I grew up surrounded by images of Umm Kulthum; her music floated down the hallways of my childhood. On the walls of our small family home in the UK, my father had hung up several of the Egyptian singer’s vinyl album covers. They were displayed next to imposing photographs of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the legendary singer Abdul Halim Hafez. Together these portraits harkened back to an era of pan-Arabism and anti-colonialism that Baba romanticized and had experienced first-hand.
Baba moved to the UK from Lebanon with my mother in 1980, during a brutal civil war in our home country. He was torn between identities, being half Egyptian and half Lebanese, with deep connections to Palestine. But his recollections of the Umm Kulthum and Abdel Nasser period grounded him. They eased his memories of conflict and the difficulties he faced integrating into an unwelcoming Western culture.
The soothing tones of Umm Kulthum reminded him of his days as a medical student in Cairo. They recalled the Nile River, which he’d stroll along after his exams, and a region which seemed filled with possibility. In the late 1960s, when Baba was still a teenager, he attended one of Umm Kulthum’s concerts—a highlight of his youth. During the concert, she performed patriotic ballads for Abdel Nasser, who was sitting in the front row. The singer, regionally known as the “Planet of the Orient,” often invoked populism in her oeuvre.
But Umm Kulthum was best known for her lengthy melodies of love—particularly unrequited love, and the longing that accompanies it. In her music, she eagerly anticipates rendezvous with her lovers. Some of her most mesmerizing performances ran well over five hours. She commanded the stage with steady gazes and subtle swoops of her stretched-out arms, her trademark handkerchief fluttering in the air as she sang (the piece of cloth was rumored to be saturated with opium).
Mama had her own Umm Kulthum anecdotes. When she was nineteen, before she married Baba, she commuted from a southern town to university in Sidon, Lebanon by bus. Students would send each other secret messages by playing Umm Kulthum songs on the bus, among them “Ba’eed ‘annak hayati ‘azab” (“Far from You, My Life is Suffering”). Once, a young man played her the song “Hayyaret albi ma’ak” (“You’ve Puzzled My Heart”), but she was so shy, she failed to understand that she was being serenaded.
We Arabs, we all have our Umm Kulthum stories. I must have been eight when I first heard her belting out “Inta ‘Omry” (“You Are My Life”) with a passion and profundity I couldn’t grasp. I was, however, transfixed by her contralto voice, which was haunting to the extent that it seemed to my mind that she was a preacher, not a singer. I returned to her music with force in my twenties, when I listened to that same song on repeat and watched grainy sepia YouTube videos of her performances with a person I believed I loved. I had spent half of my life in the West, where I was born, and half in the Middle East, and I naively believed this Levantine man strengthened my tenuous connections to my ancestral homeland. But really it was Umm Kulthum and the romantic world she sang about that I was in love with—not the controlling man who passed himself off as liberal. Our relationship inevitably crumbled. But my infatuation with Umm Kulthum crescendoed until I too turned to her music to ground me while I was away from the Arab world.
As I read Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ‘20s, I was transported once again to Umm Kulthum’s planet and her surrounding universe. This time around, I would learn more about the enigmatic woman behind the cat-eye sunglasses, the one we’d been told stories about as children—some rooted in fact, some in fiction.
In addition to Umm Kulthum, Raphael Cormack’s rigorously researched book profiles six trailblazing divas of Egypt’s roaring 1920s and beyond. The scholar divides his work into three acts—”Setting the Scene,” “The Leading Ladies,” and “Curtain Call”—telling the starlets’ stories over distinct historical eras as if they were stage actors in a play.
“The 1920s and 1930s were an exciting time to be alive in Egypt,” Cormack writes, and he backs up this assertion with vivid detail. As members of the audience, we journey into Cairo’s magical entertainment district, Ezbekiyya, and the thoroughfare of Emad al-Din Street, akin to New York’s Broadway or London’s West End. Cormack paints an intoxicating picture of the city’s nightlife, recreating a seedy world little known to the West. We visit smoke-filled theaters, cabarets, bars, cafes, dancing halls, and brothels. We get to know singers and actresses with kohl-rimmed eyes and bejeweled necks—along with impresarios, theater troupe leaders, cabaret owners, and a stage actress-turned-journalist-turned-media mogul.
Some of these women were relegated to society’s fringes and have since been mythologized or forgotten in the Arab world. But they each embodied Egypt at a crossroads, and their histories are crucial to our complete cultural understanding of the country. “Even a cursory attempt to list the stars of this period reveals the huge variety of their backgrounds, whether religious, national, or cultural,” writes Cormack. “Some became legends, others have been forgotten, but they all played their part.”
In Midnight in Cairo, the lives of the enterprising divas are interlinked. Cormack traces an undulating line from one to the other as he skillfully maps out the political and social developments that impacted their careers. The interwar era, which saw Egypt enjoy nominal independence from British colonial rule, was fertile for change, teeming with intellectual thought and freedom of expression. Tensions peaked between patriarchy and feminism, colonialism and nationalism, and religious and secular values.
The country’s feminists pushed for freedom from British influence in 1919; the feminist movement subsequently took hold. Meanwhile, women performers rose to the forefront of Egypt’s entertainment industry amid a rapidly shifting social backdrop; they were tasked with battling the conservative, classist attitudes and social mores that demanded women remain demure. “We are fed up with the boasting of Parisian girls,” declared “The Ladies of Egypt,” a defining song of the era. “We know chemistry and embroidery. We could work as lawyers or judges.”
The details Cormack shares of these women’s private lives are enticing and occasionally humorous. One amusing anecdote involves Rose el-Youssef, a Lebanese-born stage actress of vaudeville. In her memoir, el-Youssef recalled that during one of her work trips to Alexandria, she took a well-deserved break at the beach. Talaat Harb, a conservative politician and banker who funded the theater troupe el-Youssef worked for, happened to be there himself, and spotted her in her bathing suit. Horrified, he expressed dismay that his employee was exposing herself in public. After learning of this, el-Youssef refused to apologize for her revealing clothing. Instead, she decided to extend her stay in Alexandria and return to the beach in her swimming costume while he was there, just to irritate him.
As women performers were looked down upon by the country’s elite, they could only survive with grit, in a prism of rebelliousness that sometimes involved living double lives, cross-dressing, and marrying not for love but for social mobility. Fatima Rushdi, an actress and film director, lit up the stage when she played Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar.” (Beyond embracing multinationalism and adapting European classics, Egypt’s entertainment scene produced and cultivated authentic Egyptian stories, too.) The singer Mounira al-Mahdiyya—also the first Muslim actress to appear on stage—made waves in 1917 when she took on a female role for the first time. During the 1910s, she had mostly performed male roles—as Cormack notes, “there was good reason to want these parts: they almost always had the best songs.”
Much of the book is about al-Mahdiyya, seemingly one of Cormack’s favorite leading ladies. Though the glamazon started her career in show business as a nightclub singer, she would later become the first woman to lead an Egyptian theater troupe, which encompassed singing, dancing, and acting. She was also dubbed the founder of Arab opera. All the while, she had several romantic partners, so many that the media simply could not keep up.
Al-Mahdiyya, like the other barrier-breakers in the book, often made political and social statements in her work, some more pronounced than others. In the hit “Asmar Malak Ruhi” (“A Dark-Skinned Man Rules My Soul”), a seductive al-Mahdiyya pleads for her lover not to leave her. The song made a “radical statement,” Cormack writes. In Arabic, the word asmar means “dark-skinned” and may refer to brown and black skin tones. “However, in the early twentieth century, it could be used to distinguish the ordinary people of Egypt from the Ottoman (and increasingly European) rulers of the country, who were known for their lighter skin.” Al-Mahdiyya, the author argues, was emphasizing her anti-establishment connections to working-class Egyptians and distinguishing herself from the colonial and urban elite.
Midnight in Cairo is also filled with high drama and scandal, from love affairs and divorces to violence and murder. Singer Fatima Sirri’s story is among the book’s most riveting. It illustrates a simmering tension between female entertainers and educated feminists who rejected performers as crass, scandalous and morally dubious—despite the fact that these entertainers espoused and lived by essential feminist values, including personal and financial independence. Sirri had a child with Mohammad Shaarawi, the son of Egypt’s pioneering feminist Huda Shaarawi. The performer believed Huda contributed to the breakdown of her relationship with Mohammad, as she frowned upon her profession. She turned down the generous sum Huda had allegedly offered to help her look after her child, and instead took Mohammed to court in 1925, having filed a paternity suit (he had refused to recognize the child). The court battle lasted for six years, and Sirri ultimately prevailed.
As a Lebanese journalist, I’m partial to the incredible rise of Rose el-Youssef. The actress was unhappy with theater coverage in Cairo, feeling it was rife with “gossip, lies, and personal attacks.” She decided to launch a magazine to cover culture and literature herself, giving it the ingenious title Rose el-Youssef. While the magazine initially focused on the arts, it eventually morphed into a political publication. The magazine exists to this day; el-Youssef is frequently cited as the Arab world’s first female journalist. (When el-Youssef worked backstage in a theater at fourteen—she, like many of the other women in the book, was born into poverty—the budding performer once walked the streets of Ezbekiyya dressed in an extravagant Mary Tudor costume. Perhaps she had an inkling that she was a star in the making.)
