Lion of the Desert, Fanatics In the Street

The poetic injustice of Moustapha Akkad's murder


In an interview broadcast last Friday, Moustapha Akkad, the Syrian-born film director and producer, noted that he was "deeply proud of my American citizenship." Akkad was appearing on Mosaic, a program directed at the Arab Diaspora, and he was addressing—in Arabic—an audience of fellow Middle Eastern expatriates. Among America's special attributes, the filmmaker explained, was that its immigrant people had largely avoided the most extreme forms of nationalism that—and here he adopted a certain Levantine discretion—"we have seen lead to such excesses elsewhere."

Among the nationalisms that Akkad considered prone to excess was Arab nationalism, especially in its conspiracist form. In the aftermath of September 11, Akkad appeared on another program aimed at an Arab audience: a public-affairs show called Between the Lines hosted by a woman journalist with decidedly Arab nationalist sympathies. Her interview with Akkad may well have been one of the most difficult she ever did: Akkad was scornfully dismissive of the nationalist rhetoric in which she couched her questions, focusing on such matters as the persistent Middle East rumors of Jewish foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks as marks of a dysfunctional political culture.

By the time last week's Mosaic interview aired, however, Akkad was dead, a victim of the Nov. 9 suicide-bomb blasts in Amman, Jordan where he and his daughter Rima were attending the ill-fated Palestinian wedding at the Radisson.

The jihadis led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who have been attempting to re-establish the Caliphate on the corpses of Iraqi children lined up to receive candy, Iraqi mourners gathered at funerals, Iraqi women crowding Baghdad's outdoor produce markets, Iraqi worshippers assembled in mosques and churches, along with a great many other such victims, had added Jordanian wedding guests to their continuing slaughter of the innocent, the unarmed, and the unsuspecting.

Yet by killing Akkad, Zarqawi's jihadis managed to pull off a bloody act of particular stupidity, even for them. Although he is best known to U.S. audiences as the producer of the eight-film Halloween horror franchise, Moustapha Akkad had spent much of his long career in Hollywood—he came to LA from Allepo in the 1950s to study film—attempting to use the movie capital's power to reshape negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. As the liberal journalist Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed wrote on Monday in the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, "The irony is that Akkad, the very man who delivered a wonderful image of Islam, was killed by Al-Qaeda, the very organization that has defamed Islam and Muslims." There's actually a larger irony at work as well: Al Qaeda was not the first group of Islamists with whom Akkad found himself in conflict. The motif of a uniquely pro-Islam American moviemaker beset by Islamist foes marks his unusual careeer.

Al Rasheed's embrace of Akkad's career as a director was not merely a post-mortem courtesy; Akkad was celebrated for his efforts in his lifetime, too. For example, Jack G. Shaheen, the mass-communications scholar who has devoted himself to studying popular anti-Arab stereotypes, also praised Akkad's films about Islam and Arabs. In his 2001 book Reel Bad Arabs, a huge compendium of anti-Arab movie slurs going back nearly to Thomas Edison, Shaheen singles out for praise Akkad's two major works as a director: The Message (1976), and Lion of the Desert (1981).

For Shaheen, Lion of the Desert, a tale of Libyan resistance to Italian imperialism in the early 20th century, was one of the best films about Arabs ever made. Not only did it offer a sympathetic view of Islam as a humane faith, it also "illustrate[d] what viewers almost never see—brave young bedouins. . . ." Shaheen is especially pleased with a scene in which the film's star, Anthony Quinn, is teaching young village boys the meaning of the Koran. "Why," Quinn asks them, "do you think we begin every chapter of the Koran with 'God the merciful'?" Indeed, the producers of the TV show Mosaic liked the same scene enough to insert it during last week's interview. Akkad was especially proud of Lion of the Desert; the old one-sheet poster is seen framed on the office wall behind him throughout his final broadcast interview. He regarded the film as his homage—perhaps his reply—to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

However, the film was also a financial failure of historic proportions, costing some $36 million to produce, and recouping perhaps $1 million. Akkad blamed its failure on politics: Much of the production money came from Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi, who was in particularly bad odor in those years, and the film quickly gained a ruinous reputation as Qaddafi propaganda, presumably stifling audience interest. In fact, a three-hour epic dealing with people and events almost totally unknown in the West was always going to have a difficult time finding its audience here.

