The Return of Cinderella

One of the most surprising TV series aired throughout the Arab world during Ramadan was a biographical soap opera about the great singer Laila Mourad. The daughter of a cantor, and a Jewish convert to Islam, she and her heritage are depicted with sympathy - although this was a Syrian production

It's said that in Cairo in the 1920s and 1930s, the stock exchange and some banks and government offices were closed for Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and the first day of Passover. On Saturdays, Muslim youths walked through the alleys of the Jewish quarter, offering their services by crying out "ali yathfi," which means something like "the putter-outer" - that is, the Shabbos goy, who would turn lights on and off in Jewish houses on the Sabbath. Jews used to wish their Muslim neighbors "Ramadan karim" or "Koollu sanaa wa enta tayeb" (roughly, "Happy Anniversary") on the appropriate day, used to sample the traditional katayef sweet, and took care not to eat outside during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

In those days in Egypt, not only Christians, but Muslims and Jews too used to celebrate, right after Easter and Passover, the Coptic festival of Sham el-Naseem - literally, "the smell of spring." Not everyone enjoyed such good neighborly relations, and not at all times. But living together forced the followers of these religions to acknowledge the existence of different faiths and customs, and perhaps only for politeness's sake - which is nice, in itself - would wish each other well on their respective holidays.

Nationalism, whether Zionist, Arab or otherwise, changed things. Independence also brought disconnection, separation, rending, alienation and especially withdrawal into a national "shell." Today in Israel, the media almost totally ignore the Muslims' holy fast month (whose final day coincided with Rosh Hashanah two weeks ago), and these days, even in Jaffa you hardly ever see the "Ramadan Karim" signs that the Tel Aviv municipality used to hang there. It is unnecessary to point out that in Egypt, there are no remaining, visible vestiges of any Jewish holiday.

Luckily, we have television and satellite channels that make it possible to take part in our neighbors' festivities. The month of Ramadan, despite its holiness - and to the displeasure of many Islamic clergymen - is party time for Arabic TV stations. Game shows and quizzes, talk shows, and interviews with stars and celebrities make it easier for the faithful to endure the fast. But the crowning glory of the holiday programming are the drama series produced especially for the holy month. They air in the evenings, close to fast-breaking time, when families sit down to eat facing the TV set. And if anyone misses anything, there are at least two reruns during the following 24-hour period.

Each evening, millions of Arabic speakers all over the world, including many Jews, watch one of the dozens of series airing on satellite TV channels. Jews can still take part in this mini-Ramadan celebration, private and domestic. These productions have giant budgets and the advertising rate is doubled, at least. Some ad agencies allocate more than half their annual budgets to this single month.

The leading programming producer is, of course, Egypt, but in recent years, Syrian series have gained huge popularity, and appear to be challenging Egypt's cultural domination. In 2002, for example, Syria produced 12 series, to Egypt's 17. The Syrian drama "Bab al-Hara" (Gateway to the Neighborhood) was a big hit across the Arab world when it was launched in 2006. Its fourth season aired this year. Nearly every Arab city and town in Israel has at least one cafe, restaurant or grocery store named for the series. Syria's entry into the soap opera market has led to many of the productions being collaborative efforts, made by filmmakers and actors from different Arab countries.

In general, the series broadcast during the holiday season deal with a variety of different subjects: Islamic history, traditional legends from the Arab peninsula, adaptations of Arabic literary works, family melodramas and tear-jerking love stories, and suspense and espionage (in which Israel serves as the ultimate evil, of course). Some series also tackle the day-to-day social problems facing Arab societies.

Another genre focuses on figures and periods of the modern history of the Arab world. These series generally have a somewhat nostalgic character, expressing a longing for days gone by, apparently never to return. Two years ago, there was a series about Egypt's King Farouk, which not only reflected a nostalgia for the monarchy, but also presented the monarch in a different light from that to which people have become accustomed: less corrupt, closer to the Egyptian people and their aspirations, and a victim of British colonialism.

A special place is set aside for the popular cultural heroes who symbolize the golden age of the great Arabic vocalists. One such series - about the "Star of the Orient," Umm Kulthum - was the big attraction about a decade ago. It was followed by shows about Abdel Halim Hafiz, and a year ago, about the brief but thrilling life of the Druze singer Asmahan, the sister of the great Farid al Atrash, who was killed when her car crashed into the Nile under suspicious circumstances in 1944.

The cantor's daughter

This year, it was the turn of Jewish Egyptian singer Laila Mourad, the daughter of a cantor and well-known composer, Zaki Mourad. Despite his religious profession, he saw fit to send his daughter, born in 1918, to school at a convent, where she demonstrated her vocal excellence in singing Christian hymns. Neither Laila nor her father expected or even dreamed she would become "the Cinderella of Egyptian cinema" or "the guitar of Arabic song," as she eventually became known in the press in her country.

The family's economic straits led Zaki Mourad to seek work all over the Arab world and ultimately to travel to America, leaving his wife and seven children behind. Laila Mourad took upon herself the role of family breadwinner, and began working as a seamstress from an early age.