Ezbekiyya lured travelers, wanderers, and dreamers from all over the world. Several Black musicians left the US and moved to Egypt to escape racism and immerse themselves in Cairo’s jazz scene. (“Why should I not have a good time here, in a Black man’s country?” two of them wrote for the Chicago Defender. “You have a good time in America, which you call a white man’s country.”) British colonial officers watched adaptations of European plays performed by the people whom they had colonized. Midnight in Cairo is filled with a thrilling cast of supporting characters and extras: a Cypriot Armenian drug dealer, and a former composer who takes to the streets to become a shoe-shiner with only a fruit-eating cat to keep him company. Even the towering Palestinian intellectual and author of Orientalism Edward Said makes an appearance at a casino by the Nile.
As the daughter of a sheikh, Umm Kulthum’s beginnings were rooted in a rural, religious upbringing. Her father dressed her in boy’s clothing when she was a young girl, “to curb her youthful femininity,” per Cormack. The author surveys the earlier days of Umm Kulthum’s journey—the latter days being better documented—and how she beat out competition to become the Arab world’s leading icon.
Umm Kulthum’s career kicked off when she started singing religious songs for her father’s band. (She was rewarded with bowls of mahalabiya, a Middle Eastern pudding.) They initially performed at religious festivals to working-class audiences; as word spread of their talent, they graduated to performances at the private homes of the wealthy, and eventually, to music halls.
Upon exposure to these halls, Umm Kulthum was “taken aback by the raunchy musical trends,” writes Cormack. Some of her drunken crowds were uninterested in the conservative and soulful nature of her music. One rowdy man was so infuriated by her refusal to loosen up that he attempted to pull the curtain down on her as she performed. Her father responded not by slapping the heckler but by slapping his own daughter, who ran off the stage in tears. Despite these setbacks, Umm Kulthum persisted.
After a meeting with Ahmed Rami, a young and idealistic poet, Umm Kulthum eventually found her place. Her lyrics branched out into the world of Arabic poetry and classical and modern Arabic literature. Rami would allegedly become infatuated with the singer, but she never returned his advances. (“Doubt gives life to passion, increasing its fire and flames,” reads one of his poems.)
But, as Cormack notes, Umm Kulthum did embody the fantasies of many men (and perhaps women): she was intellectual but not threateningly so, a performer who had not given into the titillating environment she had been transplanted into, and she quietly bent gender norms.
While Arab audiences are familiar with these developments, Cormack’s exploration of the competition and stark contrast between Umm Kulthum and al-Mahdiyya is illuminating. Umm Kulthum’s stunning rise to fame fit into the more traditional cultural milieus of Egypt, while al-Mahdiyya was far more daring, less modest and reserved. Umm Kulthum’s angelic voice “rises from a sensitive heart, which has a feeling for life,” as one gushing journalist wrote. That same journalist argued that al-Mahdiyya was spreading vice and immorality. Some of this rivalry is no doubt exaggerated, as Cormack points out. Similar tales of feuds between Umm Kulthum and the Syrian singer Asmahan have circulated, too, over the decades. But the sharp contrast reflected deep-seated societal tensions between the conservatism and coyness manifested by Umm Kulthum, and the liberalism and salaciousness of the demimonde, manifested (unabashedly) by al-Mahdiyya.
Cormack notes that, in the end, it was Umm Kulthum who was ultimately crowned the region’s beloved entertainment queen. Perhaps Egypt was not ready for al-Mahdiyya. But it would be an injustice to the Planet of the Orient to attribute her enduring success to her supposed modesty. The quality of her deep voice, the composition of the music that it adorned, and the amorous lyrics that it brought to life combined to form an ethereal experience. This was art, not show business. And while al-Mahdiyya played poker with politicians on her houseboat, Umm Kulthum seemed more relatable to Egypt’s masses.
Only seven people showed up to al-Mahdiyya’s funeral, including her doorman; Umm Kulthum’s drew hundreds of thousands, and she is mourned to this day. Television channels across the region often devote entire evenings to her lengthy concerts.
In Midnight in Cairo, Cormack relies heavily on the dazzling, chaotic stories of these women as they told them in their own memoirs. Notably, he avoids romanticizing and exoticizing their lives. While these entrepreneurial women pushed for and explored new freedoms, he writes, the context they operated in was “also exploitative and dangerous.” Cormack deals delicately with this nuance and most certainly does not turn away from it. His book offers real insight into some of the region’s most fascinating women, whose under-appreciated impact is felt to this day.
The Arab world continues to reel from socioeconomic and political upheaval in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. In Egypt, women journalists, activists and influencers pushing boundaries are routinely censored or detained by authorities. To recall this bygone, golden era (which was certainly not free of its own problems) is to bring temporary distraction and delight, at least to this reader—and to her father.