It was the last day of the business I had to attend to in the US during the past two months before flying back home to Cairo.
I was in Rock Corner, Maine, where a retreat had been organised for post-doctorate students from Brandeis University’s Crown Centre for Middle East Studies who were preparing their theses for publication as books for the general public.
The activity is an excellent idea and I wish our universities in the Arab world would pick up on it. Defending doctorate theses should not mark the end, but rather, the beginning of a road, not just in academic research or a university teaching career, but also in the process of conveying the substance of a thesis study to a broader public.
The purpose of the retreat is to help graduates rewrite their theses so as to make them accessible to the lay public, as well as to advise them on how to convince publishers to publish their works and which are the most appropriate publishing houses to approach for this purpose.
At the retreat that day was a research historian who specialises in modern Egyptian studies and who had already obtained her doctorate and published her thesis, but now was preparing her second book. It is on singer Laila Murad, one of the most famous Egyptian celebrities from the 1940s to the 1960s.
It is quite legitimate in academia for researchers to home in on a particular phenomenon that they believe epitomises a more general subject which, in this case, was Egyptian history during that crucial period of transition from the monarchy to the republic, from the Mohamed Ali dynasty to the Free Officers era, and from the end of the British occupation to the post-colonial period but, also, to the beginning of the conflict with Israel.
Laila Murad was definitely a phenomenon. She was a widely admired singer whose melodious voice seemed to come from heaven.
Not only did she star in numerous films, she was one of those rare performers whose name was part of the film’s title, as in: Laila, Daughter of the Poor; Laila, Daughter of the Rich and Laila, Daughter of the Desert (I think that Ismail Yassine is the only other actor to have such an honour: “Ismail Yassine in the Military Police,… in the Air Force,… in the Madhouse,...in Damascus,” etc).
But Laila Murad was also of Jewish origin. Born into a family of singers and musicians, she was the daughter of the Jewish composer Zaki Murad.
Although she converted to Islam in 1946, she retained her close and diverse ties with her family.
The crucial point, here, is that the life and career of this celebrity intersected with many historical crossroads at the chronological bridge between the first and the second half of the 20th century.
She was from the well-to-do middle class that would subsequently fall on hard times. Because of her widespread popularity, her fans came from both the popular classes and the rich elites.
She was a princess of the monarchic era who, after the 1952 Revolution, fell in love with one of the Free Officers with whom she had a child and she thus became a revolutionary.
Because of her Jewish origins and ongoing ties with her family and other Jewish families she fell, probably through no choice of her own, into the complex web of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Laila Murad encapsulates an entire era during the time when her star blazoned in the firmament until the early 1960s when it began its descent and eventually flickered out by the end of the 1970s.
But the purpose of today’s article is not to review a forthcoming book about Laila Murad or even to discuss this uniquely talented individual and her legacy.
Rather the point is to underscore the role that the arts, in general, play in the modernisation and development of societies.
What inspired it is Saudi Arabian modernisation drive which is currently in progress at three levels: re-examining the ancient past and the imprints that different civilisations left on the country, reviving music, theatre and the other arts that both express and influence Saudi society, and pressing forward towards the future in the realms of architecture and communications. In this case, the real “artist” is a person at the centre of all these transformations.
In political science there is an entire subsidiary discipline called the “politics of celebrities”. It was born when the former actor Ronald Reagan became US president.
The studies conducted in this field reveal a considerable degree of conformity between the actor and the politician.
Both address a public the individual members of which are unknown to them but which is of extremely important value to them. Both have motives, be they the quest for fame or pursuit of the public interest, that lead them to share feelings with the greater public.
Both seek to make an impact and to use their influence to move the public in a particular direction in unison. Just as the noble spirited politician strives to elevate his society and state, so too does the noble spirited artist strive to elevate and refine the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of the public.
Both are a basic part of the process of the advancement of nations. No nation can advance unless its political and its artistic elites take the lead.
Both the political and the artistic elites are an integral part of the process of modernisation and reform. It is impossible for a society to ascend the civilisational ladder unless its political and artistic elites are endowed with the enlightenment, sophistication and power to draw the critical mass of the general public in the direction of modernity.
The great cities of the developed West, such as Paris, Rome, London, New York and Vienna, are effectively processes of political change in progress, huge laboratories for invention and creativity, vast theatres for music and the performing arts.
Conversely, the chronic failures of modernisation processes in the Arab world would not have occurred had these societies not failed to produce the types of political elites determined to steer them towards progress rather than corruption and the types of artistic elites that had their sights set on cultivating perfection rather than mediocrity.
It was disastrous when the two elites separated and politicians sneered at the arts as inevitably corrupt or reduced the arts to vehicles for political hype.
Laila Murad was not just a unique talent who succeeded in attracting a vast public across the dimensions of space (from Egypt to other Arab countries) and time (from one historical era to the next) thanks to modern recording devices, she also epitomised that latent tug-of-war in Arab societies between the quest for modernism and the inability to shed the shackles of underdevelopment, stagnation and the fear of the unknown that lurks in the horizons of progress.
Perhaps the time has come to resolve this dilemma so that if new figures like Laila Murad, Umm Kalthoum or Fairouz were to come we would be better equipped to listen to them. Of course, this is a complex process, but the first step in solving the complex is to understand its complexity.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Laila Murad