Raphael Cormack transports readers to Cairo's vibrant 1920s nightlife scene

The 1920s were a remarkable time in Egypt's history. It was a time when feminism, socialism, democracy, and other movements were shaping social and political life in the country.

In an interview with Al Majalla, author Raphael Cormack recounts the hardships and struggles of female artists in Cairo's theatres, cabarets, and nightclubs during the city's very own Roaring Twenties
In an interview with Al Majalla, author Raphael Cormack recounts the hardships and struggles of female artists in Cairo's theatres, cabarets, and nightclubs during the city's very own Roaring Twenties

Raphael Cormack transports readers to Cairo's vibrant 1920s nightlife scene

In Midnight in Cairo (published in 2020), Raphael Cormack recounts the hardships and struggles of female artists in Cairo’s theatres, cabarets, and nightclubs during the 1920s.

The book explores the pursuit of independence by Cairo’s divas and their efforts to shape a unique feminist movement, distinct from the thus-far dominant version of feminism enshrined by suffragette and feminist pioneer Huda Shaarawi.

In the eyes of author Raphael Cormack, an academic with a Ph.D. in Egyptian theatre from the University of Edinburgh, 1920s Cairo was the “Paris of the East.”

Al Majalla spoke with Cormack about his book and Cairo’s nightlife scene in the 1920s.

Raphael Cormack

Why did you choose to explore the 1920s art scene in downtown Cairo?

The 1920s were a remarkable time in Egypt's history.

The country had recently gained its independence. It was a time of change. Feminism, socialism, democracy, and other movements were shaping social and political life in the country.

The Egyptians were contemplating the meaning of being Egyptian and what the future of modern Egypt should look like, and in the haze of the booming nightlife, actors and artists would respond to these questions in their own unique ways.

The 1920s was a remarkable period in Egypt's history when feminism, socialism and democracy were shaping social and political life in the country.

Raphael Cormack, author

What sources and references did you use to document that period? 

There are few archival resources available on the nightlife of the period.

The Abbas Hilmi II Papers, currently held in the archives of Durham University and available online, provide some interesting insights. Notably, they include secret police reports dating back to the 1890s in Ezbekiyya, the epicentre of downtown Cairo's Roaring Twenties.

But the main sources of information are entertainment magazines and newspapers from that time and the memoirs of actors and actresses during that period. 

How did the press and the state treat female artists and dancers during that time? 

The press loved the Egyptian divas, but this love bordered on obsession.

Magazines and newspapers were fixated on every aspect of the lives of actresses and singers, starting from their private lives at home and not ending with their breakfast choices.

It was a win-win situation. These women often graced magazine covers, helping boost sales, and in return, the press elevated them to stardom, setting them up for long-term success.

But it came at a price. The press would often publish rumours about the stars' sexual lives and scrutinise their every move.

You could say that the magazines were just as cruel as they were kind to Egyptian divas. 

Why did you choose to shine a spotlight on women's contributions to the flourishing art scene of the 1920s? 

Women were always at the forefront of the popular arts scene in the 1920s. Actresses, singers, and dancers were the most popular. It's impossible to retrace the cultural landscape of the time without mentioning their role.

Still, it is important to recognise that those women also faced exploitation and abuse during this period.

By examining their experiences, we gain a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of life in 1920s Egypt in both its positive and negative aspects. 

Women were always at the forefront of Cairo's art scene. Actresses, singers, and dancers were the most popular.

Raphael Cormack, author

It is widely believed that female artists were destined to experience sadness, despair, and loneliness, while male artists achieved greater success and influence. Why is that? 

I don't think that these women's lives ended in more sadness, despair, or loneliness compared to male artists.

The problem is that after their death, people didn't know how to portray the life of an independent woman accurately. Human culture is inherently hostile towards strong women.

How did Egyptian society handle women's participation in the arts during the 1920s? 

Many people were angered and horrified by the increasing public presence of women in the Egyptian arts scene, particularly in cabarets. They were worried about the potential impact on morals in the country.

Female artists were often barred from cafes after their performances, harassed by the police, and subjected to unwanted attention from men who viewed them as sexually available.

This made for a very challenging artistic environment. 

What were the economics of the entertainment industry at the time? And how would you describe the financial conditions of the epoch's female artists? 

Most women in the entertainment industry did not earn a significant income from their performances. Many lived in poverty and remained poor later because they had limited career options besides clubs.

'Midnight in Cairo'

Still, a few women achieved great wealth through their work.

Badia Masabni, for example, owned her own club and made a lot of money. Umm Kulthum was also a savvy businesswoman; her record-breaking contracts brought in a significant income.

Yet despite these success stories, only a small number of women in the industry were able to achieve wealth. Most just managed to break even. 

Do you believe the melting pot of Egyptians and Europeans in Cairo enhanced diversity in art performances in theatres and clubs? 

The entertainment industry in Egypt was indeed quite diverse.

In my book, I aimed to highlight that this cosmopolitan world was not solely European, as is commonly believed.

The Arabic-speaking Egyptian culture was also incredibly diverse and cosmopolitan. 

Why did you establish a connection between Huda Shaarawi and the conditions of female artists during that time? 

Huda Shaarawi was a pioneer of Egyptian feminism, but her life and the lives of the cabaret singers were vastly different. They could never truly comprehend each other or find common ground.

In the book, I aimed to illustrate that the cabarets and theatres in Cairo fostered a distinct brand of feminist struggle that departs from Shaarawi's but is still a valid form of feminism.

What historical, social, and political conditions and influences led to the flourishing of the arts in Cairo during that period? 

Cairo experienced a vibrant art scene in the 1920s due to a combination of factors.

The city was economically robust, attracting visitors from around the globe who had spare money to spend on nightlife and entertainment.

Politically, there was a sense of optimism, and socially, women were increasingly visible in public spaces, including on stage. While it was not entirely socially acceptable for women to appear on stage then, it became more feasible.

A few decades earlier, theatre groups would struggle to find actresses for their productions, but in the 1920s, they were plentiful. 

1920s Cairo was bustling with tourists from the world over seeking world class entertainment.

Raphael Cormack, author

You mention in the book that you visited downtown Cairo. What changes did you notice from 1920s downtown and its nightclubs, theatres, and cinemas? 

It's strange how much things have changed and yet stayed the same.

The once-popular clubs like Badia Masabni's have vanished. Only a few old theatres that used to line Emad El-Din Street remain. Behind the gate of an old Opera House theatre now lies a post office. The Casino where singer Naima al-Masriyya performed has become a spare parts shop, and the old Egyptian Theatre building is now a warehouse.

Still, I felt that behind closed doors, there were still many small bars or cabarets where the spirit of the 1920s lived on. 

You are clearly passionate about Munira Al-Mahdiyya and her life. Why is that? How does she compare to Umm Kulthum, in your opinion? 

Munira Al-Mahdiyya and Umm Kulthum embody contrasting approaches to interacting with the press and celebrities.

Umm Kulthum maintained a reserved demeanour, seldom granting press or television interviews and keeping a distance between the media and her personal life.

In contrast, Munira was flamboyant and unconventional, engaging in excessive behaviours such as gambling, staying out late, and socialising with politicians.

Still, I don't believe all the rumours about their rivalry. Munira and Umm Kulthum epitomised the challenges and possibilities that awaited female celebrities in the 1920s. 

How would you characterise that era in Egypt compared to the European arts and theatre scene? 

During that time, there was extensive exchange between Cairo and the rest of Europe.

European artists frequently visited Egypt, and Egyptian actors also toured Europe, although to a lesser extent.

I would rather not compare Egypt and Europe during that period. Instead, I prefer to think of Cairo as a unique city in the global arts scene. 

How did censorship affect artists during that time? 

During that period, censorship was becoming more stringent. Plays, musical recordings, and films were frequently subjected to censorship.

There was always a conflict between artists and censorship authorities. 

What stories did you omit from your book and why?

Despite the 1920s being merely a century ago, many stories have been lost in history.

Numerous unfounded myths and legends had been published, and I attempted to omit unverifiable stories, although some were too compelling to leave out.

Many details about the lives of lesser-known individuals in Cairo's Roaring Twenties have vanished. I was eager to learn more about Beba Ezz El-Din, Ifranz, Isaac Dixon, and others, but I struggled to find reliable resources.

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