8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons
A Diwan of contemporary life (341)
Al-Ahram pioneered in 1922 a special regular column to help readers find out where and when they can spend an evening out. The entertainment guide was more than just a journalistic service. Its content reflected changing social, political and economic conditions and catered to new lifestyles of Egyptians during a period of great transformation. The column followed by a few years the aftermath of World War I and the fallout from the 1919 nationalistic revolution against British occupation. The growth of the middle class and urban expansion were among the main reasons for the column's birth. Because of these factors, many Egyptians stopped going to bed shortly after sunset and needed to go out for entertainment at night. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk *explains the conditions that spawned the daily guide which today occupies up to half a page
Comedian Naguib El-Rihani
Have a good time"Where are you going tonight?" is the title of a column that first appeared in Al-Ahram in 1922. It is now more than 80 years old. If, throughout this period, Al-Ahram's subscribers turned to this page for the service it provided, for us today it is a mirror of major social and political transformations in Egyptian society and a reflection of the way in which an important daily newspaper changed to meet the public's demands.
Urban growth and the expansion of the Egyptian middle class created the need for the new column as more and more people did not retire to their beds with the setting sun, and this in turn, created a market for sources of evening entertainment. "Where are you going tonight?" served as a guide to the available venues. However, before looking at this page ourselves, it is important to turn first to the more fundamental change in Egyptian sleeping habits.
El-Rihani in different performances
Sleeping and waking with the sun was a custom inherent in the rhythm of rural life. Farmers woke at the crack of dawn to tend to their fields and livestock, returning home in the evenings to find few diversions to relieve the tedium of the working day. In The Cheapest Nights, the celebrated short story writer and novelist, Youssef Idris, presents a portrait of the hardship and monotony of rural life. But in the cities, too, sleeping at sunset had long been an aspect of urban life since the Middle Ages. The traditional city was divided into small quarters, each of which would close its gates at nightfall, leaving urban denizens little choice but to retire to their homes, even if they were little more than holes in the wall.
Although the Napoleonic expedition at the end of the 18th century would begin to shake the urban and rural order in particular, it was not until the turn of the 20th century that the medieval sleeping cycle collapsed in its entirety. Two phenomena contributed to the process. The first was the mounting waves of rural to urban migration. The second was technological advancement in both agriculture and transportation that made the move to the city much easier. As a result, this period saw a spiralling of urban population figures. As an indication of the extent of this growth, national census statistics for the period show that the overall population of Egypt rose by some 43 per cent between 1882 and 1898, while the urban population rose by some 68 per cent. More telling was the 1907 census, which indicated that a third of the population of Cairo and Alexandria was not born in those cities, a ratio that was as high as 60 per cent in the case of Port Said. Accompanying these rises in urban populations were fundamental changes in the infrastructure of the city. New residential quarters sprang up, reflecting changing lifestyles. These were linked by new means of transport, above all the electric tramways, making it possible for people to move around the city easily and well into the evening without fear of danger. With these developments, nightspots became more accessible and the demand for them grew. One of the functions of the Egyptian press would be to help meet this demand.
World War I, of course, brought a temporary decline in public entertainment outside the home. Not only did the financial straits imposed by war conditions curtail the ability to spend on such luxuries, but the omnipresence of "soldiers of the British Empire" roaming the streets and harassing the indigenous inhabitants as well as air raids prevented decent folk from leaving their homes at night. Contrary to what one might have expected, the public's sense of insecurity increased in the period immediately following the war. The 1919 revolution and subsequent events rendered the nighttime streets rather less secure than the opposite. Egyptians had little desire to while away their time in evening revelries at a time when their country was in the throes of daily clashes between the people and the occupation forces.
With the promulgation some three years later of the Declaration of 28 February 1922 recognising Egyptian independence, the situation relaxed considerably. Reflecting this development, the space allocated in the national press to political news coverage shrank, while major social and intellectual issues received increasing attention. The newspapers found themselves having to cater to other demands of the period, among which was the need to provide an entertainment guide to readers. Hence the appearance in Al-Ahram of "Where are you going tonight?"
Three shots of Youssef Wahbi acting
A prime venue of evening entertainment was the new phenomenon of the cinema. "Movies," invented in the final decade of the 19th century, were introduced into Egypt at the turn of the century. The first venues were the foreign-run cafés in Alexandria and then in Cairo. Because of the novelty of the cinema, the legitimacy of these venues was questionable, particularly in light of article 17 of the "Theatre Law" of 17 July 1911, which stated: "Any individual who wishes to convert an existing premise into a theatre hall, musical café, circus, spectacle hall or anything not mentioned in his existing license must apply for a new license."
