In the northernmost courtyard in the Beiteddine Palace complex, two pairs of soldiers stood on opposite ends of the open space two from the Lebanese Army, chatting nonchalantly, and two from the Byzantine Army, smoking cigarettes.
The latter two were on break from shooting a soap opera, or musalsal, a historical epic with big production values. It’s slated to compete in the month-long television scramble for ratings and advertising money that falls during Ramadan, beginning next month.
Beiteddine has been hosting the cast and crew of Al-Mutanabbi, a 30-episode series that chronicles the life of the controversial figure who inspired generations with his poetry, while bedeviling many as to his true political ambitions.
Abu Tayeb Ahmad bin Hussein (915-965 AD) was born in Kufa and raised in Damascus, quickly becaming notorious for reportedly claiming the gift of prophecy (hence, the nickname Al-Mutanabbi, meaning “he who claims the gift of prophecy”). After a failed tribal rebellion in Syria, he was imprisoned by the governor of Homs. When he finally gained his liberty, his poetic gifts secured him a place at the court of Saif al-Dawla, the ruler of Aleppo.
But jealousy and intrigue by others apparently caused a rift between Mutanabbi and his patron, as the poet then put himself at the service of Kafur, the Ishkhid ruler of Egypt. That relationship soured, and Mutanabbi’s scurrilous satires against Kafur forced another flight, to Shiraz, and the protection of Adud al-Dawla.
Mutanabbi, who had sought his own emirate to rule, met his end at the hands of brigands while traveling from Shiraz to Baghdad, killed by a tribe whom he had satirized.
The title role goes to Salloum Haddad, a burly, veteran actor who has left his stamp on Syrian acting through roles like his Aleppine textile merchant in Haitham Haqqi’s 1950s-era Khan al-Harir (Silk Market). Last Ramadan, Haddad had the lead role in Al-Zeer Salem, a pre-Islamic tale of the legendary War of Bsous. The theme was Arab inter-tribal conflict, and Haddad’s performance caused an admitted backlash against an Arab tribal leader figure who weeps, knishes his teeth and does other unmanly things.
Like that series, Al-Mutanabbi provides fertile ground for those wishing to address contemporary conditions in the Arab world through the story of this problematic figure, a poet who sought an emirate to rule and made repeated political miscalculations.
“Making this series is about how we can benefit from history,” Haddad said, enthusiastic about playing a character who he fully expects to cause differing reactions in people. The actor indicated that the series will feature the issue of Mutanabbi’s relations with the political authorities of his day, as well as the “genius” that makes him remembered for his poetry today.
For Haddad, the decline of the Abbasid empire into rival mini-states adds to the drama, and he indicated that the Arab “political project” that Mutanabbi might have forged with Saif al-Dawla will be a part of the production.
“You have more freedom in historical series” to make statements, Haddad said, acknowledging that historical epics are one way of expressing commentary about the Arab world’s present condition. The era in question saw non-Arab leaders take power as the empire fragmented, and the Byzantines in Beiteddine were guarding Abu Firas al-Hamadani, a poet-leader who was imprisoned in Constantinople.
The rest of Beiteddine is being used as the headquarters of Saif al-Dawla, in Aleppo. The Syrian city contains important architectural sites, but lacks Beiteddine’s outdoor gardens, which the producers wanted for Saif al-Dawla’s palace.
As for the production values, coming to Lebanon is not the show’s only big budget item it is part of a shooting schedule that has taken the crew to Shiraz, Baghdad and Egypt, as well as Damascus.
Almost 700 sets and 370 actors are taking part in the series, directed by Jordanian Faisal al-Zoubi and made by the firm Saqr Arabi (Arab Falcon) and Abu Dhabi Television, where it has exclusive first-time broadcast rights.
Declining to give figures about the costs, Haddad, also the executive producer, discussed the likely competition from big historical epics. These number Hulagu, the Mongol general who sacked Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus; Saqr Qureish, set during the Arab period in Andalusia; and Omar Khayyam, the story of the Iranian poet and mathematician.
The above-mentioned Syrian productions cover a period of several hundred years and are the latest in a wave of “authentic historical” epics, usually with large budgets and casts.
These, in the latter half of the 1990s, have replaced the earlier, fantasy-oriented musalsals. Some say that Egyptians have ceded the historical field to the Syrians, preferring to produce instead lower-budget contemporary dramas and comedies.
The example in everyone’s mind in the run-up to Ramadan is how Hajj Metwally, an Egyptian contemporary comic-drama about the four-wife marriage of Nour Sharif, claimed status as the biggest hit last year, when the Syrian historical crowd put up not one but two versions of Salah al-Din. This means that historical epics will have to perform even better to show that they are the projects worth doing.
For director Zoubi, the series will be heavy on politics and a treatment of history that does not involve blind adulation. “History shouldn’t always be dealt with in this ‘positive’ fashion. It needs harsh criticism,” Zoubi said.
Zoubi emphasized his concept of Mutanabbi as a Machiavelli par excellence, hinting that his relations with courts and intrigues will figure large in the series.
As for Beiteddine, its hosting the cast and crew for 17 days was a routine affair, but one that might not promise to be lucrative. Haddad said the fee arrangement with and treatment by the army troops were very good, but downplayed any large-scale rush to shoot here.
“It’s still too expensive,” Haddad said. “You shoot here if you absolutely have to, like we did.”
Lebanon will see its Christine Choueiri, Maggy Abu Ghosn and Rafik Ali Ahmad in Al-Mutanabbi, with a few actors each from Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia also in the cast, besides the Syrians.
Asked about the reasons for having non-Syrian actors, Haddad first said it was needed for dialect reasons, to get the right lilt to a character’s speech and be authentic about events that took place from Egypt to Iran.
But he couldn’t resist getting in a dig at the political situation.
“If our political leaders can’t do it,” he grinned, referring to the pan-Arab flavor to the cast, “then let us do it.”
The series’ writer is poet and playwright Mamdouh Adwan, who wrote Al-Zeer Salem.
Adwan’s concern is Mutanabbi as poet, which may go against the grain of Zoubi’s looking for Mutanabbi as politician.
Adwan said that politics can manage to impose itself on art, whether within the writing of a musalsal or when a show is aired.
“I remember in 1982, during the Israeli invasion, it just so happened that a production of Lailat Suqut Granata (The Night Granada Fell) was the musalsal that we were seeing every night,” Adwan recalled. “Of course, it was a total coincidence, but imagine seeing something about the fall of Andalus when Beirut was under siege.”