Contemporary Cairo is nothing so much as a testament to its past. The pyramids and the Sphinx, of course, bear witness to an era of achievement tough to imagine for anyone who has spent time in the chaotic city it is today. But the cacophonous, endlessly gridlocked, acridly stifling metropolis also gives hints of more recent glory days with its once resplendent, now carbon-smeared neo-colonial works of architecture, one more fanciful than the next.
As one’s eyes sting from smog and one’s ears ring with the endless discordant symphony of blaring horns, though, that halcyon era of the 19th and early 20th centuries is difficult to conjure. For all its present-day enchantments, Cairo is a city that rests on its laurels.
It is during its so-called Belle Époque, which began in the late 1800s, that Egyptian-theater scholar Raphael Cormack’s new book, Midnight in Cairo, begins.
Scenes from Another Cairo
Cormack brings the Cairo of legend back to life, in particular its nightlife. He walks readers through the Ezbekiyya neighborhood, focusing on Emad al-Din Street, once the Egyptian Broadway and home to an animated collection of music halls, cabarets, theaters, and, eventually, cinemas.
This was the period when Cairo was home to a cosmopolitan mix of foreigners, with a particularly heavy European influence, and was known as the “Paris of the East.” Throughout the 20th century, Egypt dominated the music, cabaret, theater, and film scenes in the Arab world, and its biggest stars shone brightly enough to be noticed in the West as well. Cormack traces the beginnings of those industries and tells the story of Egyptian popular culture—and therefore the story of its societal development—with a focus on the women who were at its center.
Egypt’s heyday of artistic exploration and invention ran from the late 1880s until the Free Officers revolution overthrew the king, in 1952. The book focuses on seven notable women from that time, among them Mounira al-Mahdiyya, who ran the first female-led theatrical troupe in Egypt; Rose al-Youssef, the vaudeville star who started an eponymous magazine—still in existence today—when she didn’t like the way theater was being covered in the press; and the iconic singer Oum Kalthoum, whose admirers included such diverse artists as Bob Dylan, Maria Callas, Patti Smith, and Bono, and whose 1967 concert at the Olympia in Paris has been called “mythic” in the French press.
Cormack describes this milieu as existing apart from many of the societal strictures of the day. “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,” he writes. In this world, women were able to exert autonomy and find success not only as performers but as entrepreneurs—though they were often dogged by controversy while doing so.
Despite the fact that this was perhaps the most liberal era in modern Egyptian history, female performers were nonetheless criticized for what they wore onstage, subjected to gossip and speculation about their love lives, and accused of being too masculine when they showed agency in their lives and careers. Nearly all of them had multiple marriages.
They did push back, often forcefully. “Write what you want about me.… Go ahead. Say those things that you always say when you are trying to explain a woman’s actions,” an actress named Fatima Sirri responded when accused of exploiting a younger man for his money. When the benefactor of Rose al-Youssef’s acting troupe saw her in a swimsuit at the beach and ordered her to cover up, she quit instead.
“In the transgressive nightlife of central Cairo … rigid identities and conventional barriers that separated different nationalities were more fluid than anywhere else.”
Cormack refers to the burgeoning feminism in Egypt at this time, a movement whose efforts are scattered and never fully catch steam. As he writes, the feminists of the early 20th century “were careful not to make men too uncomfortable.”
In that sense, the stars of the nightclubs, theaters, and cabarets were the true feminists. “In these disparaged music halls and theaters, women were defining their own place in the new century,” Cormack writes. “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.” The ones who made it, though, “achieved significant personal and financial independence.”
They did what they wanted, how they wanted, and while their livelihoods depended on being subjects of the male gaze and they were never able to fully liberate themselves from the shackles inherent in a patriarchal society, they lived largely self-determined lives. Unlike most women in Egypt at that time, they were not defined by their husbands’ functions in the world but by their own. They represented a hope that women’s roles could evolve and change.
While strides have been made, on the whole, women in today’s Egypt don’t fare significantly better than their turn-of-the-century counterparts when it comes to the pressure to adhere to mandated norms. Women today are better educated, and more of them are employed outside of the home, but they are still expected to handle household and childcare duties, remain “pure” until marriage, and be at the service of their husbands. Women’s-rights activists hoped that the Arab Spring might represent a new era for them, but when they tried to press for progress, their demands went unheard.
Midnight in Cairo transports readers to a time when the world was changing rapidly and women were forging new paths. It was a moment of optimism and possibility—until that mood was dampened midcentury by a wave of oppression. The years following the 2011 Arab Spring were similarly hopeful, but the dreams of that time, too, have since been dashed. Cormack’s return to the past is a reminder that progress is not linear and that strong women with the means to amplify their voices—of which there are more than a few in Egypt today—can shatter norms and pave the way forward.
Monique El-Faizy is a Paris-based journalist and the co-author of All the President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator