Doing Justice to Egyptian Feminists

July 6, 2021   •   By Raphael Cormack

THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE TRENDING ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO. 30.

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I am a white man who has written a book about women of color. Over the course of writing Midnight in Cairo, a nonfiction book exploring the lives and experiences of some of the most powerful and charismatic women of Cairo’s early 20th-century nightlife, several issues arose which I could not ignore. The lives of women like these have so often been misrepresented by men like me.


It was not what I set out to do. With more vanity I’d imagine the subject chose me, but in fact I stumbled upon it in the course of my PhD research on Arabic adaptations of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus. As I was looking through the old theatrical magazine and microfilmed copies of newspapers, I found myself drawn into page after page of vivid stories of the actresses, singers, and dancers, whose performances — and lives off-stage — had clearly riveted many readers before me, spawning dozens of celebrity interviews and full-length memoirs. There were women who had started their own cabarets, theater troupes, and film companies. Practical feminists who faced up to patriarchy and British imperialism. They were almost totally unknown outside the Middle East, but with every new source I found tantalizing new snippets of their lives and details of their careers. It is a truism in historical writing that before around 1950, you have to make an effort to uncover women’s voices amid the cacophony of self-important men. But in Cairo’s interwar nightlife scene, they were everywhere. It would be impossible to tell the story of Egypt’s roaring ’20s without them.


I wanted to bring these women to new audiences but I had genuine concerns. The time when self-declared “experts” (usually white men like me) could write whatever they wanted without having to answer to anyone else except a small group of other self-declared “experts” (who are also white men) is coming to an end. It has been a privilege to try and bring the material I have found to light, but one that must come with responsibilities.


Writing about other cultures can go very wrong. In 1922, the eccentric pulp fiction writer Achmed Abdullah (whose family background, which allegedly includes both Afghan and Russian aristocracy, is complicated enough to warrant a whole article), published a scathing review of the new Cambridge History of India. In part he was attacking its turgid academic style. “There exists a type of academic mind which soaks itself in facts as a sponge drinks water,” he began. “Press the sponge, and the water squirts out, a little more muddy, a little more stale.” The review went on: “This History of India is as platitudinously impressive as a Methodist bishop. It reaches that apex of good breeding: a complete vacuity of soul.”


But it was not only the lifeless academic style that annoyed Abdullah. The almost-scientific attempts of these “Anglo-Saxon” scholars to understand India were doomed to failure. The book, he said, “looks at the great peninsula through blue spectacles. These spectacles are eminently well-fitted, eminently practical. But they focus wrong when used to look beyond Boston, Regent Street, and the pleasant Downs of Sussex-by-the-Sea.”


These “blue spectacles” that Abdullah talks about probably refer to the colored lenses that travelers wore in sunny countries before sunglasses were invented. Foreign tourists in Egypt cut a strange figure, with their blue or green spectacles and muslin over their face to protect themselves from the outside. There was also a striking metaphor in their appearance. As Timothy Mitchell says, they were trying to “see without being seen,” to observe from within a sealed capsule.


The problem of the “Western” gaze on the “East” was influentially dissected by Edward Said in Orientalism. There, he argued that a whole host of writers who claimed (and often believed) that they were writing their honest, impartial observations motivated by nothing but curiosity, were really participating in the creation of an image in the Middle East as a part of the world that was separate and opposed to the “West” and, by extension, ripe for colonization. One of Said’s most influential and important arguments was that the construction of the “East,” which motivated so much European imperialism, did not just come from within the halls of power but from supposedly unaffiliated writers. You can almost feel his disappointment as he finds that writers that he otherwise admires (Flaubert, for instance) turn their eyes to the Middle East and end up repeating the same old, false clichés.


Edward Said’s ghost hung heavy over me as I wrote my book, not least because he himself had written two short articles about one of the women I feature: the belly dancer, actress, and underground left-wing, anti-imperialist activist Tahiyya Carioca. Said described his sexual awakening at the age of 14, when he saw her dance at a nightclub in Cairo. But, I have not only written a history of the Middle East, I have written about the women of the region, not just as a “Westerner” but as a man. I am open to the charge that I can never fully understand the experiences of the women whose stories I tell in the book.


The women I write about themselves were aware of the problems of men telling their stories for them. Fatima Sirri, one of the many successful singers and actresses in 1920s Cairo, spent almost a decade involved in a lawsuit to recognize his paternity — the first case of its kind in Egypt. She eventually won, sustained in large part by the money she made as a singer, but as the case was still going on, she published her own detailed account of the birth of the child and her failed relationship with the father. She knew the kind of things that men were saying about her and went on the offensive. “All you male authors who write about the female psyche, not one of you has ever been a woman, so how can you know anything about the female psyche?”


In 1920, the feminist writer May Ziadeh published a biography of her fellow activist Malak Hifni Nasif in Cairo. In the book, Ziadeh printed some correspondence she had exchanged with the subject of the book. She makes almost the exactly same point as Fatima Sirri would a few years later:


Whether he is writing a general study or turning his pen to specifics, a man cannot shed light on female emotion because he writes with his intellect, his egotism, and his severity and a woman lives with her heart, her emotions, and her love. Only a doctor who knows our terrible diseases can treat them. A woman knows what ails her sex so she is the one who will cure it.


So where does my work stand in light of all these warnings? What would the women I write about feel about it?


Can it even stand at all?


In Orientalism, Said makes it very clear that he does not think that people in Europe or America can no longer write history about the Middle East. His project was, at its core, a humanist one. One of his central criticisms of the stereotyped, imperial, and dangerous intellectual construction of an “Orient” fundamentally opposed to the West was that it has stood in the way of a true attempts at cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. In an introduction to a later edition of the book, he clearly states that it is not the study of or interest in different cultures that is the problem, but how that interest can reinforce systems of power and supremacy. There is, he says, “a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external dominion.”


So, if it is possible for someone like me, as a humanist committed to the enlargement of horizons, to write a book like this, the next important question becomes: How should it be done? How can we acknowledge the problems the exist in the project but also attempt to transcend them (at least to a degree) and reach what Said called “the common enterprise of promoting human community”?


The first of my strategies was to try to ensure that the women in my book are allowed to speak for themselves, nothing more and nothing less. Using their own words and their own memoirs wherever possible, supplemented by contemporary sources, I have tried to reproduce their lives as faithfully as possible. I hope that, were these women alive, they would recognize themselves in the book.


But, equally, I do not want to use their individual stories as a way to make grand claims which they cannot support. Part of the curse of living in the Middle East is that everything you do is seen as an explanation for some huge geopolitical or religious problem. Individual stories are asked to carry the weight of representing the entirety of a culture or a religion. The stories in my book are windows into Egypt’s culture and nightlife in the early 20th century, but I don’t claim they will explain an entire part of the world in all its facets.


Secondly, no book is the work of just one person. Not even this article is the work of one person. I would never have seen Achmed Abdullah’s review if the scholar Esmat Elhalaby had not shown it to me. Over the course of working on Midnight in Cairo, I have realized just how much I have been shaped by female intellectuals. Since the first time I lived in Egypt in 2010, I have had the generous support and friendship of many academics who took the time to help me. Early in my journey two great female scholars of Egyptian theater, Nehad Selaiha and Iman Ezzeldin, gave me both their time and some of their books (no small thing for an academic). Nehad Selaiha died in 2017 but her work has continued to be an inspiration, especially her book which feature a long chapter on Fatima Sirri’s long court case and its ramifications.


While writing my book I reread May Her Likes Be Multiplied, a study of Arab women’s life writing from the 19th and 20th centuries by my PhD supervisor, Marilyn Booth. I was struck by how much it had influenced my own thinking. Many of my thoughts on performance and drama are deeply indebted to my other PhD supervisor, Olga Taxidou. As I wrote the book, I discovered how much my mother, classicist Mary Beard, had left her mark on me — from her attempts to move beyond great men, generals, and battles and get a sense of the everyday, to her insistence on deconstructing often repeated myths little supported by history. Midnight in Cairo is really the product of countless scholars, writers, and friends in Egypt and elsewhere, whose contributions I have always tried to acknowledge. In the course of research, I was also introduced to and influenced by Cairo’s amazing HaRaKa collective, a dance collective who is currently doing performances based on the history of Cairo’s early 20th-century cabarets, and Heschek Beschek, a group of female performers from Egypt and other nations based in Berlin.


Finally, I have tried to create space rather than take it up. Publishing does not have to be a zero-sum game and if Midnight in Cairo leads to more interest in the unknown histories of women, there are many books just waiting to be translated into English. Lamia Ziadé’s wonderful, illustrated history of the 20th-century Arabic entertainment business, Ya Ain, Ya Layl, still has no English edition. Likewise, Salah Isa’s rich and deeply researched Rijal Raya wa-Sakina, the story of two Alexandrian sex workers-turned-murderers which is also one of the great works of modern Arabic social history, has also never been translated into English. As far as I am aware, there is not even an English edition of any works by May Ziadeh, one of the most eloquent Arab feminists of the 20th century. There is a very deep well of amazing stories from the Arab world waiting to find new audiences.


We are moving into a new age. With it, the world is opening up to a whole new set of stories. What my place is in this new world, I am not sure. In the end, I will not be the one to judge whether my own attempts to write a history have avoided the mistakes of the past. But whatever my book’s reception, I am looking forward to a continuing shake-up in history writing and the long-neglected and forgotten stories that it will uncover.


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Raphael Cormack is a writer and translator. He has edited of two collections short stories translated from Arabic, The Book of Cairo and The Book of Khartoum (with Max Shmookler). His first book, Midnight in Cairo, was published in 2021. He has a PhD in Egyptian Theatre from the University of Edinburgh.