Saturday, September 05, 2009

Leyla Murad TV soap shows Jews as normal people

Leyla Mourad and Anwar Wagdi in the film "Habib el Rouh" (Darling of the Soul)

She was beautiful and successful, but Leyla Murad - one of the greatest 20th century divas of stage and screen Egypt ever produced - attracted malicious rumour and suspicion just because she was born Jewish. However, a soap opera about Leyla Murad on Arabic TV this Ramadan is a good sign - the first time that Egyptian Jews are being portrayed as ordinary people, The Asian Times reports. (With thanks: Lily)

DAMASCUS - 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.

Read article in full


victor said...

Bataween, readers of this blog should read the whole article carefully because parts of it give a very different view from the first few paragraphs. The beginning of the article states how this TV series is causing a "stir" in the Arab world because of its positive depiction of Jews as human beings who contributed to Egyptian culture. But further along, it is reported that the TV story gives the impression that Jews were never mistreated in Egypt prior to the creation of Israel in 1948, and that Leyla Murad's father (who is depicted very positively) refuses to donate funds to help Jews emigrate to Palestine and, further, has absolutely no Jewish symbols in his home. So basically, what's so new about this TV series? It is only serving to reinforce the stereotype in the Arab mind of the "good" Jew and the "bad" Jew. The "good" Jew is the one who wants the Jews to live as minorities in Arab-majority countries, and the "bad" Jew is the one who strives for the Jews to have their own homeland and their own political independence.

bataween said...

You are right of course, Victor - this Jew is a 'good' Jew, and the ultimatel proof is that she converted to Islam. The stuff about being offered a foreign passport but choosing to remain 'Arab' is a travesty: 40 percent Jews were actually denied Egyptian nationality and were stateless, and those with foreign passports usually had them from the 19th c.
But at least the series ackowledges the existence of Jews in Arab lands and humanises them - an improvement, I'd say. improvemenmeent that

victor said...

Onward and upward, I suppose. Maybe we can regard these as "baby steps" towards educating the Arab mind about the minorities who lived among them and whom they mistreated and abused whenever they liked.