Murder in the Cathedral
When Moustapha Akkad left Syria in 1954 to join UCLA and pursue his dream of being a Hollywood director, with 200$ in one pocket and a Koran in the other, his plans did not include getting blown up by suicide bombers while attending a wedding reception with his daughter Rima in Amman on November 9, 2005. Abdulla’s Jordan, a key western ally in the region (and home of Zarqawi, Michael Myers for the western infidels), had till now not faced any major terrorist attacks in spite of its known support for Israel. The Amman blast, focussing on three major hotels housing mostly western and Israeli tourists, diplomats, businessmen, killed over 60 and injured more than 120, and caused irreparable damage to the Middle East peace process. Rima died on the spot, while Akkad died two days later in hospital.
While Akkad is perhaps better known for the Halloween series of kitschy horror movies, his landmark works remain The Message detailing the life of the Prophet and The Lion of the Desert, a film about the bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar’s resistance against Mussolini, the latter being financed by Gadaffi himself. His last years were spent working on an unfinished project on Saladin, the 12th century leader of the resistance against the crusading Christian world.
Akkad did his graduate studies from UCLA and USC in the turbulent 60’s. After finishing his masters, Akkad set out in his showbiz life with TV shows. His early work on TV reflected his preoccupation with multiculturalism and his efforts to dispel stereotypes. He was able to capitalize on his success as a CBS producer and documentary filmmaker sufficiently to set up his own production house. He produced and directed his first major work, Al-Risalah (1976) with an English version titled Mohammed: The Messenger of God shortly therafter, starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas.
This was the first time that a feature film was made in Hollywood about Islam and its beginnings, and made by a Muslim keeping Islamic sensibilities and perspectives in mind. Of course, this had to deal with the hostility of detractors who could not see beyond the Zionistic control of the media and assumed this to be an affront to their religion. After its US release, a group of Hanafi Muslims went to the extent of holding hostages in Washington DC demanding that the film be withdrawn, convinced that a film about the prophet would obviously have portrayed the prophet, heresy per Islam. Despite several attempts to make them see reason (or the film), they did not relent and the film was withdrawn. A re-release provoked threats again, and the film died a quiet box office death. Though this also resulted in an initial ban on the film in the Islamic world, it received acceptance and popularity after Ayatollah Khomeini viewed it himself and approved it to be distributed in Iran. Interestingly, this film was used as educational material for the US troops being deployed in Afghanistan and the Middle East following 9/11 and the “war on terror” so that they have a better understanding of Islam.
Akkad was working on his next big project, The Lion of the Desert when he teamed up with director John Carpenter in 1977 to produce Halloween, a low budget babysitter meets slasher film with a difference, a tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (including Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh who starred in Psycho). No one could have imagined the success that this film would have at the box office. The franchise generated seven sequels, none of them notable for artistic excellence or social relevance, but all of them making money.
While often dismissed as inconsequential pandering to teenage pop sensibilities, the Halloween series does address some basic issues about interpretation of morality and gender politics. These films about the masked psycho killer Michael Myers’ return to his hometown of Haddonfield after being locked up in a mental asylum for murdering his sister (her crime – having sex with her boyfriend, his age at the time – six years) play with the eternal theme of male insecurity over their own masculinity in the face of aggressive assertion of sexuality and freedom in women, an anxiety often cloaked with moralistic and ethical overtones. Honor killings are the rule of the day in many countries even to this day. It will remain conjecture whether Akkad had this in mind when he had all the “bad girls” getting killed in the Halloween series, while the chaste heroine lived to generate dozens of me too slasher movie endings.
Omar Mukhtar: The Lion of the Desert was released in 1981. This film will remain one that made a major impression on me as a teenager whose role models were from the 60s and who had to fit into the senseless consumerism of the 80s and 90s. I will never forget the feeling when after Omar Mukhtar is hanged, his round rimmed glasses are picked up by the child, as a symbol of all that he stood for and the fact that his legacy will live on. This film about the Libyan resistance against the Italian occupation in the 20’s and 30’s had $35 million of funding by Gaddafi starred Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, Irene Papas, and John Gielgud, and is a magnificently told true story of epic proportions. Akkad’s lifelong campaign of portraying the Islamic rebel as one fighting a just war against imperialism and not just a crazed religious fanatic out to spread meaningless terror is aptly served by this film. This film is a must see for its balanced portrayal of the beginnings of the victim mentality that has been gifted to the Islamic world by the civilized European “union.”
This was followed by the Halloween stint which was active till 2002 (Resurrection) and an unnoticed comedy in 1986 called Free Ride. At the time of his death, Akkad was pursuing his dream of doing a film on Saladin, the Iraqi leader of the Muslim armies during the crusades. Akkad had a belief that the modern situation of Islam and the Imperialistic world was similar to the crusades. Interestingly, Saddam Hussain, who shares his hometown of Tikrit with Saladin, saw himself as a modern day Saladin, (Saladin was a Kurd, but that is a minor issue in politics of convenience, ask Bush any day) battling against the Western forces, to save his people and their religion. Like he had got Gaddafi to fund Omar Mukhtar, there is speculation that Saddam would have been an ideal financier for Akkad’s Saladin.
Akkad’s murder (what else can it be called?) brings to an end a truly Arab truly American life that was spent trying to bring peace and logic to a world that is bent on pursuing the path to annihilation and senseless loss of innocent lives in the name of power and domination and self proclaimed righteousness. His death brought together the themes he had tried to address in his films, horror and murder, religious bigotry of both the Christian and the Muslim world, and the battle against imperialism. One can only hope that his efforts will have woken up some of us to the importance of spreading the message of peace and to the urgency of shedding hostilities and intolerance at our personal and interpersonal levels. One can only pray that his soul rests in peace.