Navigating societal norms and upheaval: The life of Egyptian star Layla Murad

In a new book, a US-based professor accesses previously unseen memoirs from one of the Arab world’s first female A-listers to shed new light on the intriguing life of the late artist, whose face and voice once graced our screens and airwaves.

Egyptian star Leila Murad
Egyptian star Leila Murad

Navigating societal norms and upheaval: The life of Egyptian star Layla Murad

Egyptian star Layla Murad, who died in 1995, certainly had a life worth examining.

She embodied the complexities of the first wave of Arab female artists, from attempts to Westernise women and challenge conservative norms to the spectre of her connections with Egypt’s political elites during the Free Officers’ rule.

Murad’s Jewish faith was also a source of deep psychological discord, her identity often being exploited either as a testament to the possibility of coexistence or as a symbol of resistance against Israel despite her Jewish faith.

In her new book Unknown Past: Layla Murad, the Jewish-Muslim 'Star of Egypt’, Professor Hanan Hammad of the University of Texas offers a fresh perspective into the life of Layla Murad, born Lilian Zaki Mordechai in 1918.

The book relies on memoirs the late singer wrote, which Hammad discovered during her research. Al Majalla spoke to the author who delved into the untold chapters of Layla Murad’s past and the dynamics of the entertainment industry, which played a key role in shaping the star’s public narrative.

In your book, you describe how Al-Kawakeb magazine wrote on the day of Layla Murad’s passing that “she lived as a Muslim, died as a Muslim, and was buried in the Muslim cemetery”, overlooking her return to Judaism in 1940.

Was this posthumous coverage of her life in the Egyptian press impartial, or was it ideological and spun to align with the sentiments of the public, the authorities, and the elites?

For example, the emphasis on her conversion to Islam, despite her rising to stardom before embracing the religion?

I don’t believe that the Al-Kawakeb title ignores her Jewish heritage — quite the opposite. The title reflects her profound interest in her religion in her life and career.

It’s unimaginable for the announcement of the death of other prominent artists, even of the calibre of Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez, to include a confirmation of their Muslim faith or any reference to their religion, for that matter.

However, most accounts of Layla Murad’s life are laden with their authors’ political and non-political opinions and beliefs and their views on Egyptian society and its history.

Most accounts of Layla Murad's life are laden with their authors' political and non-political opinions and beliefs and their views on Egyptian society and its history.

Promoting these perspectives goes beyond pleasing Murad's story to authorities or the public. I think it expresses how those writers, intellectuals, journalists, and even social media influencers envisage Egypt's history and society.

While loyalists to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser emphasised his role in dispelling the Syrian rumours surrounding her, his adversaries believed he ended her cinema career.

Meanwhile, monarchists see her as a symbol of pre-July 1952 "tolerance and elegance"; those discontent with society's value changes see her as the "artist of the good old times."

Still, everybody sees Layla Murad as genuinely Egyptian. She lived as a Muslim because she was genuinely Egyptian. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, this affirms that Islam is a fundamental component of being Egyptian.

This reflects the reality of Egypt from the late 20th century. In contrast, the concept of Egyptianness articulated in the early 20th century linked identity to the land rather than religion.

Did the July 1952 government adopt the ideology towards the entertainment industry, including cinema and singing, a barrier to embracing an enlightening discourse at that time, especially by artists like Layla Murad?

Before the July Revolution, a significant part of cinematic production conveyed regressive ideas, such as opposing women's employment and advocating traditional gender roles.

Many films starring Layla Murad — like Anwar Wagdi's Eternal Love and Togo Mizrahi's On a Rainy Night — reflected these socially conservative ideas.

Professor of History at the University of Texas, Hanan Hammad

The Free Officers perceived cinema and the arts as tools for self-promotion and consolidating their authority, equating the defence of their power with upholding social values and national identity.

The difference was that pre-revolution artists recognised the economic aspect of cinema and aligned with the prevailing social discourse for profitability despite acknowledging government censorship.

After the revolution, it became clear that the approval of films was contingent on not confronting authority.

In addition, many artists believed in the pre-revolution conservative discourse, while others supported the revolutionary authority's discourse.

Did Layla Murad's marriage to Anwar Wagdi symbolise her compliance with male dominance, potentially influencing her conscious or unconscious adoption of such roles in hit films? What effect did this have on Egyptian society and cinema during that era?

