The best books on popular culture along the Nile

Raphael Cormack Author Of Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s
By Raphael Cormack

Who am I?

I am a writer and an Arabic to English translator, with a PhD in Arabic Theatre from the University of Edinburgh. In recent years, I have gravitated towards the history of popular culture and the demi-monde in the Middle East. The stories of singers and dancers say much more to me than the conventional subjects of histories of the Arab world – politicians, soldiers, etc. Through them, we can see the Middle East in a way that we seldom see in the West means much more to a lot of the people who live there.


I wrote...

Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s

By Raphael Cormack,

Book cover of Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s

What is my book about?

Following the lives of the most powerful, charismatic, and independent female stars of Cairo’s early-twentieth-century nightlife, this book delves into stories that many historians ignore. Away from high parliamentary politics and elite circles, a group of women were defining what it meant to be Egyptian in the modern world. In smoke-filled nightclubs, a new world was being born and the singers, dancers, and cabaret owners of Egypt were its central protagonists.

The books I picked & why

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Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture

By Ziad Fahmy,

Book cover of Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture

Why this book?

Ziad Fahmy’s book on the importance of popular culture in the history of modern Egypt and the anti-British revolution of 1919 was a real landmark. Bringing together songs, jokes, vaudeville plays, and more, he manages to draw out a story of Egyptian anti-colonial, nationalism that is not confined to elite circles or confined by bourgeois morality. This is history from the streets. Although it is an academic book, it is written with an engaging style that captures some of the excitement of this period. Published in 2011, Fahmy’s book opened up space for research and writing on the history of Arabic pop culture.


Khartoum at Night: Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan

By Marie Grace Brown,

Book cover of Khartoum at Night: Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan

Why this book?

Although most of the books written on the Nile focus on Egypt, the river stretches from the Mediterranean down to Khartoum, where the White Nile and the Blue Nile converge. Unfortunately, it is not a history of Khartoum’s nightlife (although there are people working on books about that now). Rather it uses the names given to women’s tobes (a popular form of dress) to recover the lost voices of ordinary women in mid-20th century Sudan – “Khartoum at Night” is one of those names. Through them, Brown finds a new and innovative way to tell the story of modern Sudan.


Ô nuit, ô mes yeux: Le Caire / Beyrouth / Damas / Jérusalem

By Lamia Ziadé,

Book cover of Ô nuit, ô mes yeux: Le Caire / Beyrouth / Damas / Jérusalem

Why this book?

Published in French or Arabic, this richly and attractively illustrated book dives headfirst into nostalgia for the nightlife of the 20th century Middle East. Loaded with short vignettes and stories, accompanied by Ziade’s own drawings, this book takes the reader on a tour of nightclubs in Cairo and across the wider Middle East. It is a beautiful, misty-eyed elegy for a lost age.


The Fugitives

By Jamal Mahjoub,

Book cover of The Fugitives

Why this book?

The Sudanese music scene of the 1970s is legendary. With stars like jazz king Sharhabil Ahmed and the girl group al-Balabil, the Nile was really swinging. Jamal Mahjoub, a British-Sudanese author who also writes crime fiction under the name Parker Bilal, has fun with this golden age in his new novel, The Fugitives. An English teacher in Sudan receives a surprise invitation to perform in America and has to re-form his father’s old band, The Kamanga Kings, who rocked Sudan in the years before Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship and take them to Trump’s America.


The Voice of Egypt, 1997: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century

By Virginia Danielson,

Book cover of The Voice of Egypt, 1997: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century

Why this book?

The essential biography of Umm Kulthum for the English reader. Danielson tells the story of the Arab world’s most famous singer, one of the greatest performers of the 20th century. This book charts her life from the small village in the Nile Delta where she grew up to the heights of global superstardom. It also paints a picture of the world that she moved through, which intersected with the world depicted in Midnight in Cairo. This is a necessary read for anyone interested in Arabic music.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Nile river, Sudan, and pop culture?

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