cover image Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s

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

Raphael Cormack. Norton, $28.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-393-54113-7

Egyptian theater scholar Cormack (coeditor, The Book of Khartoum) debuts with a lively history of early-20th-century Cairo focused on the music hall singers, dancers, and actors who became Egypt’s first modern celebrities. Chronicling the rise and fall of the city’s nightlife district, Ezbekiyya, from the late 19th century through its “golden age” in the 1920s and ’30s and decline after the 1952 Egyptian revolution, Cormack profiles seven women who “demand[ed] to be heard as they asserted their wishes, claimed their rights, and made space for themselves.” Oum Kalthoum grew up singing religious songs in her father’s band and became, according to Cormack, “the most popular icon in the history of Arabic music.” Her rival, singer-actor Mounira al-Mahdiyya, was the first Egyptian woman to lead a theatrical troupe. Frustrated by gossipy theater journalists, comedic actor Rose al-Youssef founded a magazine (and named it after herself) where performers could go “to give their side of the story.” Cormack portrays the colorful lives of these women within the context of the era’s political and cultural upheavals, including Arab nationalism and the emergence of an Egyptian feminist movement. This sparkling account casts the history of the Egyptian capital in a new light. (Mar.)