11. Badi‘a Masabni, Artiste and Modernist
The Egyptian Print Media’s Carnival of National Identity
Roberta L. Dougherty
Familiarity is what popular culture has delivered since the printing press.
James B. Twitchell, Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America, 1992
Either sing monologues or forget it.
Introduction: Modernity and Cultural Hierarchy
“Great books” by “great men” have typically been the tools of study of a society’s literary culture. In the case of Egypt, the twentieth-century canon includes the works of litterateurs such as Taha Husayn and Mahmud ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad. A society’s high-culture canon can also include figures from other areas of endeavor—journalists, artists, musicians, dramatists. For Egypt the cultural icons of this part of the canon would include figures such as editor Muhammad Husayn Haykal, singer Umm Kulthum, composer, singer, and musician Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and actors George Abyad and Najib al-Rihani.
For those who study Egyptian society and for Egyptians themselves, the achievements of these persons represent the culmination of an unbroken line of development from established traditions—both classical and vernacular—to modernity with just the right amount of Western technique added. Music critics and musicians themselves may link contemporary performers to musical giants such as Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Umm Kulthum, whose artistic roots could in turn be traced to such late-nineteenth-century figures as Salama Hijazi, ‘Abduh al-Hamuli, and Almaz. Critics and historians of the cinema and theater look back to the pioneers George Abyad, Najib al-Rihani, and Yusuf Wahbi, among others. Literary critics also follow this convention. For example, contemporary Egyptian critics usually trace the origins of social criticism in modern Arabic narrative literature to Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham. This story, first published in serial form in the newspaper Misbah al-Sharq in 1898, itself derives from venerable roots in classical Arabic literature (Allen 1992, 34, 68, 96–97). Contemporary Egyptian nationalist discourse makes distinctions between these canonical heroes of modernity and more problematic types of expression denigrated as “vulgar” or “commercial.” It also seeks to separate the authentically Egyptian from the foreign.
Both James B. Twitchell (1992) and Lawrence W. Levine (1988) have argued that distinctions between “high” and “low” culture were not fossilized in America until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Before that, popular entertainments such as Shakespeare plays and opera were attended by all social classes, and what we would now consider the untouchable classics were even altered to suit the demands of the public. But by the end of the century, opera, Elizabethan theater, and symphonic music became subject to standards of connoisseurship. In Egypt the development that took nearly a century in Europe and America was skipped. Western novels were translated into Arabic for authors to imitate and learn from, and Western-style music was inserted into the local culture with the establishment of academies for its study and with the construction of the Cairo Opera House. Developed aesthetic sensibilities already existed for “classical” Arabic music and literature, but these sensibilities did not touch the Egyptian common man in the way that ordinary Americans had a taste for Shakespeare even in the frontier. Around the turn of the century bold experiments in theater and publishing helped to create a new consumer of creative talent: the fan of popular singers and short, entertaining songs and the reader of magazines devoted to film and theater. Later decades might canonize some of these artists and place them next to other achievers in the areas of nationalist leadership, religious reform, science, and literature. But in the early twentieth century, popular Egyptian magazines show us a world where culture was a salad bar, to contradict Twitchell (1992, 24), and these figures are shoulder to shoulder with now-forgotten politicians and members of the artistic demimonde.
The Popular Press: Al-Ithnayn
Popular Egyptian magazines from the first half of the twentieth century provide a wealth of untapped information about a modern national identity defined through seemingly bizarre juxtapositions of elements. Such juxtapositions are common in nationalist ideologies, which often function through a tension between the need to authenticate through reference to “continuity-based sociocultural integration” and requirements of modernization (Fishman 1972, 20–21). The nationalist imperative to fulfill sometimes incompatible needs can easily result in combinations of images that appear, at first glance, to be strange bedfellows. In this case the pages of the periodical al-Ithnayn convey an almost carnival atmosphere. Advertisements for modern consumer goods, Cairo and Hollywood films, cabaret entertainments, alcoholic beverages, and railroad service to beach resorts mingle with stereotypical images of a more “traditional” society: fat, befezzed pashas, Azhari sheikhs, demurely veiled women from popular quarters, and rustically comic fellahin. The boundary between high and low, modern and traditional, even Western and Egyptian is not firmly drawn, and the canonical figures are right in the middle of the hurly-burly. This would not necessarily be expected, given the usually hagiographic treatment of such figures by establishment versions of Egyptian modernity.
One of al-Ithnayn’s running features in its first year of publication was called “Majlis al-ta’dib” (Disciplinary Board), a mock court that sat in judgment on contemporary affairs. Its “judges” included those members of the Egyptian high-culture canon listed above. But the composition of the majlis also included a few women who were on the fringes of both traditional society and high culture because they were public performers. One of these is Badi‘a Masabni, an impresaria responsible for promoting the careers of many Egyptian artists and an actress, singer, and dancer famous in her own right. Why is Masabni next to the cultural demigods, her conspicuous profile a familiar image on the pages of a magazine that, in other respects, seems to be shoving Westernization down Egypt’s collective throat?
Fig. 10. Badi‘a Masabni entices an audience for her latest program at the casino (al-Ithnayn, no. 206, May 23, 1938, p. 40). Courtesy of Dar al-Hilal.
Al-Ithnayn magazine first saw the light of day on June 18, 1934, although in a sense it had already existed for several years. Its title means “both.” Dar al-Hilal, the great publishing house that produced it, combined on its pages two older publications, al-Fukaha (which first appeared on December 1, 1926) and al-Kawakib (which first appeared on March 28, 1932). As indicated by the names of its predecessors, the new periodical would include both fukaha (comedy) and kawakib (stars), that is, stars of the stage and cinema. The title may have also had a double meaning, because its first day of issue was a Monday (yawm al-ithnayn)—the day on which al-Kawakib had normally appeared (Tamawi 1992, 210).
Husayn Shafiq al-Misri, editor in chief of al-Ithnayn, was “warmly attached to the vernacular dialects of his country” (al-Misri 1980, preface by Prasse, vi). In his magazine he favored the use of one- or two-page humorous pieces in which fictitious characters from baladi quarters comment on current affairs and give their earthy advice. One regular feature was the “contest of the quarters,” featuring “challenges” from famous Cairo neighborhoods such as Bulaq, Bab al-Khalq, and al-Husayn. Each quarter speaks for itself in the first person, describing its qualities, both good and bad. For example, Bab al-Khalq asserts:
The Royal Library is in my square, to which hie scholars of the East and West, in all their types and languages…and behind it is the Arab Museum.…I have the house of the Sheikh al-Islam…and his grandson, Amin al-Mahdi, the greatest oud player in the Arab world.…And the alley of ‘awalim [professional female performers], there is no ‘awalim alley like it in the whole city, women like ghouls, with yellow faces and blue teeth and red eyes and voices like the braying of donkeys, they are singers [mughanniyat], who claim to be chanteuses [mutribat]. (Al-Ithnayn, April 1, 1935)
Another series parodies the social page in al-Musawwar, called “Hay layf” (High Life), which featured the activities of members of the aristocratic class. Al-Musawwar was, like al-Ithnayn, a weekly publication of the Dar al-Hilal printing house and, in the abstract, one of al-Ithnayn’s competitors. Al-Misri’s response to al-Musawwar’s hoity-toitiness was to print a regular series featuring the doings of the “gypsycrats” (ghajartuqratiyah), called “Rabish layf” (Rubbish Life). Sample topics include a description of the “Alley Club” and “baladi etiquette” (al-Ithnayn, March 25, 1935).
