‘Midnight in Cairo’ explores the lives of the city’s pioneering female stars

‘Midnight in Cairo’ explores the lives of the city’s pioneering female stars
Umm Kulthum on a movie set in the 1930s. (Getty)
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Updated 16 July 2021

‘Midnight in Cairo’ explores the lives of the city’s pioneering female stars

‘Midnight in Cairo’ explores the lives of the city’s pioneering female stars
  • Raphael Cormack tells the tale of Egypt’s ‘explosion of creativity’ in the early 20th century

LONDON: It is 1917 in a city south of Cairo. An Egyptian actress has just left the stage after performing a play with her troupe. She returns to give a solo encore of her songs to a rapt audience. This woman was the exceptional Mounira Al-Mahdiyya. And she had to do all of this while dressed as a man.

At the time, it was still not socially acceptable for women to perform on stage in Egypt. But Al-Mahdiyya was one of the trailblazers who would help to change that, and pave the way for the many talented Egyptian women who followed her.

“She starts off very early in the 20th century as a singer of old-school (music), but then makes her way through those musicals, ends up headlining her own shows and then going into theater. She puts on the first Arab opera and then records lighter popular songs in the 1920s. She also gets into film,” says Raphael Cormack, British scholar, editor and translator who tells the intriguing story of Al-Mahdiyya, aka Sultanat Al-Tarab, as well as other Egyptian female artists of the inter-war period — including vaudeville star and newspaper founder Rose Al-Youssef and Al-Mahdiyya’s rival, the legendary Umm Kulthum — in his recently released book “Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ‘20s.” 




Fatma Rushdi in the 1930s. (AFP)

Cormack first discovered this fascinating world as a PhD student living in Cairo, researching Egyptian theater.

“I was going through old theater performances and magazines and discovered that there was this whole other world,” he tells Arab News. It was, he admits, “sometimes not as respectable” as the ‘high culture’ focused on by Cairo’s theater critics and literary salons, “but it was a lot more fun, and also put women at the center of the story throughout the world.”

“I tried to (show this world) through the perspective of the female stars whose words and pictures I found in these magazines,” he says of his book.

Cormack relied on memoirs, journals, magazines and periodicals to chart the stories of the divas who made Emad al-Din Street the “center of nightlife” in Downtown Cairo’s Ezbekiyya district. His aim was to show how these performers contributed to “an explosion of creativity” which “too often is restricted to ‘more serious’ literary groups.”




Cormack first discovered this fascinating world as a PhD student living in Cairo, researching Egyptian theater. (Supplied)

Although eager to highlight the untold lives of these female artists, Cormack was equally keen not to reproduce nostalgic interpretations of this much-feted era. He also tried to steer the focus away from Alexandria as the center of cosmopolitanism, as it is often portrayed by orientalists. Rather, he wanted to tell the story of this buoyant arts scene through the perspective of people who lived in Cairo, spoke Arabic as a native language, and were interacting with people from all kinds of backgrounds.

While very aware of the problems and different power dynamics prevalent in this era, Cormack was still stunned by his discovery of a world were “people were interacting together with some degree of equality and at least without exclusion.”

“In this Arabic-speaking nightlife, there were people creating a different model of cosmopolitanism, one that doesn’t exclude in the way the ordinary story we get from Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” for example, excludes Egyptians,” he continued.

Beyond the inclusionary atmosphere of the era, Cormack was also intrigued by how these female artists formed their own theater troupes and toured with them inside Egypt and across the Middle East.




Cormack relied on memoirs, journals, magazines and periodicals to chart the stories of the divas who made Emad al-Din Street the “center of nightlife” in Downtown Cairo’s Ezbekiyya district. (Supplied)

“One example is Egyptian actress Fatma Rushdi whose theater group toured Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and North Africa,” he says. “She took all these texts which were either newly written plays, or adaptations of classical Arabic stories or of European plays, and performed them in the Middle East and in many cities across Egypt.”

Like Al-Mahdiyya, a singer, dancer and actor all at once, these stars were genre-defying — their work an invitation to “reconsider what genre means” when thinking about 1920s Cairo, he says.

What Cormack achieves with his book is much more than just a vivid representation of a group of female artists who were creative, revolutionary and forward-looking. He questions how we think of, classify, and archive art.

“When I was writing the book, I wanted it to speak to people in Egypt, people who knew something about these histories. I hoped they would get how much similarity there is between this period and what’s happening now. I think what’s going on in this book is women facing up to so many things that they have to deal with now globally and in Egypt. That there were possibilities in this period is what makes it an exciting one to look at,” he says.

“But I also wanted to be able to speak to people in Anglophone countries who probably didn’t know that Cairo had any kind of entertainment scene in the 1920s. As I say somewhere in the book, I wanted to show that the Middle East is not just a place of politics and war, that it’s not just a problem to be solved.”


El Gouna Film Festival ends with ‘Feathers’ nabbing top prize

El Gouna Film Festival ends with ‘Feathers’ nabbing top prize
‘Feathers’ also won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week. Supplied
Updated 4 sec ago

El Gouna Film Festival ends with ‘Feathers’ nabbing top prize

El Gouna Film Festival ends with ‘Feathers’ nabbing top prize

DUBAI: Egyptian director Omar El-Zohairy’s “Feathers” took home the Best Arab Narrative Film at the closing ceremony of El Gouna Film Festival on Friday.

“Feathers” tells the story of a mother who dedicates her life to her husband and children. When a magic trick goes wrong at her four-year-old son’s birthday party, an avalanche of coincidental absurdities befalls the family. The magician turns her husband, the authoritarian father, into a chicken. 

Despite its big win, the film — which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week — sparked controversy at the event and on social media. 

Some Egyptian filmmakers and actors, including Sherif Mounir, Ahmed Rizk and Ashraf Abdel Baqi, left the screening of the film last week because they thought the movie was offensive to Egypt.

Meanwhile, the top prize in the three main categories of Feature Narrative, Documentary and Short Film went to Finnish director Teemu Nikki’s “The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic,” “Life of Ivanna” by Renato Borrayo Serrano, and “Katia” from Russian director Andrey Natotcinskiy.

Egyptian director Ali El Arabi’s “Captains of Za’atari” won Best Arab Documentary film, while director Mounia Akl’s “Costa Brava, Lebanon” won the inaugural El Gouna Green Star Award for raising awareness on environmental issues and the Fipresci award for Best Debut Film.


Thousands flock to Saudi capital for inaugural gaming extravaganza RUSH Festival

Thousands of video game lovers descended upon the Riyadh Front on Friday for the RUSH Festival. (Huda Bashatah/ Arab News)
Thousands of video game lovers descended upon the Riyadh Front on Friday for the RUSH Festival. (Huda Bashatah/ Arab News)
Updated 23 October 2021

Thousands flock to Saudi capital for inaugural gaming extravaganza RUSH Festival

Thousands of video game lovers descended upon the Riyadh Front on Friday for the RUSH Festival. (Huda Bashatah/ Arab News)

RIYADH: Thousands of video game lovers descended upon the Riyadh Front on Friday to kick off five days of gaming, shopping, cosplay, local food and entertainment at Saudi Arabia’s inaugural RUSH Festival. The e-sports games event is taking place until Oct. 26 in the Kingdom’s capital as part of Riyadh Season 2021.

“I’m honored to be here, it’s very entertaining,” said Othman Kisha, 23 year old software engineer from Riyadh.

Thirteen thousand tickets sold out on the first day, said Salah Chukri, one of the organizers behind the event. The first day of the gaming convention brought visitors ­— some dressed as their favorite video game characters — together to participate in a host of interactive games, compete against each other for prize money and pose with some of their favorite influencers and figures in the world of e-sports during meet and greet sessions. 

(Huda Bashatah/ Arab News)

“I love how with Riyadh Season, it’s sticking with the culture and giving everyone entertainment, such as the games and yesterday’s WWE (Crown Jewel) — it’s amazing how all these things are integrated with the culture of Saudi Arabia,” he said.

With a focus on the whole of the gaming industry, from console and PC gaming to mobile and esports, RUSH Festival aims to give video game aficionados the opportunity to access and experience the latest tech in e-games and the chance to interact with each other in real life, and online.

(Huda Bashatah/ Arab News)

“I’m in love with FIFA, I also love playing Call of Duty and will see other games here (at RUSH). I’m planning to play against Mosaad Aldossary. I want to be the first one to beat him,” said Kisha, referring to an award-winning gamer.

Additionally, the region is playing host to the PUBG Mobile e-sport tournament for the first time ever, after decamping from Los Angeles to Riyadh, with 16 teams hailing from all parts of the globe participating, including Saudi Arabian-based e-sports teams, “Power” and “25.”

“Our being here at the festival tonight let us know that we have the ambition to be innovators and to do a lot of great things,” said the 29-year-old founder of “25 E-Sports” Khalid Al-Shammari, better known by his gamer tag “KLOoODE25” — pronounced Khalloodi.

(Huda Bashatah/ Arab News)

“The e-sports gaming scene in Saudi Arabia is developing at a fast rate. In the next few years, we’re going to witness e-gaming compete at the level of sports like professional football and basketball. 

“It’ll become something foundational in sports,” he said.

25 E-Sports plays competitively in many games including FIFA, RocketLeague and Call of Duty. In over 600 championships this year alone, the gaming group came out top three in all of them, according to Al-Shammari, who personally loves to play Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. 

“We hope to see more visitors from all over the world here in Saudi Arabia, participating and enjoying festivals like RUSH and the Riyadh Season,” he concluded.


Miss Universe UAE reveals its first 15 finalists

Miss Universe UAE reveals its first 15 finalists
Updated 15 min 14 sec ago

Miss Universe UAE reveals its first 15 finalists

Miss Universe UAE reveals its first 15 finalists

DUBAI: Miss Universe UAE has unveiled 15 out of the 30 finalists set to compete in the inaugural beauty pageant.

Organizers took to social media on Thursday to reveal the names of the first contestants, along with their ages and where they live.

The finalists from Dubai include Dilnoza, 23, Alma, Emilia, Natalia, and Anita, all 24, 25-year-olds Sara and Reem, Bahar and Victoria, 26, Franki, 27, and Anna and Asher, 28.

Jasmin, 22, and Razan, 28, from Abu Dhabi, will compete in the next stage. The one contestant from Sharjah was named as Marwa, 23.

Fifteen contestants, out of the 30 models, will be selected on Nov. 5 and the Miss Universe UAE winner will be announced on Nov. 7 at an event in Dubai.

For Thursday’s announcement, the models were all dressed in covered gowns by Dubai-based label Amato Couture.

On Wednesday, pageant organizers revealed that former Miss Lebanon Nadine Nassib Njeim would be on the jury panel for the event.

In a video shared on the organization’s Instagram page, the 37-year-old Lebanese actress said: “I am very happy and honored to announce that I will be part of the official jury of Miss Universe UAE.”

To join the pageant, participants had to be aged between 18 and 28, and live in the UAE.

The committee includes founder and chief executive of Dubai’s Yugen Events, Josh Yugen, Dubai-based fashion designer Furne Amato, former British-Filipino beauty queen Maggie Wilson, philanthropist Alaf Meky, humanitarian Zel Ali, and general manager of Emaar, Sharihan Al-Mashary.

To adhere to the region’s culture, organizers revealed at a recent press conference that the swimwear segment would be eliminated from the competition. The event will feature contestants giving a personal statement and displays of couture activewear and evening gowns.

Miss Universe, which began in 1952, is the world’s biggest pageant. It was previously owned by former US president, Donald Trump.


IMA in Paris celebrates Lebanon’s artistic talent in new exhibition

IMA in Paris celebrates Lebanon’s artistic talent in new exhibition
Updated 22 October 2021

IMA in Paris celebrates Lebanon’s artistic talent in new exhibition

IMA in Paris celebrates Lebanon’s artistic talent in new exhibition
  • Highlights from ‘Lights of Lebanon,’ which presents more than 100 works from 55 artists in a show of solidarity with the Lebanese people

DUBAI: The Insitut du Monde Arabe in Paris is one of Europe’s most important repositories of Arab art and culture. In its latest exhibition, “Lights of Lebanon,” the institute “celebrates the prodigious creativity of modern and contemporary artists from Lebanon and its diasporas.”

The exhibition is split into three periods, running in reverse chronological order: 2005 to the present day (“Lebanon, a country of never-ending  reconstructions”), 1975-2005 (“The somber years”), and 1943 to 1975 (“The Golden Age”).

“What has always been the strength of the Lebanese … is that the fragility of their state never stopped them from moving forward, from building, even if they lived in constant risk. In short, they live in the present, without obscuring personal and collective memory,” the IMA’s museum curator Eric Delpont says in the show catalogue. “It seems to me that in the West, especially in Europe, we couldn’t do this, because we need a sense of security.”

Many of the works on display were donated by the prolific collectors of Arab art Claude and France Lemand. It was Claude who came up with the title of the show, explaining that he sees artists as the “Lights of Lebanon.”

“I mean above all those who have made Beirut the city of light of the East, who have shone at all times of its tormented history, even if over the decades, the dominant clans — who defend only their interests — have plunged Lebanon into political, economic, financial, social, health and even cultural chaos,” he says in the catalogue. “But Lebanon remains a country from which the light shines.”

Here, Arab News presents some highlights from the exhibition, which Lemand describes as just “just a drop in the ocean, as far as this devastated country is concerned, but at least we have the satisfaction of having motivated and even inspired many artists, of all generations.”

Zena Assi

‘Holding On By A Thread’

Assi is one of several artists from the diaspora featured in the exhibition. Claude Lemand felt it important to stress that the show was dedicated to “all those who have links with the country” and believes the fact that the diaspora is so widespread shows that “Lebanon is not just Lebanon; it goes far beyond the small country and its small population and it echoes throughout the world.”

Assi is a multidisciplinary artist currently based in London. This incredibly detailed 2012 piece is typical of her works, which — the exhibition brochure explains — are “punctuated with visual references to eastern cities, particularly Beirut, and the difficulties endured by migrants from different backgrounds – anonymous tightrope walkers clinging onto life by a thread. Her fragmented cities reflect the migratory and urban violence, and the violence in Beirut. Bundles of memories, identity-based burdens, and emotional baggage, she describes their wanderings in cities that are represented as a kaleidoscope of symbols and codes: graffiti on the walls, billboards, contemporary souks, and luxury goods.”

Shaffic Abboud

‘Cinema Christine’

Abboud is widely regarded as one of the — if not the — most important modern Lebanese artists. He is best known for his paintings, several of which feature in the “Lights of Lebanon” exhibition, and particularly for his richly textured abstract works, but this piece is something of a curio. It was created in 1964 for his daughter Christine and was inspired by the picture boxes of itinerant storytellers who would travel from village to village, enthralling the children. “Cinema Christine” is a working model of such a box, complete with magic lamp and narrative scrolls.

Ayman Baalbaki

‘The End’

Baalbaki’s bleak dystopian image was selected to open the show — presumably a deliberate statement that Lebanon has now reached rock bottom (perhaps tempered with the hope that, from such a point, the only way is up). The artist has spent much of his career exploring the numerous conflicts in the region through his art — his images of veiled fighters have proved particularly popular. This piece, created over the last five years, is less confrontational but equally powerful.

Etel Adnan

‘Al-Sayyab, The Lost Mother and Child’

The much-revered artist, writer and poet is still prolific today, aged 96, and is widely regarded as Lebanon’s greatest female artist. She is best known for her colorful impressionist landscapes, but has described her artist books (or ‘leporellos’) such as this one as “particularly important” parts of her portfolio. In the leporellos, inspired by Japanese folding books, Adnan complements her writing with drawings in ink and watercolor. “I avoided using traditional calligraphy, although it is wonderful, to highlight my personal writing, which, in its very imperfection, brings the person writing into the work,” she states in the show catalogue, which goes on to explain that Adnan uses the horizontal, foldable format to “create works that can be extended into space — ‘a liberation of the text and images.’”

Fatima El-Hajj

‘Promenade’

El-Hajj’s work is displayed in the second part of the exhibition (“The somber age”), but — as Claude Lemand explains in the catalogue — her vibrant work can be seen as defiance in the face of the violence and destruction that surrounded her as she began her artistic career around the time that the Civil War broke out in the mid-Seventies. “She experienced the entire civil war and all the wars and misfortunes that followed; she still suffers in body and soul, but she has never painted war scenes or scenes of destruction,” he says. “For her, painting is eternal; she’s developed thinking and a world that transcends war and death.”


Can ROKA deliver the goods in Riyadh?

Can ROKA deliver the goods in Riyadh?
Updated 22 October 2021

Can ROKA deliver the goods in Riyadh?

Can ROKA deliver the goods in Riyadh?
  • We see if the award-winning Japanese restaurant lives up to the hype

RIYADH: When ROKA opened its doors in downtown Riyadh at the end of July, it was an immediate hit with local food lovers. So much so that reservations needed to be made well in advance.

Now that the hullabaloo around the launch has died down a little, it’s easier to get a spot, but ROKA is proving to be more than a flash in the pan. The Japanese restaurant has won plenty of awards in its home city of London, and its first international branch — which opened in Dubai last year — demonstrated the chain’s eagerness to maintain those high standards. Its latest offering, located in the heart of the Saudi capital, is following suit.

First impressions are good. The interior’s upscale rustic Japanese style and classy lighting suggest an easy, unpretentious sophistication, while its scale — seating for up to 243 guests — shows a confident ambition.

The interior’s upscale rustic Japanese style and classy lighting suggest an easy, unpretentious sophistication, while its scale — seating for up to 243 guests — shows a confident ambition. (Supplied)

The serving staff were unfailingly excellent; clearly knowledgeable about the food and comfortable recommending a tailored selection based on individual preferences.

Great service and nice decor are all well and good, but the most important ingredient in ROKA’s success is, of course, the menu.

Starting with the mocktails, we sampled nearly every option. One highlight was the Green Yoda — a blend of matcha green tea, passion fruit and a bright burst of lemon; perfect as a palate refresher between courses.

The lamb cutlets with Korean spices and sesame cucumber is one of the stars of the grilled menu. (Supplied)

But matcha is an acquired taste. If you’ve yet to acquire it, we’d recommend the White Lotus, a tempting mix of dragon fruit, lychee, strawberry and yuzu that goes well with any meal. We didn’t enjoy the Yuzuki as much, even though it came highly recommended by the ROKA team. It tasted somehow watered down and was quite bland.

Any disappointment at the Yuzuki was quickly tempered by the yellowtail sashimi and yuzu-truffle dressing that got our dinner started with a bang. The earthy truffle flavors were the perfect complement to the subtle sweetness of the melt-in-your-mouth fish — amplifying its natural flavors while preserving the integrity of its cut.

The sweet potato tempura and truffle sauce was less of a hit. The presentation — as with every dish — was superb, but the taste was underwhelming and lacked the punch we were expecting.

ROKA opened its doors in downtown Riyadh at the end of July. (Supplied)

We were on safer ground with the king crab, black cod and prawn dumplings with roasted chili dressing, which deserves its tag as one of ROKA’s signature dishes. The exterior of the dumpling had been seared to create a satisfying layer of crunch packed with an array of sweet seafood flavors.

For our maki rolls, we selected the wagyu tartare maki with karashi mustard, along with the crispy prawn and avocado maki with dark sweet soy. Both were fantastic, and we’d list them as must-try options.

The evening’s standout dish, though, was the black cod marinated in yuzu miso and served with pickled radish. The cod’s crunchy exterior and sweet creamy center matched with the tang of the yuzu miso is a perfect combination, making this truly the best cod we’ve tasted in Riyadh. Pair it with ROKA’s baked potato with yuzu cream and chives served tableside to make it even better.

ROKA’s offers baked potato with yuzu cream and chives. (Supplied)

If you’re not a seafood fan, then go for the Robata meat section, which offers a wide selection cooked live at the grilling station. (The restaurant is famed for its Robatayaki cooking method — the grilling technique that gives the meat a satisfying charred flavor.) Our only meat selection was the lamb cutlets with Korean spices and sesame cucumber. Apparently this is one of the stars of the grilled menu, but we found it fell a bit short of ROKA’s general high standards. The plating was once again beautiful — the lamb chops delicately balanced against each other — but the flavors were unbalanced, with the disappointing spice blend overpowering the tenderness of the lamb and leaving little room for flavors to be infused from the grill.

But our night ended on a high note with the yoghurt and almond cake. It’s a favorite on the Dubai branch’s menu and we can see why. The cake’s hard crust hides a warm, fluffy almond sponge that is topped with a mango toffee sauce and a dollop of caramel miso ice cream. It’s essentially an upscale, deconstructed mango cobbler, and it’s delicious; a perfect blend of warm, comforting flavors that brought our dinner to a very satisfying end.

Overall, ROKA justified its reputation as one of Riyadh’s most exciting new eateries.