Popular entertainment in 1920s Cairo

Midnight in Cairo by Raphael Cormack is a social history of the female led entertainment scene in Egypt during the early part of the twentieth century. It’s a commemoration of some remarkable women and a reminder that during this period Cairo was a cosmopolitan city where people of all religions and ethnicities lived together more or less in peace.

The author outlines the history of the country at this time which is fortunate because it is not something I know very much about. He also shows how the entertainment industry has to change when politics change and how the cultural mores of the time are dependent on who is ruling the country. This information is important to the subject of the book but the meat of the narrative is about the strong women who dominated the entertainment scene during the period.

The author isn’t interested in the audiences for the entertainments, except in passing, but concentrates on the stories of key women who made an impact on the cultural life of Cairo at this time. Most of them were from Egypt or the surrounding area and they used their skills and talent eventually to own theatres, headline productions and move into publishing or cinema.

None of the names of any of these women was known to me before I read the book even though I have read many social histories of this time. They are people known to Egyptians and inhabitants of the Arab countries but we must not let our Western viewpoint obscure the fact that these were successful and very wealthy and powerful women who were extremely famous in their own worlds. The author uses contemporary records, books and newspaper cuttings to illustrate his points.

I found this a fascinating book. The stories of the women are well presented and by the end of the book I felt that I had a good feel for the time what went on. The book is easily accessible to the general reader like myself but is well researched. I thought also that it was interesting to compare this world and these women with the story of Gypsy Rose Lee as told in American Rose (see my review here) which tells the story of a woman successful in American popular culture in the same period.

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