The lifestyle of the urbanized effendi aspiring to middle-class respectability, with whom al-Misri and his readers identify, is contrasted to social imagery of the popular classes. But in addition to promoting baladi culture as a valid point of view for commenting on the contemporary scene, al-Misri’s satirical articles used the device of placing high-culture figures and well-known political personalities with personalities from the worlds of journalism, theater, cinema, and the religious establishment in comical situations that commented ironically on the foibles of all. Things that are authentically Egyptian are contrasted to others that are obviously foreign imports. For example, the humorous pieces about the baladi quarters of Cairo appear right next to articles about the private lives and interests of Hollywood film stars, illustrated by lavish studio photographs supplied by Hollywood publicity agents.
Perhaps one of the most important elements used for comic effect in the magazine is the language of the targets of its satire. Characters from different social backgrounds use Arabic that can be colloquial, or extremely high-flown and flowery, or broken and ungrammatical, or even liberally sprinkled with foreign words and mispronunciations. El-Said M. Badawi (1973) has described the use of Arabic by its native speakers in Egypt as a continuum reflective of educational level and social context. He divided this continuum into five more or less arbitrary levels, ranging from colloquial Arabic spoken by the uneducated to fusha al-turath (the language of the classical Arabic heritage). In actual practice much subtler gradations of language level are used by native speakers, although most are aware of the basic differences between spoken Arabic and the Arabic of the mass media, and even make strong distinctions between this latter form of Arabic and a level of language perceived by them as purer and truly fusha (Parkinson 1991). Contrasts between levels of language can be consciously exploited for artistic purposes, and al-Misri, with his acknowledged love of the colloquial language, makes overt distinctions in the language used by the characters of his fictions in order to create humor. In al-Misri’s satirical pieces, contrasts in levels of language are made even at the level of individual word choice. Linguistic elements are juxtaposed that would be recognizable to al-Misri’s educated effendi readers as being either high or low, native or foreign, grammatically correct or incorrect, simple or bombastic.
These elements were all well-established characteristics of journalistic satire before al-Misri. As the Egyptian popular press began to flourish in the late nineteenth century, political humor had begun to come into its own, most notably in the work of Ya‘qub Sannu‘, ‘Abd Allah Nadim, and Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (Allen 1992, 23–25). Al-Misri’s use of the colloquial dialect in his characters’ speeches, inclusion of foreign words written out in Arabic script, and use of recognizable people in fictional situations to criticize contemporary conditions had all formed part of the toolbox of the satirical journalist long before al-Ithnayn began publication, in Sannu‘’s and Nadim’s work. The selection of al-Muwaylihi’s Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham as a secondary-school textbook in 1927 (Allen 1992, 41) probably means that at least some of al-Ithnayn’s intended readers had been exposed to this kind of writing as part of their education.
All of these elements are brought together and interact in the main satirical feature of the magazine’s first year, the “Majlis al-ta’dib.” The majlis, which appears in thirty out of al-Ithnayn’s first fifty-two weeks, is usually composed of three well-known figures, plus al-Misri acting as court recorder. It sits in judgment on Egyptian cabinet ministers or British protectorate officials and is therefore muckraking in its tone. In addition to being composed of famous literary figures and stars of the stage and film, the court sessions take place not in an official courthouse but on a theatrical stage or in a music hall or cinema. Onlookers are portrayed as behaving in a manner that is appropriate to these venues and not to an actual courtroom. This means that the proceedings are frequently interrupted by applause and whistling from the audience.
In fact, nothing happens the way it should. The court recorder, who is identified as al-Ithnayn’s editor in chief, Husayn Shafiq al-Misri, seems to be barely literate. He often protests that he cannot read the docket. Sometimes he is portrayed as misunderstanding and misrecording what has been said in the courtroom. He leaps into the interrogations from time to time while everyone shouts at him to remember he is only the scribe. The panel of judges heap abuse and insults on him for his faults, as for example in the first majlis:
al-ra’isa (umm kulthum):
Iqra’ jadwal al-qada’.
Istanna amma ad’ak ‘ayni.
al-anisa umm kulthum:
Ma-la’aytush ghayr al-a‘ma dah katib lig-galsah??
president:In al-Ithnayn’s fifth issue al-Misri again puts himself down:
Read the docket.
Wait ’til I rub my eye.
miss umm kulthum:
Couldn’t you find anyone but this blind guy to be court recorder?? (Al-Ithnayn, June 18, 1934)
In this extract al-Misri has humbled himself by omitting the respectful phrase al-ustadh from before his name and using the term bita‘, a purely colloquial word that sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of the more formal written language that has preceded it, to indicate in a deprecating way his relationship to his magazine.
‘Uqidat al-jalsa tahta ri’asat al-Sayyida Munira al-Mahdiyah, wa-‘udwiyat al-ustadh Fikri Abaza al-muhami muharrir al-Musawwar, wa-al-ustadh Tawfiq Diyab sahib al-Jihad, wa-hadara Husayn Shafiq al-Misri bita‘ al-Ithnayn katiban lil-jalsa.
The session was convened under the presidency of the lady Munira al-Mahdiyah, and the membership of professor Fikri Abazah, the lawyer, editor of al-Musawwar, and professor Tawfiq Diyab, owner of al-Jihad, and Husayn Shafiq al-Misri of al-Ithnayn attended as court recorder. (Al-Ithnayn, July 16, 1934)
For the court’s first six months its president is a woman. This in itself is probably enough for parody, but in addition this female judge is in real life a famous singer, and in the “Majlis al-ta’dib” her every word is greeted by the hysterical acclaim of her fans who shout, “Again! Sing it again!” Her declaration, “Fatahna al-jalsah,” is always followed by “sustained, enthusiastic applause” from her audience. Her judicial pronouncements often metamorphose into quotations from light strophic songs (taqatiq, sing. taqtuqah) as the pandemonium increases. The court session is further assimilated to a concert by the hour appointed for the session—usually late at night, around 11 o’clock—and the venue—the Opera House stage, or Badi‘a’s cabaret, or another ‘Imad al-Din Street theater. These locations were are all within a short distance of a real courthouse, the Mixed Courts—another favorite target of al-Misri’s satire—near Opera Square (Berque 1972, 88).
Badi‘a Masabni is not the most frequently seen famous personality on the court (that distinction goes to Mahjub Thabit, champion of Egyptian-Sudanese unity). In fact, she appears no more frequently than that other famous female singer of the period, whose star had already begun to eclipse Badi‘a’s—Umm Kulthum. Badi‘a is also on the court as frequently as Taha Husayn, another member of Egypt’s high-culture canon. What is striking, however, is not so much how often she appears as the fact that she appears at all beside these people who have become icons of modern Egyptian culture. The Egyptian cultural pantheon seems to have been rather different in 1934 than it has become since being represented in 1990 in a poster produced by the Ministry of Culture, and it included many more characters now deemed “ephemeral” by the cultural establishment.
Fig. 11. Badi‘a Masabni in an elaborate costume from the production of Yasmina, one of her greatest successes with Najib al-Rihani in the mid-1920s (al-Ithnayn, no. 166, August 16, 1937, p. 26). Courtesy of Dar al-Hilal.
At the time the series of majalis appeared in al-Ithnayn, Badi‘a Masabni was a cabaret artist and impresaria, owner of her own successful music hall (salah) in ‘Imad al-Din Street. A Syrian by birth, she had risen from a poverty-stricken and extremely painful childhood to fame as a singer and dancer in Syria and Lebanon. In the early 1920s she met Najib al-Rihani, still loved in Egypt today. One of the pioneers of Egyptian comedy, he is often referred to as “the Oriental Molière” (Landau 1958, 87). Masabni joined al-Rihani’s troupe and became famous in Egypt as a comic actress. She and al-Rihani were married in September 1924 but were quickly estranged and separated in February 1926. In that year she opened her kazinu (casino—in Egypt a nightclub or outdoor café, not a gambling venue) in ‘Imad al-Din Street, where all the successful theaters and cafés of the day were located. Her stage hosted both Oriental and Western acts. She herself continued to perform, either dancing or singing the munulugat (monologues) for which she was famous. She claimed to have introduced new movements to the traditional raqs Sharqi (Oriental dance, the characteristic female solo dance of Egypt) to make it more interesting to watch, “for the Egyptian danseuses used to dance only by shimmying the belly and buttocks” (Basila 1960, 297). Her other innovations included frequent changes of program (at first she boasted a new one every day) and, beginning in 1928, special shows for women only (Basila 1960, 296, 312). This latter innovation demonstrated her canny business acumen: any show that was decent enough for a wife to see would be unobjectionable for her husband. The press received her new productions with nothing less than abject admiration for her inventiveness and originality. For example, in a review appearing in al-Ithnayn, her summer show in Alexandria is described thus:
Badi‘a appeared to the guests in the most splendid costume and in the slenderness that distinguishes her from everyone else. She sang, danced, and invented entertainments that caused the admiration of all, for she did not confine herself to the Egyptian monologue in which she excels but created new things she had learned from the far Maghreb, which she had recently visited. Thus we heard from her the pleasant Tunisian dialect to the sound of stringed instruments, and we were spellbound by the captivating entertainment that Badi‘a brought to us in this performance. (June 3, 1935)
In 1935 she produced and starred in a feature film, Malikat al-masarih (Queen of Theaters), which was a flop (Basila 1960, 329–31). This caused her to suffer a severe financial setback and very nearly a nervous breakdown as well, but she was known for her ability to make and keep money and soon recovered. Her ‘Imad al-Din Street casino was sold by her feckless, lovestruck son to dancer and former Badi‘a protegée Biba ‘Izz al-Din (Basila 1960, 334). In 1940, after recovering from this shock, Badi‘a moved to larger, more elaborate quarters on Cairo’s Opera Square. During World War II the new casino was so popular that its motto could have been “Everyone goes to Badi‘a’s,” although rampaging British and Australian troops constantly tore it up (Basila 1960, 339–42). In about 1950 Badi‘a began to have problems with local officials over unpaid back taxes, and she decided to flee Egypt rather than stay and be ruined (Basila 1960, 364–68). She negotiated the sale of her casino, once again at what she claimed was a terrible loss, once again to Biba ‘Izz al-Din, who seemed always ready to profit from Badi‘a’s impulses (Basila 1960, 364). Her escape from the country was a cloak-and-dagger affair in which she met an airplane in the middle of the night in the desert outside of Heliopolis, but she managed to escape her creditors and settled down to retirement on a chicken farm outside of Beirut (Basila 1960, 377). When the Opera Casino was burned in the Cairo fire of January 1952, therefore, it was no longer Badi‘a’s place. Her autobiography is filled with bitterness at betrayal and poisoned with a desire for revenge on those who had mocked and hurt her in her life.
Fig. 12. An advertisement for a later Badi‘a Masabni show, which took its inspiration from that wonderful new invention, television (al-Ithnayn, no. 625, June 3, 1946, p. 21). Courtesy of Dar al-Hilal.
Badi‘a is one of forty-two figures from up and down the classes and occupations who appear as members of al-Ithnayn’s majlis al-ta’dib. In its first three months its president is always a woman: the diva Umm Kulthum (3 times), Badi‘a Masabni (3 times), the diva Munira al-Mahdiya (2 times), the singer Fathiya Ahmad (2 times), the pioneer of women’s higher education Nabawiya Musa (once), and the actress and musician Bahija Hafiz (once). Then there is a six-week hiatus while the editor experiments with a “conference of hashish addicts” theme (mu’tamar al-hashshashin), after which the majlis returns. The format continues to vary, with more abstract courts composed of animals, students, and ancient Egyptians. For a while the hashish smokers take over again, and finally by week fifty-two, after some of the magazine’s favorite subjects have taken the majlis for a trip to the beach and in time for al-Ithnayn’s first anniversary, the “court” returns again—apparently for its swan song, for it never reappears in the materials I have been able to examine—with Badi‘a at its head for the last time.
Fig. 13. Badi‘a Masabni chairing her first majlis ta’dib along with Taha Husayn and Husayn Haykal, tries to discover why Prince Shakib Arslan was recently forbidden to visit Egypt. Husayn Shafiq al-Misri, the editor in chief of al-Ithnayn, acts as the incompetent “court recorder” (al-Ithnayn, no. 6, July 23, 1934, p. 13). Courtesy of Dar al-Hilal.
In her first appearance on the court (July 23, 1934), Badi‘a, along with Taha Husayn and the journalist Husayn Haykal, sits in judgment on the hapless minister of the interior, Mahmud Fahmi Pasha al-Qaysi. In a roundabout way the judges try to get the minister to tell them why he refused to allow Prince Shakib Arslan to disembark when he recently visited Egypt, or to allow his friends to visit him on his boat. Taha Husayn nearly derails the proceedings when he recapitulates the prosecution’s entire argument for the minister in what readers must have understood was a parody of the famous litterateur’s style:
You say that Prince Shakib does not forge money, nor does he smuggle hashish, nor distill alcohol, and Prince Shakib does not distill alcohol or smuggle hashish or forge money, and one like Prince Shakib does not forge money or smuggle hashish or distill alcohol, and this is known and known well and well known, for Prince Shakib is a good man and it is not strange that he should be a good man, and why should he not be a good man as he is a good man, good because he is a good writer, because he is a good poet, because he is prominent and a scholar too, and also a scholar, therefore why did you forbid him to come ashore and how could he be forbidden to come ashore and what is there in his coming ashore?
Then Badi‘a interrupts the proceedings to exclaim that the “monologue” Taha Husayn has just recited is just the thing for her next broadcast and makes sure the court recorder has copied it all down:
Ya ruhi ‘ala di ’l-munulug, iw‘a tinsah ya katib il-galsah!
Aruh andah lil-ustaz Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab yilahhinuh?
Ba‘dima nkhallas min ig-galsa ‘ashan biddi aghannih fi rradiyu.
Oh wow, what a monologue, don’t forget it, recorder!
Shall I go get Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab to set it to music?
After we’ve finished the session, because I want to sing it on the radio.
The minister finally admits that the reason the prince was forbidden entry into the country is that he is persona non grata because of having written an article critical of the government. Witnesses for the prosecution are called who are incapable of sticking to the subject at hand, and finally Badi‘a adjourns the court “until after the band has played.” When the court is reconvened she then reads the verdict to a tune by “professor al-Qasabgi.” The playful text of the lines she sings suggests that it consists almost entirely of quotes from taqatiq, with changes in the musical mode indicated in the manner of stage directions, juxtaposed with the formal phraseology of the courtroom:
Haythu innahu: Ya mahla-d-dalma ya mahla-d-dalmah, Wa-haythu: Yuh min ir-rigal, Wa-haythu (naghamat turki): Ana Bida‘da‘ ya wad inta, Wa-haythu (min naghamat al-sikah): Ya mahla shahr il-‘asal bass in tawwal! Whereas: How lovely is the dark, how lovely is the dark, And whereas: Oy, men!! And whereas (turki mode): I am Bida‘da‘, you fellow, you, And whereas (sikah mode): How lovely is the honeymoon, if only it lasted!
The sentence? The minister’s friends will not be permitted to visit him, and he is to pay the court costs and the fee for the band.
Fig. 14. In the second of Badi‘a Masabni’s majlis ta’dibs, she chairs the session with Mahjib Thabit, champion of Nile Valley unity, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Bey Sa‘id, as they sit to judge Badawi Bey Khalifa, minister of public security (al-Ithnayn, no. 7, July 30, 1934, p. 17). Courtesy of Dar al-Hilal.
Badi‘a’s second turn as president of the majlis is in judgment of the minister of public security, Badawi Bey Khalifa (July 30, 1934). Badawi Bey has been called for having accused an innocent man of being a radical and imprisoning him for seventy days without any trial. Badawi Bey’s defense: “Well, he did cause a riot when he sued us in court and won damages!” But the minister cannot hide from Badi‘a’s relentless pursuit of justice: “Well then, who paid the damages? You who imprisoned him wrongfully or the national treasury, whose money belongs to the nation?…Better you should arrest real criminals, like quack doctors and the women who wander in Fu’ad al-Awwal Street and ‘Imad al-Din Street and flirt with people.” She adjourns the court “until after the entr’acte.”
As she begins reading the verdict she cannot help herself from breaking into phrases from famous songs, as the audience applauds and cries, “Again, sing that one again!” She concludes with this line, a parody of a line from one of her own well-known songs:
Wa-haythu innahu (naghamat hijaz kar): Ya mumallah ya Sudani, haga hilwa wa-‘agbani… Whereas (hijaz kar mode): Oh salty, oh peanuts, something sweet and makes me nuts…
This brings fellow judge Mahjub Thabit to his feet with applause, shouting, “Long live Egypt and the Sudan!” Badi‘a’s verdict puns on the word Sudani, meaning both “Sudanese” and “peanut,” and Thabit is presented as being so enthusiastic about the concept of Nile Valley unity that he unreasoningly responds to the issue’s merest suggestion. The verdict is “that the accused was unable to defend himself and he deserves everything he’s going to get, he must pay the court costs and the cost of the buffet.” The report is “signed” with Husayn Shafiq al-Misri’s seal and Badi‘a’s thumbprint.
Fig. 15. The new press law is the concern of Badi‘a Masabni’s third appearance as the chair of the majlis ta’dib. Here she sits with Mahjub Thabit and the journalist ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Bishri to accuse three unpopular ministers of interfering with the freedom of the Egyptian press (al-Ithnayn, no. 10, August 20, 1934, pp. 22-23). Courtesy of Dar al-Hilal.
In Badi‘a’s third appearance as president of the majlis she is teamed up with ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Bishri—the journalist who in 1939 would define the characteristics of the Egyptian effendi in his column for al-Thaqafa magazine (El-Messiri 1978, 5)—and Mahjub Thabit once again (al-Ithnayn, August 20, 1934). This time they are sitting in judgment on some big fish: Ahmad Pasha ‘Ali, minister of justice, ‘Abd al-Fattah Pasha Yahya, the extremely unpopular prime minister, and Mahmud Fahmi Pasha al-Qaysi, minister of the interior (his second appearance as defendant). The court has been called on by “the public” to pass judgment on the three for threatening to institute a new press law that will deprive the press of “what remains” of its rights. Of course, because of the Capitulations, the new law will muzzle only the Egyptian-owned press and not those periodicals owned by foreigners, and this is the main thrust of the prosecution’s argument.
The court comes to “order,” if that term can be used, in Badi‘a’s own music hall in ‘Imad al-Din Street, and once again Husayn Shafiq al-Misri reluctantly takes pen in hand to struggle through recording the proceedings. Badi‘a declares, “The court is now in session,” and al-Misri responds by muttering, “God preserve us!” She begins by flirting with Thabit, telling him his beard reminds her of Kishkish Bey (the famous vaudeville character created by her estranged husband, Najib al-Rihani), then turns to business. When she confronts the three cabinet members with her accusation, they break into song in the hijaz kar mode and the audience shouts its approval. She reproves them for singing tawashih, and cries, “Ya-t’ulu munulugat ya balash!” (Either sing monologues or forget it!).
Then she continues, “Instead of a new press law, wouldn’t it be better to make a law for Stanley Bay?” This Alexandria beach often crops up in the summertime issues of al-Ithnayn because of the scandalous goings-on that allegedly took place there. Badi‘a observes, “Well, everyone knows that more is exposed at Stanley Bay than in the cabarets.” The ministers hedge, claiming they are working on a new law for the beaches. Badi‘a presses them on whether it would be applicable to foreigners as well as to Egyptians and, in a dazzling legal argument that would boggle the mind of Perry Mason himself, declares, after singing, dancing, and getting the audience to sing along with her “I love you” (rendered in transliteration as Ay luf yu), that the Mixed Courts will never endorse any law the prime minister tries to apply to foreigners, whether the new press law or the bogus beach law she has connived him into agreeing to. The verdict is a confusing pastiche of references to popular songs and obscure incidents mixed with doggerel verse, like the following statement:
Wa-haythu anna al-wizarah: “Hazzaru ya gama‘a is-sa‘a kam w-ihna kida huh, rayhin gayin yadub id-dik yi’ul ‘ku-ku-ku-ku,’ tibuss til’ana sahyin.”
Whereas the Ministry: “Guess everyone what time it is, and here we are, going and coming, as soon as the cock says ‘cock-a-doodle-do,’ you’ll find us awake.”
At the end of this Badi‘a declares the ministers innocent of wrongdoing as her own argument has shown that there can be no justice for Egyptians in their own country. The majlis itself is to bear the legal expenses.
By Badi‘a’s fourth court appearance (December 24, 1934) its size has grown to five: Badi‘a (an ordinary panelist this time), Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab, George Abyad, Umm Kulthum, and, at its head, Mahjub Thabit. Their victim is the English soldier who guards the High Commissioner’s residence, and appointed to defend him is none other than Kishkish Bey himself. In language heavy with the letter qaf Mahjub Thabit threatens to hang the soldier in order to force him to speak the truth:
Wa-qarrarana qat‘i qit‘ati qumashin min qamisi l-maqbudi ‘alayhi li-khanqihi bi-taqritiha ‘ala ‘unuqihi thumma taduqqu raqabatuhu idha taqalqulu fi al-nutqi bi-l-haqqi fa-qul ya qalila al-hidhqi ma ismuk?
We have decided to cut a piece from the shirt of the accused in order to hang him with this snippet by his neck, so that his neck will thrum should he strum pronouncement of the truth, so speak, you unclever one, what is your name?
In language marked with Lebanese colloquialisms, George Abyad also demands that the soldier speak:
Yihraq ‘umrak, shu sar fi lasinak? itkallim wa-lak!
May your life be burned, what’s got your tongue? Talk or else!
Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab sensibly points out that since the accused does not speak Arabic he will need a translator. The soldier protests, in pointedly ungrammatical Arabic:
Ana Inglizi yi‘raf ‘Arabi lakin mish ‘Arabi qa qa qa bita‘ ra’is galsa di zayy wahid farkha. Keman ’adi tani di ana mish yifham ‘Arabi bita‘uh “wa-lak lasinak shu?” Nu sir, di mush ‘Arabi!
I am Englishman who knows Arabic but not qa qa qa Arabic like the president of this court like one chicken. Also the second judge, I do not understands his Arabic. No sir, she is not Arabic!
Although al-Misri (the author of the piece by virtue of being “court recorder”) has accurately and humorously indicated the characteristic confused genders and misconjugations of the non-native speaker’s broken Arabic, he has taken equal care in his representation of the language of the other two speakers. Thus not only is the soldier aware that the formal style of Thabit is incomprehensible to him in a way that is different from the colloquial Lebanese dialect used by Abyad, but the reader would be aware of this as well.
The soldier’s crime was that he did not prevent Egyptian ministers from going to see High Commissioner Peterson (which, had he been a good nationalist, he would have done, to prevent Britain’s meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs). Even with his broken Arabic, however, he acquits himself well and captures the court’s heart. Badi‘a flirts with him, and ‘Abd al-Wahhab sings him a snatch of song from the 1927 Sayyid Darwish opera Antuniyu wa-Kliyubatra (Anthony and Cleopatra).
Kishkish Bey protests, “Have you come to judge my client or to flirt with him? If Husayn Shafiq al-Misri was the one in the dock you would all surely be putting your fingers in his eye!” After Umm Kulthum adds a line or two of song in tribute to the soldier, Kishkish Bey explodes, “What do you need me to defend you against, you son of sixty Manchesters rolled into one??” For his rebuttal he tells the court that his client was “just following orders . . . so pronounce him innocent, or sentence him to death, as you like. I don’t care. I don’t like this red race at all. Take him wherever you want.” In its verdict, the court rules:
Whereas: The accused could have prevented the ministers from entering the High Commissioner’s residence in order to sow the seeds of difference between England and Egypt, and
Whereas: He deserves to be hung by the neck until dead, and
Whereas: He is English and his lawyer is Egyptian,
Therefore: The accused is declared innocent and his lawyer Kishkish Bey is to be hung. The condemned is also to bear all the legal expenses.
In response the soldier makes a daring escape: he leaps from the dock, boxes the judges’ ears, and drags Kishkish Bey off under his arm, as the audience applauds and the Sha‘b party falls.
Badi‘a assumes the role of president of the majlis for the last time in her fifth appearance, also the last time the feature ever appears in the magazine (June 10, 1935). On this occasion she is joined by the actress Fatima Rushdi and the producer ‘Aziz ‘Id. Music-hall comedian ‘Ali al-Kassar, creator of the comic stage character “Egypt’s unique barbarian,” takes the role of prosecution against Sir Miles Lampson, the British High Commissioner. Britain had announced it had no intention of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs, and yet Lampson had refused to permit the application of the Egyptian constitution. When pressed by the members of the majlis he refuses to indicate why he will not permit its restoration, although he claims to have no objection to it. ‘Aziz ‘Id declares that Lampson is such a good actor, he should be a member of ‘Id’s performing troupe, and an argument ensues between him and Fatima Rushdi about the minimum requirements of art. Barriers between prosecution and defense break down as ‘Aziz ‘Id continues to express his admiration for Lampson’s acting talent. Badi‘a, dazed and confused by this point, asks the court recorder to reread a portion of the record. But he hasn’t been writing anything down. Instead, he cocks his tarboosh forward in a fetching attitude and recites a comic monologue to the audience. “This court has become a dance hall,” she groans. ‘Aziz ‘Id wants to declare a mistrial, but Badi‘a savagely promises judgment after the judges’ recess.
Her verdict: In view of the fact that Lampson has refused to tell the court anything and that the court recorder has neglected his duty, the tarboosh of the court recorder will be burned and Lampson will walk.
Conclusion: Purposeful Laughter
Now, what is all this for? First and foremost, the function of these pieces was for fun. They read like sketches from “Saturday Night Live,” with their many references to contemporary incidents I, as an outsider coming to the material from considerable historical distance, may never be able to understand completely. They even look like scripts, with stage directions and the names of players separated from their speech with dashes.
The dialogue of each character is at a level of language appropriate to that character, with occasional surprises, such as Taha Husayn using a colloquial phrase or two, or camouflaged English and French words and phrases sprinkled in among the Arabic. Language is often a barrier in the court. When Bahija Hafiz is president of the majlis, she speaks almost entirely in French, and the other judges have to translate for her (al-Ithnayn, August 6, 1934). Characters known for their high-flown speech in Arabic likewise have to be translated for the benefit of speakers of the colloquial language. Other times it is the accused who cannot communicate: either a corrupt, fat, Turkified minister speaking broken Arabic or French or an English official who stubbornly refuses to speak any language but his own or the most basic Arabic. Police commandant Russell Pasha, on trial, answers every question asked him with “Ana Inglizi!” (I am English!) as though that’s all he needs to say (al-Ithnayn, July 2, 1934). Certainly the confusion in the language of the speakers and the puns and malapropisms that arose from it was one of the main reasons readers found these pieces funny, along with the juxtaposition of characters from different worlds.
Certain assumptions about the magazine’s editorial policy and readership follow. For one, it is plain from the subject matter of the trials that the magazine is pursuing a nationalist agenda, supported by the rest of the magazine’s contents. Everything from the choice of advertisements heavily promoting local industry—for example, touting the advantages to the nation of wearing tarbooshes made in Egypt, not in a foreign land (al-Ithnayn, March 11, 1935)—to the cover illustrations—Kishkish Bey on the inaugural issue, followed by lovely peasant women, familiar urban characters like the licorice-juice seller, and so on—bears this out. Political columns satirize the Sha‘b party government then in power and level pointed accusations of meddling at the British.
The magazine refers to that which is local, and to a certain extent traditional, and at the same time makes a plug for modernity. A personified “Egypt” first appears in the magazine as a comely, modern, modish young woman, arriving at an international conference to finally take charge of her own affairs (al-Ithnayn, October 1, 1934). Both colloquial Arabic and literate Arabic are used in the articles and features, suggesting that the readership was comfortable with reading an Arabic language that was expressed at several different levels of Badawi’s continuum simultaneously. In the debate over whether modernity would be served in print through the use of a more formal, pure Arabic derived from the classical language or through the introduction of a language referenced to the vernacular, Husayn Shafiq al-Misri’s editorial policy was clearly in favor of the latter.
Along with this modernity goes a certain amount of Westernization. The most obvious indication of this is the magazine’s fascination with Western-style goods like wrinkle creams, Jantzen bathing suits, correspondence courses, and Phillips radios.Al-Ithnayn also supplied its readers with materials to satisfy their fascination with the Hollywood cinema. Based on the trivia quizzes, the photographs of Hollywood stars distributed free with each copy, the readers’ requests for mailing addresses of Buster Crabbe, Clark Gable, Mae West, and Ruby Keeler, and features like “If I were a man, by Joan Crawford” (June 25, 1934), it seems that the readership of al-Ithnayn was presumed to be familiar with the contemporary Hollywood scene.
Fig. 16. The editorial staff of al-Ithnayn struggles to put the publication together in an atmosphere of chaos. The editor in chief, al-Misri, is seated on the floor on the left, his cover artist Sintes is centered in the eys of the hurricane. The personal characteristics of the other members of the staff are revealed by the inclusion of telling details (al-Ithnayn, no. 32, January 31, 1935, p. 7). Courtesy of Dar al-Hilal.
Husayn Shafiq al-Misri not only promoted Egyptian and Western stars but also developed the cult of personality of his own editorial staff. A caricature titled “Editors and artists of al-Ithnayn as imagined by our readers” shows them all putting the magazine together in an atmosphere of total chaos and frantic activity (January 21, 1935). Al-Misri sits contentedly on the floor in the middle of the hubbub in his customary patched clothes, a bottle of ink spilled at his feet, scratching away with his pen. The caption describes the speculation of a loyal al-Ithnayn reader overheard in such a highbrow place as the tramway: “That Husayn Shafiq al-Misri must be a hashish addict, and Khayri Sa‘id [another member of the staff] eats bread he dips in hashish instead of white cheese.” Another adds, “All his editors are dope fiends.” The head artist Juan Sintes, a Spaniard who had lived in Egypt for thirty years and was responsible for some of al-Ithnayn’s most beautiful, and most “Egyptian,” cover art, is declared to be an “impertinent foreigner,…and he too must be a hashish addict.” The editor hastens to assure his public: “We swear by God Almighty that we are all drunkards, not hashish addicts, folks, for hashish is forbidden.”
Al-Misri actively promoted the popular performing artists and literary figures of his day. The inaugural issue of his magazine had Kishkish Bey on the cover and a caricature by Sintes of Badi‘a Masabni on the inside front cover. This dueling duo, along with al-Misri, Sintes, Umm Kulthum, ‘Abd al-Wahhab, al-‘Aqqad, Fikri Abaza, Husayn Haykal, and a constellation of similar “stars” of culture, were brought together, at least on the magazine’s pages, to form an imaginary 1934 Egyptian version of the Algonquin Round Table. Their slightest doings were faithfully reported, and the editor in chief continued to represent himself in self-deprecating ways in his humorous pieces.
Although the magazine’s thrust was nationalist, not a few foreigners are shown on its side. As mentioned above, the chief artist, Sintes, was a Spaniard by nationality, but one who was by all accounts extremely successful at capturing in his drawings and caricatures an essential, authentic “Egyptianness” (Rasim Bey 1941). George Abyad, a frequent member of the majlis, was Lebanese. One of the editorial staff caricatured in the cartoon described above is shown wearing an armband bearing the Star of David. Badi‘a Masabni, a Syrian, was a foreigner, although her speech in the majlis is always rendered with characteristic markers of colloquial Egyptian Arabic (for example, addressing people with the typical baladi woman’s salutation of “ya dil‘adi”). Elsewhere in the magazine, however—such as in her autobiography serialized in 1939—she “speaks” in literary Arabic.
To return to the court and its role in promoting Husayn Shafiq al-Misri’s own political agenda: Its Marx Brothers–like anarchy shows al-Misri’s own view that Egyptians would never succeed in their quest to control their destiny unless they could somehow rise above the chaos of their own existence. Although in every case the court is called on to pass judgment on a contemporary problem, sometimes large (such as the minister of public works’ lack of planning for dealing with the record flood of 1934 in which hundreds of people died), sometimes small (some of the majalis described above fit this category), and although the president often makes a compelling case against the defendant, the court is never really successful in establishing the truth or in getting the culprits to confess their sins. Even allowing for the fact that this is a fictitious court created for a comic purpose, punishments are light, and the court ends up inflicting punishment on itself just as often as it does on the defendant.
The majlis al-ta’dib is a disciplinary board without discipline, and without any authority to enforce its judgments. Badi‘a Masabni belongs on the court beside the high icons of culture partly because it was probably funny to place a famous popular entertainer next to someone like Taha Husayn, but also because she deserved to be there in spite of negative public perceptions about her profession, because of her obvious contribution to the social life of contemporary society and in recognition of her innovations. Although she is used for a nationalist agenda, however, she is ultimately a nationalist without a nation, who willingly abandoned the one that had made her rich when things got tough. Although the court’s members are united, at least in the editor’s imagination, on certain issues of importance to the nation, ultimately its members’ self-interest and lack of ability to focus, added to its lack of legal standing, express an editorial point of view that action, even on the part of Egypt’s “best and brightest,” will be without fruit until Egypt has obtained real independence. In the meantime, subversive laughter is the best medicine.
A shorter version of this chapter was presented at the 1995 conference of the Middle East Studies Association. I would like to acknowledge, with gratitude, the helpful comments and suggestions I received from Roger Allen and Walter Armbrust.
1. At a crucial point in his first film, al-Warda al-bayda’ (The White Rose; 1933), ‘Abd al-Wahhab is shown pacing his room as he makes his decision to pursue a career in music. He pauses to gaze, one by one, at photographs of al-Hamuli, Hijazi, and Sayyid Darwish hanging on his wall. This device is used both as a visual isnad (chain of transmission), indicating the passing of the baton of musical greatness to the deserving young musician by the masters of the past, and as the young artist’s homage to them (Armbrust 1996, 110–11). [BACK]
2. See, for example, for the Hadith as a precursor of the modern Egyptian novel, Badr 1984, 74; of the modern Egyptian short story, Nassaj 1984, 59–62. See also Berque 1972, 212. [BACK]
3. Armbrust (1996, 7–10) notes that distinctions in Egyptian nationalism between local (vernacular) and nonlocal (classicist) cultural referents must also be balanced in some relation to the specifically “Western” and a more general sense of technological progress. The former (Westernism) was not an image with which many nationalists were eager to associate themselves, whereas the latter (science, technique) was of obvious benefit. Although the dynamics of this cultural calculus have changed over time (particularly since the 1970s), the outlines of a uniquely Egyptian nationalist and modernist discourse are still evident in discussions of topics such as music, visual representation, authenticity, and cultural heritage. [BACK]
4. Many of these stereotypes were developed in earlier literature, such as Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham (see Allen 1992). [BACK]
5. Baladi is the adjective from the noun balad, which means both “country” and “town” but in certain contexts is used in phrases referring to a particular traditional urban class of people in Cairo, their characteristic behavior, and the quarters of Cairo where they live. Abna’ al-balad (sing. ibn al-balad; lit., son of the town) are people who might sometimes be denigrated as “rustics” and at other times praised as “salt of the earth” or “diamonds in the rough.” The feminine counterpart, banat al-balad (sing. bint al-balad; lit., daughter of the town), can be either naive and simple girls or streetwise, strong women who cannot be taken advantage of. The concept of ibn al-balad is usually contrasted to those of effendi (middle-class government bureaucrat, see below, n. 16), ibn al-zawat (son of nobility), and khawaga (foreigner). These terms are all part of a complex system of distinctions that social actors can use creatively but which often work, in specific situations, through an implied binarism. For a full discussion, see El-Messiri 1978; see also Armbrust 1996, 25–26. [BACK]
6. Performers and critics alike made a qualitative distinction between a mughanniya and a mutriba (Danielson 1991, 47). [BACK]
7. Dar al-Hilal was at this period producing many publications aimed at overlapping audiences. Al-Hilal was from the beginning a relatively highbrow periodical, whereas al-Musawwar, with its emphasis on illustrations, was more middlebrow. Al-Ithnayn, aimed at the struggling bureaucrat class, may be characterized as middle- to lowbrow, with an occasional tendency to go slumming. [BACK]
8. The taqtuqa began as the female song par excellence (Racy 1977, 53) but after World War I was performed by both male and female singers. Its soaring popularity in the interwar period alarmed many Egyptian critics, who disapproved of the song’s typically superficial and sometimes even obscene lyrics (Racy 1977, 54). Along with short nationalistic songs (anashid) and musical plays, the taqtuqa in the 1920s became one of “the most widely accepted tools of mass entertainment” (Racy 1977, 61). [BACK]
9. “Mi’at ‘am min al-tanwir” (A Hundred Years of Enlightenment), a painting by the contemporary artist Salah ‘Inani depicting a constellation of Egyptian reformers, litterateurs, scientists, and fine and performing artists, was made into a poster by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in 1990. For a detailed analysis of the iconography of this painting, see Armbrust 1996, chap. 7. [BACK]
10. For more on the career and life of al-Rihani, see Abou Saif 1969. [BACK]
11. Masabni’s reason for the separation was al-Rihani’s infidelity and greed for her money, al-Rihani’s was Masabni’s infidelity and miserliness (Abou Saif 1969, 127). [BACK]
12. Monologues were a “theater-inspired” comic form often difficult to distinguish from other types of urban secular song (Racy 1977, 206, 211). Identical in content were the diyalugat (for two singers) and the triyalugat (for three; al-Kawakib, January 9, 1933, 6–7). [BACK]
13. The elderly prince was a famous figure in the pan-Arab, pan-Islamic movement at this period, as well as a journalist and prolific author. He spent his life using his personal influence and presence to draw attention to his anti-imperialist cause. For this reason he was greatly distrusted by the British and French colonial authorities. His support of King Ibn Sa‘ud was also viewed unkindly by the Egyptian royal house. These animosities caused him to be unwelcome almost anywhere he traveled. See Cleveland 1985. [BACK]
14. Local broadcasting in Egypt had begun only two months before this issue of al-Ithnayn was published. [BACK]
15. Muhammad al-Qasabgi was one of the most prolific composers for the diva Umm Kulthum, second only to Riyad al-Sunbati (Danielson 1991, 375–77). He was also one of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s music theory teachers (‘Azzam 1990, 26). [BACK]
16. Badi‘a’s nickname. [BACK]
17. Fifty-two musical modes were documented by the Congress on Arab Music, held in Cairo in 1932 at the command of King Fu’ad. Most of these modes are no longer in use, and only four are widely used in popular music (Shawan 1981, 30, 62). The 1932 congress gathered a number of Egyptian and Western musicologists (including Bela Bartok) “in order to discuss all that was required to make the music civilized, and to teach it and rebuild it on acknowledged scientific principles.” Its proceedings were published by the Egyptian Ministry of Information in 1933 (Racy 1991, 69). Does al-Misri’s assiduous recording of the musical modes parody the conference’s conclusions and Egyptians’ sudden awareness of the multitude of modes and their exotic Persian and Turkish names? Did the conference’s conclusions promote a sudden rush by performers to use as many modes as possible in their performances? [BACK]
