Najib al-Rihani Memoirs (excerpt)

6 Jun



This is a short section from Najib al-Rihani’s Memoirs. He was one of the most popular farce/ vaudeville acts in Cairo in the early 20th century, most famous for creating that character Kishkish Bey, a man from the countryside who comes to Cairo and is confronted with all the decadence of the city. Apparently that character came to him in a dream.

This section comes from a time just before he began performing Kishkish Bey. He is broke and needs to make some money so gets into a rather odd line of work.

Other than the obvious points of interest in this section it is worth noting that Stephan and Najib get into shadow theatre. This is said to be the oldest form of Arabic Drama going back, in Egypt, to at least the 13th century (see here) and it seems to be happening here too. To what extent it can be said to be a continuous tradition is hard to know but it is none the less interesting.

In terms of his Arabic. Rihani writes in very colloquial style, even when he is writing in Standard Arabic. His text, like his plays, are full of references, word play, and odd phrases (the “father’s day being like a cabbage” is probably the oddest). Beyond that he uses some quite old fashioned words. I have done my best but, as always, it is not perfect:


The Split


In May 1916, I still remember the date exactly, I left the “Arabic Comedy” troupe, without thinking how I would make a living.

I spend about a month and a half cursing my foolish brain and thinking of things to do; wide-ranging projects, some were 24 carat successes but, brother, what a shame there was certainly no money in them!

At exactly one o’clock on the 1st of June I was sitting in the Buffet at the Brintania Theatre, skint as always. Suddenly, I saw a man coming up to me with a fancy jacket, a cane with a golden handle, and a ring that shone in everyone’s eyes. Then, when he had sat down next to me, he produced a fine silver cigarette case and, with an aristocratic flourish, presented me with a cigarette!

Do you know, dear reader, who this amazing dandy who I described was? It was none other than Stephane Rosti, my companion in hardship and distress. Stephan who, like me, used to smoke Hamali brand cigarettes or even Kawz![1]

“Who died and left you this, son? Where’s all this fancy get up from? Did you break into the national bank vault? Or did you killa banker and empty his pockets?”

Stephan coldly shook his head and answered “None of that. All you need to know is that God bestowed it upon me. Goodbye.”

Shadow Theatre

After a number of discussions to try to find out the secret of this sudden wealth, Stephan mentioned to me that there was a cabaret behind the Brintania theatre called “Epie de Rose” [Or I think it is likely, Epine de Rose – Rose’s thorn –  mis-transliterated] and that he had found a job there that paid 60 piasters per night.

“You lucky blighter Stephan Rosti![2] 60 piasters a night, which means God knows how much a month, if it keeps up like that.”

So Stephan went on to explain to me the nature of the work.

He would appear behind a white curtain during a black-out in the room. From his hiding-place he would make some comical movements… and some non-comic ones. In Arabic it is called “Shadow Theatre”.

I said to him: “I am aware that the place doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a respectable night-spot.”

“I don’t care about that or the rubbish you are talking. I work ‘behind the curtain’. No-one sees me and no-one knows I am there.

“I only spend quarter of an hour working every night I get my 60 piasters and no-one sees, no-one knows.”

I thought for a second and then, as happened to Moses, I “put my hand in my pocket and it came out white, unblemished” that is without a mark or trace. Bankruptcy was taking root, of the sort that could make a man sell his clothes.[3]

I stretched out my hand to Stephane and said “You don’t have work for someone like me do you? Any role: servant, master, Pasha, Bey, Effendi, some penniless man, anything, I’ll do it! I’m not greedy either, I’ll do it for half a riyal [10 piasters] a night, that’s great, even 8 piasters … fine!”

Stephan bid me farewell and left. In the evening I met him in front of the door of the “Epi[n]e de Rose” and he lead me to the owner of the nightclub, and Italian called Khawaga Rosetti.

The sketch that they had agreed upon for that night had a Berber servant in it. So Stephan presented me to Rosetti, saying that I was a big, famous actor and that I was… and Stephan did not get the chance to finish his string of compliments and descriptions because the man cut him off saying, in French, “No, I don’t want a big, famous actor. I want a normal actor because the role is not an important one.”

At this point I entered the discussion and said to the Khawaga: “Sir, I am just a simple actor. I am not big or famous.”

He said, “I’m not going to pay more than 40 piasters.”

So my face lit up and I looked at Stephan with a questioning look because I could hardly believe I would get a salary like that.


I was worried for a while, afraid that what he had said was the monthly salary not the daily! But when the traces of shock had left me, Stephan congratulated me and led me to the theatre boss, an assistant of Mr. Rosetti. She was a young woman of great beauty. Everyone called her “Lilian al-Gamila [the Beautiful]”. Here Lilian explained to me the subject of the shadow play that we would be putting on that night. Apparently the nightclub’s administration had announced a big surprise all across Cairo: a French woman of great beauty and allure would appear for the audience behind a thin curtain for three nights in a row. Then on the forth night she would appear in the flesh, in front of the curtain and not behind it. The advertisements succeeded in bringing in a big audience on all four nights. When it came for the time for the surprise, the audience discovered that the alluring French woman was none other than Stephan, with his eyes, his nose, and his moustache.



[1] I don’t know anything about this brands but I assume they are cheap and rubbish. The equivalent of Cleopatras

[2] I am slightly guessing the meaning of this phrase which is literally in Arabic nehar abuk zayy al-kurumb: Your father’s day is like a cabbage

[3] The quote is from Quran 27:12 when God tells Moses to put his hand in his pocket and it will come out white as one of the signs to the Pharaoh of his divine power. Here it seems to be being used to show that he has nothing in his pockets. i.e. no money


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