Raphael Cormack, Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s (Saqi Books and W. W. Norton & Company, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Raphael Cormack (RC): This book is an attempt to tell the story of Egypt’s nightlife in the 1920s and 1930s by interweaving the biographies of its most successful and important women. During the research for my PhD, I immersed myself in the early twentieth-century Egyptian entertainment press and the memoirs of the period written by actors, actresses, and singers. The stories of women’s lives in particular leapt of the page. Historians are often told that women’s perspectives are hard to find, but here they could not be ignored. Of course, this was not always straightforward; the voices were sometimes mediated through the male editors of magazines, the personal lives subject to prurient gossip, and their appearances picked apart. But they were unquestionably present. In Midnight in Cairo, I have tried to use their words and experiences to build a picture of Cairo’s nightlife and entertainment industry from the perspective of these fascinating women.
I also wanted to show what history writing could look like if we take performance and popular culture seriously as objects of historical study. In this, I am building on books like Ziad Fahmy’s Ordinary Egyptians and Carmen Gitre’s Acting Egyptian, as well as work by Frederic Lagrange on the singers of this period, and Adham Hafez and the HaRaKa collective, who have helped give me the confidence to say that dancing, singing, and cabaret are art forms worthy of analysis.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RC: During the course of writing the book I, of course, had to think deeply about the writing of women’s lives. It was striking how many lives of exceptional women have been pushed into the same narrative pattern—rebellion, followed by independence, ending with sadness, loneliness, or tragedy. This is a common feature across the world, from Marilyn Monroe to Jean Rhys, Nina Hamnett, and more. In Egypt, for instance, one of the common tropes of these stars’ lives is that (after all their fame in life) nobody turns up to their funeral. There seems to be something deeply misogynistic built into the common way of telling a woman’s story: female independence is punished in the end, it seems to imply. Therefore, in the background of this book is a lot of work on the writing of pioneering and transgressive women’s lives and the construction of female celebrity—works like Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and Sharon Marcus’ Drama of Celebrity—as well as literature on life writing by women, such as Marilyn Booth’s May Her Likes Be Multiplied.
The book is structured around the lives of seven of the most prominent women in Egypt’s entertainment industry. Interweaving their lives together, the book tries to create as full a picture as possible of Cairo’s nightlife in the early twentieth century.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
RC: In many ways, this work builds off work done in my PhD on Arabic translations and adaptions of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in Egypt. For this, I looked at how Egyptians had engaged with the Ancient Greek past—either attempting to incorporate it into Egyptian national identity, or not. It also analyzed some of the more prominent theories of performance being formulated in Egypt in the twentieth century. Over the course of writing the book, I realized how shaped I had been by my PhD and my two supervisors, Olga Taxidou and Marilyn Booth, whose work on performance and women’s life writing (respectively) has been such a key part of my intellectual development.
This current book is set in the same time period and also looks at Egypt’s performance culture, but there are significant differences in focus, topic, and audience. Most importantly, this is a book written as much for a non-academic audience as for an academic one. This has been an interesting and sometimes difficult task. In particular, I have tried to let the narrative and amazing stories guide the book, without inserting my own analysis too explicitly. Also, attempting to address many different people at the same—both those who know quite a lot about the nightlife of Egypt, and those who perhaps may have heard of Oum Kalthoum—presents its own challenges.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RC: As I say, this is a book aimed at a very wide audience. For some, I hope that it will be a revelation to discover that such a nightlife scene even existed in 1920s Cairo. There is an important gap to be filled in the popular literature market in anglophone countries on the culture and entertainment industry of the Middle East, moving away from books on war and politics alone. I also hope that for academic audiences the book will offer stories, sources, and events about which they may not have known previously. I spent a long time going over journals from the 1920s, some of which are very rare, and I hope my work there will be of use to others.
J: Can you talk a little more about sources you used?
