“This is the story of a parallel women’s movement, one that happened in the demi-monde, late at night after the high-class critics had gone to bed.”
The Ezbekiyya district in Cairo was, for a few decades, home to a buzzing stew of cabarets, dance halls, billiard parlors and bars—an Egyptian Montmarte. Cormack, in his fascinating and lively telling, draws upon contemporaneous newspapers, memoirs and eyewitness accounts to bring the golden age of Ezbekiyya vividly back to life in a whirl of singers, actors, jazz bands and impresarios playing to packed venues of Egyptians, colonials and the interwar cosmopolitan crowd. In the wake of the 1919 revolution, women sought greater independence, and Ezbekiyya offered them an opportunity, albeit a disreputable one. Yet, some women managed to become artistically and financially independent—some fabulously so, as Cormack traces in profiles of performers including Shafiqa al-Qibtiyya, the byword for glamorous decadence in the 1890s; Mounira al-Mahdiyya, the originator of Arabic opera; Fatima Rushdi, the first Egyptian woman to write and direct a movie, and Oum Kalthoum, who set herself apart by her modesty and respectability.