Khaled Taja: Syrian Drama Loses One of its Pillars

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Khaled Taja during a scene in the movie 'Damascus with Love'. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Wissam Kanaan

Published Thursday, April 5, 2012

After conflicting rumors about his health, the veteran Syrian actor Khaled Taja quietly exited the stage on Wednesday in Damascus.

Damascus – “I did not choose my name, family, or country...Therefore I have to choose my death.” This is what the Syrian actor, Khaled Taja (1939-2012) once told Al-Akhbar, in an interview. He actually did write the phrase: “My life is a dream of madness, it is a flash, a shooting star, for a moment lighting up the hearts of all who saw it and then it passed,” on his tombstone. Under that sentence he added: “The home of artist Muhammad Khaled Bin Omar Taja,” as if he was saying to death, “you can come whenever you want.” Taja passed away Wednesday in al-Shami Hospital in Damascus after being ill for several days.

This was a more dramatic departure than any of the roles he played on screen. To add to it all, his home was broken into the day he died as part of a wave of burglaries in the city. The thieves made use of the fact that his family was at his bedside in a hospital to steal from the house, which is full of art and antiques. Taja’s funeral on Thursday set off from the al-Zahra Mosque in al-Mazzeh and he was buried at the al-Zaynabiyya cemetery in the Damascene quarter of Rukn al-Din, where he was born.

For four decades, Taja was one of the pillars and icons of Syrian drama. From the beginning, he loved acting which quickly took over most of his ambitions and dreams. He joined the Freedom Theater at the end of the 1950s. At the time, the troupe included many prominent actors such as Sabri Ayyad, Hikmat Mohsin, Anwar al-Baba, and the late Abdul Latif Fathi, who was famous on television screens as “Abu Kalabsha.”

Taja began in the theater as a writer, director, and actor in many plays, until he was seduced by the magic of cinema. Taja played a large role in the launching of Syrian cinema and in one of the first productions of The General Association of Cinema Production. He played the leading part in Men Under the Sun (1970), adapted from Ghassan Kanafani’s novel and directed by Nabil al-Maleh. Under the direction of al-Maleh, he also played the leading role in Leopard (1972). This was the golden age of Syrian cinema.

When Syrian cinema began to decline, Taja stopped acting for a long time. He then returned and was successful on television in a number drama programs. Among his audience, he is best remembered for works such as A Crime Remembered (1992), Damascus Days (1992), Al-Zir Salem (2000), The Four Seasons (1999 and 2002), The Palestinian Emigration (2004), and The Age of Shame (2009). He could also do comedy well, particularly in his role in The Diaries of A General Manager (1995).

His special touch and his ability to play many roles, historical, comedy, and social, drove the late poet Mahmoud Darwish to call him “The Arab Anthony Quinn.” He never rejected a role for being too minor. He always said that no role was too minor or too major, there are only minor and major actors. This is how he was able to bolster himself against any failure, because he always performed his roles very well, even if the work itself turned out to be a failure.

Taja’s battle with illness was an old one. Almost half a century ago, he discovered that he had lung cancer. But he was able to beat the malignant tumor and carried on with his life as normal, only now with one lung. Taja did not heed his health. Throughout his life he continued to drink Arak and smoke heavily.

He was also obsessed with antiques and oriental artifacts. He filled his house with them and collected them avidly. He refused to film television interviews in his home fearing for those antiques that he has acquired himself. He never missed a chance to go to the antique market in the Midhat Pasha quarter in old Damascus to search for hidden treasures.

News of his death fell heavily on his friends in the art world. His close friend Abdul Hadi al-Sabbagh did not answer Al-Akhbar’s calls.

The actress Samar Sami said: “Perhaps we should envy him, his quiet death in this time of sudden and cruel death.”

His companion throughout his artistic life, actor Salim Sabri, remembered how they worked together since the 1950s. He said: “Death will not obscure him because he has left a deep impression in the minds of his friends and his large audience.”

This is confirmed by actor Rashid Assaf who said: “In parallel with the importance of his art, he was also a great man and artist...We cannot imagine drama without him.”


The Shadow Hero

Khalil Sweileh

Damascus – Khaled Taja is not the Arab Anthony Quinn, simply because he is inimitable. He is a special kind of actor who built up his stardom in phases, accumulating experience and listening to the internal spirit of the personality he was playing, sucking its nectar with passion. He was an exceptional presence, adding his personal stamp to any role he played no matter how minor. An unseen embellishment snuck into the personality to become part of it, not just as a superficial decoration, but heavy in its presence. This is how he did away with stereotypes and revealed the lives of people who did not have much to tell. The written script was just the raw material, he would then embellish it like a master craftsman, invisibly mending all the holes and hiding the secrets in the weave of the personality. So we find the personality taking over the screen, in words and spirit.

In his long list of roles, we stand in awe before many. His role in Palestinian Emigration is enough to put him uniquely at the top because stardom is always through playing tragic personalities. From his position as an actor without any titles, Taja was able to break the mould. From his first appearance in the film The Truck Driver (1966) and his television series The Migration of the Hearts to the Hearts to The Age of Shame, he was always the winning ticket. He is the “shadow hero” who pulls the carpet toward him with the stealth of a magician, to weave a parallel story to what is happening on the other side of the screen.

We would be mistaken to think that talent alone brought Taja to such stature. There is also his instinct and the work he did weaving the role through all its hidden levels. He separated the colors then he skillfully remixed them on the roof. He has a life full of experience, adventure and travels, as well as failure and rebirth. His life was spent listening to the suggestions of new generations and merging with them until the distance between them disappeared.

Taja had passion for the stage he had not trodden for a long time, and to sit on King Lear’s throne, the role he longed to play until the last day of his life. He died because of a lack of oxygen and damage to his lungs. But one would argue that he used an excess of oxygen with his dedication to the lives of his imagined personalities who used up all his energy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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