Layla Murad, the Cinderella of the Arab Screen

Sami Asmar

Reprinted from the Arab Community Magazine

 When Layla Murad passed away in Cairo in November of 1995, she had already been retired from acting and singing for about forty years. Yet, an entire generation of loyal followers had not forgotten the seventy-seven year old star and her contribution to Arab cinema and music. That is because she left a legacy of 27 films and nearly 1200 songs that were produced from the mid 1930's to mid 1950's, part of the period that music historian Victor Sahab called the golden age of the Arabic song. This effort earned her the titles of "Lady of Arab Cinema" and the "Cinderella of the Arabic Screen," and placed her as the most popular singer of the time, second only to Umm Kulthum. The timing of her appearance on the music scene with the spread of radios in Egyptian households contributed to her quick rise to fame. In fact, she was so popular that producers frequently used her first name in the movie titles to attract crowds; names like "Layla Bint al-Fuqara" (Layla from a Poor Family), "Layla Bint el-Reef" (Layla the Country Girl), and several other films.

After her retirement, she disappeared from the public eye so that people would remember her only as she appeared in her films, beautiful and classy. She remained in total seclusion until her death, staying away even from a ceremony honoring her by the Cairo International Film Festival in 1992; her son received the award on her behalf.

Murad's first documented song was "Hayrana Laih" (Why Are You Undecided) composed by Daoud Hosni, in 1932. That was the year the first talking film appeared in Egypt, perhaps a sign that she was destined to play a pioneering role in films in a parallel to her father, who was a pioneer of the recording industry in the 1920's. Victor Sahab wrote that she was not truly discovered until Mohamad Abdul-Wahab heard her sing at her father's house and surprised everybody by asking her to be his co-star in his next film. Released in 1938, that film was Yahya Elhob (Long Live Love) which was her first paid acting job, earning her a whopping 250 pounds. That film featured many Abdul-Wahab classics like "Ya Wabor 'Ulli" (Where is the Ship Going) and "Ya Dunya Ya Gharami" (My World My Love). She sang "Yama Ara' in-Naseem" (Sweet Breeze) and the famous duet "Tal Intizari" (I Waited Long). Some of her most memorable songs were from films with Najeeb al-Rihani, mostly composed by Abdul-Wahab, like "Abgad Hawwaz" (The ABCs) and "'Eini Bitrif" (My Eye is Fluttering). Big on the enunciation of singers and actors, Abdul-Wahab called Layla Murad "the woman with the sweetest Ha sound in the world," for the way she sang words with the Arabic Ha letter!

In addition to Abdul-Wahab, she worked with Mohamad Fouzi who was another composer and romantic leading man in her films. She also attracted the great composers of the time to work with her, Mohammad al-Qasabgi, Riyad al-Sunbati, Zakariya Ahmad, to name a few; the same composers who wrote for Umm Kulthum placing the two in direct competition.

Despite Layla Murad's success and popularity, the Cairo-born artist did not lack her share of controversy. Her father, a known singer, was a Moroccan Jew, and her mother a polish Jew, a fact that put her at the center of rumors for a long time despite the fact she converted to Islam in 1946. It was rumored that her family asked her to visit Israel and that she had secretly done so and even donated money there, placing her as a suspect by the Egyptian authorities on the possibility of spying. The Syrian radio station boycotted her based on these allegations. More bizarre rumors about her ranged from a secretive marriage to King Farouk of Egypt, to her death in Paris in the fifties in a car accident, to a sex-change operation. Writers like Ibrahim al-Ariss believed that it was the man she divorced, Anwar Wagdi, who started these rumors to ruin her out of his bitterness. Wagdi co-starred in ten of her films and direct seven of them himself. They were married from 1945 to 1953 (she later re-married and divorced two others).

Layla Murad adamantly denied the rumors and finally obtained a document from the Egyptian armed forces exonerating her of these allegations. With her name cleared she proved her patriotism by refusing any association with the Jewish state and remained in the hearts and minds of fans as she wanted to be remembered, beautiful and classy.