Rose Al-Youssef was arguably the most successful actress in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century. However, her mark on Egyptian culture comes from her being one of the most innovative publishers in the history of Egyptian journalism.
She founded a magazine that continues to bear her name today. Editors and writers came and went, but Rose Al-Youssef, the magazine, was for decades a brand associated with edgy coverage of Egypt’s social and political concerns.
Rose Al-Youssef herself was nothing if not courageous. This barely educated actress who had been abandoned by her family and guardians in her early teens had nerves of steel. Her magazine repeatedly took on the Palace and the Wafd Party, Egypt’s most popular and often most powerful political party at the time.
Perhaps because of her difficult childhood and formative years, or perhaps because of her successful stage career, Rose Al-Youssef seemed to have an inherent irreverence for power along with a connection to ordinary people.
She combined edginess with playfulness. Her magazine did not pioneer political caricatures in Egypt, but it used them consistently and powerfully to distill serious political messages. Its real innovation was to combine caricatures with short journalistic essays. This set the magazine apart from the steady names of Egyptian journalism, such as the newspaper Al-Ahram where rhetoric ruled supreme, as well as from the array of “yellow papers” that flourished in early 20th-century Egypt, especially during the period before and during World War II.
Many cultural luminaries in the 1930s and 1940s dismissed Rose Al-Youssef and her magazine. For them, she was a lightweight or an intruder in the world of journalism. She was also a woman and an actress by background, and for them this meant that while she was fit for entertaining she was not fit for the world of news and commentary.
Time proved such people wrong, however. The magazine quickly attracted some of the most promising talents in Egypt at the time, as well as writers of the calibre of Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad, an earlier figure in this series, and the man who was later to become Egypt’s preeminent novelist, Naguib Mahfouz.
Rose Al-Youssef never claimed to be a writer herself, and she hardly ever succumbed to the temptation of pushing her own views in her magazine. As someone who had known her quite well in the early 1950s once said, she understood her role as a publisher. She was a convener of talent, and her magazine was a conduit for good writing and for worthy ideas to reach a wider audience.
It was in this role that Rose Al-Youssef excelled, curating for those she deemed talented a nurturing environment that pushed them to create and to innovate. As she grew older and as her magazine established itself as a pillar of Egyptian journalism, she assumed a matriarchal position on Egypt’s cultural scene. She attracted a following, and many luminaries of the time sought her friendship and often guidance.
She also became something of a powerbroker and was particularly close to some of the most influential politicians in the Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s. Her patronage was a valuable stamp of approval in journalism and at times also in politics, and her salon was a landmark of mid-20th century Cairene cultural life.
Immediately before and after World War II, Egypt had many leading intellectuals and artists whose light shone far and wide. Rose Al-Youssef, however, as a publisher was neither an intellectual nor an artist. Her prominence also owed nothing to the fact that she was a woman in what was then still a largely patriarchal milieu.
There were other women in early 20th-century Egypt who had also shone in the country’s cultural and often also political life. The innovative poet Mai Ziyada was one of the most notable of these, and her cultural salon was more illustrious and more filled with the stars of the literary scene than that of Rose Al-Youssef. What set Rose Al-Youssef apart was the fact that she had also built an institution in the form of her magazine.
Like any serious institution, it had its rules. Rose Al-Youssef also experienced many difficulties, both political and financial, in setting her magazine on solid ground. She was able intelligently to navigate her way through Egyptian society and to manoeuvre through the country’s rich, but often treacherous, political scene.
She understood the necessity, and immense value, of integrity. She set exacting rules for reporting and editorial independence in her magazine at a time when many others were falling over themselves to win the favour of the Palace or the patronage of one of Egypt’s business empires.
She instilled a special character in her magazine. Some who knew her said that it was her own alertness, fiery intelligence, and, as we say in Egypt, “light-bloodedness” (sense of humour) that lay behind its edginess and sarcasm. There was also the mark of Mohamed Al-Tabei, her main business partner in the early years, and one of Egypt’s most innovative journalistic talents.
Yet, even taking all that into account, there was also the institution-building that she had instilled in her creation. This ensured that the magazine had a direction, a clarity of purpose, and a range of styles, making it very different from simply being a repertoire of its founder’s whims. This is the key reason why the magazine has survived and retained its distinct character decades after Rose Al-Youssef herself died.
Serious institutions become channels for growth. Not only did Rose Al-Youssef offer valuable opportunities for talents who later became some of Egypt’s leading journalists, writers, and caricaturists, but it also spawned other publications that although focused on other areas also continued the magazine’s signature style of edginess, freshness, and quite often irreverence for authority.
Rose Al-Youssef died three-quarters of a century ago. Her legacy remains not only in the institution that continues to carry her name, but also more widely in what she added to Egyptian journalism and to the ways that Egyptian society looks at itself.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.