Photo: Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times
"We had thought that artwork could shock and make change. But no, artwork, even if it is critical, is entertainment." DURAID LAHHA
An Arab Artist Says All the World Really Isn't a Stage
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Published: August 19, 2006
THERE was a time, when he was a young man, Duraid Lahham said, that he thought he might help change the world with his movies. Not anymore. Now, he says over and over, art is useless as a tool for political change.
Art cannot change anyone's mind, he says. It never caused a terrorist to have second thoughts, never transformed a dictator into a democrat. In fact, he says, it never did much but entertain.
Mr. Lahham is a Syrian actor, one of the Arab world's best-known performers. He was also a comic, writer and director, whose biting critique of Arab regimes was sugar-coated with sarcasm and humor. While he still likes to make people laugh, at 72, he has become the personal embodiment of Irving Kristol's famous remark that a neoconservative is a "liberal who has been mugged by reality."
For a good portion of his career, Mr. Lahham appeared on Arab-language television, in plays and movies, challenging the region’s leaders. He mocked their ideologies and railed against corruption and incompetence.
But one day, he said, he realized it was all a big mistake, that his critiques did nothing but play into the hands of men in power. Dictators liked to point to "freedom of criticism," he said, as a way to defend against charges that they suppress freedom of expression.
"One time," Mr. Lahham recalled between continuous puffs on an extra-long cigarette, "in a conversation with an Arab official we were criticizing a lot, he said to me: 'Talk all you want. We will do all we want.'"
Those words seared Mr. Lahham's heart, and from that moment forward, it seemed a part of him dried up. He said he stopped making politically challenging shows, stopped thinking of his work as making a difference in the world and decided instead there was no shame in simply entertaining people. The war in Lebanon, he says, has served only to validate all his feelings.
"Yeah, I felt disappointed," Mr. Lahham said of his conversation with that official years ago. "We had thought that artwork could shock and make change. But no, artwork, at the end of the day, even if it is critical, is entertainment."
Mr. Lahham was a television star from Syria at a time when most famous Arabic-language actors were from Egypt. He even held onto his Syrian dialect, refusing to adopt the more popular Egyptian way of speaking. He was part of a popular comic duo, a team that was the Arab version of Abbott and Costello, or Laurel and Hardy. It was called Maqalib Ghawar, or Ghawar's Pranks. Mr. Lahham was Ghawar, a goofy clown playing off his serious partner, the character Husni al-Burazan.
But like other intellectually inspired artists of his day, Mr. Lahham was deeply disturbed by the Arab defeat of 1967 and infuriated by Egypt's signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1978. He shifted his work toward what he called "nationalist" commentary, a phrase that seemed a lot safer than "political commentary." He focused on satirical plays, which critiqued Arab societies and mildly chided them for their failures.
THE rulers of Syria did not have much of an appetite for his work and wanted him locked up. But according to his official Web site, Mr. Lahham had a powerful friend who protected him: Hafez al-Assad, then Syria's defense minister, who went on to rule Syria with an iron fist.
With his back covered, Mr. Lahham continued to stage plays and make movies that were critical of Syrian and Arab politics. In 1987, Mr. Lahham broke out with a popular movie called "Al Hudud," or "The Border," which was less subtle than his earlier works. The idea was simple. A man was trapped in the no man's land between the borders of two Arab countries, and neither side would let him in because he did not have any personal documents.
The idea, Mr. Lahham said, was to mock and dispel the notion of pan-Arabism. Identity, he said, begins small, with a hometown, as in "I am from Damascus." It progresses to "I am Syrian" and then, perhaps, "I am Arab."
Mr. Lahham's mother is from southern Lebanon, and so he says he feels a personal connection to the war and the devastation Israel's military has inflicted across Lebanon. But the course of events, the silence of Arab governments and the resilience of Hezbollah's fighters in the face of the Israeli military, have also served to strengthen his convictions, he said.
"This heroic resistance — they were able to do this because they are connected to the place," he said of Hezbollah's military effectiveness. "If the concept of pan-Arabism were true, then all the Arabs would have supported them, but they stood still as spectators."
In the beginning, Mr. Lahham was a bit of a black sheep. He started out teaching chemistry at Damascus University and only happened into theater. His Web site says he started to give dance lessons, and then was invited to participate in the premiere of Syrian television. He fell in love with acting and never looked back.
That is one decision Mr. Lahham says that did make a difference. While he did not change the world, and has given up trying, he feels he did help make it respectable to work as an actor. Syria is a very conservative place, and many of his relatives and friends were appalled when he left the university to act. His family even asked him not to use his real last name, but he refused to back down.
"My passion made me insist," he said of his decision to stick with acting. "And people have started gaining more and more courage until the artist has now become respected and is even subject to envy."
HIS office is on a trendy street in Damascus, a street filled with fancy clothing shops, upscale restaurants with valet parking and nice apartments. The office is down a flight of steps into a basement apartment, where he sits behind a desk amid walls covered with awards from around the world, including certificates of appreciation from the City of Los Angeles. He is a very short man with a trademark mustache and a habit of flicking prayer beads as he talks.
The Syria Mr. Lahham lives in today is a place where intellectuals are imprisoned for calling for democracy but television producers are permitted to address previously taboo subjects like religious extremism and AIDS. At the moment, art, or acting, remains the only platform in Syrian society where people can address delicate subjects, though, of course, they may not in any way challenge the power of their rulers.
But Mr. Lahham is not getting involved, at least not through artwork.
"We've discovered, perhaps a little too late, art does not have the power of the police," he said. "It can't force you to do something. The problem is the audience considers this something to laugh about."