By Maged Hebtah
Translated by Abdelazim R. Abdelazim
Mustafa al-Akkad

“Ice over a hot bosom” is the Arab expression by which Al-Akkad’s situation can be most eloquently summed up. The phrase describes his relationship with the Arab world, whose reaction to his cinematic efforts has been conspicuously cool.

It is well known that Al-Akkad has been hunting for a financer for his movie project Saladin for over twenty years. Hence, as I was formulating my first question to him, I was silently hoping that he would tell me that he had finally obtained the resources. I had read about negotiations between him and some Arab financers, but these turned out to have been in vain. “Most of these negotiations,” he said, “have been aborted due to non-cinematic reasons.”

Al-Akkad tells me about an Arab prince who wanted to finance the project only in return for choosing the movie’s heroine, who would have been a superstar. He also tells about a political regime that was only willing to finance the project on the condition that he would direct a movie about its leader. There have been negotiations between him and an Arab director-producer who would have financed the film only if some “slight” modifications to the screenplay were made. According to Al-Akkad those “slight” modifications would have virtually destroyed the project’s aim.

Al-Akkad is willing to negotiate only as long as there are “no political sacrifices to be made and no obligations upon me to direct movies about individuals who do not deserve the praise they would have me shower them with.”

Saladinin Akkadian Perspective

Al-Akkad believes that a biography of Saladin should be screened in several high-quality movies rather than one long epic. There already exists more than one cinematic rendition of the story of Saladin, for example, the Egyptian Director Yousef Shahin’s Saladin the Victorious and the Egyptian Director Hossam El-Din Mustafa’s serial The Vulture of the East.

When I discuss these films with Al-Akkad he points out that those works, although important, are in the Arabic language and address an audience with an Arab cultural background. “The character of Saladin,” he says, “should be presented to the outer world through a big production that addresses the non-Arab viewers in a language they understand and interpreted by actors/actresses well-known to them. The movie would then achieve its expected effect because it would crystallize its message in a way the foreign audience can relate to.”

When I brought up the previous films on Saladin, I had expected a very different response. I had expected the director to focus on the present need for Arabs and Muslims to study the character of Saladin. However, he explains that his main aim has been to shed light on the Arab historical heritage. “In the light of unjustified accusations of terrorism directed towards the Arab world, Saladin is—in my perspective—the most suitable character to present to the West as our mouthpiece. Is there a more barbaric example of religious terrorism than the medieval Crusades that Saladin confronted? However, nobody accuses Christianity of breeding terrorism.”

Al-Akkad asserts that the present Arab status quo very much resembles the Arab condition during the days of Saladin. “The Arabs back then,” he explains, “were few in number, disunited, and fighting among each other. It was Saladin who united them, purified their regimes, and defeated the Crusaders. Through my movie I want to transmit the message that we are in need of such a man, or at least in need of following his strategies in order to face today’s challenges and overcome those waiting to ambush us.”

“My desire to make this movie,” he adds, “stems from a persisting problem, namely, Jerusalem. Historically, the movie will depict the city from an Arab and Muslim perspective. Saladin united the Arabs, conquered the usurped land, and acted as a protector for all religions, doing justice to both Muslims and Christians alike. The Crusaders, or the Franks, on the other hand, demolished churches, killed monks, set fire to Byzantium, and slaughtered Jerusalem’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inhabitants. I will present Saladin as the embodiment of magnanimity, nobility, and morality. The West is more aware of Saladin’s virtues than we Arabs are. The biography of Saladin is but the contemporary projection of today’s events. The Palestine of his day is the Palestine of today. He “purged,” united, and morally conquered. I want to produce Saladin to emphasize the Arab character of Jerusalem.

An American Screenplay for Saladin

To my question of whether the screenplay has already been completed, Al-Akkad answers in the affirmative: “The screenplay is ready, and its writer is John Heil, an American.”

In response to my surprise the director explains, “Why wouldn’t he? I agreed with him that the script will be translated into Arabic, so that Arab-Muslim historians can revise it. After their approval the screenplay will be translated back into English. We planned this for accuracy’s sake. I dealt with my movie The Message in the same way.”

In response to my question why he chose Sean Connery for the lead, Al-Akkad proceeds enthusiastically: “He is without a doubt the most qualified to interpret the role of Saladin. In addition to his skills as an actor his eastern features make him the perfect choice. Sean Connery’s name would also draw the desired audience. He likes the Arabs and is familiar with our history. He always tells me off for having chosen Anthony Quinn to star in two of my films and always reminds me that he is looking forward to work with me.”

A movie about Saladin will be very costly, if only for the many big battles to be staged and Sean Connery’s wage, which in itself equals a full movie budget.

I ask Al-Akkad about the required budget to start work on the film. “I need $80 million, though I am sure the film will make many times as much in profits. You see, historical films in general reap great returns, and a movie starring Sean Connery would make tremendous revenues. Let me illustrate this with the example of The Message, which back then cost $17 million for producing both the Arabic and international versions. The international version returned ten times the costs, was dubbed into 12 languages, and still makes profits until now. The American Department of Defense, for instance, bought 100,000 copies of The Message for its soldiers to view before being sent off to Afghanistan!”

Chechnya and Jerusalem

Saladin is not the only project in the pipeline; Mustapha Al-Akkad has more up his sleeve. “During the war in Bosnia, I thought of making a movie about the conflict entitled Wa-Mu`tasamah[1]. For a while now, I have been playing with the idea of making a film about Jerusalem. I also hope to make a portrait of Muhammad Shamil[2], the Chechen who fought the Russian czars.

“I have also finished reading a script for a new movie project that sheds light on a particular period in Islamic history. It is based on a historical document published by the British Sunday Times. It relates the story of a delegation sent by the King of England John III to the Muslim caliph in Cordoba, proposing that the English embrace Islam, pay the jizyah[3]to the caliph, and be under Muslim patronage. The latter’s reply was ‘A king who willingly sells his people and kingdom does not deserve our patronage.’ This event took place in 1213. The document published by the British Sunday Times lists the names of the English delegation members who submitted the proposal. The script will be written by European authors to render the message more powerful.

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Maged Hebtah is a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt

1 Al-Mu`tasam was an Abbasid caliph who is famous for waging a war to release a single female captive from her prison after she called for his help saying, “Wa Mu`tasamah!”

2 Muhammad Shamil (1797 – 1871) was a Chechen Sufi imam who led his people in a jihad against the Russians after their invasion of Chechnya in the late 1700s. He became famous for his inspiring speeches and poems that were chanted on battlefields. He was the first to found a national territorial state in Chechnya, while until then every town and village had been independent in practice.

3 A tax that non-Muslims paid to their Muslim rulers in return for protection.