On the other hand, Western audiences had become only too familiar with Akkad's previous directorial effort, The Message, about the origins of Islam. When that film opened in Washington, D.C. in 1976, a small group of Black American converts to Islam known as Hanafi Muslims (who lived in a small house adjacent to a huge uptown synagogue) reacted by storming several locations in the capital, including the national headquarters of B'nai Brith, and holding a large number of people hostage. Among their demands was that the film, which they had not seen but nevertheless regarded as blasphemous, be withdrawn. Several ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries converged on the hostage scenes to defuse the situation, and the theater chain that had booked the film cancelled the run.

Akkad was understandably dismayed. "I made the film to bring the story of Islam, the story of 700 million people, to the West," he later complained. The film troubled some other religious critics aside from the Hanafis, who assumed that the Prophet Mohammed would be portrayed in the film by an actor in the same the way that Jesus is portrayed in Christian Biblical epics. Such full pictorial representations are strictly proscribed by Islam. But not only is Mohammed never seen, Akkad claimed that his script had been approved by the clerics of Al Azhar, the leading Sunni religious institution, as well as by prominent Shiite clerics whom he approached prior to production. Saudi clerics were reluctant to sign off on such a project, probably because they regard movies as themselves in violation of the rules against pictorialization.

There was enough controversy about the film in its original location—Morocco—to persuade Akkad to move the production to Libya. That was no small matter, because Akkad was shooting two versions of the ambitious picture at the same time, one in English with Anthony Quinn, and another in Arabic with an entirely different cast. (The one cast member who appeared in both versions was the Arab-American character actor Michael Ansara, then known to American audiences for his portrayal of an American Indian on the popular TV Western Broken Arrow.) The Message apparently did reasonably well in many markets, though its disastrous Washington opening ruined its box-office chances in the U.S.

For all the attention he gave such subjects, Akkad himself lived a secular life in LA. A brief memoir from Andrew Breitbart, an LA schoolmate of Akkad's children, recalls growing up with the Akkad children. "In all the years I knew Malek, Rima and their older brother Tarik," he writes, "I never really thought about their family's obvious ethnic or religious background. I just remember Malek loved Led Zeppelin. Tarik worked the counter at Maria's Italian Kitchen while I delivered pizza. And Rima was cooler than most of the girls her age and had a most brilliant smile. . . At the time, and in retrospect, the Akkads were to Islam what many more of us at Brentwood School were to Judaism, highly secular, typical Americans."

Moustapha Akkad worked to make Breitbart's view a more common one, by seeking to "normalize" Arabs and Islam through popular movies. "Movies for me are not about art," he told Mosaic. "They are about entertainment." He sought to find the thrilling and the compelling and the humanizing in Arab history, an approach to the Arab past that is common enough on Arab TV. Indeed, he spent ten years trying to finance the project that he seemed to believe would cap his career, a big-scale retelling of the story of Saladin that would have starred Sean Connery. The only money that was being offered, however, was for yet more Halloween sequels.

"I cannot understand the continuing success of Halloween," he sighed to Mosaic. "Do you realize they want to make Halloween 9?"

Akkad did find compelling material about Islam and the Arabs. But along the way, he also encountered a string of critical clerics, hostage takers, and outraged fanatics, until at length he stepped into a hotel ballroom in Jordan where the angry clerics and the censors had been replaced by "martyrs" poised for a massacre.

Charles Paul Freund is a former senior editor of reason magazine.