Unknown Past
Layla Murad, the Jewish-Muslim Star of Egypt
Hanan Hammad


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Why Layla Murad?
chapter abstract

The introduction discusses why Layla Murad's personal and professional life enables writing and reading her biography to analyze modern Egypt's sociopolitical and cultural evolution. Documenting her life opens a discussion of formal archiving versus personal collecting. While the state archives and academic libraries tend to ignore preserving celebrity fan and gossip publications, personal collecting treats these materials with care. The author makes a case for why gossip and fan publications and commercial cinema offer valuable sources for the study of social history, particularly regarding issues of gender, sexuality, and national identity.

1 The Schoolgirl: Making Layla Murad
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 tells Layla Murad's story from childhood until the release of her first film, Yahya al-Hub (Long Live Love; Muhammad Karim, 1938), with superstar musician and singer Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahab. It intertwines Layla's early career with the story of the microphone, sound cinema, and national radio broadcast in Egypt. Each technical novelty contributed to turning Layla Murad into a household name, image, and voice from Alexandria to Aswan. The chapter pays close attention to the formation of Egyptian musical film and how the pioneer male filmmakers subjected Layla and all other female stars to their masculine and European aesthetic standards for the female body on the screen.

2 The Country Girl: Branding Layla Murad
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 traces Layla Murad's cinema career in terms of the intersection of the developed studio system and the commercialization of the film industry in Egypt beginning in the late 1930s. It focuses on her work with three male producers, directors, and actors—Togo Mizrahi, Yusuf Wahbi, and Anwar Wagdi—with whom Layla worked the most. The author shows how each filmmaker framed Layla's talents in highly marketable forms that combined artistic values with patriarchal discourses, illustratinge the paradox of the female superstar in a male-dominated industry. This chapter argues that she successfully employed her agency to advance her career in the existing social structural framework, thus becoming an agent in perpetuating conservative values about gender and female sexuality.

3 Adam and Eve: Interfaith Family, Fame, and Gossip
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 discusses the personal relationship between Layla Murad and her first husband, Anwar Wagdi, illuminating the positionality of Jewish women and Muslim men in modern Egypt. As a Muslim husband, Wagdi enjoyed all the privileges stipulated in Islamic Sharia law. As a Jewish wife, Layla's legal inferiority was twofold, plus the Arab-Israeli conflict added complexity to her already fragile position. The chapter discusses how their domestic disputes and the regional conflicts dictated making her conversion from Judaism to Islam public. The author argues that because Layla Murad and Anwar Wagdi invested in manipulating public interest and used the press as a tool in their domestic disputes, their relationship contributed to social debates about love and business and the manufacturing of unrealistic images of the "new woman" and the "modern family."

4 The Blow of Fate: The Politics of Boycotting Israel
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 discusses the Syrian allegations that Layla Murad visited and donated money to Israel and the impact of this crisis on her career. The author argues that Arab political elites used the Arab boycott against Israel, an unchallenged element in the politics of Arab elites for decades, for domestic consumption as a weapon in their internal competitions. The chapter employs the Syrian ban against Layla Murad as an example of how Arab populist politicians and bureaucrats did not concern themselves with proving cooperation with Israel, making decisions to punish individuals for alleged collaboration without evidence or proof. The Syrian treatment of Layla Murad shows the recklessness of the Arab boycott's practices, regardless of the validity of its original goals. Arab regimes, politicians, and bureaucrats weaponized the Arab boycott against individuals and groups without systematic investigations to justify their decisions or demonstrate how the boycott was not anti-Semitic.

5 The Unknown Lover: Layla Murad and the Free Officer
chapter abstract

Chapter 5 discusses the untimely disappearance of Layla Murad from cinema from the late 1950s until she died in 1995, despite her constant attempts at a comeback. The author argues that the Nasserist state's personal-based patronage networks and Layla's romantic relationship with one of the Free Officers, with whom she had a child, brought an untimely end to Layla's career. The Free Officer refused to acknowledge the child, and Layla became more vulnerable afterward. That relationship provides an excellent case in terms of which to rethink politics among the Free Officers and the Nasserist state through gender and masculinity. The author argues that no complete understanding of the Free Officers' politics and the Nasserist regime is possible without analyzing masculinity, gender, and sexuality among the young men who took over the state in summer 1952 and then engaged in power struggles among themselves.

6 The Starling of the Valley: Remembering Layla Murad
chapter abstract

Chapter 6 examines how Egyptians have positioned Layla Murad in their popular culture from the peace process with Israel until now. The Egyptian regime returned Layla Murad to her long-denied central position in the media and popular culture to facilitate the peace agreement with the Jewish state, reverse Nasserist economic policies, and claim to be the guardian of turath, authentic cultural heritage. Meanwhile, the antipeace movement invoked Layla's Jewish origins and her conversion to Islam as means to claim a victory over Israel and to mobilize the public against the normalization of relations with Israelis. Reconstructing Layla Murad's persona as a sincere Muslim, who voluntarily abandoned Judaism, condemned Israel, and stubbornly rejected Israeli temptations, provided Egyptians with the role model of an exclusive Muslim Egyptian identity while using Layla's Jewish origins as a token to lament an imagined tolerant past.

Conclusion: Can an Egyptian Be a Single Mother and a Jew?
chapter abstract

The book concludes with a discussion of the exclusion of Jews from Egyptian citizenship and the social taboo around single motherhood. The author traces the changes in social debates about men refusing to acknowledge their parenthood of children born outside formal marriage. By no means does the conclusion suggest that progress is linear, but the gradual changes around that taboo are striking and invite further research.