Egyptian Singers and Entrepreneurs (fl. 1920s)

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Egyptian Singers and Entrepreneurs (fl. 1920s)

Group of accomplished women who shifted the venue of their musical talents from private homes into theaters and nightclubs, owned and operated thriving entertainment businesses, became recording and radio stars, and led in the formation of mainstream entertainment for modern Arab life.

Munira al-Mahdiyya (c. 1895–1965). Born in Zaqazig around 1895; died in 1965; married and divorced five times. Ran away from home to perform in Cairo; became famous for her nationalist, anti-colonial songs which were recorded and widely distributed; founded her own theater company after the British tried to ban her from the stage.

Tauhida (?–1932). Birth date unknown; died in 1932. Owner and operator of the nightclub Alf Laila wa Laila, one of the earliest in the Azbakiyya area of Cairo, established in 1897; one of the first women to move from singing to club ownership and management.

Na'ima al-Masriyya. Na'ima became a performer out of economic necessity when she was divorced by her husband. A popular star on radio, recordings, and stage, she owned and operated the Alhambra, an enormously popular club and casino.

Badi'a Masabnik. Born in Syria in the 1890s; moved to Cairo in 1921; married Najib al-Rihani, in 1923; left him in 1926 and founded her own music hall, the Sala Badi'a. Known and loved as a recording artist throughout the Arab world, she sponsored the careers of many other female performers.

Fathiyya Ahmad (c. 1898–1975). Born around 1898; died in 1975; daughter of a Qur'an reciter who began her theatrical career around 1910; married a wealthy landowner; two children. Popular singer and manager of the Sala Badi'a, who was also a widely recorded vocalist until her retirement in 1950.

Although Westerners often assume that all Arab women's lives are confined by rigid social custom, many have, in fact, been influential in many sectors of society for hundreds, even thousands of years. A group of female entertainers who emerged in Egypt at the dawn of the 20th century challenged the stereotype. Their role was not unusual, as women have long been performers in the Arab world. What was unusual was their entrepreneurship which redefined the position of the female star. These women moved from performing in harems to theater stages. They founded and operated nightclubs and theaters to showcase their talents. They quickly adopted emerging technologies, making recordings and performing on the radio. These women not only carved a new niche for their gender in Egyptian life, but they also made Egyptian entertainment pre-eminent in the Arab world.

Discovering the facts about any entertainer can often be difficult. Dates of birth as well as personal details are grudgingly given. Greta Garbo 's desire to conceal her private life was legendary, and many performers throughout the world emulated her example to some extent. When discussing Egyptian female performers, other factors enter the picture. Most of these women came from the poorer classes and had no records of their birth. Social pressure also explains the garbled data available, because in Europe, as well as the Middle East, female performers were often regarded as "fallen women." Thus, they sometimes changed the facts to improve their social status. In the case of the celebrated Um Kalthum (c. 1898–1975), for example, her father always insisted that his unmarried daughter be addressed as Mrs. Um Kalthum when she began to appear in Cairo. A poor peasant from the provinces, he did not think it was fitting for an unmarried woman to appear in public, a view widely shared in Egypt at the time. When Um Kalthum finally married, she withheld the information for some time before announcing it to fans.

The career of Munira al-Mahdiyya (c. 1895–1965) was typical of Cairo's outstanding group of entrepreneurial entertainers. Born in the provincial town of Zaqazig, Munira became enamored of musical performances at an early age, sneaking out of her house to hear popular singers. Her determination to perform drew her from the provinces to Cairo. By 1913, Munira al-Mahdiyya was featured nightly at a famous coffee house, the Nuzhat al-Nufus, and she also sang at the Alhambra and the Eldorado, both popular nightclubs. She became particularly well-known for nationalist songs, written by herself and others, that gave voice to the rising popular resentment against British colonialism during and after World War I. In response to her public defiance, the British closed the Nuzhat al-Nufus coffeehouse, forcing al-Mahdiyya to seek work in a theater. Ironically, the action resulted in the blossoming of her career. She formed her own theatrical troupe and became its manager, negotiating with composers, lyricists, and singers, planning schedules and meeting payrolls. Her Egyptian nationalism remained unabated, and politicians and journalists flocked to her performances. When commercial recordings were introduced, al-Mahdiyya became one of the first to take advantage of the new medium, making some of the earliest recordings of Egyptian popular music. Her nationalist sentiments attracted a wide audience throughout Egypt and the Arab world. She was a great commercial success, and many followed in her footsteps. Her personal life remained daring and unconventional: in her long lifetime, she married and divorced five men.

Sweeping cultural change also played a part in the success of women like Munira al-Mahdiyya. Long an agrarian society, Egypt became more and more urbanized in the 20th century. In the past, female singers or 'awailim had performed in private only for the very wealthy. Some lived as permanent members of wealthy households. The population influx into urban centers like Cairo and Alexandria created a need for cheap mass entertainment, just as it did in Europe and America. By the beginning of World War I in 1914, few of the old style 'awailim were still performing, and in their place came more ambitious and enterprising female stars. A maze of cafés, music halls, and nightclubs were built in an area in Cairo that became known as the Azbakiyya Garden, and a theater district sprang up, offering theatrical performances that were enormously popular with the public. Two performers who moved aggressively into the new type of mass entertainment were Tauhida (?–1932) and Na'ima al-Masriyya . Both were older performers whose careers predated World War I.

Tauhida, a Syrian immigrant who worked as a singer and dancer, had married an Egyptian of Greek extraction who managed her career. In 1897, the couple opened one of the earliest modern nightclubs, called Alf Laila wa Laila, featuring Tauhida playing the 'ud, a popular Arab musical instrument. After her husband died, Tauhida continued to perform and operate the club until her own death in 1932. Though she made few, if any, commercial recordings, she was a much-loved figure in the entertainment world.

Here, as in Europe, among these favoured mortals, the women hold their own against the men in number and estimation.

—Georg Ebers

A stipulation in Tauhida's standard contract demonstrates the special problems faced by women in a traditional society as they moved into the public social arena. Although she usually performed in her own club, the clause stated that she could not be required to drink more than five glasses of cognac with patrons on any one evening, a device she no doubt found necessary; also she probably wished to signal to her public that she was a respectable figure. In their past appearances in private homes, Egyptian women performers had often been accompanied by their husbands, or a male member of the family, to protect their virtue. Once these women moved onto theater and nightclub stages, they crossed an undefined social boundary. As was also the case in the West, taverns and brothels existed side-by-side with nightclubs and music halls. Mass entertainment sometimes involved prostitution, drunkenness, gambling, and drug use. Socializing with patrons was good for business, but the border between respect and over-familiarity could easily be crossed, especially in a society with women in so few public roles. Because women like Tauhida demanded respect from patrons and fans, public esteem for these performers rose over the decades and became the norm. In fact, few individuals enjoyed greater respect in Egypt than its female entertainers.

The career of Na'ima al-Masriyya parallels that of Tauhida's. Born in a lower-middle-class Cairo neighborhood, she became a singer out of necessity when her husband divorced her. For Arab men, divorce was then notoriously easy to obtain, but wives cast aside were usually disgraced and destitute. Na'ima supported herself by teaming up with two neighborhood women to sing at local weddings. Soon, she was performing in music halls in Egypt's provincial cities, before moving back to Cairo where she appeared in the main theater district. By 1927, Na'ima al-Masriyya had accumulated a considerable fortune when she purchased the Alhambra, a casino and nightclub she managed while singing and performing as a recording artist. Through her success, Na'ima al-Masriyya helped to reshape the concept of respectability, forcing the public to alter its rigid standards for single women.

Badi'a Masabnik , a much more colorful and flamboyant figure, was adored by her fans. Born in Syria in the 1890s, she performed as a singer and dancer in Syria, Egypt, and throughout the Mideast, and remained quite open about the series of wealthy lovers who financed her career. In 1921, Badi'a starred in Najib al-Rihani's theatrical troupe in Cairo, and in 1923 she married al-Rihani, though the union proved to be of short duration. On tour in North Africa, she discovered al-Rihani in the arms of a French actress. Without a word, she packed her bags and left the troupe starless. By 1926, the marriage had ended, and Badi'a opened her own music hall in Cairo. Called Sala Badi'a, the club not only featured the owner but performers she had trained. Many Egyptian performers first appeared on her stage: Laila Murad, Fraid al-Atrash, Najat 'Ali , and Nadira . When Badi'a went on tour throughout the Mideast, her friend and colleague, Fathiyya Ahmad (c. 1898–1975), managed the club in her absence. Famous in her own right, Ahmad was both an excellent manager and a good drawing card, and both women profited from the association. Ever inventive, Badi'a also inaugurated largely popular matinees for women only, held when the club's male patrons were at work. Matinees for women soon became a feature of clubs throughout Egypt.

The career of the more conventional Fathiyya Ahmad demonstrates the upward mobility that was increasingly available to Egypt's beloved female stars. The daughter of a Qur'an reciter, Ahmad had ventured out of a traditional background onto the stage. Her theatrical career began in Cairo in 1910, and she was an instant success. When she married a wealthy landowner in the early 1920s, it was a sign of the increasing social acceptance of female entertainers. Economics had propelled many of these women on-stage, and class background as well as their public lives removed them from candidacy as wives of middle- or upper-class men. But as public adulation grew, this prejudice began to wane. As the wife of a wealthy man, Ahmad no longer had to perform, but she clearly enjoyed the spotlight, despite the fact that she was shy and quiet. Though she always maintained a respectable demeanor, she had no qualms about associating with the flamboyant Badi'a, another example of the ability of these women to make their own rules. As a performer, manager, and recording star, Fathiyya Ahmad was a much-loved figure until her retirement in 1950.

Moving aggressively into the business world, taking advantage of the new technologies to reach a wider mass audience, these women demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit best measured when songs began to be broadcast in homes, coffeehouses, and grocery stores. The voices of Badi'a, Fathiyya Ahmad, Na'ima al-Masriyya, and Munira al-Mahdiyya dominated the air waves, and were soon heard throughout the Middle East. They enjoyed enormous success, dominating the entertainment field and earning more than male performers. As the 20th century progressed, public adulation became almost frenzied. For decades, the radio broadcasts on the first Thursday of every month of Egypt's most famous singer, Um Kalthum, virtually brought the Arab world to a halt. As the center of the impact these women had on Arab entertainment, Cairo is probably best compared to another music mecca, Nashville, except that Cairo's eventual audience was much larger, as it included the entire Middle East.

In the Middle East, where Westerners tend to measure progress politically rather than artistically, some of the greatest progress has been made by women through the arts and entertainment. By creating roles for themselves, roles that had never before existed in the Arab world, these women ultimately set new standards, offering all members of their sex a new prominence and dignity.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia