Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 4 March 2009
Issue No. 936
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lawsuits, love and heartbreak

Mohamed Baraka reads the possible scenarios for the upcoming drama on the life of singer Laila Murad

Click to view caption
Laila Murad and renowned actor Youssef Wahbi in A Rainy Night

The darling of the black and white screen is now a bone of contention. Laila Murad, the diva with the memorable love songs, was due to have her life turned into a television series when legal shenanigans broke out.

It happens often these days. The family of a departed artist take their case to court to stop a biographical fiction in its tracks, in this case the script of a television drama by Magdi Saber. The stakes are high on both sides, since television dramas with a biographical content have proved quite popular of late -- the lives of Qassem Amin, Um Kalthoum, King Farouk, Asmahan and Gamal Abdel-Nasser being just a few examples.

A lawyer acting for Laila Murad's son, Zaki Abdel-Wahab, ran an announcement in Al-Ahram threatening to sue any person who published or produced anything about the singer. The announcement was meant to discourage Saber, who has finished writing 15 episodes of a television drama about Murad's life. The drama was to be produced by Ismail Ketket, who last year took part in the production of the immensely popular drama on the life of the singer Asmahan.

Coincidentally, Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hassan El-Banna -- son of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood party (MB) -- threatened in that same week to sue writer Wahid Hamed unless the latter obtained his approval of a script on the MB, due to be directed by Adel Adib in a production by Good News.

The objections of family members have prevented broadcast or publications of biographies in the past, as happened with the Zakaria Ahmed series. Some characters, including Asmahan, were left out of the series on Um Kalthoum's life. In some cases the venue of the shooting had to be shifted, as in the case of Asmahan. To avoid aggravation, some production companies have even paid off families to keep them quiet.

Critic and historian Salah Eissa is worried about family interference in the dramatisation of public figures. The life of an artist, he believes, is public, not a family, property.

"The lawsuits aim to impose on the dramatists the family's point of view, which is likely to be a romantic and unrealistic one, since in this country we all idolise our parents," Eissa says. Portraying someone as flawless results in a poor drama. "We risk seeing a one-dimensional character on the screen, a person with no inner feelings or flaws," he says. The story of Murad lends itself to a drama complete with love and hate, revenge and scandal, and secrets too. For example, when Murad and the actor Anwar Wagdi divorced, he claimed that she had donated money for the creation of Israel.

Murad's love life was more exciting than many would expect, critic Ahmed El-Samahi says. In 1953, after her divorce from Wagdi, she decided to retire from acting. This was big news, and Murad's flat in the Immobilia Building on Sherif Street was under siege by reporters while the phone had to be taken off the hook. Murad refused to talk to reporters and claimed that she was leaving for Europe. She did not go to Europe, however. Instead, she went straight to the flat of Wagih Abaza, one of the Free Officers. He was also her lover and secret husband. The two had met when she was touring the country to collect donations for a charity cause sponsored by the Armed Forces. Abaza, who came from a wealthy family, found Murad's combination of tenderness and generosity irresistible. She fell for the uniform, or was it the aristocratic background of the young officer?

Abaza stood by Murad at a time when her ex-husband was trying to ruin her reputation. The rumours Wagdi was spreading had succeeded in stopping her songs from being aired on Syrian radio. Abaza asked his friend, then military attaché and later historian Gamal Hammad, to get in touch with the Syrian authorities and ask for the ban on Murad's films and songs to be lifted. The diva was impressed and agreed to marry Abaza in private. But the love story was short-lived. Pregnant with his baby, Murad left Abaza and went back to acting. Her first role after the marriage ended was in Al- Hayah Hobb (Life is Love), a 1954 film co-starring Yehia Shahine.

This was not Murad's first heartbreak. In the early 1940s, she was busy acting in a succession of box office hits including Yahia Al-Hobb (Long Live Love), Laila Bent Madares (Laila at School), Laila Bent Al-Reef (Laila in the Countryside) and Laila Fil-Dhalam (Leila in the Dark). In July 1942 she went to Alexandria to get some rest, and ended up falling in love again.

Her new beloved was a diplomat, 20 years her senior, and from a well-heeled family. His name was Mamdouh Rostoum. The two met everyday throughout the summer, until she had to return to Cairo to shoot her new film, Laila.

Rostoum, who was from Cairo, showed up at the shoots and talked for hours with her on the telephone every day. Murad joined the club Rostoum belonged to, her plan being to make friends with his family until such time that the two were married. Rostoum turned down a post in San Francisco to stay with her. And after some opposition, he managed to obtain the blessing of his family for the marriage. The family had one condition: Murad must abandon her artistic career. She agreed.

Then Murad's mother, Gamila, passed away. On her deathbed Gamila asked Murad to take care of her four siblings: Mounir, Ibrahim, Malak and Samiha. "Laila, you take care of your brothers and sisters. They have no one else to support them," was her dying wish.

Three years had passed since Murad and Rostoum had met, enough for their love to blossom into a real relationship. They had overcome all the social barriers but one. Who would support her family? Murad had to choose. "I cannot stop singing and acting!" She announced. Rostoum was stunned. He was busy furnishing their conjugal flat at the time. And now Murad was pulling out.

The best three years of Murad's life were over. For the next 20 years, she would receive a bouquet of flowers on her birthday. One year the flowers did not come. Rostoum, who never married, was dead.

I believe, the audience all across the Arab world will enjoy this exciting drama. In one way or another, it reflects some bright aspects of Egypt's contemporary history.

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