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Uh I'd like to welcome you to the 14th

year of the UCLA historiography seminar.

We regularly meet. We meet once a quarter

uh and bring in what uh is cutting edge


Uh today we are very pleased to have uh

Raphael Cormack. He is a writer, historian,

and translator. He has a PhD from the

University of Edinburgh

uh in Egyptian theatre from what I


Uh he's edited two collection of short

stories and he translated from the

Arabic, The Book of Khartoum with Max

Shmookler. And the Book of Cairo. His

articles have appeared in the London Review

of Books, the LA Review of Books, Apollo

Magazine and elsewhere. And his first

book, Midnight in Cairo, was released this

year– earlier this year. I gotta say, you

know, I rarely read books about the

Middle East for pleasure.

Uh this one, I started out reading just

to figure out what what it was all about.

And I ended up just sort of like glued

to it. This is an extraordinary story

which we'll talk about today.

And so without further Ado, Raphael.

Great okay. This looks good.

Uh so I mean there's a there's a bunch

of things that I could talk about today

and I'm very happy to answer questions

about any of them, but I try to sort of

narrow it down to one particular point.

And that is really one of the one of the

focuses of the book if not perhaps the

main focus which is how we tell the

story of 20th century early 20th century

Egypt through the lives of its female

stars, performers, singers, dancers and so

forth. On your left here is Mounira al-Mahdeyya

from the 1920s of her who is just one of

the several women who is in the book.

And so I'm going to start actually with

this picture, which kind of

represents one of the impetuses for

writing this book. And anyone who goes

through periodicals and newspapers from

the 1920s in Egypt and really just in

just about anywhere will notice that men

and largely men-only gatherings are

extremely common and prominent and

happen in places where the decisions get

made. I think these more or less at

random from the Egyptian press and they

represent uh on the top left that's the

meaning of the Muslim Brotherhood but

that's also on the left there that's a

group of students at Cairo University

going on a tour of the uh sites in Upper

Egypt, then various other kind of

cultural and political groups. And you will notice,

there are men everywhere.

And this has not only been noticed by me.

People have tried to

counter this a bit – I mean many people

before me are not the first to do it and

particularly they focus on the

mainstream feminist movement which

starts to rise in the late 19th century

in Egypt and really gathers steam

through the 1910s and into the 1920s. uh

there's a picture of [...] there, famous

female writer. And a tea party at Huda Sha'rawi

house, a sort of lecture. And

thé politique, uh Huda Sha'rawi of course,

one of the most famous would be most

famous Egyptian feminists of the 20th

century. Uh and here's a book here by

Marilyn Booth, someone who will come back

to uh about Zaynab Fawwaz and her

writing of of female lives. So in kind of

elite spaces this

has been covered by many people but what

I've found and how I already came to

this book was

that in the nightlife, in the cabarets, in

the theaters and and the uh seedy clubs of

Cairo, there was an alternative story to

be found.

And uh there are several other women's

lives, women's lives which tend to not

really have made it into much scholarly

work but were happening at the same time

as people like Huda Sha'rawi was having

her political teas, [XXX] was

having her famous salons in the

nightclubs. Uh women were

creating their own lives and their lives

are being documented and told uh in so

in Midnight in Cairo, my recent book. I've

tried to tell some of the uh the more uh

interesting and flamboyant ones because,

now we'll go back to this slide as uh,

Marilyn Booth has said in her book on

political on women's biography in the

20th century in Egypt, often these

biographies which appeared in newspapers,

in more kind of elite circles. Uh they

formed an elite strategy of pushing the

boundaries of patriarchy but as she says

only so far. So a lot of these

feminist movements were very constrained

by how far they could how they could

push things whereas the women of these

nightclub stages were willing to push a

little bit further. One of my one of my

favorite stories from the book is the

story of Rose al Yusuf, the woman who

later went on to edit and create a

magazine named after herself but who in

the 1910s was a female actress like uh

like many others. She was part of a

theater troop run by this man Talaat Harb,

uh famous,

uh very prominent nationalist,

capitalist. Essentially he put a lot

of his money into Egyptian Capital. So he

helped set up Bank [...] for the

uh National Bank as well as printing

presses and he was also extremely

invested in cultural movements. So he

funded a theater troupe that Rose

al Yusuf was appearing in. And in Rose

al Yusuf's memoirs, she tells a story of how

at one point during the break between

gigs, she is sitting with the rest of the

theater troop in a swimming costume and

Talaat Harb, the founder of the troop

comes along and tells her that she is

pushing the limits rather too much and

that she should not be appearing– a

member of his troop should not appear on

the beach dressed in what he deemed as

revealing costume. And instead of backing

down, she tells how she quit the troop on

the spot and then hung out at the beach

for several more days just to annoy Talaat

Harb. So there's a sense that that a lot

more is being pushed in a lot of these

stories than there are in these more

Elite circles. And that's another great

quote that I love uh just from an

interview with another actress from 1928

in which he goes on a long diatribe

against marriage how she's– because they

ask her whether she's going to get

married and she says no. She's

happy to have lots of love affairs but

she doesn't want to get married. And she

ends by shouting, "Down with marriage. Long

Live Love." uh again I think you'll agree

for the 1920s, a pretty radical statement

and there's lots of things going on like

this. And it's a really rich vein of


But what I want to do in this talk,

having laid out the kind of

opportunities that this period

presents is to just go through some of

the issues, methodological,

historiographical, about trying to write

the lives of some of these women of the

nightclub stages.

So the first question uh that we um

we really want to get to is what sources

do we use essentially. I mean slightly

dull framing of that but it's an

important question, how can we tell these

stories– where do they even come from?

Do we have archives? I mean now

it's very difficult uh in the Middle

East to um to find stories like these in

in archives partly because uh as Edward

Said notes here in a article he wrote

about uh Tahia Kariokka, a woman who

features in the book, a dancer who really

came of age in the 1940s. He says,

"None of the Arab countries I know have

proper State archives, public record

offices, or official libraries any more

of them any more than any of them has

decent control over their monuments or

antiquities, the history of their cities

or individual works of

architecture-- mosques, palaces, schools. What

I have a sense of is a sprawling teeming

history off the page out of sight and

hearing, beyond reach, largely

unrecoverable. And people who work in the

Middle East of course know that archives

are sometimes extremely difficult to

access and navigate but in

the case in fact of the nightlife a lot

of these stories are things which would

not appear in in any archives. They're

the things that happen you know late

night after dark in a smoky Cabaret. Not

the kind of thing that gets preserved in

an archive. So where can we go uh. I mean

one potential, which I didn't really ever

manage to access is a family archive. So

I mean Edward Said in that article

continues uh that our history is mostly

written by foreigners, visiting scholars,

intelligence agents,

um while we rely on personal

disorganized Collective memory, gossip

almost, and the embrace of a family or

noble community to carry us forward in


um and I think this is true. I include

here a picture of Mounira al-Mahdeyya, the woman

who was on the opening slide in her

later years clearly surrounded by an

archive that she has kept, these are play

scripts in fact. the first is uh there's

a script then there's of the musical

notation from another script and

various other papers that we don't know

what they are. They have no idea what

happened to these papers but it's quite

possible they survived somewhere and I

don't know where they are.

Um if we did get our hands on them

obviously there are

problems and issues with

family archives, personal archives, family

history things that and I just give a

quick reference there uh that Sherene

Seikaly who's in Santa Barbara has talked

about recently in writing about her

own great grandfather. The role of shame

and so forth which is something we could

talk about in Q and A if you want. But for

now I'm going to get on to where we do

find the stories.

One extremely popular, I mean one

extremely useful place that I found

while doing this

research for this book was the

entertainment press. Often actually

neglected but there's, but it's as you

see from this picture extremely rich uh

both in French and in Arabic throughout

the 1920s and 30s. New magazines started

uh sometimes only lasting a year or two,

in a few cases only lasting a week or

two uh but some of them lasting for many

years. And they're full of

bits of information about uh the female

celebrities of Cairo – like the

women who I was interested in.

