Azbakeya, a district in downtown Cairo, was once the centre of a buzzing Egyptian nightlife industry that could rival those in London, Paris or Berlin in the 1920s. It was, according to a British specialist in Egyptian theatre, the scene of an alternative feminist movement led by transgressive and passionate female entertainers.
In his book Midnight in Cairo: the Divas of Egypt’s roaring '20s, Raphael Cormack raises the curtain on Egypt’s interwar entertainment industry by telling the tales of some of the country’s most daring and dazzling women.
From Badia Masabni, who owned and ran one of the hottest nightspots in town, to Rose Al-Youssef, the famous actress who founded her eponymous magazine, a key chronicler of Cairo’s nightlife, and Mounira Al Mahdiyya, a master of reinvention who deliberately sought out male roles to play on stage, Cormack’s seven leading ladies in Midnight in Cairo play out the highlights of Egypt’s “Golden Era” in entertainment.
Following the book’s release earlier this year, Cormack will offer audiences a deeper dive into the array of colourful characters in this scene in a four-week online course with the Arab British Centre this September.
His book vividly describes a Cairene era of exotic displays of dancing troupes, bustling bars and music halls that heralded the rise of a counterculture in a rapidly changing Egyptian society. It is a daring scene that rivalled the traditionally highbrow, male-dominated theatres and one where women often sat at the helm, Cormack tells The National.
“I was trying to capture as many different angles to this kind of nightclub scene as possible. To look at this 1920s and '30s nightlife that everyone kind of romanticises and misses from the perspective of basically the women who, in a lot of ways, are running it, who created it, who were really the stars of it.”
Another history of Egyptian feminism was being written on the stages of Cairo’s nightclubs, says Cormack.
“In this ‘other theatre scene’ it's striking that women are on the covers of all the magazines, women are in control of their troops, women are running cabarets, the whole thing can't exist without them,” says Cormack, who has a PhD in theatre from the University of Edinburgh.
Fluent in Arabic, the writer, who has been back and forth to Egypt since 2009, has penned a number of articles about Arabic culture and is the editor of The Book of Cairo.
Cormack says he first came across these women’s stories while researching his doctorate on Egyptian theatre in Cairo and found that an intriguing and popular subset of culture existed. Using contemporary press and many of the women’s own memories, Cormack shares the captivating tales of this little talked-about aspect of the early Egyptian women’s movement.
Some of the liberalism and independence of the era can be attributed, he says, to a sociopolitical environment where all kinds of opportunities open up after the 1919 revolution.
“Particularly in the cases of the women in this book who are not from elite backgrounds and don't have much formal education but sort of managed to come at this time when they could really take control of their lives and to a degree take control of their narratives and earn a living for themselves and become independent.”
It was also a time of diversity and cosmopolitanism which is rarely attributed to Arabic-speaking cultures in Western discourse, where, Cormack writes in his book, “the Middle East is usually seen only as a political problem to be solved”.
As well as breaking barriers on gender norms and dynamics, women such as actress Aziza Amir reached new frontiers in the performing arts. A pioneer of Egyptian cinema, Amir is responsible for producing the first locally funded Egyptian feature film Laila in 1927, and getting the famous film industry in her country going.
That’s not to romanticise this early feminist movement, he points out, or to dismiss the difficulties that these women “faced constantly”.
“It wasn't a feminist paradise, where they could just go live without the patriarchy, it was there.”
Cormack likens some of the conservative or reactionary backlash against the extremely quick pace with which women were throwing themselves into the public sphere in the 1920s with those in the 2020s.
“The main difference between the 1920s and the 2020s is that now there's this prevalent feeling of stagnation, that things aren't going in the right direction or things aren't moving. Whereas in the 1920s there was this feeling that things are moving forward to this great moment and that things could change.”
Not all the female performers of the era reached the same dizzying heights of success as the divas in Midnight in Cairo, notes Cormack. Many did not overcome the prevailing misogyny and sexism of the time and most faded into obscurity or worse. Nevertheless, Cormack's book is a welcome homage to the great women in Egypt of the last century whose legacies, as well as struggles, endure to this day.
Raphael Cormack's course begins on Tuesday, September 21. More information is available at www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk