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“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Boom. Bang. Crash: the universal, jarring soundtrack of terrorism. Since 9/11 and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, bombings in Bali, Madrid, Jakarta, and London, I have become accustomed to violence as daily headlines. A day surfing channels, listening to the radio or checking e-mail doesn’t seem complete without hearing of mind-numbing, senseless acts of murder committed in the name of_____(you fill in the blank).
When news broke about the horrific, simultaneous suicide bombings of three hotels in Amman, Jordan on November 9, 2005, I sighed in despair. Another 57 people killed, all with families. I angrily shouted at the TV: “What’s new?”
The next day, a suicide bomber killed at least 30 people in a Baghdad restaurant. Al Qaeda took responsibility, as they did for the Amman attacks.
But then I learned that one of the Amman hotel victims was 75 year-old Hollywood filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, a family acquaintance who visited our home in California, a fellow Syrian and Muslim-American from our same beloved hometown, Aleppo, a trailblazer for the Arab-American community. He died on November 11.
His 34 year-old daughter, Rima Akkad al-Monla, also perished in the bombing. A graduate of USC and the American University in Beirut, she had lived in Lebanon with her husband and two young boys. She came to Amman to attend a wedding with her father and his wife.
I was 11 years old when Mr. Akkad shook my hand. We exchanged a few words. But I owe him. He taught me that being an “Arab” and “Muslim,” two identities often subjected to crude stereotypes (bellydancers, sheiks, bombers, oppressed women, et. al), should not prevent me from pursuing the career of my choice. After all, he accomplished his goal: making films in Hollywood. Indeed, after leaving Syria for California in 1950 as a young man, he moved steadfastly toward that career. He earned a theater arts degree from UCLA and without changing his name to mask his identity, worked diligently to force open the restricted (to Arabs) Hollywood gates. This meant keeping them open for future generations of Arab and Muslim-American filmmakers.
Although best known in the US for producing all eight of the “Halloween” horror films, Paul Freeman, who co-produced four of them with Akkad, described him as “the David Lean of the Middle East.” Akkad’s cinematic range extended to directing and producing two lush epics that received international acclaim: “The Message” (1976) with Anthony Quinn, about the Prophet Mohammad, which he made to “bring the story of Islamto the West” and “Lion of the Desert” (1981), another film with Quinn, co-starring Oliver Reed and Rod Steiger.
“Lion of the Desert” treated Libyan nationalist leader Omar al-Mukhtar’s fight against the Italian occupation in the 1920s. As a testament to his passion and unflinching commitment to bringing Arab and Islamic history onto the big screen, before his death Akkad was said to be working on a film about the Muslim Kurdish leader Salahuddin.
As a child, I watched “The Message.” I had just begun to learn about Islam and to recite verses from the Qur’an. I remember being moved by a Hollywood picture, no less, about the story of Islam’s rise in Arabia. Yet, there was no actor to portray the Prophet Mohammad (in compliance with Islamic practice), no one to emit sadness, joy or fear to curious viewers. Rather, Akkad relied on unique camera angles, using the points of view of the film’s characters and a haunting musical score to dramatize the powerful effect that the Prophet was known to have had on others.
Mr. Akkad’s death paled in the commercial media before the predictable acts of terror, which will likely continue dominating newspaper headlines. But thanks to your generosity and lingering influence, Mr. Akkad, every day another Arab-American, better yet, a human being irrespective of one’s sex, ethnicity or religion, will choose the more fulfilling and liberating path of creation over destruction in the long run.
I have no choice but to fight for the day that our shared religion, commonly adjoined to the term “terrorism” by mainstream media reporters and pundits as though interchangeable in meaning, will no longer be hijacked by others as an excuse to perpetuate murder, but rather, as a calling to propagate peace and eradicate poverty, racism, and the other evils of our time. Who knows, I may even make an entertaining, intellectually stimulating Hollywood film about it?
But for now, I write and speak out, other forms of media, the way you chose filmmaking. Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani elevated poetry “so that light will win over darkness and the poem be a victory … so that the rose will understand me … to save this world” not only “from the rule of the militias,” but as you demonstrated, “from the gallows of the censors.”
Moustapha Akkad is survived by his wife, Suha Ascha Akkad, and their son Zaid; his former wife Patricia Akkad and their sons Tarik and Malik; his brothers and sister, Zuhair, Osama, Nabil and Leila Akkad; and his nephews and nieces, Baker, Faris, Amir, Dima, Dania, Rana, Lina & Yasmeen Akkad. Rima Akkad al-Monla is survived by her husband Ziad al-Monla, and their two sons, Tarek and Mustafa.
FARRAH HASSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org