Um they're they're really fascinated

with details of their lives and these

are just a few articles from both Rosa al

Yusuf and uh from [...] magazine to

his most prominent ones in which you can

see uh people– they're asking about

actresses' opinions on Love and Marriage,

about uh what they eat, uh what they do

in the first hour after they wake up. uh

several several articles like this one

on the far right about what their houses

were like. Uh so here's the house of Mary

Mansour or an actress at the time and

dancer. But almost every single celeb

female celebrity at the time had someone

come into their house and write a little

article about it. Uh oftentimes, women are

the focus. So there's a lot of male

celebrities, a lot of female celebrities.

But it's the female celebrities who have

their lives really picked apart and I

think anyone who reads the celebrity

press now will find that a familiar kind

of topic it's uh it's women who are who

are the main focus. Sometimes as you'll

see here, uh it is their physical

appearance which is dissected in

really some length. So on the on the left

it has a long part a series of Articles

actually who is the most beautiful

actress in Egypt and other another on

the right uh rather more disparaging one

who is the ugliest actress in Egypt. And

frequently, it is the appearance of the

actresses the gets picked apart.

Often there is rather too much

information given, which for a historian

and you know the people researching the

period is sometimes completely

fascinating. So on this article in the

right for instance we have details about

what every star of the stage is earning,

how much money they get, is uh Fatima Rushdi

one of the the big stars of the

period who earns 20 pounds a month. She's

the uh the first actress in [....] troupe

and it

transpires actually going through

this article that actresses are not paid

very well at all and some of them are

finding it really hard to make ends

Meet. It's only really the big stars who

get paid a lot of money, who managed to

make a lot of money. And then these two

articles on the or to the left of that

is actually one article of two pages,

just shows again how much detail these

magazines go into and they they give

here the respective weights of all the

female stars of the time.


so that's all of that we have that's

which is both uh a little bit disturbing

uh but also around my realm of

primary information and how exactly you

deal with that uh is is a big question

which um which I'll be happy to discuss

but it's not only articles about stuff

that we have in these newspapers. We also

get articles by the Stars uh often. So

here as is Aziza Amir, one of the founders of

Egyptian Cinema has written a mini part

series about her her life story, how she

grew up uh what she did in her teenage

years. how she got into the acting

business. so on and so forth and this

autobiographical work is something I'll

come back to.

But there are a lot of problems with

using these magazines as sources as well

as sort of the uh the fact that some of

the information is a little bit

disturbing. And one of them is how

true are any of these little articles

that that we find these are very gossipy

articles uh. And you will find quite

often uh articles that tell a long story,

uh quite a salacious one, are followed up

a week or two later with a correction as

is the case still now. Uh so here is a is

a fun article about this actor on the

left there. Ahmed [...] who was making a

name for himself in Germany. Rose al Yusuf

magazine alleges that he's

arrested uh with hashish in his house by

the German police and you know they

allege all these kind of things that

he's traveling on various passports, you

know good uh nice fun story about the

time uh. But then a couple of weeks later

they are forced to issue a retraction

because Ahmed [...]'s brother has come

into their offices and told them that

it's all a lie. Now exactly who we

believe in all of this uh is hard to say.

I mean I, my general approach when

writing about it was that stories like

this had value because people who were

attending the cabarets, who went out to

watch films or go to theaters would know

these stories and would know that there

had been a story for instance about

Ahmad [...] arrested with a bunch of

hashish and would take that to the

performance. But whether or not strictly

speaking it happened is a question that

we sort of have to answer and a question

that comes up a lot when using these

1920s entertainment magazines as


Um also

and sort of connected to that, uh there

is the idea that uh a lot of these lives

that the women were leading at the time

were as much a performance as these

shows that they put on or and the

theaters. So again we will come back to Mounira al-Mahdeyya

who is there in the middle.

