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Arab Spring – Thirteen Hours of Interrogation

by Mohammed Ali Atassi. The morning of September 18th, Syrian director and film producer Omar Amirlay drove from his home in Damascus to Amman, Jordan. Four months earlier he had begun a daring project to establish the first Arab school of cinema – the Arab Film Institute.

Arriving at the Syrian-Jordanian border, Amirlay was met with an arrest warrant issued by the Syrian Secret Service. He was immediately handcuffed and escorted to the Secret Service office in Daraa, and then to their headquarters in Damascus. There, he was interrogated until late into the night. They finally released him with the order that he return the following morning with a copy of his latest film, “Al-Toufan” (“The Flood”), so they could continue their “cinema-security discussion.” “Al-Toufan” was a 2003 documentary that had recently been profiled on Al Arabia, a satellite news channel based in Abu Dhabi. The very evening the profile was shown, Zouheir al-Siddik, a main witness in Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, also appeared on the channel.

Amirlay’s interrogation lasted 13 hours. He was confronted with all kinds of questions about his film, grilled about every scene and its intent. “Al-Toufan” exposes the indoctrination enforced by the Baathist regime in schools throughout Syria. As an example, the film depicts the typical village of Al Mashi in the Euphrates region.

Finally, Amirlay was released but prohibited from leaving the country. He was told that after four days he could request permission from the Secret Service headquarters to travel outside of Syria. However, while he was fortunate enough to be released from the horror of an actual jail cell, to this day he is waiting for permission to leave the country.

It is clear that the timing of the film, along with the documentary’s critical tone and its wide exposure on Al Arabia, infuriated the Syrian authorities and led to their issuing an arrest warrant and treating an internationally acclaimed director like a common criminal. Unfortunately, it seems that this has become typical treatment for many Syrian artists and intellectuals of repute, when, in fact, Syria should be celebrating these cultural icons.

For the last few decades, Syria’s culture and education have been in a sorry state. In a country of 18 million people, the cultural treasury has been depleted and left with fewer significant intellectuals and artists than one can count on two hands. If we ventured to list some of them, we would include Omar Amirlay, in addition to the poet Adonis, the painter Marwan Qassab, author Zakaria Tamer, and the professors and intellectuals Burhan Ghalyoun and Sadek Jalal al-Azm.

We fear that the sorry state of culture and education will worsen, and heavy-handed state security will become even more prevalent. We fear that we will find the concerns of security dominating all cultural aspects of life in Syria, that one day the great poet Adonis will be summoned and forced to explain the meaning of his poems. Or that the German-Syrian painter Marwan Qassab will be ordered to explain the political meaning behind his blending of colors, or the faces and figures in his abstract painting; or that short-story writer Zakaria Tamer will be compelled to disclose what he really meant by the metaphors or plots of his short stories.

Professors Ghalyoun and al-Azm have already been the subject of many “encounters” with “highly educated officers” responsible for national security in Syria. Ghalyoun, who teaches sociology at the Sorbonne in France, must obtain special clearance each time he wants to leave Syria. Recently, journalist Michel Kilo experienced police treatment usually reserved for the Syrian intelligentsia. He was arrested shortly after the announcement of the Beirut-Damascus declaration in May 2006 and put in Adra’s central prison as a criminal, dressed in the striped prison garb, and he still remains there. He is waiting to be charged and prosecuted with the usual false allegations including “aggression” against the Syrian Constitution.

This recent treatment of the Syrian intelligentsia stands in contrast with the tradition of the Syrian regime. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the Syrian regime, even with its long history of repression, had always maintained some sort of relationship with the Syrian intellectual community. They did this in different ways: sometimes they tried to co-opt the group by incorporating them within the bureaucracy, sometimes they compelled them to remain silent, sometimes allowed them to speak only in general terms, or occasionally simply exiled them. The only exception to this rule was their treatment of the intellectuals who were directly involved in long-term political or partisan activities. These intellectuals were treated as political opponents and were sentenced to prison for long stretches of time.

The handcuffs that bound Amirlay’s wrists represent the way the government shackles and binds Syrian culture. After many years of struggle, Syrian intellectuals have fought to retain a life of freedom and independence. If you really knew Omar Amirlay – the man, the intellectual, the cinematic pioneer – you would also know that these oppressive methods would never change his ideology of freedom and independence.

He was born in 1944 and moved to Paris in the late 1960s to study theater arts, and then cinema, at the famous IDHEC Institut. From the beginning he gravitated toward documentary filmmaking, and he has produced 20 films over the course of his long artistic journey.

In 1970, his first documentary, “Mahawla An Sad Al Furat,” (“Attempt on Al Furat Dam”) was full of revolutionary romanticism and optimism about the evolution and improvement of his country. It is worth mentioning here that “Al Toufan” is a daring return to realism and the individual, and looks at what totalitarian regimes have done to Syria and to the dreams of an era that were once so optimistic.

His next two films criticized the failure of modernization within Syria. The 1974 “Al-Hayat al-Yawmiyya fi Qaryat Surriyya” (“Daily Life in a Syrian Village”) was co-directed with Saadallah Wannous – the late famous Syrian playwright — and takes place in a poor and remote village in the Syrian peninsula. In“Adajjaj” (“The Chickens,” 1977), Omar’s cynicism and criticisms begin to appear. All of his films that tackle Syrian topics, including these two, are forbidden from being shown in Syria to this day.

After these experimental films, Amirlay emigrated to France where he produced several documentaries for French television. Some of these include “Massab Qawm” (“A Nation’s Catastrophes,” 1981) which looked at gravediggers during the Lebanese Civil War; “Outr al-Jana” (“The Scent of Heaven,” 1982); “Al Hub al-Maouud” (“The Love that’s Buried Alive,”1983), filmed in Egypt; “Video Ala al-Rimal” (“Video on the Sand,” 1984), which explored the social impact of the widespread video phenomenon in Kuwait; “Al Adou al-Hamim” (“The Intimate Enemy,” 1987), and “Miss Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto” (1988) which was a critical depiction of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

In the early 1990s, Amirlay went back to Damascus to live. Upon his return, he set to work producing a film about the artist Fateh al-Muddaress. Amirlay was assisted by two other Syrian directors: Mohammed Malas and Osama Mohammed. They also produced another movie about “Nazih al-Shahbandar,” the first Syrian filmmaker and the owner of the first gallery in Syria.

In the mid 1990s, Amirlay produced an important film titled “Fi Yawm Min Ayam al-Ounf al-Adi” (“A Day of Ordinary Violence”) which looked at his friend (and a friend of Syria), French researcher Michel Sura, who was taken hostage and killed in Beirut during the deplorable foreign hostage era in Lebanon. Next he moved on to another friend – this time to his dying Syrian friend, playwright Saadallah Wannous. In“Hunak Ashaya Kathira Youmken an Yaquluha al-Mar’” (“There Are Many Things One Could Say,” 1998), Omar presents a historical record not only of Saadallah’s battle with cancer, but also of the generation to which Saadallah belonged. “Al-Ragul Zou al-Hiza al-Zahabi” (“The Man with the Golden Shoes,” 1999-2000) is a documentary about Rafik Hariri, the late Lebanese Prime Minister. That film created a huge controversy, but led to a deep friendship between Amirlay and Hariri himself. Their friendship gave credence to what Hariri, the prime minister, has said: “Money can’t buy everybody.”

Despite Amirlay’s distaste for politics – especially the narrow focus of partisan politics – and his rejection of partisan intellectuals, he remained preoccupied with the noble idea that politics can address human concerns like liberty and justice and the right to live in dignity. If we look closely at his films, we notice that politics are always present, as if they are a necessary ingredient of life.

Since the early 1970s, the “Cinema Club” in Damascus, run by Amirlay and other Syrian intellectuals, has been a laboratory of sorts, a place where ideas and positions were exchanged. It was also a treasure that provided Syrian opposition parties with the best of its youth. In 1976, Amirlay (who was in Paris), along with Michel Kilo, Saadallah Wannous, Mamdouh Adwan, Farouk Mardam Bey, and others, signed his name to a declaration protesting Syrian entry into Lebanon. As a result, Omar Amirlay was told he could not come back to Syria for many years. At the end of the 1990s, he played an important role in writing another statement against the political authorities: this time protesting their attempts to take away the independence of filmmakers, which was guaranteed by the Syrian Institute of Cinema.

Out of a long struggle and hard work, in the year 2000 the declaration of the “99 Syrian Intellectuals” was born. This declaration demanded the lifting of the state of emergency, the release of political detainees, and demanded political freedom and the reinstatement of law and justice for all citizens. That declaration was one of the first steps that ultimately formed what is known as the “Spring of Damascus,” and it was natural that Amirlay’s name should be included among the illustrious list of signatories.

During the past six years of President Bashar Assad’s rule, Omar has not participated in any political opposition movement. Nevertheless, his voice has always been loud in opposing all kinds of human rights violations perpetrated by the government and the regime’s oppressive practices – whether conducted inside Syria or on Lebanese territory. His was also one of the foremost Syrian voices condemning Lebanese attacks against the Syrian population living and working in Lebanon – who were innocent of what their government was doing.

His friend, the late journalist Samir Kassir, asked him to write the introduction for his book “Syrian Democracy and the Independence of Lebanon.” He accepted immediately and wrote the preface in a tone similar to the book itself: angry and sharply critical, even self-critical.

He wrote, “We, the intellectuals, the educated, the artists, journalists and politicians, have remained deadly silent, passive and neutral. We feared taking any position or making a free and honest declaration about the crisis our people suffered through, especially during the cruelest period of tyranny and humiliation the Damascus regime inflicted on both populations in their own homelands.”

Amirlay is over 60 years old now. In addition to numerous international awards, he was honored twice last year – in Paris and New York, two of the most important centers for cinema in the world. In Paris, he was the guest of honor at the Cinéma du Réel international documentary film festival at the Pompidou Centre, where they showed a retrospective of his work. In New York, he was specially honored at the Syrian Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where they showed many of his films.

On the other hand, Syrian authorities have decided to honor Omar Amirlay – the most important filmmaker in the country – by arresting him at the Jordanian border, handcuffing him, interrogating him at the secret service center in Damascus and forbidding him from leaving the country. He could have been an ambassador for Syrian culture, promoting his nation to the outside world. Instead, the handcuffs placed around Omar’s wrists are his medals of honor – and medals of honor for Syria’s independence movement, which has, for many years, paid a bloody price for saying “No” to the face of its executioners.

At the end of his introduction of Kassir’s book, he wrote: “Thanks to Samir Kassir for this contribution, which makes our own powerlessness easier to accept before we die.”

In my turn, I say to Omar Amirlay, my dear friend, “Thank you, Omar, because you are one of the rare few living among us who never let us down, and never fail to provide us with the nectar of life, love, beauty and rebellion, so that we will not perish by our own ingrained failure.”

Translated from the Arabic by Joseph Mouallem

The Arabic version of this essay appeared in An Nahar Cultural Supplement on October 1, 2006. The author has granted Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate and publish this essay.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid