For the first time on Arabic television, a dramatic production airing this Ramadan, the holy Muslim month, depicts the life of Egyptian Jews during the 1920s and 1930s, showing them in favorable light as ordinary citizens, no different from Egyptian Muslims and Christians.The "controversial" part seems to be the fact that Layla's father actually was friends with Muslims.
The series is as controversial as the life of its heroine, Egyptian diva Layla Murad - a Jewish singer and actress who rocketed to fame in the inter-war years before her life was marred with controversy after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Currently showing on 14 Arabic channels, Ana Albi Dalili (My Heart is my Guide), is among the most widely watched works among 60 productions made by Egyptian and Syrian artists in 2009. Apart from covering the life of Layla, the work goes to great lengths to promote tolerance and co-existence, shattering long-held stereotypes against Arab Jews, showing how integrated and proactive they were within Egyptian society.
Layla Murad, with a powerful legacy of 27 black and white classics in Egyptian cinema and 1,200 songs, was one of the most popular, talented and beautiful Arab artists of the 20th century. She compared in fame only to the Egyptian Um Kalthoum and the Syrian diva Asmahan - together, they were the three women who competed for supremacy on Arab charts in the 1930s.
Born to a Moroccan Jewish father named Ibrahim Zaki Murad in February 1918, Layla's mother was a Polish Jew named Gamila. ....
Matters took an unpleasant turn in 1948, when Israel was created, prompting many of her audience to become suspicious of her Jewish origins. Vicious rumors spread throughout Egypt and the Arab world - probably started by her competitors - saying that Murad had visited Tel Aviv and donated 50,000 Egyptian pounds to the newly created Israeli Defense Forces.
The Damascus bureau of the popular Egyptian daily al-Ahram originally reported that rumor. Murad categorically challenged the rumors, but with little luck. The damage had already been done. Syrian Radio, previously one of the most powerful promoters of her works, boycotted her songs and she was banned from entering Syria in the early 1950s.
Murad converted to Islam after marrying Egyptian director Anwar Wajdi, and often told reporters, "I am now an Egyptian Muslim!" President Gamal Abdul Nasser intervened on her behalf when Syria and Egypt merged into the United Arab Republic in 1958, lifting the ban on Syrian Radio. An official communique was released by Egyptian authorities clearing her name from all charges, including that which accused her of having visited Israel in 1948.
Rumors, however, rocked her life in the 10 years after 1948. Some said she died in a car accident in Paris. Others said she was married in secret to King Farouk I. Nothing, however, compared with the stories of her connections to Zionism, resulting in Murad's retirement from music and descent into complete obscurity until her death at the age of 77 in 1995.
The Zionist connection badly affected her health, both physically and psychologically, sending her into spells of severe depression. At one point, she was humiliatingly requested to show all her financial records to the authorities to prove that she had never made any illegal donations to Israel.
The one-time "Lady of Egyptian Cinema" - out of business and fame for more than 40 years - faced a severe financial crisis towards the end of her life before dying in complete bankruptcy.
The new series, which carries the name of one of her most memorable songs Ana Albi Dalili, has raised more than a stir in Arab media since it began airing in late August. One scene shows Layla's father Zaki Murad (played by the Egyptian star Izzat Abu al-Ouf) at a cafe with friends who clearly, from their names, are all Muslims.
Collectively they decide, both Muslims and Jew, to take part in an anti-British demonstration, in 1919. Majdi Saber, the scriptwriter, clearly tries to demonstrate that Egyptian Jews suffered no discrimination in the Arab world prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. Another scene shows a Jew raising funds for Jewish immigrants fleeing from Europe during World War II and lobbying with Egyptian Jews to emigrate to Palestine to increase its Jewish population.
Layla's father Zaki naturally refuses, patriotically holding on to his Arab origins. The Jew then tries convincing him to "purchase" a different nationality, in case tension arises between Egyptian Jews and Muslims. Once again, Zaki refuses. Zaki's home in the film is free from any Jewish symbols or Hebrew script.
Layla's 1945 conversion to Islam is set to appear in the 17th episode of the series. The series shows that she converted out of conviction, after marrying Anwar Wejdi, and not out of political intimidation due to rising tension between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. We are yet to see how her life is portrayed once it is scarred by rumors after 1948.
Works like these are important in the Arab world because they shed light on the life of leading figures who, for political reasons, were grossly maltreated during the second half of the 20th century and have been forgotten by a young generation of Arab audiences. Those young people are, however, avid TV watchers during the annual feast of special programs every Ramadan.
While this appears to be a step in the right direction, notice how Arab TV takes pains to eliminate any vestiges of Judaism from this "good" example of a Jew (who of course converted, they say, for love of Islam.) Layla's father was in fact a chazzan/cantor, and the idea that there were no Jewish symbols in his house is laughable.
Apparently, to Arabs watching this groundbreaking series today, the only good Jew is a Jew stripped of all Judaism (not to mention attachment to Israel.)