She um

she was extremely invested in her own

construction as a celebrity uh and would

for instance here let's take pictures of

herself uh dressed up as a man

frequently and send them into the press

as well as being famous on the left for

taking male parts uh in the theater and

part of all of this was about her

very conscious self-construction and how

how we deal with that again is a is

another important question to answer

particularly uh as I said before uh as

this whole scene is as much kind of

performance as any of the plays that

are going on.

Um so that's

there's those issues that we come across

when we are talking about these

celebrity magazines which are

nonetheless a uh a really rich vein of

material and stories to plug into.

The other really crucial piece of

you know source material that we need to

tell all these stories of the 1920s are

the celebrity memoirs that usually came

out towards the end of a celebrity's

life. Here's Rose al Yusuf. Is a picture

on the top left. Uh her memoirs came out in

the 1950s after she had retired both

from the stage and from journalism.

Almost every Star of this period wrote

some kind of autobiographical writing

whether it was as we saw before those

articles in the press and at the time or

whether at the end of their career they

sat down like uh Rose al Yusuf did and like

this man on the bottom right [...]

and wrote up their life

stories. There's almost all of them did

it and they're full again of really

fascinating little vignettes and stories.

so that story about Rose al Yusuf and Talaat Harb

from her memoirs. But also they are full

of pitfalls,

um. Like the uh the press at the time we

have certain kind of uh basic questions

of of sources uh that we need to ask

about, some of them so for instance who

are they filtered through. In the case of [...]

a great cabaret owner

dancer. The case of her memoirs, they

appear to have been told to this

journalist [...] and then written

up by her. So it says [...].

So it's not [...] herself writing these

memoirs, exactly what this means uh it's

hard to say and exactly how it is

filtered, we need to we think. Uh also

that's a question of exactly which

version of someone's life we're reading.

I mean in this in this kind of matter,

Fatima Rushdi is the really key

example. Uh Fatima Rushdi, who you will

perhaps remember from just before

earning 20 Egyptian pounds a week in the

mid-1920s went on to become a massive

star, start her own theater troupe, but

she in the space of around

less than 10 years really, she published

four different sets of memoirs uh, some

serialized in a magazine, others like [...]

is sort of filtered

through a journalist and two more

published in the same year, both written

by her um unclear presumably written by her and

then authored another uh book

about a collaborator of hers as his aid but

which included a lot of biographical

material. So when confronted with this,

the question of exactly which version of

the life story we're looking at is you

know, is important. So there's all these

kind of questions. Another one is is this

a genuine version uh in the case of

Naguib el-Rihani another big star uh this

Egyptian writer [..] Yousef has

alleged that one version of his Memoirs

which is circulating is in fact

fabricated. And this one which he

published is the really true Memoir of

Naguib el-Rihani.

Um so there's all those issues but when

we come to memoirs of uh of these female

stars there's also a few bigger perhaps

more conceptual uh issues that we need

to look at, I mean so really they can all

be summed up with the question of how do

you write a life. And when you are a

female star at the end of your career,

what expectations are there on you for

your for your life story? What do you do

when you sit down to write your memoirs?

What kind of narratives are already

inbuilt uh What uh kind of

constraints do you have upon you? What

kind of stories are you almost forced to

tell? And what kind of stories are you

not forced to tell them? Where is their

creativity? Where isn't there? so in a

very simple kind of basic level of this

a lot of these stories include

sort of cliches and exaggerations and

what I've called sticky people or events

so it's often uh the bigger the star the

more famous kind of the person the more

likely they are to appear in someone's

memoirs. So [...] often has a walk-on

part uh and the you know great singer

songwriter [...] died

very young, also people really want to

put him in their memoirs. So he comes in

a lot. Uh another uh writer Frédéric

LaGrange uh has gone even further and

said uh, this is Mounira al-Mahdeyya

that she is linked in the imaginary of

journalists and the Arab Collective

unconscious uh to an era in which people

drank champagne from the shoes of the

Mutriba and lit cigars with banknotes,

Of course, these nonsensical cliches

probably born from the years between

World War one and World War II in

America and Europe, and hide the scarcity

information. So there's a lot of stories,

kind of are so cliche that they find their way

into stories but there are bigger points

than this. And like I was saying, what

kind of stories did people want to tell.