RC: One thing that I hope comes from this book is demonstrating the richness of the Egyptian press during the 1920s and 1930s. Archival sources about the nightlife and cabaret of Egypt are scant or hard to find. When Edward Said wrote about Tahiyya Carioca he lamented that so much of the history of this period was “unrecorded and unpreserved” and absent from archives—if the archives are even accessible. Said was left with “a sense of a sprawling, teeming history off the page, out of sight and hearing, beyond reach, largely unrecoverable.”
I hope to have shown that magazines and newspapers are a rich source of material. Many of these magazines themselves are quite rare but there are significant collections in Egypt (at Dar al-Kutub in particular), in Beirut (at the American University of Beirut), and in America (Penn Library has many otherwise hard to find periodicals, but there are also good collections in Yale, Harvard, and elsewhere).
There has also been some excellent work done recently to make this material available online for free. I am a particular fan of the online Arabic periodical collection digitized by the University of Bonn, but others are also very useful. CEAlex has digitized many francophone journals, too. Particularly during the pandemic, such online collections have been a lifeline and show how much can be done with these early twentieth-century periodicals.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RC: I am currently working on a history of the global trajectory of Spiritualism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This might sound like a big departure from Cairo’s nightlife in the 1920s, but in fact there are many similarities. I am particularly interested in the way in which cultures travelled in the 1920s, a period of unprecedented connection in the world, which is a feature of both Spiritualism and nightclub entertainment. Also, the performative aspects of Spiritualism and summoning the spirits of the dead have many parallels to the entertainment world. Spirituals and “Fakirs” became celebrities in much the same way as singers and dancers.
I am also working with some other scholars on putting together an edited collection that poses the slightly provocative question of what it would be like to see the Nahda as a popular cultural phenomenon.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-9)
In the late 1980s, the Egyptian writer Louis Awad looked back on his student days in Cairo between the wars. In particular, he remembered the nights he spent in the cafés of Cairo’s nightlife district, Ezbekiyya:
All you had to do was sit in one of the bars or cafés that looked out onto Alfi Bey Street, like the Parisiana or the Taverna, and tens of different salesmen would come up to you, one selling lottery tickets, another selling newspapers, another selling eggs and simit bread, another selling combs and shaving cream, the next shining shoes, and the next offering pistachios. There were also people who would play a game ‘Odds or Evens’, performing monkeys, clowns, men with pianolas who performed with their wives, fire eaters, and people impersonating Charlie Chaplin’s walk. Among all these, there was always someone trying to convince you that he would bring you to the most beautiful girl in the world, who was only a few steps away.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the centre of nightlife in Ezbekiyya was Emad al-Din Street – long and wide, with a tram line down the middle running north to the suburbs of Shubra and Abbasiyya. The intersection with Alfi Bey Street, where Louis Awad used to sit in the bars and cafés, was at the southern end of the action. In its heyday, Cairo’s nightlife could rival that in Paris, London or Berlin. Any resident of Egypt’s capital city in the early twentieth century could have claimed, with justification, to be living in one of the great cities of the world, at the centre of many different cultures.
The city’s population had come from an amazing variety of places across Europe, Africa and Asia. Some people (mostly the Europeans) enjoyed pampered lives with lucrative jobs in Africa’s latest boom town. Others struggled, working in menial jobs or negotiating the growing criminal underworld, trying anything to stay afloat. People seeking better opportunities lived alongside refugees from Europe who came in the wake of the First World War. Spies and political agitators from as far away as Russia and Japan crossed the paths of sybaritic aristocrats, who whiled away their afternoons in hotel bars.
This history of cosmopolitan Egypt is memorably recorded in the novels, poems and memoirs of Europeans, most of them living in Alexandria. From the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s melancholy evocations of Mediterranean café life to the rich, chocolate-cake prose of Lawrence Durrell’s epic Alexandria Quartet, these writers created some of the most enduring images of twentieth-century Egypt.
