Hanan Hammad explores the life and influence of Egyptian singer and actress Layla Murad.
NO STORY INTRIGUED FORMER JOURNALIST HANAN HAMMAD MORE THAN THAT OF LAYLA MURAD, whose films packed movie houses across the Middle East from the late 1930s to mid-1950s. The top-grossing Egyptian actress and singer was a fixture in Hammad’s family home in Egypt; Murad’s movies aired on TV, and her songs played on the radio.
Hammad, now professor of history and director of the Middle East studies program at TCU, tells Murad’s story in 2022’s Unknown Past: Layla Murad, the Jewish-Muslim Star of Egypt.
“I use Layla Murad’s life and legacy to provide a historical narrative about modern Egypt throughout the 20th century and until present day with emphasis on gender, sexuality, interfaith relations and popular culture,” Hammad said.
Murad’s onscreen pairings with leading man Anwar Wagdi led to real-life romance; they wed in 1945, despite religious differences.
“Interfaith marriage was rare,” Hammad said. “The Egyptian marriage contract was different than if both spouses were Muslim. According to that document, the non-Muslim wife submits to her status as inferior to her Muslim husband.”
Murad converted to Islam in 1947.
The Egyptian celebrity press kept a constant spotlight on the couple, who divorced and remarried each other three times before splitting for good in 1953. Those very newspapers proved invaluable reference materials for Hammad, but they were difficult to find.
When the Free Officers, a group of military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in a July 1952 coup, Murad’s fortunes became entwined with Nasser’s new regime. In August 1952, unfounded rumors circulated that she had visited and donated to Israel. Her religious identity and national loyalty were questioned.
Nasser’s regime conducted an investigation that cleared her name. Murad “lent her voice to support the Free Officers regime through patriotic songs and by supporting army-led initiatives in public life,” Hammad writes.
“Hanan shows that while Layla’s personal status was not a barrier to amassing enormous popularity, it could, in the course of the reformation of public culture in the post-monarchical era, become a political football,” said Joel Beinin, a professor emeritus of history and Middle East history at Stanford University.
As the rumors flew, Murad began an affair with a high-ranking Free Officer, Wagih Abaza, whose wife was from a powerful family. When Murad became pregnant, Abaza disavowed her before their son was born in 1954 to avoid jeopardizing his social standing.
Murad was in a precarious position as a single mother. She rushed into a marriage with filmmaker Fatin Abdel Wahab and became pregnant again, but she did not appear in public with her older son until the late 1950s.
Hammad explored the question of gender in modern Egypt in her 2016 book, Industrial Sexuality: Gender, Urbanization and Social Transformation in Egypt. The book won five national book awards, including the prestigious Sara A. Whaley Book Prize from the National Women’s Studies Association and the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies Book Award. In Unknown Past, she peers through a similar lens at Murad’s suddenly insecure standing.
“Hammad situates Murad’s experiences within the legal environment and lived experiences of single mothers in mid-20th century Egypt,” said Deborah Starr, professor of modern Arabic and Hebrew literature and film in the department of Near Eastern studies at Cornell University.
In 1956, Nasser’s regime tightened its grip. It nationalized the Suez Canal and detained and deported Jews. The administration also brought Egyptian cinema under state control — under the oversight of Abaza. While her singing career continued to flourish, Murad never appeared in another film.
“As a historian, I see how Egyptians think about Layla Murad as a window to discuss Egyptian nationalism and identity,” Hammad said. “When they’re talking about her, they’re talking about themselves, and what they choose to highlight about her reflects their own beliefs.”
BY KRISTIN BAIRD RATTINI