Sunday, March 04, 2007

"The Message"

Readers of this blog know that I offer very few words of praise for our state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Tonight, however,
I feel somewhat different because SABC3 is screening Moustapha Akkad's (1930-2005) compelling 1976 masterpiece, "The Message".

I feel different because the SABC has shown an unusual measure of principled daring in screening this film. We live, afterall, in an absolutely manic time when everything Islamic is viewed through the myopic skepticism of Bush's empire.

Islamaphobia and its irrational cousin, fearrorism, are the political bandwagons of the day. And it is hard not to see how the power mongers of the West, and their agents elsewhere, are scheming frantically to disfigure Islam.

Moustapha Akkad made "The Message" in circumstances that fit into the contemporary currents of Islamaphobia and fearrorism. He sought to document, for a Western audience, the rise of Islam and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He intended the film to be a vehicle for communication between Muslims and Western non-Muslims.

Akkad also wanted to highlight the manner in which the West was misrepresenting Islam. In 1976 he explained his motivation thus: "being Muslim myself who lived in the West I felt that it was my obligation my duty to tell the truth about Islam."

Hollywood, of course, wanted nothing to do with the making of the film. So Akkad went abroad and raised the money for his film. "The Message" was filmed in Libya and Morocco.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is not directly portrayed in the film. You will not see an actor play him, or any other likeness of him. This is in keeping with the Islamic tradition of aniconism (a prohibition against imaging God or any of the prophets).

Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), below, plays plays Hamza ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, the uncle of the Prophet (PBUH), and an early convert to Islam.

Some of you may remember Quinn for his Oscar-winning performance in "Viva Zapata!" (1952) and, of course, his lead role in the superbly magnificent "Zorba the Greek" (1964). Can you tell that I am a great admirer of the late Mr. Quinn's work?

Akkad also cast Quinn in what is my all-time favourite film, "Lion of the Desert" (1981). In this movie Quinn portrays the real-life Libyan resistance revolutionary, Omar Mukhtar, who fought Benito Mussolini's (played by Rod Steiger) army before World War II.

"Lion of the Desert" is a compelling study of the will against empire. Mussolini's General, Rodolfo Graziani, tried desperately to defeat Mukhtar and his forces.

Graziani (below) forced tens of thousands of Libyans off their land and into concentration camps during the so-called period of pacification. Thousands died from disease and starvation in these camps. In 1935 Graziani led the Italian invasion into Ethiopia, the result of which was the murder of thousands of Ethiopians. For his brutal role, Graziani became known as "the Butcher of Ethiopia".

The late British actor, Oliver Reed (1938-1999), captures the colonial mania of General Graziani. But it is Quinn who brings artistic life to the film through his remarkable portrayal of Omar Mukhtar.

The real-life Omar Mukhtar (in chains below) fought the facist Italians for 20 long and arduous years. They eventually captured him and sentenced him to death by public hanging. Italy wanted to show the world that it had defeated Mukhtar, the "Lion of the Desert". When the court asked him if he had any last words (this is portrayed in the film) he quoted from the Qur'an with great conviction and said: "From God we have come, and to God we will return."

On September 16, 1931, Omar Mukhtar was put to death at the age of 80. The Italian occupation of Libya continued until 1943 when the Allies defeated Italy in WWII. On December 24, 1951, Libya became an independent country.

Today, Omar Mukhtar is a revered figure whose memory still captures the will to withstand domination. His life and resistance represents the universal truism that domination via empire is a futile political strategy because it inevitably sows the seeds of self destruction.

I wonder if they are listening in Washington. If not, maybe the SABC can send them a copy of the "Lion of the Desert" to watch ... you know, before the inevitable fall of Bush's empire.

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