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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, entr 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.


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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, entr 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.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dina

    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 s 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.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Vintagebooklvr

    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 entertainm 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.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lady H

    rtc

  4. 4 out of 5

    أحمد ناجي

    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

  5. 4 out of 5

    (a)lyss(a)

    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 infor 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!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Schultz

    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.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Hannah Glass

    Let's be real: this book is for a niche group of people. And I loved every second of it. Let's be real: this book is for a niche group of people. And I loved every second of it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cin

    Found out about this book via vintage_egyptologist (Dr. Colleen Darnell).

  9. 4 out of 5

    Emi Bevacqua

    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 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    J.D. DeHart

    Midnight in Cairo is a text well worth reading. Historical, well-researched, and a fascinating entry on the role of women over time.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    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, bu 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.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Hajimirsadeghi

    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 (althou 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.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Paul Vogelzang

    '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. '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.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Catherine Gottwalt

    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 wome 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.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Hani

    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 s 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!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    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 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.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nina

    Fascinating biographies.. I especially loved the chapter contrasting Oum Kalthoum's and Mounira El Mahdiyyah's legacies and the later chapters outlying the politics 50s and 60s - a lot of it which I recognized from the events and general atmopshere Nawal el Saadawi describes in her memoires Fascinating biographies.. I especially loved the chapter contrasting Oum Kalthoum's and Mounira El Mahdiyyah's legacies and the later chapters outlying the politics 50s and 60s - a lot of it which I recognized from the events and general atmopshere Nawal el Saadawi describes in her memoires

  18. 4 out of 5

    Marilyn

    Non-fiction book about women in Egypt between the world wars. He describes the lives of women who became famous singers, actors and entrepreneurs during the time. I knew very little about Egypt’s history so this was really interesting to read. I had no idea that there was such a variety of clubs and cabarets in Cairo. It took me a little bit to get into the book, but soon I was fascinated to learn more about these women and this time in history. I recommend it for others interested in women’s hi Non-fiction book about women in Egypt between the world wars. He describes the lives of women who became famous singers, actors and entrepreneurs during the time. I knew very little about Egypt’s history so this was really interesting to read. I had no idea that there was such a variety of clubs and cabarets in Cairo. It took me a little bit to get into the book, but soon I was fascinated to learn more about these women and this time in history. I recommend it for others interested in women’s history.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Crunden

    Ooooooh, this sounds fantastic!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rula

    I read this book based on a friend’s recommendation, but I don’t feel it added anything to my intellectual information or interest.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Maire

    It is so fun to learn about a time and a place I’m wholly unfamiliar with. So many stories of fascinating Egyptian women of the theatre.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Hasheemah Afaneh

    Mesmerizing!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sue Foster

    Interesting look at the Roaring Twenties in Egypt and the women who carved out their own lives.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stefaniab

    I've wanted to read a book on this subject since 1982, when I began Egyptian style belly dance classes. I was fortunate to have teachers who knew something of the founders of Raks Sharki and the great Egyptian entertainers of the early 20th century. But there was only so much they could tell me, because the background cultural information I wanted was not available in English. We were starving for more information. Then this winter, during the height of the Covid pandemic, I wandered, be-masked, I've wanted to read a book on this subject since 1982, when I began Egyptian style belly dance classes. I was fortunate to have teachers who knew something of the founders of Raks Sharki and the great Egyptian entertainers of the early 20th century. But there was only so much they could tell me, because the background cultural information I wanted was not available in English. We were starving for more information. Then this winter, during the height of the Covid pandemic, I wandered, be-masked, into a local bookstore. And there, on the cover of this book, was the fabulous Taheya Carioca, Um Kultoum, and other women in 1920s finery. I had to buy "Midnight in Cairo." What a thrill to finally get the background information on these women, who had such an influence on Egyptian culture. Thank you so much, Raphael Cormack, for in depth information about fascinating characters, like Bedia Masabna and Rose El Yousef. And especially the mysterious Shafika El Koptia. Midnight in Cairo is a fun read for anyone interested in the lively Egyptian entertainment scene in the early 20th century. It's a true light during the dark times from which we are now emerging. Most of all, it's a must read for belly dance teachers and students in the English speaking world. This is where your dance truly began.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Spencer

  26. 5 out of 5

    Eleanor

  27. 5 out of 5

    Elizabethcairo

  28. 4 out of 5

    Azza Rouine

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Bourque

  30. 5 out of 5

    momen bari

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