For years, Egyptian cinema depicted a very negative image of King Farouk I, the last king of Egypt. Especially after the July Revolution of 1952, Farouk was always shown as a one-sided royal, more interested in alcohol and women than affairs of state.
His achievements were completely forgotten — and downplayed on purpose — by the security services — and charisma of Jamal Abdul Nasser. That changed in 2007 when the screenplay of Dr Lamis Jaber was adapted into a 30-episode TV series that was directed by Hatem Ali and starred the young Syrian actor Taim Hassan.
The series, King Farouk, which took 15 years to write and drew a favourable image of the last monarch of the Mohammad Ali dynasty, showed him as a polite, gentle and patriotic young man obsessed with the welfare of Egypt.
The series was watched with great interest throughout the Arab world, sparking a sharp debate between republicans and monarchists as to whether Farouk was depicted in a fair and historically correct manner.
The Nasserists cried foul. The Syrians watched King Farouk with mixed emotions. For years, and especially after the Baath Revolution of 1963, the Syrian media also depicted Farouk as a one-dimensional aristocrat obsessed with personal indulgences.
Many in Syria who remain Nasserists to the bone were appalled at a series praising Farouk. However, a younger generation which grew up decades after the deaths of both Farouk and Nasser, showed great interest in learning more about what now seems to be a distant past.
Syrians have been, for some years now, watching television dramas that mildly covered the pre-Baath era. In the 1960s and 1970s, speaking about pre-Baath history was taboo. That changed in the 1990s with the launch of several books recounting the lives of pre-Baath politicians and public figures.
The first series to deal with the period was Hamam Al Kishani, directed by Hani Al Roumani. It was a social drama set in the turbulent era of coups and counter-coups, depicting the characters of former president Hosni Al Za'im and Adib Al Shishakli, and former prime minister Khalid Al Azm.
After having secured government approval, producers also had to get approval from the families. For many years, the families of former senior officials were sidelined and ignored, prompting them to be very cautious when it came to the legacy of their fathers.
Ihsan Al Shishakli, the son of president Adib Al Shishakli (1951-1953), told Weekend Review: “Scriptwriter Diab Eid asked me about events and their authenticity. He told me that [to approve the depiction of Shishakli on screen] the minister of information [had instructed] that there be no glorification of previous public figures. Glorification is for the [Baath] Party only!''
Political figures were often dealt with on the margins of some social theme or love story. Two people fall in love, for example, during the Shishakli era. Television dramas could not produce an entire work about a single pre-1963 figure. In Mohammad Malas's film Al Layl (The Night), Rafiq Sibayi plays the role of former president Shukri Al Quwatli for ten minutes on screen.
That changed by the late-1990s. The production of two films about Nasser and one about Anwar Sadat, followed by a series on Umm Kolthoum and another on Abdul-Halim Hafez, prompted the Syrians to do the same with their icons. At present, the Syrian-born Palestinian director Bassel Al Khattib is preparing to produce a 30-episode drama about Nasser.
He previously made a controversial work about the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, also starring Taim Hassan. The series was trashed by the audience in Damascus because it overstressed the late poet's desire for women and negatively depicted former political leaders such as Shukri Al Quwatli.
The Qabbani family even filed a lawsuit against the director and a war of words ensued in which he accused them of asking for a large amount of money to produce a work about their father, and them insisting that they did not, claiming that the work was deliberate vandalism of honourable Syrians. Speaking about his portrayal of Nizar, Hassan said: “I don't think we depicted Nizar in a negative way!''
In addition to Nasser, work is under way to produce a TV series about Shukri Al Quwatli (a three-time pre-Baath president of Syria). Also, director Nabeel Maleh came up with a 30-episode drama script about Syrian diva Asmahan (who was accused of working with Nazi and British intelligence during the Second World War).
Maleh told Weekend Review: “In the wave of biographical dramas that has emerged, there is a re-reading of history. Unfortunately, figures who remain very clear in the people's consciousness are being falsified. They are not given normal characteristics.
Most works were not honest when depicting the good and bad characteristics about any historical figure. The exceptions were King Farouk and the script for Asmahan.''
“It is difficult to deal with saintly figures in an honest and objective manner. Take Umm Kolthoum. She was shown as a saint. The work took out her humanity. Therefore, works should be re-produced and figures should be seen in a different light,'' Maleh added.
The work that the Atrash family (to which Asmahan belongs) has objected to, and which created a storm in the Syrian and Arab press, has been on hold for some time due to production problems. When asked if the work might be taken to court, just like the Nizar Qabbani series, Maleh said: “Yes, because I tried to deal with the different faces of this exceptional woman with all its ups and downs, and fate.'' Big question marks remain about Asmahan's career during the Second World War and whether or not she was murdered in 1944 at the age of 32.
Gassan Abdullah, director of last year's Khalid Ibn Al Walid (a historical epic), is preparing for a cinematic work about Jules Jammal, a young navy cadet from Syria who volunteered to fight in the Suez Canal War of 1956. He blew himself up with a ship full of ammunition against a French liner Jean D'Arc, becoming one of the legendary heroes of the 20th century in both Syrian and Egyptian culture.
“Because of censorship,'' Abdullah said, “the Arabs cannot produce a real current affairs drama. This is also due to splits in society along religious or tribal lines. Nobody wants to offend anybody else.
For example, if we were to produce something about the Arab Revolt of 1916 from a Syrian perspective, we might offend the Jordanians. If we were to produce something about religious issues, we might offend the Saudis. That in turn means MBC — which is one of the major buyers — would not buy it.''
That is why producers and directors tend to avoid thorny issues that would affect sales and distribution of work. “Whereas when we go way back in history and take figures such as Khalid Ibn Al Walid, we don't offend anybody.''
Regardless, Abdullah decided to tackle Jules Jammal in order to present a true freedom fighter; a man who blew himself up not on his homeland but in Egypt and not for Islam (he was Christian) but rather, for Arabism. “It is fiction, neither documentary nor docudrama. Jules Jammal's story took place in the 1950s.
It had nothing to do with this political climate. He was not a Muslim. And he did not do it in Syria. It was for another nation … I was going to name it ‘To Save a Nation','' he said.
The director (who spends his time between the UK and Syria) added: “We are going to show that he was not a failure in life and then decided to blow himself up. He had a life ahead of him.
He was a cheerful man, not a weirdo or a psycho. He had a fiancée waiting for him to come back from battle and he wanted to become a civil sailor.''
Jules Jammal is yet to see the light as a film, as is Shukri Al Quwatli, the series, and Asmahan. The producers and engineers of all three works have a monumental task ahead of them — securing approval from the respective families (often different branches of the families involved) and then getting government OK.
At this stage, where government approval has become a lot easier than before, the problem remains with the families of Syrian VIPs.
Sami Moubayed and Mustapha Al Sayyed are writers based in Damascus, Syria.