But, far from the elite literary salons of Alexandria, another story unfolded – less well known but just as exciting – in the Arabic theatres, cafés and clubs of Cairo. In the transgressive nightlife of central Cairo, with all the freedom that came with performing for an audience of strangers, rigid identities and conventional barriers that separated different nationalities were more fluid than anywhere else. Even a cursory attempt to list the stars of this period reveals the huge variety of their backgrounds, whether religious, national or cultural. Some became legends, others have been forgotten, but they all played their part. There were Egyptians of all kinds. Many of the earliest star actresses, like Nazla Mizrahi or the Dayan sisters, were Jewish; others were Christian or Muslim. Some performers came from further up the Nile. One dance hall in the 1930s boasted a troupe of Sudanese dancers, and among the many young actresses trying to break into the big time in the 1920s was Aida al-Habashiyya, who, to judge from her name, must have been of either Ethiopian or Sudanese descent (Habasha is the Arabic word for that part of subSaharan Africa). Other dancers, singers and actors came to Cairo from all over the Arab world to perform on its stages.
Europeans, too, populated this primarily Arabic-speaking world. One of the most famous dancers of the 1920s was the Englishwoman Dolly Smith, who worked as a choreographer for the biggest theatrical companies in Cairo. Then there was the French Madame Langlois, the influential cabaret impresario and owner of Cairo’s Casino de Paris. The life of the stage proved a magnet for ambitious misfits of all kinds. They found ample possibilities in the nightlife district of Ezbekiyya, where the refined opera house and expensive hotels sat alongside smoky bars, hashish dens and nightclubs; where Greek waiters served their artistic patrons coffee, wine and zabib (a potent Egyptian version of arak); where singing and dancing lasted long into the night.
In these disparaged music halls and theatres, women were defining their own place in the new century. They had a lot to fight against, from the disapproval of conservative society to men who thought they could do what they wanted with an actress or nightclub singer. But the lucky ones who managed to navigate their way through this world achieved significant personal and financial independence. Female singers commanded large audiences; actresses were in high demand; women owned dance halls, wrote and directed films, and recorded hit songs. In 1915, eight years before the founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union, the singer and actress Mounira al-Mahdiyya formed her own theatrical troupe. These women who did so much to create modern Egyptian culture were not part of the elite. They frequently grew up in poverty, and many had little formal education – often they had to learn how to read just to be able to understand the scripts for plays they were supposed to act in. Nonetheless, telling the history of Egyptian culture – of Egypt itself – would be impossible without them. They chose what to perform and the Egypt they wanted to show.
This is the story of a parallel women’s movement running alongside the conventional history of early twentieth-century Egyptian feminism, which runs through a list of prominent female activists, most (if not all) from middle- or upper-class backgrounds – Hoda Shaarawi, Nabawiyya Musa, May Ziadeh, Ceza Nabarawi, and the Egyptian Feminist Union. This movement happened in the demi-monde, late at night after the high-class critics had gone to bed. Despite their lack of respectability (or perhaps because of it), these women soon became the first modern Egyptian celebrities. In the 1920s a series of popular entertainment magazines came into being, all of them catering to fans obsessed with these female stars. Journalists dissected everything about them, publishing countless photos, interviews and articles, feeding the public demand for details of their favourite stars’ lives. Later in life, many of these women also published their own memoirs of this period, often casting themselves in the best light or settling old scores. In this celebrity story-mill, fuelled by gossip, romanticism and myth, tales often took on a life of their own – the more flamboyant the better. Yet at its core, this was a group of women demanding to be heard as they asserted their wishes, claimed their rights, and made space for themselves.
Women offered a perspective on this world that men could not – and it was one in which men often came across quite badly. In 1951 a veteran actress called Fatima Rushdi wrote an article explaining why she loved acting parts written for men. She argued that such roles as Romeo, Hamlet, Napoleon and Don Juan ‘suit a woman’s nature because they have a universal character. They have a certain subtlety and intelligence that only she can succeed in capturing.’ Women, she argued, with their sensitivity to the world around them, just make better actors – whether the part be male or female. ‘Men have been luckier than women in the acting profession, but women are better actors,’ she said, contending that ‘only a woman can really get to the depths of the characters’. She concluded that ‘to put it plainly, women can give a performance that is more complete and successful than any man’.
Excerpted from Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ‘20s. Copyright (c) 2021 by Raphael Cormack. Used with permission of the publishers, Saqi Books and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.