormack’s book, though he also considers audiences, perhaps made up in part by people like Abdel-Gawad, but probably also by large contingents of British soldiers and expatriate Europeans. There are also the financiers who put up the investments required, as the years wore on more and more important, particularly for films, and the various promoters and middlemen who stood behind the stars and managed their careers.
The first part of Cormack’s book looks at the transformation of a small group of music venues in Ezbekiyya in the 1890s, perhaps developing out of older performance traditions in street-side cafes, into the full-scale entertainment district of only a few decades later, with its music halls, theatres, and cabarets. Some performers who had perhaps previously only sought to make a modest living were transformed into highly paid celebrities familiar to millions through radio, film, and theatre magazines.
Cormack follows this transformation from early stars like Mounira al-Mahdiyya, apparently the first Egyptian Muslim woman to appear on stage, to later full-scale divas like the singer and actress Umm Kalthoum. His intention is to write the history of Cairene entertainment from the perspective of those who took part in it, chiefly the female singers and actresses who began to draw large audiences during and after the First World War. In so doing, he has made efficient use of Arabic source material, including the memoirs and biographies of many of those concerned.
The second part of his book runs through a selection of such stars, with chapters describing the careers of women like Rose al-Youssef, originally an actress but perhaps better known as the founder of the eponymous Cairo magazine, Fatma Rushdi, who graduated from actor and impresario Youssef Wahbi’s troupe to form a company of her own, and Badia Masabni, wife of actor and impresario Naguib al-Rihani and proprietress of Badia’s Casino in Cairo’s Opera Square.
The circumstances of the 1920s provided the context in which such women could thrive, Cormack says, adding that while many histories of Egyptian feminism focus on upper-class women such as Hoda Shaarawi, founder of the Egyptian Women’s Union in 1923, “another history of Egyptian feminism was being written on the stages of Cairo’s nightclubs, theatres, and cabarets.” This was one in which “female singers commanded large audiences; actresses were in high demand; women owned dance halls, wrote and directed films, and recorded hit songs.”
The entertainment industry offered new employment opportunities for women, making a handful of them stars. It was a space for and driver of women’s emancipation since it encouraged entry into the public sphere. “In the transgressive nightlife of central Cairo, with all the freedom that came with performing for an audience of strangers, rigid identities and conventional boundaries that separated different nationalities were more fluid than anywhere else,” Cormack says.
Even so, as he also admits, the glamour of the entertainment business could easily turn sour, and the distance between celebrity and exploitation was not always very wide. A more sober way of putting it turns up later when Cormack says that “the dance halls and cabarets… were not an uncomplicated space of women’s liberation,” since “they were obviously predicated on the commodification and exploitation of female bodies. But certain women managed to exploit the system to their advantage and ended up with considerable control over their own lives.”
For every Mounira al-Mahdiyya, there may well have been a dozen girls like Hamida, a character in Mahfouz’s novel Midaq Alley, who is promised a life working in films. In fact, she is ruthlessly exploited and then let drop in a story that may be the other side of some of those recounted in Midnight in Cairo.
Cormack’s version of Cairo’s “roaring twenties” is full of intriguing stories and suggestions for further thinking. It would make an ideal gift for anyone seeking an alternative introduction to 20th-century Cairo.
It also takes aim at many more buttoned-up accounts of particularly the development of Egyptian theatre. And it questions assumptions about the cultural developments of the period, including the growing distinction between the culture of the “masses” and that of the “elite.”
Cormack seems to be firmly on the populist side of this great divide, and it is only on page 262 of his book that he mentions the writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, associated in standard literary histories with the development of Egyptian theatre in these years. The “middle classes” did not like the louche world of commercial entertainment, he says, and they were determined to produce something more in line with aspirations towards cultural revival. Theatre, it was hoped, would eventually not only be seen as a form of entertainment, but also as a form of art.
The result was the foundation of the Egyptian National Theatre in 1935, which saw the state enter into the cultural sphere in order to encourage work and develop audiences for something more ambitious than the purely commercial theatre that Cormack describes. His “theatrical revolution taking place in Cairo… combining singing, dancing, comedy, and drama into one long night of entertainment” sits uncomfortably with the National Theatre programme, which was “less interested in attracting audiences and more interested in artistic ideals.”
Cormack says that al-Hakim’s first major play, “The People of the Cave,” “overwhelmed” or “bored” audiences. “Many of them fell asleep.” But whatever the value of the fare on offer at Badia’s Casino, consisting of “Mrs Mary, a female weightlifter, Mme Erika Wahl, the ‘eccentric dancer’; Buck and Chick, the kings of lasso; and Martonn, a quick-change artist,” it would have been a shame if it had been allowed to crowd out publicly financed work in the arts, least of all on the grounds that some may have found these arts challenging or difficult to understand.
Much of what Cormack describes about Cairo’s “roaring twenties” also seems to have appealed mainly to foreign audiences, and there are questions about some of its genuine popularity. Cairo in the 1920s “was coming into its golden age, part of the great international roaring twenties,” Cormack says. But the truth is that it was also the capital of a country under indirect foreign rule, occupied by British troops, and with much of the economy in foreign hands.
The entertainment industry of the time reflected this situation, and it was perhaps only after the 1952 Revolution that determined efforts were made to rethink questions of national culture and pursue genuinely popular, because authentic, forms of art.
Cormack does not pursue such questions, perhaps explaining some of his discomfort even as he reaches for buzzwords like “cosmopolitan” and “diverse” to characterise the Cairo of the 1920s, claiming to detect “prudish, quasi-puritanical disdain” for the entertainment industry in the post-colonial Cairo of the 1950s when “plays influenced by Brecht and Ionesco replaced revue theatre, farce, and music hall.”
What’s wrong with Brecht and Ionesco, one wonders. “Men were more likely to be judged highbrow, serious, or intellectual, so women were often pushed out of the creative process” as they had not been, Cormack says, during the “promise, hope, and opportunity of the interwar years.”
Raphael Cormack, Midnight in Cairo. The Female Stars of Egypt’s Roaring Twenties, Cairo: AUC Press, 2021.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly