Many years ago a Parisian dance act from Pigalle received an invitation to play at a nightclub on Cairo’s Pyramid Road. Like “costumes” at the Crazy Horse today, the dancers’ body stockings left nothing to the imagination. The audience of worldly Cairiotes, the tarbouche-wearing musicians with their lutes and durabukas, the indefatigable army of busboys, gazed on this spectacle of female nubility with a mix of indifference and condescension. There had been so many girls like this on the stage in Cairo. “Baris” and “Bigalle” held no surprises for them. If that story, reported to me by one of the dancers, seems incongruous, it’s because this aspect of Cairo has been forgotten, along with the burned-down opera house and the boarded up music halls of its pleasure quarter, Ezbekiya. Raphael Cormac book Midnight in Cairo proposes to cure our amnesia.
To set the scene, Cormac reminds us that much of Egypt’s early modern history saw this ancient country sucked ever deeper into a vortex of European economic and cultural currents: Napoleon’s invasion, the cotton boom, the opening of the Suez Canal, the hosting of Verdi’s opera Aïda, Britain’s imperial occupation and the influx of Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians and French turned Cairo into an exuberant capital of the arts and pleasures, complete with chorus girls, soubrettes and divas. Religion played less of a role in this society than one would have anticipated. When the distinguished Sheykh of Al-Azhar questioned the propriety of women performing on stage, the great and the good uniformly condemned his narrow-mindedness. Even so, the theatre-loving Egyptians, much like their male counterparts in the west, held views about these women not so different from that of Al-Azhar.
The problem of women on stage revolved around the elusive frontiers between art and exploitation. The cynics saw all performances as mere fig leafs for prostitution. The most high-minded actresses and singers performed Hamlet and La Traviata (in classical Arabic) and remained beyond reproach. But what to make of the world of the music hall, the opérette, the melodrama and the danse orientale? Most of these women were demi-mondaines at best. Even the stars of the stage led tumultuously dramatic love lives, frequently divorcing and marrying their co-stars, directors or sponsors.
The sexual freedom of these women causes offense to the male-dominated society. Moreover, Egyptians feared that Cairo’s sleazy nightlife would serve as an excuse for colonial master Britain to deny Egypt’s capacity for self-rule, as though women’s (sexual) freedom made the men too effeminate to be trusted with power. The government tried to suppress belly dancing because it played into British prejudices about the backwardness of the East.
Women performers, of course, saw their situation completely differently. Many of them had to overcome poverty and exploitation. Show-business gave them financial independence, even great wealth. Cormac retells how the penniless dancer Shafiqa seduced Cairo’s elite, and wound up building her villa next to the royal Abdeen Palace. Fatima Rushdi began singing in cabarets, and ended up an habituée of Europe’s grand hotels in Venice, Paris and Monte Carlo. Singer-actress Rose al-Yusef even founded her own newspaper dedicated to the arts, which she named after herself. Money allowed these women to walk out on abusive, unfaithful and venal companions. What really befuddled men, then, was the agency of these women.
They were not afraid to use their agency for larger causes. During the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, against British rule, show business women organized street demonstrations and inspired patriotic resistance. As educated and politically aware women, they chafed at the lack of women’s rights provided by the emerging parliamentary regime. They tirelessly promoted the equality of women and argued for a greater role for themselves in the professions as well as on the stage. They won many of these arguments, as the innumerable doctors, lawyers and teachers of Egypt testify today, even though society has since become more religiously colored.
Modern media made even greater fortunes for well-known singers and actresses who could quickly adapt the new technologies, the gramophone before the First World War and cinema after the War. Women ran their own recording and production companies. But for these women, mass media insidiously changed the rules of the game. In the world of nightclubs or theatres, their lifestyle concerned only a small, urban elite. Newspapers carped at their love lives, but had limited distribution. The cinema-goers constituted a much larger public. They harbored more conservative viewson gender roles.. So arose, as early as Egypt’s first cinematic success Leyla (1927), the archetype that still inspires the plots of many Egyptian films. A heroine finds forbidden love, momentary happiness, and then via betrayal either dies of a broken heart or commits suicide. The message is clear that the fallen woman must meet her comeuppance. And indeed, the whole lifestyle described in Midnight in Cairo got its comeuppance.
The revolution of 1952 saw the imposition, on a national scale, of the values of the common Egyptian, incarnated by Gamel Abdel Nasser. Under him Egypt expelled foreigners, expropriated bankers and implemented socialism. In this febrile environment a mob either communist- or Islamicist-inspired burned down the Ezbekiya pleasure quarter. The nightclubs moved out of the city to Pyramid Road, to cater to tourists. The new tone of Egyptian society, with rationing, Soviet advisers and mass rural to city migration, effaced the extravagance and licentiousness of the previous generation. The singer Om Kalthoum, who had always cultivated a demure and scandal-free persona, triumphed as the symbol of Egyptian arts, while her racier or raunchier rivals faded into obscurity.
Raphael Cormac is a lecturer in Arabic at Edinburgh University. His subject really requires the pen of Naguib Mahfouz or Laurence Durrell to evoke the exuberance of pre-Socialist Egypt, but he performed a great service in tracking down the newspaper clippings, memoirs, crime sheets and show bills of Cairo’s theater scene in the first half of the 20th century.
His exploration of the lyrics of Egypt’s pop music, recorded on 78s, with their daring and transgressive messages, makes the past seem alive again. Readers may feel a little bit like tourists lost in Cairo’s bazaar, Khan el-Khalili, as Cormac turns into one alley after another in his story-telling. Often lost but at the same time beguiled.