The life of the late singer and actress Layla Murad offers an opportunity to explore Egypt’s social, artistic and political history through key developments of the mid-20th century, says Hanan Hammad, the author of a new biography of Murad.
Hammad’s book, “Unknown Past: Layla Murad, the Jewish-Muslim Star of Egypt”, will be published by Stanford University Press early next year.
Hammad is an associate professor and director of Middle East Studies at Texas Christian University. She chose Murad as the subject for her book because her life “represents an exemplary case for studying the conditions of the first generation of art stars in Egypt and their social conditions,” the author said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. “She enjoyed wide stardom and great respect at a time when working as an artist represented an encroachment on conservative traditions.”
Her study of Layla Murad’s life was a continuation of her study of the history of women, Hammad said. She wanted to write about Murad because of her unusual situation, as a Jewish Egyptian star who married a Muslim and converted to Islam herself, and whose career became associated with major turning points in Egypt’s stance toward Israel.
“She enjoyed wide stardom and great respect at a time when working as an artist represented an encroachment on conservative traditions.”Hanan Hammad
Marriages and Rumours
Murad’s first marriage was to the actor Anwar Wagdi (1904–1955), with whom she appeared in a series of musicals. Their marital disputes were followed in the press, and the marriage lasted only six years. This was followed by a secret marriage to one of the leaders of the Free Officers’ Movement, which seized power in Egypt in 1952.
About the same time, she suffered psychologically because of the rumours that, as the daughter of an Egyptian Jewish family, she had donated money to the Israeli military. Layla Murad’s birth name was Lilian Zaki Mordechai, and her father, Zaki Murad, was a Jewish cantor and composer.
Hammad writes that Murad’s early work with the director Mohamed Karim (1867–1972), one of the pioneers of Arab cinema, “was characterised by suffering.” Karim wanted Murad to fit a Western image of feminine beauty that glorified slender bodies. Trying to follow that regime, Murad once collapsed from fatigue while filming because she was afraid of angering Karim by eating.
Hammad said her research for the book also offered an opportunity to study the stance of the Egyptian state on citizenship and religious identity over more than 80 years.
“Layla Murad lived in a climate full of political and military conflict between Arabs and Israel. Her biography was also a party to the formalities of political settlement, as she was summoned back into the spotlight after years of retirement in conjunction with the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Tel Aviv” in 1977.
“At the height of the discussion about political normalisation,” Hammad added, “the biography of Layla Murad was invoked, as evidence of the possibility of coexistence between Arabs and Jews.”
A National Symbol
Hammad writes that Layla Murad was “the most successful of all singers in Egyptian musicals, and her Jewish religion did not stop her becoming a national symbol.”
However, she believes that Murad’s films followed a “traditional, conservative discourse based on masculine ideas … that stereotyped women and perpetuated social backwardness.”
Hammad said she had found memoirs written by the late star that have not been previously published. She said: “I am currently working on writing an introduction to Layla Murad’s memoirs to be published in the Arab world for the first time, not related to the English version of my book.”
“At the height of the discussion about political normalisation, the biography of Layla Murad was invoked as evidence of the possibility of coexistence between Arabs and Jews.”
The book also highlights Murad and Wagdi’s keenness to involve the press in their marital disputes because it represented free publicity for their work. Wagdi “was not enthusiastic about her conversion to Islam, and was not among the witnesses,” Hammad said. “An obscure journalist and an employee of the Ifta Department signed the document, but he did insist on announcing her conversion to Islam.”
Hammad also writes about the “period of forced disappearance” of Murad after her relationship with Wajih Abaza, one of the leaders of the Free Officers’ Movement, and the allegations that she had donated to the Israeli military.
She always denied the allegations and offered to make her bank accounts public. Nevertheless, she retired at the age of 38 after that scandal and the failure of her latest film, “Al Habib Al Majhoul” (“The Unknown Lover”) in 1955.
The state “did not make a serious effort to help her overcome the crisis at the time,” Hammad said. The Syrian authorities banned her films, but Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser later persuaded Syria to reverse that decision.
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Hammad says Murad never felt able to make her relationship with Abaza public, which meant the son they had together, Ashraf Wagih Abaza, was not recognised until well after her death. After being abandoned by Abaza, Murad married a third time to the director Fatin Abdel Wahab. That marriage also ended in divorce. Murad died in 1995.
Hanan Hammad is known in Western academic circles as a gender historian. She is interested in the condition of women in the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Iran. She has published earlier research on women workers in textile factories in the Nile delta, as well as feminist issues in Egyptian universities during the 1980s. Before settling in the United States about 20 years ago, she worked as a journalist in Egypt for years after graduating from Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communication.
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