The TV soap opera based on the story of the Jewish diva Leyla Murad, shown in the Arab world over Ramadan recently, is a first attempt to introduce Jews to the Arab audience without hiding their heritage, writes Eyal Sagui Bizawe in Haaretz (The return of Cinderella). Leyla Murad was a cantor's daughter, but apart from the characters saying 'shalom' - something Egyptian Jews woud never do - there is little Jewish content, and Murad herself is depicted as attracted to Islam. (With thanks: binhaddou)
"Zaki Fatin Abdul Wahab is well known in Egypt not only as the son of Laila Mourad, but also as an actor and director in his own right. When he heard that a series on his mother was to be made, he objected and even filed a lawsuit to bar it from being broadcast.
"The artist is not a machine," he said in an interview, "but a human being with feelings and emotions. If this series dealt with her professional-artistic life, I would have no objections, but nobody has the right to delve into her private family life. My mother withdrew for 40 years because she wanted to preserve her old image in the memory of the public ... That was her will."
"But the series, "Ana Albi Dalili" (My Heart Is My Guide - named for one of her best-known movies and songs), was made, and was broadcast every night during Ramadan on a Jordanian channel and on one of Egypt's privately owned Dream channels, attracting a great deal of attention. Although the series was directed by the Syrian filmmaker Muhamad Zuhair Rajab, and the role of Laila is played by the Syrian actress Safa Sultan, the production is Egyptian, as are the actors who filled most of the other roles. Against the background of a multiplicity of espionage series, in which the Israeli Mossad has its own status as a cultural hero, there's no doubt that the way that Laila Mourad and her Jewish background are handled is interesting, and sometimes surprising.
"Like most of the Ramadan series, "Ana Albi Dalili" also makes it clear that the need for more than 30, 40-minute installments leads to no small number of "dead" moments, when nothing seems to move ahead. Snail-slow progress, drawn-out interludes of instrumental music accompanying totally meaningless scenes, repetition of dialogues in various ways - all contribute to the sense that the director was simply compelled to fill up each episode by any means he could imagine. But then, this is true of all the Ramadan TV soap operas.
"Another problem in this series is the casting of the lead roles: Sultan does not succeed in filling Mourad's shoes as the legendary Cinderella, and Anwar Wagdi is portrayed in grotesque caricature by Ahmed Flukhs. The mediocre performances of the main characters is even more conspicuous when compared with the outstanding acting of the Egyptian actor Izat Abu Oof as Zaki Mourad, or that of Hala Fahr in the role of Miriam, Laila's aunt.
"But at least to Jewish viewers, the most interesting aspect is undoubtedly the way the Jewish angle is treated. Most surprisingly, there is no attempt to conceal Mourad's heritage. Although the word "Jewish" isn't mentioned often - instead, there is frequent use of phrases like "our community" or "our customs" in the early episodes - this does not spring from a desire to hide the fact she was a Jew, but rather reflects a certain ignorance of the way Jewish Egyptians lived at the time. For example, the word "Shalom" is used by all the Jewish characters whenever they meet, as a means of identifying them as Jews, although Egyptian Jews would never use this greeting with one another.
"The aim of the series is crystal clear: to show that Egypt was a paradise for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it was only the Zionist activity always fermenting beneath the surface that led to the rifts and the violent dispute. This is a myth that many populist intellectuals try to foster both inside and outside Egypt. That being said, the very fact that a popular series broadcast during prime time portrays the Jews as part of the history of the Arab countries is both a new and a welcome development.
Judaism in Laila Mourad's childhood home receives no figurative or concrete representation: There's no menorah or Star of David, no going to or coming back from synagogue, no Kiddush, no festivals. A wonderful recording of Zaki Mourad and his daughter singing Yom Kippur prayers apparently never reached the director's hands. Even the fact that Mourad was a cantor isn't mentioned at all; instead, the plot focuses on him as a fun-loving womanizer, which he apparently was. Overall, however, he is presented in a positive, human and moving light, more so than all the other characters. Indeed, it is he who over and over again, in the early episodes, sings the popular song "Qum Ya Masri," by the reviver of modern Egyptian music, Said Darwish. The song, which has become almost an anthem in Egypt, calls on Muslims, Christians and Jews to unite under the Egyptian flag, presenting them all as "the seed of the same fathers." "Love your neighbor," the song goes, "Before you love yourself." Even if history has proven that I have not loved my neighbor or even myself, this model - naive and utopian as it may be - is better than other models that society - and other Ramadan series - has to offer.
Zionist activity in Egypt receives a bit too much attention in the series, completely out of proportion to reality. Director Zuhair had apparently not read the intriguing and important book published earlier this year by Ruth Kimche, "Zionut batzel hapiramidot" ("Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids," published in Hebrew by Am Oved), which may be why he seems not to have grasped that Zionist activity in the 1920s and '30s made a minimal impression on Egyptian Jews, and certainly on the chief rabbi. Whatever impact it did have seems to have been limited to the very few who actually participated in the movement. Nonetheless, in "Ana Albi Dalili," supporters of Zionism are depicted as enemies of humankind, their appearances on screen accompanied by scary background music, and they use expressions like those of Joan Collins as Alexis in "Dynasty." At the same time, throughout the series, an important and surprising effort is made to present the Jews as being divided, as was in fact the case, between those who supported Zionism and those who wanted to remain loyal Egyptians. Laila Mourad, at least according to the series, was among the latter.
Despite the hasty judgment of Ehud Ya'ari, the Arab affairs analyst of Israel's Channel 2, in a broadcast on Ramadan TV programming - and apparently before he had actually seen the series - Laila Mourad is not presented in a negative light, and certainly not as someone posing as an Egyptian, and she certainly doesn't serve as a punching bag for one national ethos or another. In a slightly overstated manner - simplistic and almost one-dimensional - her character is presented not only as having been loyal to her motherland, Egypt, but as someone who from a young age was attracted to Islam, to the call of the muezzin through her bedroom window, and to the oil lamp that symbolizes the light of the month of Ramadan. In contrast, another Jewish actress of the period, Rakiyah Ibrahim, played by Amal Rizk, is portrayed negatively, because she was a Zionist and left Egypt for the United States, although her figure is more complex that Mourad's, and replete with contradictions.
Either way, with Zionism or without, with Jewish liturgy or without, accurate or inaccurate, "Ana Albi Dalili" is an interesting and significant series, if only because it reintroduces Jews to the Arab public. Syria was the only Arab country that continued to ban Mourad's films and songs even after she was cleared of suspicion. Gamal Abdel Nasser, according to Egyptian sources, made the removal of the ban a condition for his agreement to the unification of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic in 1958. The ban was lifted, the UAR fell apart, and today a Syrian director, in an Egyptian production, has created a riveting series on the life of a Jewish actress and singer, who became a Muslim. Somehow, it seems, art will always manage to achieve, with ease and without bloodshed, that which politicians will never be able to bring about.
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Leyla Mourad TV soap shows Jews as normal people