The relationship between Murad and Wagdi is a concrete example of how artists viewed cinema as an art form and an economically viable product.

Their marriage, as documented in the certificate, was a template mandated by the state bureaucracy and exemplifies the subjugation of women to male dominance.

The marriage conditions, for instance, restricted women's agency in negotiating the terms of their marriages. It stated that the wife — in this case, the non-Muslim Layla — must accept polygamy.

As cinema evolved into this dual realm of art and business, the professional studio model prevailed over amateur art.

Most films became products that conveyed the ideas of their male writers, directors, and producers, turning actresses like Layla into vehicles for promoting male perspectives.

She willingly embraced this change, even before collaborating with Wagdi, and it proved remarkably successful.

Most films conveyed the ideas of their male writers, directors, and producers, turning actresses like Layla into vehicles for promoting male perspectives. She willingly embraced this.

The irony in films like Eternal Love and Hussein Sedki's Adam and Eve is that they promote traditional gender roles despite Layla herself being a working woman.

This flows from audience preferences. Films that align with society's prevailing values tend to attract a broader audience, providing entertainment and enjoyment. Still, films that challenge these notions only attract a limited audience, risking commercial success.

Did tabloid journalism shape the portrayal of artists and the film industry as decadent, with fractured social connections? To what extent, if at all, did artists reinforce these ideas?

Tabloid journalism undeniably shaped the public's views about artists, not all of which were negative.

Entertainment journalism turned some artists into popular cultural or even political icons whose portraits would adorn people's walls.

Source: Wikipedia
Layla Murad with Youssef Wahbi

Yet, ultimately, audiences can choose what to believe. They are not passive recipients of tabloid narratives.

Additionally, artists themselves used tabloids for self-promotion to generate public interest and attract audiences. Journalism, celebrities, and the public are all responsible for crafting images, both positive and negative.

Layla Murad's career was shaped by the influence of three key figures Togo Mizrahi, Youssef Wahbi, and Anwar Wagdi and the control exerted by filmmakers who framed her within a patriarchal artistic discourse.

Was this dominance a personal choice and conviction for her, or was it imposed by the cinema industry and moulded by public acceptance through box office success?

Honestly, it's difficult to scrutinise the convictions of someone dealing with a broad audience and constant public attention.

Murad did embrace the patriarchal discourse in her films, which contributed to her success, but she also led a successful professional life at odds with those ideas.

She was not the only star in Egypt, or the world, who had to balance this.

More importantly, many artists believed their primary role was to entertain people through beautiful art rather than being intellectuals or advocates of social change.

Very few have managed to do that, whether in Eastern or Western cinema.

Your book emphasises the role of producers, directors, actors, and the audience. Does this suggest that authors and screenwriters had a lesser role in the film industry by only shaping the ideas of filmmakers and audiences?

I did not intentionally exclude them. The book focused on what I deemed significant to Layla Murad's life in modern Egyptian history.

The role of writers and authors was highlighted in my discussion of the role of the press.

How do you interpret Layla Murad's widespread popularity at a time when working in showbusiness contradicted social norms and traditions? What does this paradox reveal about the psychology of the Egyptian audience vis-à-vis cinema and actresses especially?

It was a transitional period. Accepting women from respectable families into the art scene gradually became widespread before Layla Murad's era.

Given the public exposure required to perform on-stage, only non-Muslim and Levantine actresses would perform in theatres during the early 20th century. This was a departure from when female artists performed at festivities and weddings in segregated settings.

The changing public space, the emergence of cinema, and the use of phonographic records detached female stars' physical presence from direct interaction with the audience.

Muslim women began to appear in different guises, like Fatima Rushdi taking on male roles and Umm Kulthum donning masculine attire.

Cinema and phonographic records detached female stars' physical presence from direct interaction with the audience. Muslim women began to appear in different guises.

Personalities such as actress Mounira El Mahdeya and activist Rose al Yusuf held respected positions in social and political spheres. Bahiga Hafez, a versatile artist and scion of the aristocracy, also contributed to this evolution.

This progress was not linear, but it kept going. The press, cinema, and radio played crucial roles in transforming artists into societal figures celebrated by the public.