18. Badi‘a’s own theater was located in ‘Imad al-Din Street, and some of those wandering women may have been performers from her own shows, taking a stroll in between numbers! The association of female performance with prostitution is a long-standing one, and the two professions were often practiced in the same part of town (van Nieuwkerk 1995, 46). [BACK]
19. A parody of her song “Ya nawa’im ya tuffaha, haga hilwa w-kwayyisa” (What a Nice, Sweet Apple), which is represented in the 1975 film Badi‘a Masabni as having been stolen from one of Najib al-Rihani’s shows. [BACK]
20. Masabni acknowledged to her biographer that she did not learn to read Arabic until she was in her mid-teens (when she received instruction in the language from a member of George Abyad’s theatrical troupe) and never learned to write Arabic well (Basila 1960, 91–92). [BACK]
21. A Turkish word originally used to address a high-status individual, “effendi” was a term that in Egypt by the beginning of this century had come to refer particularly to “government employees who dress in suits and tarboush” (El-Messiri 1978, 5 n. 7). The caricaturist Sarukhan invented the character of “al-Misri Effendi” (Mr. Egyptian), the “regular guy” and “real Egyptian” of his age, in the mid- to late 1920s when he was working for Akhir Sa‘a magazine (al-Ithnayn, February 3, 1941, 31). The caricaturist Rakha, interviewed by El-Messiri, stated that al-Misri Effendi was first introduced to the pages of Ruz al-Yusuf in 1929 (El-Messiri 1978, 48). In the pages of al-Ithnayn in 1934 the effendi is portrayed as an affected fop. But his fortunes changed rapidly, and by 1941, Rakha told El-Messiri, the editorial staff of al-Ithnayn decided that al-Misri Effendi had come to represent “the lowest class of government official,…petty bureaucrats” (El-Messiri 1978, 48). Al-Misri Effendi was no longer a suitable representative for the Egyptian common man. An editorial decision was made that “Ibn al-balad” (lit., son of the town; see above, n. 4), not the effendi, should represent the ordinary Egyptian, and Rakha invented a cartoon character by that name at that time. [BACK]
22. It is not unusual for certain figures to make their appearance in the courtroom more than once, and, in keeping with the chaotic nature of the proceedings, some personalities show up on both sides of the bench, sometimes moving from prosecution to defense in the same session. [BACK]
23. This was very little indeed. The 1881 press law had given the Egyptian government the power to summarily close down newspapers that criticized it. After 1894 High Commissioner Cromer was lax in enforcing the law, and the Egyptian press enjoyed a “golden age” of relative freedom of expression. But Gorst, his successor, reinstated the harsh 1881 law in 1909. The new constitution of 1923 superficially supported freedom of expression but only “within the limits of the law”—which meant that the press remained at the mercy of the government. In 1931 the government of Prime Minister Isma‘il Sidqi issued a new press law that confirmed the subordination of the press to the government, including not only verbal criticism but also “drawings, paintings, photographs, emblems, and other means of representation.” Husayn Shafiq al-Misri, al-Ithnayn’s editor in chief, had already been imprisoned once as a result of this law. With his new satirical magazine, he certainly seems to have been skating on very thin ice. The Capitulations, which excepted foreigners from the punishments of Egyptian law, protected the foreign-owned press as well. See Ayalon 1995 for more on Egypt’s press laws. [BACK]
24. Sing. tawshih, a term usually used to refer to Sufi religious music but commonly used in Egypt interchangeably with the term muwashshah (Racy 1977, 210). The muwashshah was a vocal musical genre with roots in the Andalusian tradition. Around the turn of the century it had been “a major interest for a handful of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Egyptian composers,” but it then fell out of favor and was barely recorded at all by the 1930s (Racy 1977, 60, 212). Badi‘a’s derisive reference to tawashih, whether she means the Sufi religious song or the ancient Andalusian one, is clearly to something old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, and definitely not popular. [BACK]
25. Between 1932 and 1934 several attempts had been made on moral grounds to suppress belly dancing in the nightclubs of ‘Imad al-Din Street and the Ezbekiya Gardens area. Although Egyptians were forbidden to perform the dance, because of the Capitulations foreign female dancers were able to perform a dance that “would cause the forbidden dance to blush.” Journalists and nightclub owners, “for once united in a nationalist spirit,” took up the restoration of the dance as a nationalist cause (van Nieuwkerk 1995, 47). [BACK]
26. Anthony and Cleopatra was one of ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s earliest theatrical successes. Left uncompleted on Sayyid Darwish’s death in 1924, the opera was completed by the young ‘Abd al-Wahhab at the invitation of the era’s greatest female singing star, Munira al-Mahdiyah, who hoped the opera’s success would boost her flagging career (Armbrust 1996, 74 n. 21). [BACK]
27. Another famous theatrical couple. ‘Id was one of the earliest pioneers of the modern Egyptian popular theater at the beginning of this century. Rushdi was at first his protégée, then his star, then his wife. Rushdi’s scandalous infidelities to her husband were much talked about in the Egyptian popular press (Armbrust 1996, 201 n. 35) and readily confessed and shrugged off in her own memoirs (Rushdi 1971). [BACK]
28. Barbari Misr al-wahid (Hakim 1990, 209), a Nubian character, played by Kassar in blackface, who makes fun of both Egyptian and non-Egyptian. See also Landau 1958, 90–91. [BACK]
29. The juxtaposition of consumer goods to images of authenticity should not automatically be assumed to be a sign of cultural fragmentation, but rather it can be used to complete “autonomous ideological projects” (Miller 1994, 14). As will be mentioned again below, the editorial policy of the magazine is nationalist, and much of the advertising has nationalist overtones. Other advertising reflects the magazine’s overtly modernist position (Armbrust 1996, 84).
The Egyptian state radio went on the air on May 29, 1934, barely three weeks before al-Ithnayn hit the streets, and al-Ithnayn began to publish critical reviews of the programming almost immediately. The very first installment of the majlis, in the inaugural issue, has Umm Kulthum as president of a court trying Prime Minister ‘Abd al-Fattah Pasha Yahya over unfair allocations of airtime to local programming. [BACK]
30. Her biographer, Nazik Basila, always represents her speech in the more formal written language, even when Badi‘a describes an episode in which she broke a chair over Najib al-Rihani’s head and hurled insults at him during their final painful breakup:
Innani lan ada‘aka tadkhulu hadha al-manzil ba’da al-yawm, wa-idha haddathatka nafsuka bi-al-‘awdati ila huna fa-lastu mas’ulatan ‘amma qad yahduthu la-ka!
I will not allow you to enter this house after today, and if your soul tells you to return here then I am not responsible for what might happen to you! (1960, 278).