By the 1920s, however, the cinema business had stabilised, as is evident from Al-Ahram's entertainment column. Although the column only featured the advertisements for a single movie theatre in 1923 -- "the Kléber Cinematograph on Boulaq Street in front of the Egyptian Telegraph Office" -- in 1924 it advertised three cinemas: the Novelty which soon changed its name to Triumph, the Metropole and the Amir. As these names suggest, the birth of the cinema in Egypt was of foreign parentage, both in management and language, and catered to the large European communities in Egypt at the time. But from the outset, Egyptians were great movie-goers, a fact evidenced by the intensive promotions for the cinemas in the Arabic press and by the fact that advertisements always announced that "all scenes of the featured film are subtitled in Arabic." To attract audiences, the theatre management would also present a short description or synopsis of their films in "Where are you going tonight".
One example was A Pure Flower in a Corrupt Milieu. This "remarkable, morally inspiring, contemporary" film, the advertisement relates, was about "a hapless young woman destined by fate to live in a corrupt environment, yet she learned how to safeguard her person and her virtue, thus remaining chaste and pure. Eventually, a man falls in love with her, rescues her from that atmosphere of depravity and marries her." Of course, one wonders whether after having been told the ending, audiences would still have wanted to go to the Kléber cinema to see the film. In fact, this may well have been the case, for over successive issues of "Where are you going tonight?" the Kléber offered fewer synopses and the other cinemas never did.
Songbird Umm Kulthum
Movie theatres in the early 1920s generally featured two performances a day, one at 6.15pm and the other at 9.15pm. They did not offer matinée shows until later. In order to encourage families to attend the films, movie theatres allocated a section of the theatre for families, a feature that was advertised by the Novelty Theatre. Other movie houses boasted performances for women only. The Kléber for example, announced to Al-Ahram readers a special showing of its films for female audiences at 4.00pm Thursdays.
Movie-going audiences were generally treated to a three-part programme. First came the cinema journal, the most famous version of which was "The Telegraph," described by Al-Ahram as "the best cinematographic news journal in the world as it contains the most up-to-date news." On occasion, the entertainment column also advertised this portion of the programme. On 4 January 1923, for example, it announced that the cinema journal featured a report on "the grand ceremony of the investiture of the new Caliph in Istanbul." In addition to such events, "women's fashion in Paris" always held an esteemed spot in the cinema news. But so did local Egyptian events, as was the case when, on 27 January 1923, the Kléber announced that its cinema journal covered "the tour of His Majesty King Fouad of the schools in the capital." Similarly, the Triumph announced on 3 July of the following year that its cinema journal covered "the visit of our beloved Prime Minister His Excellency Saad Pasha Zaghlul to the barracks of all the Egyptian boy scout regiments."
The second portion of the programme featured a short comedy, such as He Absconded With My Wife and Girl Scouts. Some of the comic characters acquired such popularity that they featured in series of several episodes each. It is interesting to note that even then Charlie Chaplin was familiar to movie-going audiences in Egypt. In 1924, the Metropole advertised that, for its second feature, it was presenting the famous comic actor in a film about a school for the indolent.
Then came the full-length feature film. The majority of feature films were social dramas, featuring such stars as Amy Lane who, one surmises from her billing in Al-Ahram's entertainment column, was guaranteed full houses.
Comedian Ali El-Kassar
It is interesting to note that even then, historical epics made their way to the Egyptian screen. In March 1923, the Kléber announced that it was showing Ann Boleyn, the famous mistress of Henry VIII whom he eventually married and later condemned to death. "This is the greatest historical epic to appear in the world of cinema," declared the Kléber's advertisement. "With its leading roles played by the greatest actors, this film is unlike any ever to appear before. It depicts the grandeur of the kings of ages past and the events that took place in the royal court of those bygone days. This film in its entirety is a spectacle that cannot be seen every day, particularly as some scenes present more than 30,000 actors all at once. Hurry to see this film. Do not let this opportunity pass you by." The following season, cinema-goers were to be treated to a film on "Christopher Columbus, the famous discoverer of America," showing at the Metropole.
From the letters to the editor in Al-Ahram it is obvious that the new art made a great impression on Egyptian audiences. One reader wrote to the newspaper to urge the Ministry of Education to use film for educational purposes in view of "its great effect on the young." Another offered a lengthy "History of Cinematography." Most letters, however, appealed for the establishment of a cinema industry in Egypt. Spearheading this call was "The Pantomime Group," formed in Alexandria, which sent a statement to Al-Ahram on 5 September 1923 urging the Egyptian people to work together so as "not to deprive Egypt of this art." Certainly, the means were available, for, as the statement read, "Can our rich not open their coffers in order to assist in the advancement of this project?" Another proponent was Ali Khater who wrote to Al-Ahram on 27 November 1924, to suggest that developing an indigenous cinema industry was a patriotic duty. He said, "The existence of the cinematographic arts in Egypt is the only way for us to inform the people of the West whether Egypt is a meek, uncivilised, subjugated nation, as they believe, or whether it is heir to a Pharaonic civilisation that rivals that of their most civilised and sophisticated countries." In fact, it would not be long before Egypt's Misr Bank responded to this call.
While cinema was the latest art, the theatre was more than half a century old by the early 1920s. Its maturity is evidenced by the number of dramatic troupes billed in "Where are you going tonight?": Okasha, Amin Effendi Sidqi, Ali Effendi El-Kassar, Naguib El-Rihani, Munira El-Mahdiyya and Youssef Wahbi were the leading names in theatre at the time. However, perhaps the most innovative was Youssef Wahbi who was eventually dubbed the "Dean of Arab Theatre" in recognition of his efforts to depart from the customary burlesque of the time. Of a well-established family, Wahbi travelled to Italy in 1919 to study acting and perform. Upon the death of his father in 1922, he returned to Egypt where he claimed a sizable inheritance of LE12,000, which he invested in founding a theatre group of his own, the venue for which was to be the Ramsis Theatre. A curious advertisement appearing in Al-Ahram on 31 January 1923 apprises readers of the uniqueness of this venture: "Construction of the Ramsis Theatre is soon to be completed. We welcome all visitors who wish to view the construction and the great preparations that are in progress to realise this splendid venture which represents the greatest step towards promoting the great revival of the Egyptian theatre and raising it to the standards of the European theatre. Wahbi Bek, who received his diploma in elocution from Italy and who studied under the famous Italian actor Chiantoni and under Aziz Eid, the most accomplished actor in Egypt, along with an elite group of the most proficient actors and actresses in the country, is ardently dedicated to laying the foundations of the dramatic art in Egypt."
Clearly, Wahbi intended the Ramsis to stand above the other theatrical venues, notably the Ezbekiya Garden Theatre, home of the Okasha Troupe, the Majestic on Emad El-Din Street, which hosted El-Kassar's and Sidqi's troupes, and the New Printanya where Naguib El-Rihani staged his plays. Towards this end, Wahbi engaged some of the most famous actors of the time, among whom were Aziz Eid and George Abyad. The Ramsis was also committed to a more serious type of theatre, as well as to the Arabisation of foreign plays.
Wahbi with Rose El-Youssef in her acting days
The Arabised presentations at the Ramsis contrasted with the plays written in Arabic for the other venues, such as Naguib El-Rihani's Shrewd Hassan and the Days of Glory, whose events are interspersed with elegant oriental and European dances and whose leading role is played by the widely reputed Badiea Masabni. There was also Okasha's Maarouf the Shoemaker -- the "fantastic tale that epitomises Egyptian cunning and resourcefulness, adapted for the stage by the two great men of letters, Mohamed Effendi Abdel-Qoddous and Mohamed Effendi Mohamed" -- and Susu Hanem, brought to the stage by the eminent novelist Hussein Effendi Saoudi.
There remains one more important option for an evening's entertainment to be found in "What are you doing tonight?" -- singing. In addition, the column also reveals an important development in the performing arts. If at the end of the 19th century public singing was the preserve of men, and notably such famous vocalists as Abdu El-Hamouli and Salama Higazi, the 1920s brought to the fore many female vocalists, led by Umm Kulthum.
Notices in "What are you doing tonight" in the early 1920s indicate that Umm Kulthum had already attained great popularity. Ezbekiyya Gardens Theatre announced an evening's "open-air musical performance" featuring "the famous singer, the Lady of Song, Umm Kulthum. Delight in song beneath the stars. Women's private section available. General entrance 10 piastres." Another advertisement read, "Music dispels sorrows. Umm Kulthum at the Ezbekiyya Theatre. 8.30pm to 1.00am. Purchase your tickets now before they sell out!" And a third notice read, "In response to the demand of many prominent figures in the capital, Umm Kulthum will bring her tender and resonant voice to the performance of new melodies, popular Egyptian songs and the eloquent and delightful musical verses of the late Sheikh Salama Higazi."
These are only a few of the notices that herald the unparalleled fame the voice of the "Star of the East" would realise in the Arab world and beyond. Al-Ahram, through its "Where are you going tonight?" column clearly pointed to the phenomenon known as Umm Kulthum.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.