Her father's return after an absence of seven years only made things worse. The commercial entertainment world had changed, and new singers and songwriters like Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kulthum and others had assumed eminent positions. Mourad's outdated style had no place in this new scene. At one of his gatherings with his musician friends - including Daoud Hosni, also a Jew, Mahmoud al Kasabji, Zakariya Ahmed and others - the guests heard Laila singing and persuaded her father to let her meet Abdel Wahab and to develop her musical talents.

At 14, Mourad made her debut on Egyptian radio and began to appear all over the country accompanied by her father. The liberal and pluralistic spirit that characterized Egypt in the 1920s and '30s made it possible for a woman to lead a relatively independent life - though not without a struggle on the part of several key female figures, mostly urban Muslims from the elite social class. One of the latter was Fatima Al-Yusuf, who began her career as a stage actress, but in 1925 switched to journalism and established the weekly Roz el Yusuf, which is still published today. The magazine covered the young Mourad's performances and described her as one of the most promising young musical discoveries of the day.

Another woman who contributed to Mourad's renown was the actress, director, producer and composer Bahiga Hafez, who asked her to record the soundtrack of her 1935 film "Al Dahaya" (The Victims). But the film that made Mourad famous more than any other was "Yahya al Hub" (Long Live Love; 1938), featuring Abdel Wahab, who chose her as his co-star. Before long, Mourad became an extremely popular Egyptian movie star and was being paid top salaries.

The Jewish Egyptian director Togo Mizrahi also contributed to Mourad's tranformation into a culture heroine in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. He made several films with her that even bore her name, including the 1941 "Laila Bint el Rif" (Laila the Country Girl) and "Laila Bint el Madaress" (Laila the Schoolgirl) in 1942.

On the set of one of these movies, Mourad met the man who was to become first her lover and later her nemesis: actor and director Anwar Wagdi. The two fell in love and married in 1945, at a wedding ceremony that was also part of the movie Wagdi himself directed, "Laila Bint al Fakura" (Laila the Daughter of the Poor). A year later, she converted to Islam, apparently wishing to please her husband, or perhaps out of concern for the future of any children they might have. Ultimately, however, their union was not blessed with offspring. The couple's relationship was knotty and painful, replete with fits of anger and jealousy on Wajid's part. For a number of years they were the romantic couple of the Egyptian entertainment world, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1951.

It was widely believed in Egypt that Anwar Wagdi sought to harm his ex-wife by starting a rumor that was published in a Syrian paper in 1952, to the effect that she had donated 50,000 Egyptian pounds to Israel and its army. Mourad's films and songs were subsequently boycotted in the Arab world. Only publication of the details of her bank accounts proved that no such transaction had been made and that she was innocent. Pictures of Mourad the devout Muslim, wearing a head-covering and holding a Koran, were once again published in the local press. Wagdi, who produced and directed many of Mourad's films, also ended up suffering from his attempts to harm her, and began helping to restore her good name, directing and acting in films she starred in.

However, although the audiences still loved her, when she was 37, in 1955, Laila Mourad gave up her film career. She continued to sing on the radio for a number of years, but then retired completely, giving only rare interviews, until her death in 1995. Altogether she appeared in 27 films and sang over 1,000 songs - many of which became classics. She remarried, to one of the officers of the July 1952 revolution, Waguih Abaza, and bore her first son. After another divorce, she married yet again, to the director Fatin Abdul Wahab, with whom she had another son, Zaki.

'Not a machine'

Zaki Fatin Abdul Wahab is well known in Egypt not only as the son of Laila Mourad, but also as an actor and director in his own right. When he heard that a series on his mother was to be made, he objected and even filed a lawsuit to bar it from being broadcast.

"The artist is not a machine," he said in an interview, "but a human being with feelings and emotions. If this series dealt with her professional-artistic life, I would have no objections, but nobody has the right to delve into her private family life. My mother withdrew for 40 years because she wanted to preserve her old image in the memory of the public ... That was her will."

But the series, "Ana Albi Dalili" (My Heart Is My Guide - named for one of her best-known movies and songs), was made, and was broadcast every night during Ramadan on a Jordanian channel and on one of Egypt's privately owned Dream channels, attracting a great deal of attention. Although the series was directed by the Syrian filmmaker Muhamad Zuhair Rajab, and the role of Laila is played by the Syrian actress Safa Sultan, the production is Egyptian, as are the actors who filled most of the other roles. Against the background of a multiplicity of espionage series, in which the Israeli Mossad has its own status as a cultural hero, there's no doubt that the way that Laila Mourad and her Jewish background are handled is interesting, and sometimes surprising.

Like most of the Ramadan series, "Ana Albi Dalili" also makes it clear that the need for more than 30, 40-minute installments leads to no small number of "dead" moments, when nothing seems to move ahead. Snail-slow progress, drawn-out interludes of instrumental music accompanying totally meaningless scenes, repetition of dialogues in various ways - all contribute to the sense that the director was simply compelled to fill up each episode by any means he could imagine. But then, this is true of all the Ramadan TV soap operas.

Another problem in this series is the casting of the lead roles: Sultan does not succeed in filling Mourad's shoes as the legendary Cinderella, and Anwar Wagdi is portrayed in grotesque caricature by Ahmed Flukhs. The mediocre performances of the main characters is even more conspicuous when compared with the outstanding acting of the Egyptian actor Izat Abu Oof as Zaki Mourad, or that of Hala Fahr in the role of Miriam, Laila's aunt.

But at least to Jewish viewers, the most interesting aspect is undoubtedly the way the Jewish angle is treated. Most surprisingly, there is no attempt to conceal Mourad's heritage. Although the word "Jewish" isn't mentioned often - instead, there is frequent use of phrases like "our community" or "our customs" in the early episodes - this does not spring from a desire to hide the fact she was a Jew, but rather reflects a certain ignorance of the way Jewish Egyptians lived at the time. For example, the word "Shalom" is used by all the Jewish characters whenever they meet, as a means of identifying them as Jews, although Egyptian Jews would never use this greeting with one another.

The aim of the series is crystal clear: to show that Egypt was a paradise for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it was only the Zionist activity always fermenting beneath the surface that led to the rifts and the violent dispute. This is a myth that many populist intellectuals try to foster both inside and outside Egypt. That being said, the very fact that a popular series broadcast during prime time portrays the Jews as part of the history of the Arab countries is both a new and a welcome development.

No synagogue, no Kiddush

Judaism in Laila Mourad's childhood home receives no figurative or concrete representation: There's no menorah or Star of David, no going to or coming back from synagogue, no Kiddush, no festivals. A wonderful recording of Zaki Mourad and his daughter singing Yom Kippur prayers apparently never reached the director's hands. Even the fact that Mourad was a cantor isn't mentioned at all; instead, the plot focuses on him as a fun-loving womanizer, which he apparently was. Overall, however, he is presented in a positive, human and moving light, more so than all the other characters. Indeed, it is he who over and over again, in the early episodes, sings the popular song "Qum Ya Masri," by the reviver of modern Egyptian music, Said Darwish. The song, which has become almost an anthem in Egypt, calls on Muslims, Christians and Jews to unite under the Egyptian flag, presenting them all as "the seed of the same fathers." "Love your neighbor," the song goes, "Before you love yourself." Even if history has proven that I have not loved my neighbor or even myself, this model - naive and utopian as it may be - is better than other models that society - and other Ramadan series - has to offer.

Zionist activity in Egypt receives a bit too much attention in the series, completely out of proportion to reality. Director Zuhair had apparently not read the intriguing and important book published earlier this year by Ruth Kimche, "Zionut batzel hapiramidot" ("Zionism in the Shadow of the Pyramids," published in Hebrew by Am Oved), which may be why he seems not to have grasped that Zionist activity in the 1920s and '30s made a minimal impression on Egyptian Jews, and certainly on the chief rabbi. Whatever impact it did have seems to have been limited to the very few who actually participated in the movement. Nonetheless, in "Ana Albi Dalili," supporters of Zionism are depicted as enemies of humankind, their appearances on screen accompanied by scary background music, and they use expressions like those of Joan Collins as Alexis in "Dynasty." At the same time, throughout the series, an important and surprising effort is made to present the Jews as being divided, as was in fact the case, between those who supported Zionism and those who wanted to remain loyal Egyptians. Laila Mourad, at least according to the series, was among the latter.

Despite the hasty judgment of Ehud Ya'ari, the Arab affairs analyst of Israel's Channel 2, in a broadcast on Ramadan TV programming - and apparently before he had actually seen the series - Laila Mourad is not presented in a negative light, and certainly not as someone posing as an Egyptian, and she certainly doesn't serve as a punching bag for one national ethos or another. In a slightly overstated manner - simplistic and almost one-dimensional - her character is presented not only as having been loyal to her motherland, Egypt, but as someone who from a young age was attracted to Islam, to the call of the muezzin through her bedroom window, and to the oil lamp that symbolizes the light of the month of Ramadan. In contrast, another Jewish actress of the period, Rakiyah Ibrahim, played by Amal Rizk, is portrayed negatively, because she was a Zionist and left Egypt for the United States, although her figure is more complex that Mourad's, and replete with contradictions.

Either way, with Zionism or without, with Jewish liturgy or without, accurate or inaccurate, "Ana Albi Dalili" is an interesting and significant series, if only because it reintroduces Jews to the Arab public. Syria was the only Arab country that continued to ban Mourad's films and songs even after she was cleared of suspicion. Gamal Abdel Nasser, according to Egyptian sources, made the removal of the ban a condition for his agreement to the unification of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic in 1958. The ban was lifted, the UAR fell apart, and today a Syrian director, in an Egyptian production, has created a riveting series on the life of a Jewish actress and singer, who became a Muslim. Somehow, it seems, art will always manage to achieve, with ease and without bloodshed, that which politicians will never be able to bring about.