Duraid Lahham: No Politics, But...

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Duraid Lahham spins around a cain during an interview with Al-Akhbar. (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Bassem Alhakim

Published Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The celebrated Syrian comic, under fire for his past support of the regime, wishes “less emotion and more sense” would prevail.

Duraid Lahham makes it a condition these days that interviewers must not raise political questions, and especially not on Syria.

But he does so himself, when he praises the scripts of Mariam al-Bassam, head of news at Al Jadeed television. “Mariam writes the introductions to the broadcasts with depth, and with an attractive literary touch,” he says.

Thus the celebrated comic actor turns the conversation to politics and the revolution, especially the change in Al Jadeed’s coverage of Syria since the death of its cameraman Ali Shaaban.

“In the situation we are living through, there are ready-made accusations, which get tailored to suit certain people without their accuracy being checked,” says Lahham. He wishes everyone would use “less emotion and more sense” in dealing with developments.

“Is this not the ‘constructive chaos’ which Condoleezza Rice promised us?” he says of the conflict in the country. “What saddens me is that the last thing I would have expected would be for killing to become easy in Syria – and I am not talking about only one group here.”

Lahham has been denounced for his attitude. At a recent pro-opposition event in Qatar, the writer Zakaria Tamer dug up his record from the 1970s. He said Lahham organized a march of Syrian artists to the presidential palace to congratulate the newly-installed Hafez Assad on his “corrective movement,” and that as a reward he was granted a tax exemption for goods he used to import.

“Tamer is a dear friend,” he responds. “But I ask him: what tax exemption did the late president grant me? At one point I set up a sound studio, which had a few recording machines. I don’t know if that is what he means.” He adds: “It’s stretching things a bit. Would I have sought out the president of the republic so that he would exempt me from this tax?”

“Ghawwar” – Lahham is widely known throughout the Arab world by the name of the famous comic character he created in the 1970s – was in Beirut briefly last week to discuss staging a show during the forthcoming Ramadan entertainment season. He has no engagements of the kind back home due to the troubled situation in Syria.

He says he would have liked to make a Ramadan appearance, but was not presented with a script that appealed to him, and besides: “my future is behind me rather than in front of me, with all those plays and television series that everyone still remembers.”

The show he presented last Ramadan, al-Khirba (The Ruin), was criticized as being a rehash of the earlier Daya Daia (Lost Village). But he disagrees. “What the two works had in common was that they were both written by Mamdouh Hamada and produced by Laith Hajjo, but they are different in every other respect,” he protests. “Daya Daia was one of the finest comedy works, but al-Khirba is about a conflict between generations, one that wants change and another that holds on to its tribalism, but the desire for change wins out in the end.”

Lahham plays down the prospect of Syrian TV dramas being boycotted by Arab television channels for the forthcoming Ramadan season. “I’m sure that viewers will see a large number of works during Ramadan despite all the pressures,” he says. “Viewers will be looking for Syrian series on the Arab satellite channels.”

He is also dismissive of recent controversies over the influence wielded by Gulf-owned Arab TV production companies over Syrian drama. “One of the reasons for the ascendancy of Syrian drama is the presence of these Gulf companies in the Syrian market,” he says – though he also credits the quality of Syrian actors, directors and script-writers.

Lahham says he is looking forward to seeing the new TV series starring the veteran Egyptian comic Adel Imam, his first in three decades. But he has more to say about Egyptian politics than drama. “We should not preempt things. We have to wait another year before we know what the outcome and the political structure will be,” he says.

In the meantime, he his fiercely critical of the prosecution of Imam’s movie al-Zaim (The Leader) on charges of insulting religion. “This is terrifying, and has to make us worry about the future of freedom of belief in Cairo,” he says. “When we speak of a corrupt doctor we are not accusing all doctors of corruption. When we speak of a bad cleric, that is not a generalization. I once read a story in your paper about a clergyman who owns a drugs factory. Does that mean Al-Akhbar insults the Islamic faith? These people simply exploit the faith.”

Lahham concludes the interview as he began it, with politics: “We have started to be afraid to express an opinion – not of the opinion, but of the consequences. I don’t care about regimes and institutions. All I care for is the country’s safety, and for Syria not to be set on fire.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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