Monday, November 21, 2005

Death of a Great Director

I was nine years old in 1977 when my mother took me and my elder brother, Hassan, to watch a movie that everybody in town was talking about. "Al-Risala" or "The Message," the movie that tells the story of Islam. We went to the newly-opened Monte Carlo cinema in Beirut's Hamra street where we saw the three-hour movie and I loved it so much that I watched it several times afterward. That day I not only saw the movie but discovered during the intermission something that I have never seen in my life before. I went into the W.C. and after washing my hands couldn't find napkins to dry my hands. Instead I saw people drying their hands with a machine that blows hot air. It was the first time I used a hand dryer. A week later I heard that my aunt and cousin were going to watch Al-Risala so I imposed myself on them and watched it again. Years later I saw the English version of the movie that was starred by Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas.
The movie was the work of famous Syrian international director Mustafa Akkad whose death earlier this month along with his daughter, Rima, in the Jordanian capital of Amman was a shock for many people, not only in the Arab world but in the West as well.
Mustafa Akkad happened to be at Amman's Grand Hyatt when a suicide attacker wearing an explosive belt detonated himself in the lobby on Wednesday Nov. 9, 2005.
Al-Risala was his first international work and later he did "Halloween" and "Lion of the Desert," that tells the story of Arab rebel leader Omar al-Mukhtar who fought Italian occupation of Libya in the 1930s.
Akkad was born in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in 1935 and studied there until he finished secondary school. He left Syria to the United States in 1954 to study filmmaking and graduated from UCLA four years later. Speaking about leaving Syria, Akkad said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times four years ago: "When I was 18, I came to the airport to leave. My father said goodbye and put $200 in one pocket and a copy of the Koran in the second pocket. 'That's all I can give you."
On Friday Nov. 11, Akkad passed away in a Jordanian hospital two days after being seriously wounded.
In 1988 I saw a comedy called Free Ride and it made me laugh so much. I found out years later that it was produced by Akkad.
Akkad passed away before being able to produce a film that tells the story of Saladin from an Arab point of view.
The great director will always be remembered as the man who told the West the story of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.


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