Layla Murad (1918-1995) was once the highest-paid star in Egypt, and her movies were among the top-grossing in the box office. She starred in 28 films, nearly all now classics in Arab musical cinema. In 1955 she was forced to stop acting—and struggled for decades for a comeback. Today, even decades after her death, public interest in her life continues, and new generations of Egyptians still love her work. Unknown Past: Layla Murad, the Jewish-Muslim Star of Egypt (Stanford UP, 2022) recounts Murad's extraordinary life—and the rapid political and sociocultural changes she witnessed.
Hanan Hammad writes a story centered on Layla Murad's persona and legacy, and broadly framed around a gendered history of twentieth-century Egypt. Murad was a Jew who converted to Islam in the shadow of the first Arab-Israeli war. Her career blossomed under the Egyptian monarchy and later gave a singing voice to the Free Officers and the 1952 Revolution. The definitive end of her cinematic career came under Nasser on the eve of the 1956 Suez War.
Egyptians have long told their national story through interpretations of Murad's life, intertwining the individual and Egyptian state and society to better understand Egyptian identity. As Unknown Past recounts, there's no life better than Murad's to reflect the tumultuous changes experienced over the dramatic decades of the mid-twentieth century.
NB: The author would like to stress that Layla Murad died in 1995 and not in 1999 as mistakenly mentioned in the recording; similarly she was arrested in 1955 and not in 1953.
Roberto Mazza is visiting professor at Northwestern University. He is the host of the Jerusalem Unplugged Podcast and to discuss and propose a book for interview can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @robbyref