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Decade Later, Layla Murad Still Unforgettable Artist
By Sami Asmar
Layla Murad, one of the most powerful and significant Arab singers to emerge from the golden era of the 20th century, passed away 10 years ago in Cairo. At the time of her death in November of 1995, she had been retired from both singing and acting for close to 40 years; however, an entire generation of loyal followers remembers the 77-year-old star and her contribution to Arab music and cinema through her powerful legacy of 27 films and nearly 1200 songs produced from the mid 1930s to mid 1950s.
Born in Cairo in 1918 to a Moroccan Jewish family, Layla Murad converted to Islam in 1946. Her father, Zaki Murad, was a respected singer at the time and encouraged both her and her brother to pursue the arts. Her brother Munir developed a reputation as a well-renowned composer by the 1940s.
Her prolific and successful films, predominantly romantic musicals, earned Layla Murad the titles "Lady of Arab Cinema" and "Cinderella of the Arab Screen." She ranked as one of the most popular singers of the time, second only to Umm Kulthoum. Her appearance on the music scene coincided with the spread of radios in Egyptian households, which contributed to her quick rise to fame. In fact, Murad was so popular, film producers frequently used her real name as that of her character's name and cleverly included it in the titles, such as "Layla Bint al-Fuqara" (Layla, daughter of a Poor Family), and "Layla Bint el-Reef"(Layla, the Country Girl), in order to draw greater audiences.
Upon her retirement, Murad removed herself from the public eye, determined that her fans would remember her only as she appeared on film: lovely to behold and ever-sophisticated. She remained in seclusion until her death, even shunning a ceremony sponsored by the Cairo International Film Festival in 1992 that honored her achievements; her son accepted the award on her behalf.
Murad's first recorded song, "Hayrana Laih" (Why Are You Undecided? Or Why Can't You Decide?), was composed by Daoud Hosni in 1932, the same year the first talking film appeared in Egypt. Perhaps she was destined to be a pioneer in film in the 1930s as her father had been destined to be a pioneer in the recording industry in the 1920s.
According to music historian Victor Sahab, Murad was first discovered by Mohammad Abd al-Wahhab, who surprised all those present by inviting Murad to co-star in his next film after hearing her sing at her father's house. Released in 1938, the film "Yahya Elhob" (Long Live Love) was her first paid acting job and earned her 250 pounds. That film featured many of Wahhab's classics including "Ya Wabor 'Ulli" (Where is the Ship Heading?) and "Ya Dunya Ya Gharami" (My World, My Love). It was also in this movie that Murad sang"Yama Ara' in-Naseem" (Sweet Breeze) and the famous duet with Abd al-Wahhab "Tal Intizari" (I Waited So Long).
Some of her most memorable songs were introduced through her films with Najeeb al-Rihani. Most of these songs, including " Abgad Hawwaz " (The ABCs) and " 'Eini Bitrif " (My Eyes are Fluttering), were composed by Abd al-Wahhab. Known for his insistence on perfect enunciation from singers and actors, Abd al-Wahhab called Layla Murad "the woman with the sweetest Ha sound in the world," referring to her flawless enunciation of the Arabic Ha letter!
Additionally, Murad worked with Mohammad Fawzi, another composer who, like Abd al-Wahhab, often played the opposing male lead in Murad's romantic films, and also collaborated with composers Mohammad al-Qasabgi, Riyad al-Sunbati, Zakariyya Ahmad. These, the most illustrious names in the industry, also composed for Umm Kulthoum, placing the two divas in direct competition.
Sahar Taha wrote in the Beirut daily Al Mustaqbal that the famous Egyptian singer Abd al-Halim Hafez's popular song "Tukhunouh" (You Betrayed Him) had first been offered by its composer Baligh Hamdi to Layla Murad. She had already been rehearsing it and had even made preparations to record the song when Hafez heard of it. Feeling it would be a perfect match for his role in his upcoming film "Al-Wisada al Khaliya" (The Empty Pillow), Hafez requested the rights to perform the song. Hamdi informed Murad of Halim's request, and she generously offered the piece to him in an act that exemplified her generosity and professionalism. It is also reported that the song "Leh Khaletni Ahbiak" (Why Did You Make Me Love You?) composed by Kamal al-Tawil, which Murad sang in her final film, was later recorded on the Egyptian Radio by Najat al-Saghira and often was broadcast as Najat's song.
Despite her success, or possibly because of it, Layla Murad suffered malicious rumors. Stemming from her Jewish background, rumors surfaced that she had visited Israel and had secretly donated 50,000 Egyptian pounds to the state. First appearing in the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram in a 1952 report attributed to the newspaper's correspondent in Damascus, the rumor shook the Arab world. Although Al Ahram published a correction the following day, the damage had been done. The allegations led to harassment by the Egyptian authorities and to a boycott of her songs by the Syrian radio station. A series of other bizarre rumors followed, including one that alluded to a secret marriage to King Farouk of Egypt .
Writers like Ibrahim al-Ariss of Al Hayat and Sahar Taha of Al Mustaqbal believed that it was Anwar Wajdi, the man Murad was about to divorce (and the first husband of three failed marriages), who had started these rumors with the bitter intention of ruining his wife's profession. Wajdi, a handsome but, at that time, unknown actor, had pursued Layla Murad aggressively in order to further his career. He succeeded in marrying her, and their marriage lasted from 1945 until1953, during which time he co-starred in 10 of her films and directed seven. After the rumors spread, Wajdi, who was of Syrian descent, realized his error when he began to suffer personal financial loss from the boycott, which affected his films, as well. He, therefore, began to publicly support and defend his wife in order to win her back and to protect his own popularity.
After divorcing Wajdi, Murad married Wajih Abaza. Though she married him on the rebound, she grew to love dearly, and she bore him a son, Ashraf. Abaza asked her to stop working but she could not or would not give up her art, a decision that led to divorce. Murad then worked with and married director Fateen Abd al-Wahhab, who had also been divorced twice before. During this marriage, Murad gave birth to another child, Zaki, and experimented with producing films.
Throughout this period, Layla Murad adamantly denied the vicious rumors that continued to spread, but the fight for her reputation took its toll on her health, and her sadness could be heard in her voice. Later, the death of her younger brother, who was also her manager, compounded her sorrow. Eventually (reportedly due to President Naser's intervention), Murad was officially exonerated; she even showed account statements to prove she had never donated the alleged amount to the state of Israel. With her name finally cleared, Murad further proved her patriotism by refusing any association with the Jewish state and by releasing the popular patriotic song "Ala al-Ilah al-Qawiyy al-Iitimad" (We Rely on the Powerful God), written and composed by Midhat Asem. Layla Murad remains in the hearts and minds of fans just as she had hoped to be remembered: lovely to behold and ever-sophisticated.
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, nos. 50/51
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid