Leila Murad, an Egyptian Jewish Diva, returns during Ramadan

For the first time on Arabic television, a dramatic production airing this Ramadan, the holy Muslim month, depicts the life of Egyptian Jews during the 1920s and 1930s, showing them in favorable light as ordinary citizens, no different from Egyptian Muslims and Christians.

The series is as controversial as the life of its heroine, Egyptian diva Layla Murad – a Jewish singer and actress who rocketed to fame in the inter-war years before her life was marred with controversy after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Currently showing on 14 Arabic channels, Ana Albi Dalili (My Heart is my Guide), is among the most widely watched works among 60 productions made by Egyptian and Syrian artists in 2009. Apart from covering the life of Layla, the work goes to great lengths to promote tolerance and co-existence, shattering long-held stereotypes against Arab Jews, showing how integrated and proactive they were within Egyptian society. The film is directed by Syrian Mohammad Zuhair and stars Syrian actress Safa Sultan.

Layla Murad, with a powerful legacy of 27 black and white classics in Egyptian cinema and 1,200 songs, was one of the most popular, talented and beautiful Arab artists of the 20th century. She compared in fame only to the Egyptian Um Kalthoum and the Syrian diva Asmahan – together, they were the three women who competed for supremacy on Arab charts in the 1930s.

Born to a Moroccan Jewish father named Ibrahim Zaki Murad in February 1918, Layla’s mother was a Polish Jew named Gamila. Her father was a respected singer in the 1920s and with her brother, Munir, a composer and celebrity in his own right, encouraged her to sing at the age of 15. Her first recorded song was in 1932, composed by the veteran Dawoud Hosni, the same year that talkies first came to Egyptian cinema.

Murad was handpicked by Mohammad Abdul Wahab, the giant of 20th-century Arabic music, to co-star with him in the 1938 classic,Yahya al-Hobb (Long Live Love). She received a staggering 250 Egyptian pounds, making her one of the best-paid artists in Cairo.

In addition to Abdul Wahab, she worked with famous composer Mohammad Fawzi, who was the romantic lead man in many of her future works, and with other giants like Mohammad Qassabji, Riyad al-Sunbati and Sheikh Zakariya Ahmad – three names who graced the songs of Um Kalthoum, placing the two ladies in direct competition.

The radio and cinema boom of the 1940s aided her career. Matters took an unpleasant turn in 1948, when Israel was created, prompting many of her audience to become suspicious of her Jewish origins. Vicious rumors spread throughout Egypt and the Arab world – probably started by her competitors – saying that Murad had visited Tel Aviv and donated 50,000 Egyptian pounds to the newly created Israeli Defense Forces.

The Damascus bureau of the popular Egyptian daily al-Ahram originally reported that rumor. Murad categorically challenged the rumors, but with little luck. The damage had already been done. Syrian Radio, previously one of the most powerful promoters of her works, boycotted her songs and she was banned from entering Syria in the early 1950s.

Murad converted to Islam after marrying Egyptian director Anwar Wajdi, and often told reporters, “I am now an Egyptian Muslim!” President Gamal Abdul Nasser intervened on her behalf when Syria and Egypt merged into the United Arab Republic in 1958, lifting the ban on Syrian Radio. An official communique was released by Egyptian authorities clearing her name from all charges, including that which accused her of having visited Israel in 1948.

Rumors, however, rocked her life in the 10 years after 1948. Some said she died in a car accident in Paris. Others said she was married in secret to King Farouk I. Nothing, however, compared with the stories of her connections to Zionism, resulting in Murad’s retirement from music and descent into complete obscurity until her death at the age of 77 in 1995.

The Zionist connection badly affected her health, both physically and psychologically, sending her into spells of severe depression. At one point, she was humiliatingly requested to show all her financial records to the authorities to prove that she had never made any illegal donations to Israel.

She did not give a single press interview after leaving show business, refusing to comment on any of the upheavals in the Arab-Israeli conflict, ranging from the war of 1967, when Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was occupied by Israel, to the October War of 1973, and finally, the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement of 1978. Her own explanation for seclusion was that she was aging and wanted her fans to remember her only as they saw her on the silver screen – young, bold and beautiful.

The one-time “Lady of Egyptian Cinema” – out of business and fame for more than 40 years – faced a severe financial crisis towards the end of her life before dying in complete bankruptcy. Her last appearance on screen was in the 1953 movie, Sayidet al-Kitar (Lady of the Train).

The new series, which carries the name of one of her most memorable songs Ana Albi Dalili, has raised more than a stir in Arab media since it began airing in late August. One scene shows Layla’s father Zaki Murad (played by the Egyptian star Izzat Abu al-Ouf) at a cafe with friends who clearly, from their names, are all Muslims.

Collectively they decide, both Muslims and Jew, to take part in an anti-British demonstration, in 1919. Majdi Saber, the scriptwriter, clearly tries to demonstrate that Egyptian Jews suffered no discrimination in the Arab world prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. Another scene shows a Jew raising funds for Jewish immigrants fleeing from Europe during World War II and lobbying with Egyptian Jews to emigrate to Palestine to increase its Jewish population.

Layla’s father Zaki naturally refuses, patriotically holding on to his Arab origins. The Jew then tries convincing him to “purchase” a different nationality, in case tension arises between Egyptian Jews and Muslims. Once again, Zaki refuses. Zaki’s home in the film is free from any Jewish symbols or Hebrew script.

The film also revives a colorful assortment of Jewish figures whose names were deliberately tarnished after the Egyptian revolution of 1952 because of their Jewish background. Justice is done, for example, to Yusuf Qattawi Pasha (played by Abdul Rahman Abu Zahra), head of the Sephardi Jewish community in Egypt in 1924-1942. After studying engineering in France, he returned to Egypt to work for the Ministry of Public Works, then became director of the Egyptian Sugar Company, which cultivated and developed sugar on 40,000 acres of desert land in the Aswan province. He is shown as a fine Egyptian patriot who helps build the Egyptian economy.

Layla’s 1945 conversion to Islam is set to appear in the 17th episode of the series. The series shows that she converted out of conviction, after marrying Anwar Wejdi, and not out of political intimidation due to rising tension between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. We are yet to see how her life is portrayed once it is scarred by rumors after 1948.

Works like these are important in the Arab world because they shed light on the life of leading figures who, for political reasons, were grossly maltreated during the second half of the 20th century and have been forgotten by a young generation of Arab audiences. Those young people are, however, avid TV watchers during the annual feast of special programs every Ramadan.

Earlier, a similar work had been made about King Farouk of Egypt, who for 40 years after the revolution of 1952 was depicted as a British agent, a drunk and sex-driven reckless man who cared only for his personal indulgences rather than the welfare of Egypt. The series showed a very different image of the man; a true patriot, a shy youth who did not drink, and who was obsessed in wanting to rid his country of the British.

Another work aired last year about the diva Asmahan, who died early in 1944 amid rumors that she had been a double agent – a spy for both the Nazis and British during World War II. Her record was also cleared when the series showed that she had collaborated with the British – without receiving any money from them – with the sole purpose of ridding her country of the French.

For years, touching on these sensitive topics was taboo, frowned on by censors and the families of those characters involved. Now that the die has been cast with Farouk, Asmahan and Layla Murad, other works are in the making covering the life of equally powerful figures such as the Syrian crooner Farid al-Atrash, ex-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli.

Asia Times Online, 5 September 2009