In the Middle East, Even Movie Actors Must Play Politics


By: Wall Street Journal

Israeli Jew of Iraqi Descent Portrays Saddam Hussein And Sparks Outcry in Cairo
By MARIAM FAM
October 19, 2007

CAIRO, Egypt — Earlier this year, Egyptian actor Amr Waked landed a role in a miniseries about the life of Saddam Hussein. For Mr. Waked, who had appeared with George Clooney in the film “Syriana,” the job seemed like another big career boost.

Instead, it sparked an outcry here in the Arab world’s movie-making capital. Igal Naor, the 49-year-old actor playing Mr. Hussein, is Israeli. And that’s a big problem in Egypt, where anti-Israel feelings still run deep. The country’s actors’ union has launched an investigation of Mr. Waked’s participation in the series, a joint-production of HBO Films and the British Broadcasting Corp., and could expel him from its ranks.

While making the miniseries, Mr. Waked says, he asked Mr. Naor where he came from. Mr. Waked’s heart sank when he heard the answer: Israel.

“I was breathless for a moment,” he says. “I recognized right away that they would crucify me.”

They — the Egyptian press — were very distressed. Critics accused the actor, who is in his thirties but won’t give his age, of cultural “normalization.” That’s a dirty word to many in the Middle East, used to describe having ties to Israel. Some Egyptian newspapers also denounced the filmmakers’ decision to cast Mr. Naor, an Israeli Jew of Iraqi descent and a onetime soldier in the Israeli army, in the role of Mr. Hussein.

With a growing number of movies and TV series focused on the Iraq war, tensions in the Middle East and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — including the recent Hollywood films “The Kingdom” and “Rendition,” which is being released today — Western media companies are combing the region for talent. But for actors here looking for their big break, balancing opportunities in the West with political and cultural sensitivities at home can be tricky.

Egypt in 1979 was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel after decades of conflict. The two countries continue to maintain diplomatic relations and economic ties. Still, many people have deep resistance toward dealings with Israel, especially in the cultural sphere.

It can be career-threatening for artists. In 2001, Egyptian playwright Ali Salem was expelled from the country’s writers guild for his “normalization activities.” He had made trips to Israel and had written a book chronicling one of his visits. Mr. Salem fought the decision in court and won, but resigned from the union on principle.

Egyptians’ complaints about Israel are generally focused on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Many Egyptians object to American foreign policy, including U.S. support of Israel, but American culture remains popular here.

Career Booster

Getting a role in a Hollywood movie can be a big career booster for Middle East actors. Mr. Waked appeared with George Clooney in the 2005 film “Syriana” as a charismatic recruiter of young suicide bombers.

Fresh from that success, Mr. Waked was approached to play Mr. Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who defected to Jordan but later returned to Iraq where he was killed in 1996. Mr. Waked says no one told him before he signed on that an Israeli actor would be playing Mr. Hussein.

The series, which the BBC is currently calling “Between Two Rivers,” is to be rolled out in four parts next year in the United Kingdom and the U.S. The BBC declined to comment on the controversy or to make other cast members or executives involved in the miniseries available for interviews. A spokeswoman for HBO referred questions to the BBC.

Once in Tunisia for filming, Mr. Waked says he was intrigued by Mr. Naor’s name and asked where he came from. Mr. Naor dropped his bomb. Meanwhile, thanks to media reports, the word got out here in Cairo.

Journalist Mohamed Abdalla wrote in an opposition newspaper that Mr. Waked “has taken lightly a long history of struggles and the lives that have been lost at the hands of the arrogant Zionist enemy.”

Mr. Waked’s manager suggested he give a phone interview to another local paper to set the record straight. In the interview, Mr. Waked said he didn’t know anything about Mr. Naor’s nationality when he signed on. At the time, Mr. Waked says, he told his interviewer he might not have taken the job had he known. Mr. Waked agonized over whether to walk out of filming but decided to stay. Some articles in the Egyptian press defended Mr. Waked, arguing the backlash against him was unwarranted.

An Off-Set Friendship

In the meantime, the two actors struck up an off-set friendship. Mr. Waked now says he’d do it all over again, despite the controversy.

“He’s a good actor,” says Mr. Waked of Mr. Naor. “He’s a good guy.”

The two talked politics only briefly, he says, but agreed on many points. More often they hung out at their hotel, exchanging jokes and sharing meals. They spoke in both English and Arabic — a language that Mr. Naor grew up speaking. Mr. Waked picked up a few Hebrew words.

Mr. Naor’s film credits include playing a Palestinian professor targeted for assassination in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie “Munich.” He said he feels bad that Mr. Waked is taking heat for associating with him.

“It’s just a pity,” Mr. Naor said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he was recently helping to promote “Rendition,” in which he plays the chief of a North African security agency.

But, he said, he knew he had to play the part of Mr. Hussein. He first heard about the project when he was filming “Rendition” in Morocco. He looked up the casting director’s name and got in touch. He had his photos taken with a mustache and an Arab-style scarf on his head and sent them off. After several auditions, he was chosen for the role.

“The guy has a bit of [Mr. Hussein's] charisma, a bit of his looks,” says Mr. Waked. “He was a perfect choice.”

Symbol of Resistance

After Mr. Hussein’s execution, the dictator’s status among many Arabs has grown as a symbol of resistance to American foreign policy. Mr. Naor says he hopes audiences in the Middle East will look past his nationality. He even expects his role will spark criticism in Israel because it humanizes Mr. Hussein.

After they left Tunisia, the two actors stayed in touch, and they swap phone calls. Mr. Naor has a photo of himself and Mr. Waked on the wall at his home in Tel Aviv.

Back in Egypt, the actors union is still weighing actions against Mr. Waked. As part of the investigation, a three-member committee questioned the actor for about two hours when he returned to Egypt last month.

The outcome of the inquiry is pending. Ashraf Zaki, the head of the actors union, said he couldn’t comment on what disciplinary action, if any, may be taken. If the committee finds that taking the role constituted normalization, Mr. Waked could be expelled from the union.

Mr. Waked says he is sad about the uproar. “I am not ashamed,” he says. “The only thing I am ashamed of is the reaction.”

Write to Mariam Fam at mariam.fam@wsj.com

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