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Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s

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One of the world’s most multicultural cities, twentieth-century Cairo was a magnet for the ambitious and talented. During the 1920s and ’30s, a vibrant music, theater, film, and cabaret scene flourished, defining what it meant to be a “modern” Egyptian. Women came to dominate the Egyptian entertainment industry—as stars of the stage and screen but also as impresarias, entrepreneurs, owners, and promoters of a new and strikingly modern entertainment industry.

Raphael Cormack unveils the rich histories of independent, enterprising women like vaudeville star Rose al-Youssef (who launched one of Cairo’s most important newspapers); nightclub singer Mounira al-Mahdiyya (the first woman to lead an Egyptian theater company) and her great rival, Oum Kalthoum (still venerated for her soulful lyrics); and other fabulous female stars of the interwar period, a time marked by excess and unheard-of freedom of expression. Buffeted by crosswinds of colonialism and nationalism, conservatism and liberalism, “religious” and “secular” values, patriarchy and feminism, this new generation of celebrities offered a new vision for women in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published May 6, 2021

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Raphael Cormack

2 books19 followers

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5 stars
90 (31%)
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113 (39%)
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72 (24%)
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13 (4%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews
Profile Image for Dina.
717 reviews2 followers
March 27, 2021
I will start this off by saying that this is perhaps a very niche book and others might not be fangirling over this like I was. This book made me so incredibly happy to learn about the fascinating history of the demi-monde of Cairo, and the erased contributions of female artists against the backdrop a radical pre and post war Egypt (though, let's be honest, opinions and views have not changed all that much). Centered around the music, theater, and art scene of 1920's Cairo, this book tells the stories of the fascinating, multidimensional, talented women on the fringes of society whose stories are still being praised, villainized, and mythologized. I wish this book gets the attention it deserves, and is translated into Arabic down the line. I would love to see this being read by the mainstream Egyptian population.

It makes me so sad to think of all the one-sided history I was incorrectly taught and how I grew up hearing about how these events "really happened". I hope there are more contributions by this academic and hope this prompts more research and books on the topic.
Profile Image for Mark Rizk Farag.
91 reviews61 followers
July 17, 2023
A very niche book but one that I loved so much! It covers a narrative that has been forgotten - perhaps on purpose from the Egyptian cultural lexicon - the rolling 20s and 30s and the colourful, countercultural, talented, eccentric, tumultuous stars of the era, with all their splendor and drama.

The book focuses on women, and does not shy away from discusses the socio political climate, with all it's sexism, misogyny, abuse, drug abuse, coercion etc. But it also tells a story of talent, women rising from the margins and escaping poverty and the aforementioned sexism. It tells of art, music, poetry, film, innovation and dance.

The characters in the book have lives worthy of such a text. Colourful, countercultural, dating and tragic. We learn of those women who pioneered gravity defying bellydances, started their own businesses - unheard of in the sexist society of the time, women who trailblazed in the area of film, and so on!

In an era of political repression and religious fundamentalism, in which being middle eastern is synonymous with being religiously and socially Conservative, it warms my heart to read such countercultural stories.
3,447 reviews49 followers
January 11, 2021
A very interesting book into a time period of Egypt that I know nothing of (I’m much more familiar with the age of the pyramids and the pharaohs). It turns out that 1920s Cairo was an exciting and changing time for the arts and entertainment. Cormack traces the roots of this change to late 19th century and early 20th century to the post WWII era when Egypt shook of European imperialism and changed everything again.

The most interesting thing was the importance of women to the arts and entertainment. I tend to think of a more conservative society associated with Egypt, and while that existed, Cairo sounded with the same excitement of possibilities and change that America and parts of Europe did during the 20s. It was multinational and also reflected its own cultural traditions. Women were entertainers, singers, dancers, actresses, magazine and troupe owners. This was also a time when the fight for women’s rights began. Cormack explores the often uneasy connection between the two. Women entertainers were often the embodiment of women’s rights: working and supporting themselves, living public lives, and making their own decisions about relationships. At the same time, these women were often distanced from the movement because their lifestyles could be scandalous and sometimes were thought to be prostitutes.

While many of the names are not remembered today, they made an impact and laid the foundations for many of the women entertainers of today. They should be rediscovered as should a fascinating time.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an ARC in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for أحمد ناجي.
Author 13 books1,026 followers
July 17, 2021
مسلسى وتفصيلي، بيفتح ابواب وسكك لإعادة تاريخ مرحلة مهمة من الفن المصري وحياة ليل القاهرة
فيه مزيج زكى بين افكار كثيرة، وإعادة رد اعتبار لفنانات مصر الرائدات ودورهم التاريخ في تأسيس السينما والمسرح والموسيقي الحديثة
Profile Image for Hannah Glass.
89 reviews35 followers
September 4, 2021
Let's be real: this book is for a niche group of people. And I loved every second of it.

Profile Image for Jenna.
1,837 reviews18 followers
September 27, 2021
2.5 stars
It was an interesting look at the history of entertainment in Egypt, focusing on the nightlife of the 1920 & 30's. But it was more about the underground women's movement thru examples of the famous/infamous women in the entertainment industry of the time. I didn't know anything about the subject.
The negative is like many other non-fic histories, there were a lot of names/dates to keep track of as well as info on the productions so after a while, it became information overload.

My guess is this was a PhD thesis that was ultimately turned into a book without becoming a dry/clinical read.
The author writes in the conclusion chapter:
"I have tried to tell the history of Cairo's nightlife through the eyes of the women who made it what it was-the first generation of modern Egyptian celebrities who lived through a legendary period"
I believe he achieved that goal.

I'd recommend this to those who are interested in Cairo history, women's movement's history in other countries, foreign history of entertainment.
Overall, it was ok. I learned about a subject that I knew nothing about and that's always a plus.
2,899 reviews255 followers
February 2, 2021
I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This was an interesting read.

It's well researched and dives into the history of plays and public performances in Cairo. We learn about the women who lit up the stage and follow their careers throughout the twenties. There are some beautiful pictures and some detailed anecdotes that give us an idea of life in Egypt at the time. I would have liked to hear from more Egyptians and seen more pictures, but it is an informative read.

Overall a good find!
Profile Image for Vicky Hunt.
854 reviews58 followers
January 9, 2022
The book is an entertaining read, but it is difficult to separate history from conjecture. I did learn a bit about several of the key figures of the Egyptian stage in the twenties. And the historical colonial setting did make it a good topic for a book.

It looks as if the goal was to write a series of Semi-Biographies. In the process it becomes quite fragmented. The last chapter is perhaps the most impactful.

I read this in a hardback copy.
348 reviews20 followers
December 5, 2020
Read if you: Want a dazzling and unique read about Egyptian female performers during the 20-50s.

Librarians/booksellers: This is a fascinating read! A great addition to your Middle East history section.

Many thanks to W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Cin.
5 reviews2 followers
Want to read
April 24, 2021
Found out about this book via vintage_egyptologist (Dr. Colleen Darnell).
Profile Image for Emi Yoshida.
1,494 reviews85 followers
March 9, 2021
Raphael Cormack is an expert on Arabic culture, and his enthusiasm for this subject is as apparent as the quality of his research. I've vacationed in Egypt, and this title and cover art appealed to me, but I'm afraid I don't have the background or depth of knowledge to relate to the topic in a meaningful way. On our 2019 family vacation in Cairo and Luxor with 12 year old twins, we weren't checking out Ezbekiyya, or any other redlight districts.

In reading Midnight in Cairo I learned a lot about many of the entertainers featured, the history of Cairene theater, dance halls and cabarets, and an exotic mix of cultures. I enjoyed learning random tidbits for example of Mohammed Ali's 1805 massacre "of hundreds of the most powerful Mamluks who he'd invited to a party in Cairo's citadel"; and that belly dancing is "in some ways an American and European invention" (like fortune cookies!). Basically I found this chaotic history of segregated, cross-dressing, debauched, transgendered, disenfranchised, morally criticized, women to be interesting, yet hardly uplifting.
Profile Image for Katie (DoomKittieKhan).
555 reviews28 followers
July 2, 2021
This book was a dream and an honor to read. From these pages familiar names, characters, shows, dance styles, all came up on the trilling sound of zills from my memory. Confession - I trained, professionally performed, and taught as a belly dancer from 1999-2011 with some of the best teachers in the region. Let me stop your assumptions immediately - I did not just learn to wear shiny costumes, and paint kohl on my blue-green eyes, only to dance to Shakira. Ok...I DID dance to Shakira for fun, but I also learned the rhythms of the beledi, how to toss my hair in the ghawazi style, to correctly zaghareet, and absorbed the intricate differences between Raqs Sharqi, American Tribal Style, Shaabi, and Rakass. I even co-founded a Middle Eastern Alliance at my high school in the height of post 9/11 Islamophobia. We put on haflas (think potlucks with better food and lots of dancing) and helped bridge knowledge gaps in our conservative and deeply Republican community. I loved my years as a dancer before my knees decided to do me dirty. Reading 'Midnight in Cairo' gave me a hefty dose of the academic study of Eastern dance that I love so much and brought bakc wonderful memeories. Well done, Raphael Cormack. I am eternally grateful.

'Midnight in Cairo' is a thorough study of the rise of Egyptian nationalism through the mediums of dance, theater, and music. It begins with an examination of the beginnings of the pre-WWI cabaret scene in Cairo on the edge of the colonialism of the past and the future of the Near East on the horizon. It follows the lives of famous female performers through the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Telling their stories alongside the global movements of women's liberation, the rise of jazz, moving pictures, and recorded sound. It's a sweeping history carefully told.

If you are at all interested in de-centering the western narrative of historical movements, the history of belly dance, reading about badass ladies, or taking a look at the rise of the modern Near East through the lens of the performing arts - I highly recommend you read this book.

Many thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for J.D. DeHart.
Author 11 books44 followers
December 27, 2020
Midnight in Cairo is a text well worth reading. Historical, well-researched, and a fascinating entry on the role of women over time.
2 reviews
January 27, 2022
If life had taught her anything, it was that nothing lasts forever

كتاب بديع، ينصح قرائته بشدة
Profile Image for EuroHackie.
765 reviews13 followers
June 30, 2022
What a frustrating read. For a book proportedly about the women of Egyptian entertainment in the interwar period, we spend an awful lot of time in the company of men, and even segue into thoughts on queer history. I think it is difficult for a man to write the history or stories of women because they will always be looking at it through the lens of the male gaze, with an unconscious bias that Others women (and gives equal space to other marginalized groups in a story about women, because all Others are equal, I guess).

Speaking of unconscious bias, all of the women chronicled in this book (save one) met tragic ends in some form or fashion. From the summit of their stardom in the 1910s-1930s, they all came crashing down, and I felt like the author passed judgment, even though he spends the final chapter (aptly titled "How to end a story") trying very hard to do the opposite. There is a dearth of primary sources and a lot of the recontruction of their lives is based in speculation and conjecture. These women wrote their own memoirs; who are we to doubt them??

This just did not work for me. It was a random find at my local library, and usually these turn out to be gems. Unfortunately, this was not one of them.
Profile Image for Ashley Hajimirsadeghi.
Author 5 books19 followers
July 16, 2021
Absolutely stunning book. I found it by chance at my local library and picked it up once I realized it was about women in Egypt during the 1920s. I was even more thrilled as I started realizing that it covered topics about art as a form of cultural resistance, specifically by pioneering women facing a masculine world that's set up against them. A lot of the women discussed in the book, faced sexism and misogyny, backlash from their own families, and were wildly successful during the time (although many, as mentioned, died penniless). If you're into theatre history, gender studies, Egyptian history, or even the 1920s as a whole global sociocultural movement, then this definitely is a book for you. The writing also didn't feel stiff or boring, as seen in some other historical books, so I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Hannah.
129 reviews3 followers
May 21, 2023
This book is super informative and super accessible to someone who doesn't know a lot (or anything) about this period in Egyptian history! Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Paul Vogelzang.
164 reviews3 followers
April 26, 2021
'Divas,' Roaring 20's, and Egypt, all in the same sentence? This book hits a home run with this subject, the author's research and the sheer talent of these women. Rose al-Youseff alone is worth the read! Amazing story. Publisher sent me the book and I interviewed the author, Raph Cormack. Great book and author.
Profile Image for Kathy Piselli.
968 reviews9 followers
January 1, 2022
I'm so happy to find this book since it ties together so many little threads of things I learned in college. I did not think of the actresses Cairo's golden stage era as feminists, and perhaps they did not think of themselves that way either. But of course it had to be difficult in that society to act, write, compose music, and sing without being rejected as a prostitute, or worse. There are great scenes where these formidable women challenge their hecklers, their spoiled or violent husbands, and their families. It is a world few living today can imagine in the wealthy West. These women were the parallel world to the wealthy Cairenes and other Arab women forging women's rights along with the human rights also denied to all in the European colonies. It is true that in Islam women could always own property, and often owned businesses, but there were still strictures. For example I do not think it's accidental that nearly all the best-known stars (Umm Kulthoum being the notable exception) have murky origins. They often dissembled about this since breaking free of whatever little place and family they came from was a necessary part of their chosen path to fame. They were brave, and often exceptionally talented, against all the odds. There are other parts interesting to me: That Ezbekiya was originally a lake, ex-slave jazz musicians who washed up in Cairo, the playing of male roles by these stars in a reversal of the tradition in the rest of the world of men playing women's parts, a connection between the American civil war and the development of the Egyptian theater district, a whole chapter on zar, and a surprising cameo of Edward Said. Cormack did a great job recommending additional reading and summing up the real meaning of that heady time.
Profile Image for Tameri Bushra.
9 reviews
April 1, 2022
Not a big fan. The author speaks from a very Eurocentric point of view, which I guess I should have expected. Isn’t it possible to recognize the beauty of Egyptian culture and history without having to compare it to that of France or England? Not sure I trust a white guy whose first visit to Egypt was in 2009 to write on the topic anyway. I also listened to this on audiobook, and the reader’s Egyptian Arabic pronunciation was almost as abysmal as her French accent. Not sure what qualified her for the job but clearly a few of us lied on our résumés.

That being said I do appreciate the inside look into a little-known part of Cairo’s history, at least from the West’s point of view. Unfortunately I have not yet found much Egyptian literature with the same emphasis on female empowerment. Recommendations appreciated.
Profile Image for Hani.
40 reviews1 follower
August 11, 2021
What a gem of a book! Very thoroughly researched and narrated.

More than one hundred years of Cairo’s Azbakeya theater district is rolled-out through the experience of the Egyptian Divas of that time and Raphael Cormack elegantly weaved the chapters to show how each of them struggled to achieve fame whilst working on the backdrop of a male chauvinistic society and the occasional envy and unfair competition between some of them.

Interestingly Egypt’s female actors and singers of the 20th century shared similar struggles to those encountered by their female Western counterparts. Luckily, through books like Midnight in Cairo, their lives, struggles and achievements, remain alive!
Profile Image for Riley Smith.
Author 19 books24 followers
March 4, 2022
This book had everything you could ask for. Theater, cross dressing, feminism, revolution, cafes and salons, gangsters, wealth, dramatic falls from grace, romance, betrayal, EVERYTHING.

What I really loved about this was how it's much more than the biography of cool ladies, which would have been plenty satisfying for me in itself! The first "Act" of the book lays out a lot of Egyptian history, focusing on the theater and politics that led to the environment that the divas performed in during the 20's. That was some much needed context for me, as I know literally nothing about Egyptian history any more recent than the pharaohs. I have now realized that means I know nothing about Egyptian history. But now I know (a tiny amount) about two revolutions, the theater scene at the start of the 20th century, the start of the Egyptian film industry, and it was all fascinating and laid out in a very clear, engaging, and descriptive way.

It's obviously well researched, and the women whose lives are explored are treated respectfully and with appropriate caveats. The author frequently says "We don't know his/her side of the story in this..." or "Their childhood is lost to history, but friends and family would tell the following stories..." So there's an awareness of the imperfect nature of historical inquiry, especially when trying to understand individual motivations and actions.

It ties the lives of individuals well into a larger narrative about this moment in Cairo's theatrical history and Egypt's political, particularly its feminist, movements. I think this kind of book is the exact antidote to the misinformation we're given in America about the Middle East and Africa. I definitely want to learn more, particularly about Egypt's film industry. I don't think I've ever seen an Egyptian film, and I hope to fix that soon!

This was fun and informative. Hit all the requirements for me. Definitely recommend.
Profile Image for Catherine Gottwalt.
405 reviews1 follower
August 16, 2021
3.5 / 5

Most of my hang-ups with this piece regard technical aspects of the writing, but, otherwise, I was entertained. Learning about very niche historical figures and moments in time I've not had the chance to yet hear about is so much fun to me. A very feminist lens covers this text, which is great and necessary because it asks readers to consider how gendered expectations/realities may or may not have impacted the trajectory of certain narratives as well as just gives credit to some key women who shaped Cairo's nightlife of the 1920s and 30s.

This book is structured in three parts. The first section is "Setting the Scene" and lays a foundation of what was happening culturally, politically, etc. leading up to this "Golden Age" in Cairo. Then, in the middle, we get mini profiles of seven significant women ("The Leading Ladies"), and, to conclude, is the "Curtain Call" that lets us know why this nightlife and these figures faded.

Mentally, I'm putting it in the same folder as COME FLY THE WORLD (Julia Cooke), which was about the PanAm flight attendants. Both are relatively obscure things from history that were enjoyable to read and learn about.
Profile Image for Tala Elbanna.
61 reviews
February 11, 2023
Finally done with it.
It was a little boring, especially the start. However, huge credits must go to the author for getting us insight into that much data.
Early 20th century Cairo feels like a completely different city with a different community. This interwar period witnessed so many changes and struggles put forth by the theatrical and artistic community, especially the women of the period. It was good to learn about people like Om Kolthoum and read more about their upbringing and rise to fame.
It’s sad that many of the dancers, singers and actors experienced very deep lows after their rising highs. Perhaps it is a consequence of arrogance and lack of faith in God.
I can’t tell for sure.
Still, it was interesting to read about the nightlife in Cairo in the interwar period. Things have definitely changed. The audience has changed and the performers definitely have too.
Profile Image for Hani.
40 reviews1 follower
August 11, 2021
What a gem of a book! Very thoroughly researched and narrated.

More than one hundred years of Cairo’s Azbakeya theater district is rolled-out through the experience of the Egyptian Divas of that time and Raphael Cormack elegantly weaved the chapters to show how each of them struggled to achieve fame whilst working on the backdrop of a male chauvinistic society and the occasional envy and unfair competition between some of them.

Interestingly Egypt’s female actors and singers of the 20th century shared similar struggles to those encountered by their female Western counterparts. Luckily, through books like Midnight in Cairo, their lives, struggles and achievements, remain alive!
Profile Image for Lisa.
233 reviews2 followers
May 7, 2021
Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s is a great nonfiction historical account of the nightlife in Cairo during this time period. I wasn't aware that the nightlife with dance halls and clubs rivaled that of Paris. In the book you not only meet some of the talented and powerful women of the time, but the author fills in the overall political and social landscape with highlights like the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and how that changed the the club scene. I enjoyed learning about the actual history of the area. Fascinating.
Profile Image for Tim Nistler.
58 reviews
October 31, 2022
I came across Raphael Cormack's "Midnight in Cairo" book in a local bookstore and was intrigued by the cover and title. It is a fascinating, educational, and enjoyable book about a time and place that I had not given much thought to. The women that led the way in Egypt's theater/film/entertainment history were so talented, driven, and complicated. This is a great book to introduce someone to a period of Egypt's history, between WWI and independence.
Profile Image for Ana.
688 reviews36 followers
February 19, 2022
I learned so much about the history of entertainment, Egypt, and the interwar period, all while learning the stories of some truly amazing women. Engagingly written research with interesting photographs included. Loved every page, and though there seemed a melancholic cast at times, the author addresses this at the conclusion of the book in a very satisfying way. Grateful to have read it.
Profile Image for Tony Gualtieri.
422 reviews25 followers
September 6, 2022
I enjoyed this survey of the great singers and dancers of Egypt. While biographical information is scant, the author does a good job capturing the ambiance of the clubs as wells as the hustle and struggle of the performers. It's difficult for a contemporary author to keep contemporary moralizing out such a survey, but these intrusions are not overbearing.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews

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