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




WHEN THE EGYPTIAN SINGER and movie star Layla Murad died in Cairo in November 1995, the headline in the Arabic celebrity magazine al-Kawakib read, “She lived as a Muslim, died as a Muslim, and was buried in the Muslim cemetery.” The magazine meant to deny rumors that Murad (1918–1995) had returned to Judaism after converting to Islam in the 1940s. Questions about Murad’s faith, loyalty to Egypt, connections with Israel, and sexual affairs with elite politicians haunted her life and her legacy decades after her death. Ironically, she achieved her success as a popular superstar long before her conversion to Islam. Being a Jew and a daughter of the famous Jewish singer Zaki Murad did not pose an obstacle to her popularity from the time she launched her career in 1932.

Until she released her last movie in 1955, Layla Murad starred in twenty-eight films, almost all of them considered classics in the Egyptian and Arab musical cinema. She was the highest-paid movie star, and her movies were among the highest grossing at the box office. Her fans and movie critics dubbed her the Cinderella of Egyptian cinema and the queen of Arab musicals. Then she stopped working in the cinema, or more accurately, was forced to stop, three years after the Free Officers successfully took power through a military coup, later known as the July Revolution of 1952. She was only thirty-seven years old when her career abruptly came to a stop in the mid-1950s. She struggled for a comeback for decades with no success. Yet despite Layla’s life in the shadows, her popularity never faded away, and her fans have continued listening to her voice by means of records, radio broadcasts, and TV shows. Throughout her life and until the present day, Layla Murad has been one of the most popular and well-remembered female singers in the Arab world. Bootleg uploads of her films and songs on YouTube have garnered hundreds of thousands of views. Decades after her death, public interest in her life has continued, and generations of Egyptians have never ceased telling her story.

Layla Murad was born into a Jewish family in 1918, one year before the 1919 Revolution against the British occupation of Egypt that had begun in 1882. The nationalist revolution failed to force the British to evacuate the country but turned Egypt into a semi-independent monarchy. It ushered in what became known as the Liberal Era in modern Egypt (1923–1952). Far from democracy and still under British tutelage, Egypt was governed by a constitutional parliamentary system and enjoyed a thriving pluralistic and cosmopolitan public culture. Layla Murad grew up in her middle-class family in Cairo during a period of ethnoreligious diversity. Her father, Zaki Murad (ca. 1880–1946), was a well-known singer whose career thrived from the 1900s until the mid-1920s. His experience and connections in the music scene facilitated the launch of Layla’s singing career while she was still a young teen in the early 1930s. Following her success as a vocalist, she starred in her first film, Yahya al-Hub (Long Live Love; Muhammad Karim, 1938), with superstar singer and musician Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahab (ca. 1902–1991).

In 1945, Layla Murad married actor Anwar Wagdi and with him formed the most memorable duo in Arab cinema. Layla and Anwar lived a successful professional but difficult domestic life. They divorced and remarried each other three times in seven years, and news about their domestic troubles filled celebrity-gossip columns. While married, Layla Murad documented her conversion to Islam in court records in 1947. She announced her conversion in 1948 in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war in Palestine. Her success continued as she set a record as the highest-paid actress in 1950, and audiences voted her the best actress-singer in polls in 1951. Her popularity is evidenced by the fact that movie theaters showed two or three films featuring her in the same season almost every year between 1941 and 1952. Then, one month after the Egyptian Free Officers took power in July 1952, Syria banned Layla Murad’s films and songs because of rumors that she had secretly donated money to and visited Israel. The rumors were disproved by Egyptian investigations conducted by the new military regime in Cairo, and Layla Murad continued starring in new movies. She lent her voice to support the Free Officers’ regime through patriotic songs and by supporting army-led initiatives in public life. Unexpectedly, she stopped working in cinema after releasing the film al-Habib al-Maghul (The Unknown Lover; Hassan al-Sayfi, 1955), despite many plans and attempts to resume her cinema career. Radio and television regularly broadcast her songs and old films, keeping her youthful image in the public memory as one of the most beloved divas in Egypt and the Arab world. Audiences of all ages still listen to her short, fast-rhythm songs and watch her musicals decades after her death. Contemporary singers perform her songs on albums and in live concerts dedicated to celebrating the repertoire of Arab neoclassics. Critics and writers still publish articles and books that continue to fuel mass interest in her.