And you notice when going through uh

memoirs of a lot of these female stars

of the period, that they fit very similar

patterns. I mean one thing that often

comes up is that

these women uh often portray themselves

as exceptional and and one of a kind.

This is clearest uh probably in the case

of Fatima Rushdi uh pictured there on the

left uh who's caught a couple of times

already in this talk in her memoirs

there is essentially no mention. I mean

one or two very short mentions near the

beginning of her sisters, Ensaf and

Ratiba who were themselves big stars of

The Nightlife stage in Cairo in the

1920s and 30s. They weren't actresses so

much as they were they ran a cabaret and

put on Cabaret nights, but they were very

successful, very well known and important

figures in the period. But they just do

not appear anywhere really in

Fatima Rushdi's memoirs and

and that's struck me as very strange uh

but then if you sort of notice that, you

start to notice that in very few of

these Memoirs do we really see many

close female friendships. Uh and

particularly for women in this period

you imagine that these close

friendships must have existed but

somehow this form of memoir is uh forces

people to see themselves as either you

know the first woman to uh act in a

certain uh play, or the first Muslim

woman to act on stage. the first Egyptian

woman to act on stage and lots of women

like to claim that uh title.

But in some ways that sort of forced

into it. Likewise actually, they all come

from very similar family backgrounds.

There's a there's a big pattern of their

fathers dying uh when they are very

young, something perhaps we could talk

about afterwards, and crucially for me they all

have very similar endings.

Uh this is uh the thing I'm calling the

Shafiqa al-Qibtiyya problem uh because and I was

gonna play this little clip but I think

I will not so we uh so we end enough

time for some questions.

There is a big problem

or pattern shall we say in the lives of

these women and it starts, to sum it up

very sort of crudely, it starts with a

start in adversity– often as I said their

fathers have died, they make their way

into Cairo's entertainment business, uh

they become extremely successful, they

end up owning a cabaret, running it if

there's a troop, you know making lots of

money out of their records. And they hit

their peak uh often in quite

transgressive ways. There's a quite a

focus on how you know fun learning they

were and how much of a great time they

have and then it ends with

tragedy. They're sort of alone and

abandoned at the end of their lives and

and a big trope is that only

five you know X number X small number of

people ever attend their funeral. Uh this

is a kind of trope that restarts with

Shafiqa al-Qibtiyya

uh who is a big star of the 1890s

Cabaret scene and then is always said uh

how she ends up perhaps addicted to

drugs, uh perhaps having abandoned the

son who she loved, and all this kind of

thing in penury and misery. And this

is a story uh even if you don't read the

stories of the women of Cairo's

nightlife that I think people will know

you know. It's not too dissimilar for

instance from a kind of tragic Marilyn

Monroe story, uh the same story is also

told of of Jean Rhys, the novelist. It's a

very common story that is told of women

particularly, uh extremely successful

women. And there's a there's a certain sense

that there's a moral behind this narrative

pattern. And and the moral is essentially

the one that the these stories sort of

want us to believe is that transgression

might be great when you're a big

successful star of the stage but at the

end, it always seems to lead to

loneliness and tragedy. And the question

that I ask myself frequently

whilst rewriting this book is, am I

re-inscribing this narrative on the lies

of these women or, you know, to put it

another way. Is there a different way to

tell these stories? I mean in a certain

sense, they're they're kind of traps of a

biographical pattern. Of course every

life story ends with a death if you tell it

narratively, you know and chronologically

speaking and no death is really an

extremely happy moment except perhaps of [...]

And there's a million people are

Attending your funeral. Otherwise death is

generally speaking a tragic end so is

there a way to escape this? Uh also uh as

it's not been lost on me,

I am a man who was writing about uh

women of this period.

And maybe there is some kind of

subconscious way in which I am

re-inscribing a kind of patriarchal

narrative again. Uh I'm very happy to

talk about this in the Q and A, but I just

give you a little quote from uh Fatima [...]

another great singer, we've had a

lot of great singers of the period and

haven't been able to tell you quite

enough about them uh but I'm happy to

talk more about it but she in a series

again of autobiographical writings that

she published in 1926 related to the

lawsuit that she was launching against [...]

Son in order to get him to

confirm paternity of her child. She

addresses male authors directly and says

"All you male authors who write about the

female psyche, not one of you has ever

been a woman, so how do you know anything

about the female psyche. And I include"

this quote uh just to point out uh and

that this issue of whether

men can really write about women's lives

is nothing new. And it's something that a

lot of these women in the period were

acutely aware of themselves and one that

I have struggled with and would be happy

to talk more about.

um so that is

the two remaining sources that we have to

tell the stories of these really

exceptional female lives.

And each of them come with their own

benefits but also come with their own

downsides. One thing just before I

quickly come to a conclusion that I

would also like to add is that one

hidden downside of these two sources is

that there are women who fall between

the cracks, uh the unsuccessful uh women

who never got to write Memoirs who could

not be easily categorized, who often

didn't appear in the press. And there are

hundreds of stories that I passed in


in doing the research that I just simply

couldn't tell because there was not

enough information.

One of my um favorite

uh women who I couldn't really talk

about was this woman called Efranz [...].

name who was Turkish or Armenian, the

newspapers Just disagree uh on that, who

had come from Syria to Egypt to perform

in the nightclubs and always seem to be

surrounded by a little bit of trouble.

There were stories that you know back in

Aleppo she– a man had stabbed someone

else out of jealousy for her and then

when she came to Egypt people were

always telling telling how she would

start fights. Someone tried to get her

kicked out of the country and it's only

Naguib el-Rihani who saved her. That's all

these little tiny tidbits of her– a life,

an extremely fascinating life an

important life well lived but was just

seem to have fallen through the cracks

because she never got to write her own

memoirs, perhaps because as either

Armenian or Turkish, she didn't quite fit

the uh the national narrative that was

really rising in the 50s and 60s. And

there's many other many people like Nadira

who was an

extremely famous and successful star but

about whose life we know relatively

little and others. And what were their

stories look like? Uh they would

certainly be less triumphant uh probably

less positive than the stories I've been

able to tell uh. There's a woman Diana

Abbani who was doing some work on this

which I've just given a quick link to

which I'm happy to send around the link

again who's written about the one page

long life stories that appear in this uh

Lebanese newspaper al-Asifa that tell

the story of really unsuccessful uh

Cabaret Stars. So she's doing some very

interesting work on that so hopefully

some more will come out of it.

But not to end on on a sad note or a

negative note.

One thing that really,

I found fascinating writing this and the

thing that really propelled me into

writing the story was that there is this

okay problematic but extremely rich vein

of women's lives which are not usually

told. Different kinds of women, not well

educated very few of them had any formal

education uh a few of them could even

read a lot of them actually have to

learn to read in order to appear in

these plays who had very different

concerns from the more elite uh

feminists who were who are used to

reading about. Uh so

to end on a more exciting note, I'd like

to say that maybe this is not only just

a new way of looking at women's lives

but a new way of looking at the whole

period. And when you look at the period

through The Eyes of female stars of of

Cairo's nightlife, a totally new set of

issues concerns problems and new sets of

stories really emerge. So here I end on

this little cartoon of [...] sweeping

away all these nice uh educators,

sweeping away essentially one of the

mantles that we looked at in the in the

first slide. So there's a great world of opportunity out

there. I hope in my book that I began to

delve into it but there's so much more

to get into, so an exciting time.

This is all very awkward and very very

new doing this via zoom. It was a

great talk and I really want to thank

you for for your presentation. I would

encourage everybody to get a copy of the

book because that way you'll not only

see you know the making of the sausage

but actually the sausage itself at the

very end.

So thank you very much. A pleasure, a real