Mahmoud Darwish in "Fi Hadrat al-Ghiyab"

Michael Teague
Mahmoud Darwish by Zareh for Al Jadid.

For many people in the Middle East, the supplementary material of this year’s selection of Ramadan television drama may be totally novel. For instance, the trial of Hosni Mubarak (in the countries where it will be allowed to air) could prove a spectacular introduction to reality TV, which continues to hypnotize so many Westerners. Also scheduled to air is a new biopic about the iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. "Fi Hadrat al Ghiyab" (“In the Presence of the Absent”), respectively written and directed by the well-known Hassan Yousif and Najdat Anzour, has ignited a fairly acrimonious controversy in the Arab press.
Syrian actor Firas Ibrahim, who is also the film’s producer, is to play the part of the poet. Many seem to think that Ibrahim is not talented enough to do the late poet any justice, and there has been some bitter name-calling between the actor and his critics, among whom can be counted the late poet’s family. While airing this past month, some consensus has grown that the program itself is of a kind with Ibrahim’s acting abilities. To make matters worse, critics of the series point to the contradiction between the artistic and political legacy of Darwish’s life and work on the one hand, and Ibrahim’s shameful and reactionary parroting of Syrian state propaganda on the other.
We at Al Jadid have watched some episodes of the series, and have found it pretty much impossible to disagree with the critics. “In the Presence of the Absent” is indeed an impoverished series, and on many levels. Add to this the actor’s arrogance and seeming sympathy for state terror, and Ibrahim becomes the perfect punching bag. But the critics are also crossing a dangerous line by trying to pressure various Arab satellite television providers to not carry the show. Not only have they been mostly unsuccessful in that endeavor, but it is hypocritical to try to censor works of art with which one disagrees, especially when the effort is undertaken in the name of a man whose very life and career made the most passionate defense of artistic freedom.
After all, this is not the first attempt to make a documentary or biopic about Darwish, and it is not likely to be the last. Beloved artists and personalities the world over have often been the victims of post-mortem character assassination on the screen; there is always the danger that an interpretation and representation of a life will fall short of reality, or even result in caricature. And besides, if the detractors’ objective is for Ibrahim to be widely seen as a bête-noire, wouldn’t that depend on the show actually being viewed? If the series really is as dreadful as many already seem to think it is, it stands to reason that the more folks who actually see it, the greater the embarrassment and shame for Ibrahim. Alternatively, if the series were to be shut down, the artistic merit of the film might be given a softer evaluation. More importantly, doing so would constitute an act of censorship totally contrary in spirit to the goals of the Arab spring.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, No. 63, 2010.
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