Given the importance of singing within Egyptian culture and cinema, Layla Murad is more than just a celebrity. She was a massive star and one of Egypt’s most beloved singers-actors, whose popularity remains intact decades after her death. On that basis alone, her life and career are worthy of study. At the heart of this study, the central questions are why, after a hugely successful start to her film career, did it stall in the mid-1950s? How did the fact that she was born into a Jewish family and the Syrian ban against her films affect her career? What effect did her relationship with one of the Free Officers have? And what role did her sexuality, age, and changing body image play? How is she remembered? More than a history of one famous woman and her agency, Layla Murad’s history chronicles that of Jewish wives, female Muslim converts, and interfaith families in the history of modern Egypt. I use her story as a prism through which to retell the history of Egyptian culture and politics, while examining the role of female stars and the double standards and social expectations they were subject to. Focusing on her decision to convert to Islam and the timing of its public revelation deepens our understanding of the entanglement of socioreligious and gender politics.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Layla Murad’s life became entangled with grand national and regional politics. Having taken power in July 1952, the Free Officers called their military coup the Blessed Movement. The popular support garnered by the Blessed Movement transformed the military coup into the 23 July Revolution. The Free Officers exiled King Farouk (r. 1936–1952), abolished the monarchy, overthrew the parliamentary regime, dissolved political parties, and declared the republic in 1953. From the beginning of their coup, the Free Officers underwent a brutal internal struggle over power, through which Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as the leader of the military junta.1 Having consolidated his rule as the second president of the republic, Nasser (r. 1954–1970) launched ambitious economic and human development programs. The foundational years of the republic were critical for the Egyptian Jews. In the early weeks after the 23 July Revolution, the Free Officers confirmed their commitment to protecting the Egyptian Jews. The formal leader of the Free Officers and first president, General Muhammad Nagib (June 1953–November 1954), visited the main synagogue in downtown Cairo on Yom Kippur of 1952. Nagib also visited the Karaite synagogue in ‘Abbasiyya, stating the regime’s unequivocal commitment to the secular-liberal citizenship and rights: “There is no difference between Jews, Muslims, or Christians. Religion is for God, and the nation is for all.”2 However, Israeli espionage networks recruited individual local Jews to carry out a series of acts of sabotage against Western interests in Cairo and Alexandria in 1954, with the goal of embarrassing the new regime as incompetent and incapable of stabilizing Egypt. This campaign of sabotage, known as the Lavon Affair and code-named Operation Susannah, followed by the Tripartite Aggression, the Israeli-British-French invasion of Egypt (the Suez War of 1956), made life increasingly difficult for Egyptian Jews. The regime and its supporters were not careful about, and in some cases not interested in, making a distinction between Jews and Zionists.

Layla Murad was caught up in the major political transitions of the 1950s—entanglements that cost her career. Despite her conversion to Islam in the late 1940s, her experiences shed light on some of the pressures faced by other Jews in Egypt in the 1950s. She was subject to vicious rumors that she supported Israel, accusations of which the regime ultimately cleared her. Investigating the scandal, this study reflects upon the popular press’s role and the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the Jews of Egypt. In the wake of the Free Officers’ Revolution and while she was still struggling to clear her name and regain the support of her Arab fans, Layla Murad became romantically involved with one of the Free Officers, who disavowed her after she became pregnant.

A study of Murad’s life and career allows us to examine the impact of regional and national politics on an individual’s daily life. It fleshes out how individuals experienced and engaged with the grand politics of moving from a semicolonial monarchy to military rule, from the rise to the defeat of Arab nationalism and political Islam. How much did Layla Murad’s position as a woman and a star of Jewish origin determine her personal and professional choices to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats accompanying the transition from monarchy to Nasser’s regime after 1954? Her enforced exit from the movie industry is the story of emotional and aspirational struggles many people experienced in postcolonial Egypt. In a single decade following the 1952 Revolution, Layla Murad, along with many other Egyptians, witnessed and experienced extreme emotional and professional swings owing to the Suez War, the departure of Jews from Egypt, and the transition from an open-market economy and what many called the pluralism of the Liberal Era to state capitalism and state control over media and the public sphere. During her lifetime, Egypt witnessed the days of turmoil of the Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) and the conclusion of Egypt and Israel’s peace agreement (1979). She lived through the Egyptians’ search for a definition of their national identity, from liberal pluralism, Arab nationalism, and the culture of peace to Islamism. All of these developments dramatically impacted her family and career, but she was neither powerful nor powerless. Reconstructing how Layla Murad went through these years requires more than a discussion and acknowledgment of an exceptional artist’s agency in a complex society. It requires a search for the lived reality of intimate pains and hopes embodied in an individual’s experience and its representation of many others’ experiences.

Throughout the course of these rapid political and cultural changes, Layla Murad was sometimes exceptional and definitely in the minority. Nevertheless, her life often mirrored the gendered reality of the sociopolitical dynamics experienced by many women in twentieth-century Egypt. Like many women in modern Egypt, she was a working wife and a mother. Unlike many, however, she married and divorced famous and powerful men. She experienced personal and domestic troubles under the bright lights of fame and the elusive fragility of minority women in the interfaith family and social patriarchy. Under the public gaze, she became vulnerable while searching for love and protection in a relationship with one of the young Free Officers. Layla Murad’s experiences should be situated within the legal environment and lived experiences of an Egyptian state and society that still wrestle with questions of gender, sexuality, single motherhood, and religious minority. Examining the web of social concepts, relationships, institutions, and individuals that formed her world renders her life illustrative of the lives of many people, famous and ordinary alike. Biographical research can offer rich insights into the dynamic interplay of individuals and history, inner and outer worlds, self and others.3 By blending the history of modern Egypt and Layla Murad’s biography, I strive to connect disparate social phenomena and personal experiences. Although biography is still an unloved stepchild of history, it provides more significant information than any other form of historical narrative and illustrates how historical developments affected those who shared her gender, ethnicity, class, and problems.4 In other words, I capitalize on the popularity of Layla Murad’s biography to break down the grand metanarratives of Egyptian nationalism and recover what the nationalist narratives, intentionally or unintentionally, overlook, exclude, or silence.5 As a historian and an Egyptian, blending history with biography saves my critical analysis from slipping into standard biographical and nationalist narratives that either vilify or sanctify the subject.

This book treats Layla Murad’s trajectory as a prism through which to examine and analyze historical transformations while focusing on her individual aspirations, triumphs, emotions, and pain. Her life and legacy enable an accurate assessment of cinema’s economic success and the place of tolerance in Egyptian society before and after 1952. More important, her experience personifies the politics of Arab nationalism and boycotting Israel in discourses and practices. A complete understanding of Egypt’s history following July 1952 cannot be attained without a grasp of the contradictory emotions that individuals and groups experienced in their engagements with the sociopolitical changes introduced by the regime. Layla Murad went through her life as a daughter, sibling, co-worker, spouse, and lover within close-knit and overlapping familial, social, institutional, and professional networks. Through her experience, this book interrogates the entertainment and media industry and its relationships with national and regional politics, religious minorities, and gender in critical moments of modern Egypt. Rather than making a case to celebrate the effectiveness of a successful celebrity woman’s agency against patriarchal structures, Layla Murad’s life illuminates the messy and contradictory realities wherein women embrace their agency, intentionally and otherwise, through manipulating and solidifying the patriarchy. Not every act of subverting patriarchal dominance reflects feminist resistance, nor does every deployment of a woman’s agency for mercantile success or personal survival effectively avoid unintended outcomes. In her work and personal life, Layla Murad made choices that worked both for and against her, regardless of how feminist these choices might have been. In her successes as well as her failures, she was deliberate about her positionality and conscious of her agency and the limits of her options.

Commercial Entertainment

This book examines the role the entertainment industry has played in the social construction of gendered national identities, sexuality, and public morality in Egypt and the entire Arab world. Cinema has been “a tool for mass production of senses, an apparatus that sutures the subject in an illusory coherence and identity, and a system of stylistic strategies that weld pleasure and meaning to reproduce dominant social and sexual hierarchies.”6 This book’s starting point is that commercial movies and celebrity publications have been the most widely read “texts” across gender and classes in the twentieth-century Arab world. We need to be careful not to equate the commercial with vulgarity or contrast it with critically sophisticated productions. All fictional films produced in Egypt and distributed across the Arab world during the mid-twentieth century were commercial, meaning they were produced as entertainment geared to audiences of all classes and levels of education. Movies varied in intellectual sophistication, realistic engagement with social issues, aesthetic values, and funding. Nevertheless, all aimed at being profitable by selling tickets and pleasing mass audiences.

Productions aimed primarily at achieving critical acclaim and awards led to a distinction between commercial and critically sophisticated filmmaking, which emerged in the mid-1950s. A historically comprehensive survey of popular Egyptian films that proved influential thanks to their box-office success and originality or that remained widely known has shown that popular films disseminated discourses on gender, class, and nationalism.7 Movies produced in Egypt during the interwar period and the following decades constituted part of the historical formation of Egyptian modernity, a broad set of cultural, aesthetic, technological, economic, social, and political transformations.8 Thus, Layla Murad’s films are forms of discourse articulating and responding to modernity. Although interwar cinema attracted audiences from all social groups, it established the norms of the Egyptian middle class.9 And although her movies were meant as escapist entertainment, they contributed to public discourse on gender, women’s sexuality, and other social issues. Like all commercial films, they have great importance in helping to construct the cultural synthesis of the bourgeoisie.

I approach Layla Murad’s films as multilayered texts of contending visions, comparing and contrasting the social discourses disseminated through them with the life actually led by this female star who gave these discourses a voice and an image. Contrasting Layla Murad’s real life as a successful professional woman with her screen personas, I question how and why she so readily disseminated messages opposing women’s work outside the home and advocated for curtailing women’s sexuality. Her films were commercially successful and attracted audiences from all sectors of society. Like other successful performing artists, Layla Murad continually developed her skills and used her talents to achieve fame and wealth. She was aware that her success depended on her songs and movies reaching mass audiences and generating financial profits, and therefore, to achieve her goals, she had to selectively cooperate with individuals, groups, and institutions. She was neither manipulated nor wholly free; she actively engaged and cooperated with other agents to appear in the most successful pictures and earn as much money as she could.

The social history of a nation can be written through its film stars, as those stars, female stars in particular, reflect an image of the society to which the public adjusts its own image.10 Less than a handful of Arab divas have attracted scholars’ attention, while many others’ personal and professional trajectories remain as unearthed sources for studying Arab sociocultural politics. Scholarship on Arab female performers has focused on their exceptional and successful agency in establishing themselves as national cultural icons.11 Scholars have argued convincingly for the role of the Egyptian Umm Kulthum (ca. 1904–1975) and the Lebanese Fairuz (1934–) in nation-building and establishing themselves as national symbols in the twentieth century. The assumption that these divas were intentional in regard to their role overlooks how other social actors also contributed deliberately to the positionality of both women in Egyptian and Lebanese nationalism, respectively, and Arab culture. The role of women in national projects often burdened iconic stars with metaphoric roles in the nation-building process.12 While the patriarchal socioculture stripped women of their sexuality, Fairuz had to exaggerate her motherhood and work extra hard to prove her appropriateness as a symbol for the nation.13 Umm Kulthum, arguably the most important entertainer in the twentieth-century Arab world, helped to constitute Egyptian cultural and social life in such a way as to advance an ideology of Egyptianness and developed a personal idiom that is considered Muslim and authentically Egyptian and Arab.14 But we must not overlook the narratives that groomed Arab divas to become national icons and used these talented women in formulating a nationalist metanarrative that is consistent and harmonious with itself. In other words, images and reality have blurred into each other and perhaps even defined each other.15

Throughout the twentieth century and until today—decades after her death—Layla Murad has remained a household name in Egyptian and Arab popular culture. Her personal and professional trajectories and how Egyptians have positioned her in their popular culture offer insights into the gendered religio-ethnic politics of the entertainment industry and the role of movie stars as both agents and tools in constructing class, gender, and sexual regimes. The construction and representation of Layla Murad’s persona by the state and by middlebrow intellectuals from the political spectrum have shaped the memory of her life to serve their own needs. They have told their story, not hers, through the discursive processes of navigating ever-changing relationships between religion and Egyptian nationalism. While telling the story of Layla Murad’s rise to the highest point of stardom, then her untimely and sudden disappearance from the cinema screen, Egyptians narrated their competing versions of the history of the modern Egyptian state and society and their attempts to understand the meaning of being Egyptian. I examine the narratives of the life and persona of Layla Murad in both the state-controlled and privately owned media as well as in extensive sharing on social media as public discourses on sexuality, ethnicity, and the place of Jews in modern Egyptian history and culture. As she and others have told it, her story explains the crucial role popular culture, commercial cinema, and celebrity publications played in constructing an exclusive Arab-Islamic Egyptian identity. Layla Murad’s story illustrates how the Islamization of Egyptian society in the late twentieth century has roots in the secular media, particularly in celebrity and fan publications. As the media has secularized rituals of religious holidays, it has religionized movie stars. The story of the many lives of Layla Murad provides an opportunity to examine how popular culture was constantly informed and re-formed by Egyptians’ interpretation of Egyptianness and inclusion in or exclusion from its boundaries. These interpretations demonstrate the manipulation of popular culture in the construction and expression of Egyptian identity in relation to Arabism, Islam, and proper womanhood.

This book shows how Layla Murad built a successful career and contributed to Arab and Egyptian popular culture, as well as how and why others made her into an object in discursive processes to construct contemporary Egyptian identity as inclusively Arab-Muslim. A national identity hinges upon a fluid and constantly changing relationship between self and others.16 Layla Murad was a famous star and a Jew who converted to Islam in the gloom of the first Arab-Israeli war. Her impressive career blossomed under the monarchy and gave a singing voice to the new Free Officers during their rise to power after July 1952; it ended shortly after Nasser consolidated power in his hands, on the eve of the Suez War in 1956.

Gossip Publications and History

Layla Murad’s rise to superstar in the interwar period is the story of the rise of sound film, national radio broadcast, and the popular press, all of which have played key roles in the making of modern mass-mediated popular and public cultures and made artists such as Layla Murad iconic figures. The interwar period witnessed an increase in the performing arts, thus increasing the need to cover celebrities and entertainment in the expanding mass media. Periodicals, particularly those not funded by political parties, had to rely on circulation and advertisements. Pictures of celebrity women wearing revealing clothing, with inviting gazes, and sensational stories about famous entertainers attracted mass readership. Celebrity coverage offered escapist entertainment, as did movies, and provided mass readers access to the world’s stars, to whom most of them otherwise had none. Fan magazines and celebrity-gossip columns and entertainment sections in general periodicals not only guided readers to shows but also informed them about fashions and good taste and provided them with photos to be clipped and hung on the wall. Far from being objective, the playful tone of the gossip columns invited readers’ judgmental engagement. Functionally, there were no clear-cut divisions among Egyptian periodicals. Rather than targeting a certain audience, for example, female-only readers, physical beauty and celebrity fashions captured the imaginations of all genders. Miscellaneous periodicals as Ruz al-Yusuf (launched in 1926) and Akhbar al-Yum (launched in 1944) included entertainment sections and gossip columns in addition to political content. Al-Ahram, the oldest daily periodical in Egypt, began publishing entertainment sections and crime news in the 1920s. Celebrity news, interviews with stars, and sensational crimes made cover stories for magazines such as al-Musawar and headlines for newspapers such as Akhbar al-Yum. For my purposes, celebrity and gossip publications include gossip columns and entertainment sections that appeared in almost all general periodicals, sections that were like mini–fan magazines and whose readership overlapped with but was not the same as readers of fan magazines such as al-Kawakib (Stars; first issue in March 1932) and Ahl al-Fann (Artists; first issue in April 1954).

Once showing no interest in studying mass-mediated popular culture and dismissing it as commercial, scholars have since examined both the cinematic depiction of the army and state-society relations and mass-mediated discourses on nationalism and gender.17 Celebrity-gossip publications are a valuable source of sociocultural history, particularly for studying gender and sexuality18 and historians have recently begun to use fan and celebrity publications to write the history of Egyptian cinema.19 A leading anthropologist has argued for television as a key institution of national culture production in Egypt, which is also true for the importance of the popular press and celebrity publications.20 Throughout the twentieth century, an obsession with celebrities grew, and the rise of the gossip periodicals confirmed and fueled popular culture’s celebrity mania. Celebrity-gossip magazines have sold millions of copies, expanding popular culture as a site for cultural struggles. The popularity of these publications is not due to inauthentic messages imposed top-down by dominant groups upon mass audiences; the public plays an active role in receiving mass-mediated messages, ranging from refusal to selective acceptance of popular and mass culture.21 Despite their reputation as trivial, fan and celebrity-gossip publications provide a site of engagement for their readers, who use these texts to generate conversation, manage relationships, and consider their ideas and values.22

Since their inception, Arabic pictorial periodicals have focused on celebrity news and reported on cinema and shows, turning artists into stars and icons in the mass national culture. These publications enjoyed wide readership and attracted audiences among both the educated and the semiliterate. Indeed, thanks to large photos and illustrations on most pages, even illiterate audiences could enjoy these publications; they consumed the pictures, heard others reading the texts, and imagined the captions and stories published with photos. Audiences for these publications did not necessarily need to buy them but often found them available in clubs, barbershops, dentist’s offices, and lawyer’s waiting rooms. Their sensational content would be easy to exchange during casual communications and useful for filling an awkward social moment or starting conversations with strangers while on trains or at parties.

In order to concentrate on middlebrow culture in the historical narrative, this study makes use of a wide range of celebrity and gossip publications in Egypt and Lebanon that no scholar has heretofore used for historical research. Cultural periodicals such as al-Hilal, al-Muqtataf, and al-Risala are readily available in the National Library in Cairo (Dar al-Kutub) and many university libraries in the United States and Europe. By contrast, neither Dar al-Kutub nor any US or European library can pride itself on having a sizable collection of the leading Arabic celebrity-gossip publications such as the Egyptian al-Kawakib or the Lebanese al-Maw‘id and al-Shabaka. Nevertheless, these periodicals have been on the newsstand in Arab cities since the mid-twentieth century. The lack of substantial collections of these publications in national archives and libraries in Egypt and academic libraries in the United States and Europe bespeaks the systematic dismissal of these materials. Disregarding them is striking, given that dozens of magazines, most of them featuring bosomy women and celebrity gossip, enjoyed sizable markets in the 1930s and 1940s. Magazines such as al-‘Arusa, al-Ithnayn, al-Sabah, and al-Studio continued on the newsstand for decades until the mid-1950s. Although researchers could not find this wealth of printed material in formal archives and libraries, individuals with financial means could purchase surviving copies from dealers in old books in Cairo and online. When I found these publications in secondhand bookstores or private collections, I often discovered several issues bound together with the original owner’s name engraved on the hard cover. Obviously, some readers invested in these publications’ longevity, seeing them as valuable and collectible, and proudly shelved them to decorate their homes and offices--evidence that not everyone viewed these publications as disposable entertainment for long train trips and so forth. Possibly even more than cultural periodicals they could be crucial in studying public culture and the making of sociocultural norms.

Excavating celebrity-gossip publications in Egypt and Lebanon, I discovered the first biography of Layla Murad, published in Beirut in 1956. In 1957 she published her first and only autobiography, serialized in the Egyptian magazine al-Kawakib. Both accounts appeared after false rumors of her connection with Israel (1952), her final divorce from her first husband, Anwar Wagdi (1953), Anwar Wagdi’s death (1955), her relationship with one of the Free Officers (begun in late 1952), and her marriage to filmmaker Fatin ‘Abd al-Wahab (1954). Since Anwar Wagdi had passed away, she and her first biographer, Egyptian movie critic al-Sayyid Shusha, conveniently presented her perspective, as she needed to rehabilitate her public image. She spoke about herself as a wife, mother, producer, and respected and beloved star. Neither account alluded to her relationship with Wagih Abaza, the Free Officer, or their having a child together in the summer of 1954. She sounded angry at Wagdi and desperate to cover up her relationship with Abaza. The mother of two children with different fathers, she was now into the third year of her marriage to Fatin ‘Abd al-Wahab. In sum, she was bitter and struggling to survive political changes, together with rapid changes in the cinema industry and entertainment market.

From January 15 until February 26, 1957, the magazine al-Kawakib published seven weekly episodes of Layla Murad’s autobiography, titled “Mudhakkarat Layla Murad” (Layla Murad’s autobiography). From the memoir’s journalistic style and her lack of self-reflection or deep thought, we might guess that Layla dictated the memoir to the magazine’s editor rather than penning it herself. The few issues of the magazine held in the Egyptian National Library had undergone surgical procedures by which the episodes had been removed from the volume. While Layla Murad’s picture appeared on the cover of the magazine’s January 15, 1957, issue, with a headline announcing the publication of the first episode of the autobiography, all the pages of that episode had been removed; pages of the autobiography were also missing from the following six weekly issues preserved in one volume in the National Library.23 The pervasive corruption and chaos of the state archives and libraries in Egypt make the questions of who damaged the targeted pages, as well as when and why, impossible to answer. I can assure readers that the pages were excised intentionally rather than randomly or out of misuse or lack of preservation. Scissors or something sharp and not hand-tearing removed those missing pages from the volume. Moreover, the archive of Dar al-Hilal, the publisher of al-Kawakib, is missing the entire year’s issues altogether.

No author of a biography of Layla Murad or investigative report on her mentions her autobiographical memoir, which indicates a lack of awareness of that memoir’s existence. None of those authors tried to use these issues of the periodical at the National Library or Dar al-Hilal. Ashraf Gharib, the author who went through the painstaking process of documenting press reporting on Layla during the early years of the 1950s, does not refer to her memoir. As a journalist working at the archive of Dar al-Hilal, the publisher of al-Kawakib, Gharib draws on the magazine’s archives, to which he enjoyed full access and control, his failure to mention Layla’s autobiographical series confirms that Dar al-Hilal’s archive is missing the volumes altogether. When I visited Dar al-Hilal’s archive, I could not locate these issues and had no reason to trust the archivists’ transparency. I managed to acquire all the episodes by browsing secondhand bookstores in Cairo, the personal libraries of academic and nonacademic friends, and the shelves of a Moroccan collector who owns a large number of Arabic celebrity periodicals. The impoverished state archives and libraries versus the richness of private collections of individuals with and without academic interests sums up the predicament of historical researchers, particularly when they explore popular culture’s past.

Because everything is autobiographical, I group the writings, interviews, and statements made by Layla Murad since she achieved stardom in the mid-1930s as autobiographical.24 Beginning in the mid-1950s, she often gave her own perspective on her life, career, and domestic and regional politics, together with the entertainment industry. Whether Layla composed her memoir and statements herself or verbally communicated them to journalists who put them into writing, these accounts reveal what she intended or agreed to share with the public. While questioning the accuracy of her memory and intentions is fair, her memoir, autobiographical statements, and radio interview--truthful or not--express what Layla wished the public to know about herself and communicate her worldview.

Biographies of Layla Murad, written by generations of authors, are important for understanding Egyptians’ self-image, and like biographies in other cultures, help construct collective symbols and cultural tropes and definitions of what it means to be Egyptian. Layla’s autobiography and biographies fit into a textual tradition that creates and examines self-identity within family, society, gender, and nation. I have used published biographical writings on Layla Murad to show how Egyptians have more recently constructed their past self-image, one that is ultimately pluralistic and positive, and used this construction to lament the perceived “present declining.”25


1. For a comprehensive account of the Free Officers’ regime, see Joel Gordon, Nasser’s Blessed Movement: Egypt’s Free Officers and the July Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

2. Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005), 75.

3. Barbara Merrill and Linden West, Using Biographical Methods in Social Research (London: SAGE, 2009), 1.

4. David Nasaw, “AHR Roundtable Historians and Biography: Introduction,” American Historical Review 114, no. 3 (June 2009): 573–578, here 573; Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 2.

5. Barbara Caine, Biography and History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 7.

6. Miriam Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/Modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–77, here 63.

7. Viola Shafik, Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class, and Nation (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007).

8. Hansen, “Mass Production of the Senses,” 62.

9. Walter Armbrust, “The Golden Age before the Golden Age: Commercial Egyptian Cinema before the 1960s,” in Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond, ed. Walter Armbrust (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 292–328.

10. Jennifer Coates, Making Icons: Repetition and the Female Image in Japanese Cinema, 1945–1964 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016), 33.

11. Virginia Danielson, The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Ifdal Elsaket, “The Star of the East: Umm Kulthum and Egyptian Cinema,” in Stars in World Cinema: Screen Icons and Star Systems across Cultures, ed. Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015), 36–50; Sherifa Zuhur, Asmahan’s Secrets: Woman, War, and Song (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000); Christopher Stone, Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: The Fairouz and Rahbani Nation (New York: Routledge, 2008); Mona Ahmad Ghandur, Sultanat al-Shasha: Ra’idat al-cinema al-Misriyya (Beirut: Dar Riyad al-Rayes lil-kutub wal-nashr, 2005).

12. Stone, Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon, 12.

13. Stone, 12.

14. Danielson, Voice of Egypt, 1–2.

15. Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3, 21.

16. Yingjin Zhang, “From ‘Minority Film’ to ‘Minority Discourse’: Questions of Nationhood and Ethnicity in Chinese Cinema,” Cinema Journal 36, no. 3 (Spring 1997): 73–90, here 3–4.

17. Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism; Joel Gordon, Revolutionary Melodrama: Popular Film and Civic Identity in Nasser’s Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Lila Abu-Lughod, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (University of Chicago Press, 2005); Shafik, Popular Egyptian Cinema; Dalia Said Mostafa, The Egyptian Military in Popular Culture: Context and Critique (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Keren Zdafee, Cartooning for a Modern Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

18. Roberta L. Dougherty, Badi‘a Masabni, Artiste and Modernist: The Egyptian Print Media’s Carnival of National Identity,” in Armbrust, Mass Mediations, 243–267; Shaun T. Lopez, “The Dangers of Dancing: The Media and Morality in 1930s Egypt,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 24, no. 1 (November 2004): 97–105.

19. Magdy Mounir El-Shammaa, “Shadows of Contemporary Lives: Modernity, Culture, and National Identity in Egyptian Filmmaking” (PhD diss., UCLA, 2007); Heba Saad Arafa Abdelfattah, “Dreams of Alternative Modernities on the Nile” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2016).

20. Abu-Lughod, Dramas of Nationhood, 7.

21. Stuart Hall, “Coding and Encoding in the Television Discourse,” in Stuart Hall et al., eds., Culture, Media, Language (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 128–138, here 135.

22. Andrea McDonnell, Reading Celebrity Gossip Magazines (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014), 5–10.

23. Pages of Layla Murad’s memoirs are also missing from issues 288, 289, and 290. In sum, out of seven episodes, four episodes are entirely missing, and the second and fifth episodes are partly missing.

24. Yair Mazor, Somber Lust: The Art of Amos Oz (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002), 163.

25. Tamar S. Hess, Self as Nation: Contemporary Hebrew Autobiography (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016), 213.