In this sense, Layla Murad encountered fewer challenges than women from the previous generation, even though her father, the artist Zaki Murad, adhered to the values of the conservative middle class and its perception of women.

From Layla Murad's statements, it becomes evident that she truly belonged to the middle class, both socially and morally.

She learned and benefited from the experiences of previous stars, like Umm Kulthum, who had achieved a respectable status and communicated with audiences through their art.

Layla's beauty was complemented by her insistence on being a well-mannered woman, a "daughter of the people", as the Levantine expression goes.

She succeeded in maintaining a reputation as a respectable figure, which set her apart from stars from religious minorities in previous generations and even from Asmahan, whose personal life and beauty sometimes overshadowed news of her artistic output and stunning voice.

Layla Murad was also influenced by her father, Togo Mizrahi, and others, choosing to position herself uniquely.

For instance, in her first film Yahya El Hub, she refused to kiss Mohamed Abdel Wahab, a popular idol at the time, respecting her father's objections.

How did Layla Murad's marriage to Free Officers member Wagih Abaza and Berlenti Abdul Hamid's marriage to Abdel Hakim Amer influence the actresses' lives? Did the men associated with the Free Officers significantly impact the film industry and the social lives of actresses in the art scene?

In the early days of the revolution, the Free Officers — young and emboldened — found themselves suddenly at the pinnacle of power. Some exploited this to affirm their masculinity and attractiveness by forming relationships with princesses and actresses, up to and including marriage and families.

These connections were intricate, driven by the hunger for power of these men and by the actresses' pursuit of protection during tumultuous times, in which many were fearful and caught off-guard by the rapid changes taking place.

Some actresses, like Berlenti Abdul Hamid and Maha Sabry, found the protection they sought in the embrace of powerful men, even if it meant leaving their careers in show business. Yet they also suffered due to the political conflicts between the officers.

Other actresses, including Layla Murad, secured no protection, and their marriages led to profound misery. Wagih Abaza disowned her and their child, forcing this beloved and respected artist to face society as a single mother with a child disowned by his father.

She then had to confront influential figures in the film industry who sided with Wagih Abaza, a man of power and influence, even after the regime change under Sadat.

This significantly pushed her out of the cinema industry when she attempted a comeback in the 1960s.

How did the middle class influence the film industry and Layla Murad's popularity?

Cinema is a captivating medium for everyone, especially for the less privileged.

The middle class wasn't just the primary consumer of cinema. It was a social stratum with a value structure that resonated with audiences from more modest backgrounds.

Layla Murad's films promoted middle-class values. The characters portrayed by Anwar Wagdi in his movies with Murad epitomised the middle-class perspective, which sees romance as transcending class boundaries and portrays the man as the saviour, regardless of whether the woman came from the upper or lower classes.

How did the wave of technological progress, starting with the shift to microphones, shape Layla Murad's artistic path?

Why hasn't her national and patriotic influence endured into our contemporary era, leaving her often recognised solely for her voice, in contrast to the enduring national legacy of figures like Umm Kulthum?

Layla Murad was fortunate to experience the wave of modern technology sweeping the entertainment industry.

The microphone magnified the beauty of her voice, and as the national radio replaced regional broadcasts, her voice reached broad audiences across Egypt. Popular journalism also helped disseminate her image.

The microphone magnified the beauty of her voice, and as the national radio replaced regional broadcasts, her voice reached broad audiences across Egypt. Popular journalism also helped disseminate her image.

Although Abdel Nasser initially censored her song 'Unity, Order, and Work' due to its association with Mohamed Naguib, and Sadat repeated this by restricting many of her and others' patriotic songs during the Abdel Nasser era, Layla Murad is consistently considered a significant symbol in the Egyptian national narrative.

She is remembered as the Jewish woman who rejected Israel, the Muslim who chose Islam over any other faith, the authentic Egyptian with elegance and modesty, and the well-mannered daughter of people who refrained from kissing strangers.

These perceptions resonated across the Egyptian political and social divides, aligning with the collective understanding of what an ideal Egyptian should be.

How did you stumble upon Layla Murad's memoirs, especially considering the reluctance of many writers to delve into her life? Did this hinder your research process?

I discovered the memoirs through research. I didn't know they existed, but sometimes, the relentless pursuit of information leads to unexpected discoveries.

I urge the custodians of Egypt's libraries, archives, and records to let researchers explore the wealth of content in our national archives.

They are a treasure trove of valuable material. This content should be easily accessible for research, eliminating the need for scholars to seek information elsewhere due to Egypt's current bureaucratic obstacles and unwelcoming approach.

Layla Murad's marriage to Anwar Wagdi and challenge of Jewish traditions stand in contrast to her submission to the male-oriented discourse presented in cinema. How do you interpret this contradiction?

Layla Murad was exceptionally strong, contrary to the public perception that her meek on-screen characters mirror her true self. She made many professional and personal choices purposefully and consciously, but this doesn't imply that the outcomes of her choices were always in her favour.

Her marriage to a Muslim wasn't a normal thing, as some assume, believing that religious and social tolerance made interfaith marriages an ordinary matter.

On the contrary, Egyptian Jews were very concerned about marriages outside their community, and her father, Zaki Murad, was proud of his Jewish heritage.

When Layla married Anwar, she held a powerful position in her family, especially because she financially supported the household and her sisters.

Anwar, with his appealing personality and the opportunities he provided for her siblings, particularly the highly talented Munir, facilitated the acceptance of the marriage.

The contradiction between her personal choices and the male-oriented discourse in her films is not unique to her; it is a recurring theme among global cinema stars.

Her marriage to a Muslim wasn't a normal thing, as some assume. On the contrary, Egyptian Jews were very concerned about marriages outside their community.

Many artists see themselves within the confines of their artistic roles, not as leaders of social and intellectual change.

They view cinema as a source of entertainment that must cover its costs and generate profits by attracting a broad audience, not just those seeking intellectual debates and ideas for social change.

Layla Murad's stardom remained unaffected by rumours in the Syrian media about donations and travels to Israel, despite the state's lack of effort to address this crisis. Does this mean that the protection afforded by public support is stronger than the state's role, or is this a unique case?

On the contrary, disproving the false rumour actually increased people's affection for her, especially in recent years. Those opposed to normalisation with Israel saw in her a symbol of steadfast Arab nationalism and staunch rejection of any association with Israel.

In her final days, did Layla Murad choose to live as a mother, or was this role imposed on her? How do you explain her loss of wealth?

Layla's breaks from the film industry were involuntary. She didn't choose to retire, not even after the birth of her children. These interruptions were due to health, psychological, or family reasons, particularly in the mid-1950s.

Despite these challenges, she made multiple attempts to return to cinema and kept singing and recording songs for Egyptian and Arab radio stations.

She lived a prosperous life even after she stopped making movies. She would spend the summer with her children in Lebanon and America, and when her son Ashraf graduated high school, she generously gifted him a car.

She may have sold some of her property at prices below market value, but that doesn't equate to a loss of wealth.

As for her stint in production, Layla Murad was not an unsuccessful producer, but she certainly didn't achieve the same success she achieved as a singer and actress.

She produced Life and Love and her brother Mounir's debut film With Shadia, both of which were relatively successful.

Assia Dagher was one of Egyptian cinema's prominent producers, as were Bahiga Hafez and Aziza Amir before her, amassing considerable wealth from film production.

Production is not inherently tied to gender. It depends on individual circumstances. While social conditions may encourage more men than women into production, it has no bearing on the professional or artistic capabilities of individuals. Many male stars also failed as producers.

You've mentioned that writing the book in English was challenging. Why did you choose to write a book about Layla Murad in English, and are there plans to translate it into Arabic? And what are your upcoming projects?

I am a professor at an American university and our academic work is subject to review by peers and academics, which is why I write all my research in English.

It was challenging, as English is my second language. After earning my professorship, I now have the flexibility to produce my research in Arabic.

I believe any scholarly work about Egypt and Egyptian culture and history only finds its true value when it is read by Egyptians, especially historians and researchers in Egypt.

I hope to have my book about Layla Murad and all my other works translated into Arabic. As far as I know, my first book 'Industrial Sexuality' and some research articles I produced are currently in translation.

As for my upcoming projects, I am currently working on Layla Murad's memoir, which will be in Arabic, of course, accompanied by an introduction and annotations to provide context for her statements and opinions.

Simultaneously, I am working on a new book about the social history of childhood in Egypt from the early 20th century until the issuance of the Child Law in the mid-1990s.

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