Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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Here comes the hero

By Amina Elbendary

Salaheddin Al-Ayyubi is perhaps the most famous of all medieval Muslim rulers. Renowned as a victorious general, he is a popular figure throughout the Arab world even today. He is the hero of the Muslim Counter-Crusades, which defeated the Frankish enemies of Islam and reconquered Jerusalem. This in itself lends his history to modern reconstructions and interpretations. It is perhaps too perfect a coincidence that the Egyptian Radio and Television Union chose to produce a new TV series on the life of Salaheddin just as Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are discussing -- among other issues -- the fate of Jerusalem. The echoes are too loud to be ignored.

Salaheddin has of course inspired writers since his own time. He is the first mediaeval Muslim ruler for whom royal biographies were written: the panegyrics Al-Barq Al-Shami by his secretary Emadeddin Al-Isfahani and Al-Nawadir Al-Sultaniyya by Bahaaeddin Ibn Shaddad. His courage, valour, humanity and tolerance have even won him the admiration of his enemies. In Western legend, Salaheddin was reconstructed as "Saladin" in a mirror-image of the chivalrous mediaeval European knight. He was respected so much that Dante included him among the poets, philosophers and ancient heroes of the "noble castle" in his first circle of hell.

Salaheddin
Still from Chahine's Al-Nasser Salaheddin (Misr International Films); top left, scene from Nisr Al-Sharq

In modern Egyptian history, Salaheddin has inspired the famous film Al-Nasser Salaheddin, directed by Youssef Chahine. Produced in 1963, in the heyday of Egypt's Arab nationalist years, the film was full of political undertones. The very title "Al-Nasser" (literally, the victorious) was generally believed to refer to then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Salaheddin was regarded as the hero who united "the Arabs" -- specifically, Egypt and Syria -- against their common enemies, the Crusaders in Palestine, as modern-day Nasser sought to do. The film was produced after the disintegration of the United Arab Republic in 1961, which crushed the dreams of the millions of Arabs who had been socialised into hoping for Arab unity. At a time of full-fledged war between the Arab states and Israel, the victory at Hattin and the reconquest of Jerusalem were metaphors for a hoped-for victory against Israel.

Salaheddin's historical tolerance and kindness, especially with defeated enemies, gave room for a politically correct construction of a modern Muslim hero. Chahine's film went to great lengths to differentiate between "Christian" and "Crusader", arguing that the Crusaders who colonised Palestine, not Christians per se, were Salaheddin's enemies. He thereby introduced Issa (Arabic for Jesus), the Arab Christian swimmer in Salaheddin's army. Issa's character proves two main arguments: first, that Salaheddin's cause was just, so that even pious Arab Christians -- like Issa -- sympathised with it and fought by his side; and second, that Salaheddin himself recognised the difference between Christian and Crusader and had no problem trusting and relying on an Arab Christian in his top ranks. These messages seemed to be responses to modern Western stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as being fanatics and often "anti-Semitic". Modern Arabs also argue that they differentiate between "Jew" and "Zionist", their feud being with Zionist colonialists and not every Jew.

The new TV series, Nisr Al-Sharq Salaheddin (Salaheddin, Eagle of the East), is being aired during Ramadan, but is expected to run on to 60 episodes. It is difficult to tell so far whether the work, written by Abul-Ela El-Salamouni and directed by Hossameddin Mustafa, will offer any new interpretations of the legend. The series brings on its protagonist before his rise to power and conquest of Egypt. It does not focus solely on his famous victory at Hattin. Whether it will deal with any of his defeats as well remains to be seen. By choosing to begin the story so early in Salaheddin's career, the makers of the series had a chance to follow his illustrious path to glory step by step. Unfortunately, one does not sense a gradual maturity with age and experience in the hero's character -- at least, not yet. So far, Salaheddin -- played by Helmi Foda-- is rather rigid, stoic and almost expressionless. He hardly embodies the charismatic qualities expected of a legendary hero.

Characteristically, Salaheddin is presented in the series as being exceptionally kind and tolerant toward his defeated Christian foes. He is also a true gentleman where women are concerned. Thus, in one of the early episodes of the series, before he achieves power in his own name, Salaheddin is shown as being kind to a Frankish concubine, Sophia. Sophia's husband was killed by the Muslims, leaving her pregnant and enslaved. Salaheddin fixes her special medicine when she is sick and announces that he is the father of her unborn child to prevent his mother from over-working her.

In sharp contrast, Nisr Al-Sharq offers a caricaturish, somewhat harsh, portrayal of the Muslim rulers prior to Salaheddin's own rise to power. The emir of Damascus is presented as the symbol of corruption and treason, preferring to ally himself with the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem against his Muslim rival, Nureddin Ibn Zangi. Indeed, historically, it is the fragmentation of the Muslim East that allowed the Crusaders to establish their Latin kingdoms and principalities. The situation was so chaotic that Salaheddin, on his independent rise to power, spent the first 12 years fighting the Zangid successors to Nureddin and consolidating a unified power base for himself in Egypt and Syria. He spent only five years of his 19-year reign in Jihad against the Latin kingdom and the Third Crusade. How will the series explain away those facts? So far, the capture of Damascus by Nureddin is presented as an act saving the city from its treacherous ruler who allied with the Crusaders. Similarly, the drive towards Egypt is meant to save it from its weak Fatimid rulers who are incapable of defending their realm against the Crusaders. But how will they explain Salaheddin's eventual turn against his Zangid masters?

The TV series also introduces the Assassins -- known in Arabic as Al-Hashashun -- a sect of Isma'ili Shi'ites which originated in Persia before branching into Syria, and worked to create a new Shi'ite Fatimid dynasty in the late eleventh century. For that purpose, they waged a war of terror against the Sunni rulers of Syria. They were also known to be mercenaries offering their services to various powers in the region. In Nisr Al-Sharq, the terms used by and in reference to the Assassin characters recalls contemporary popular discourse against Muslim extremism. Thus, in a scene where Salaheddin confronts Rashideddin, the leader of the Assassins, the latter argues that all other Muslims are kuffar, or unbelievers. The issue of takfir is, of course, a prominent one with modern Islamist movements. Salaheddin intervenes to prevent the assassination of the ruler of Damascus, even though the man is his enemy. He argues that the Assassins are not true Muslims and that Islam is innocent of fanaticism, extremism and treachery. Salaheddin thus becomes the symbol of proper and orthodox Islam, just as he is a military hero. The Assassins are further compromised by their relations with the colonising Crusaders, the "real enemies" of Islam.

The makers of Nisr Al-Sharq do try to make the distinction between Christian and Crusader, although they do not go to the same lengths as Chahine by introducing Arab Christian characters. Whether this is a personal bias on their part -- or Chahine's, for that matter-- or a sign of changing times is open to debate. The cause of Arab unity has always been dear to Chahine's heart; in addition, the mood in Egypt in the 1960s was far more secular than it is today. Thus, in Al-Nasir, Salaheddin -- as well as Issa-- repeats the famous nationalist slogan Al-Din Lillah wal-Watan lil-Gami' (roughly: religion is God's, the nation is for all) which explains Issa's position within the army's ranks. The film's exclusive focus on "Arab" unity often seems an anachronistic projection of modern aspirations into the past. In Nisr Al-Sharq, however, there are more references to uniting "Muslims" against their common enemy. This could be a reflection of the increasingly Sunni Muslim mood of 1990s Egypt. In any case, it is historically more accurate. Suffice to remember that Salaheddin himself was not an Arab, but a Kurd. In fact, all the ruling military elites of the Middle East in the Middle Ages were of non-Arab origin; most were Turks and tribesmen from Central Asia.

Nisr Al-Sharq distinguishes between "Christian" and "Crusader" through the character of the nun who opposes the war schemes of her sister the Queen of Jerusalem. She represents the European pilgrims who joined the Crusaders out of pious motives, those who were only interested in prayer, peace and serving the Lord. These the series has no problem in accommodating, as long as they stay within the confines of monasteries.

Historians differ in their evaluation and interpretations of Salaheddin's rule. Some argue that his main aim throughout was waging war against the Franks for which he had to prepare a strong power base before embarking on his military campaigns. Here, uniting Muslim lands is an essential preliminary to Holy War against the Crusaders. The conquest of Egypt provided the necessary resources. Others believe that his aim was essentially to build a unified empire for himself, and that he fought the Franks when they came in his way. Certainly, Salaheddin's own biographers presented him as seeking to restore and revive a unified Islamic empire. It is the interpretation most convenient for political purposes today as well. The two aims need not be mutually exclusive, however: Salaheddin could have wished to serve himself while he served Islam. However, it is important to note, even if we see him as the relentless enemy of the Crusaders, that Salaheddin finally signed a truce with Richard the Lion Heart. Although Salaheddin did defeat the Third Crusade and impose a settlement on the English monarch, the peace treaty was a tacit acceptance of some form of Crusader presence in Syria and Palestine. Salaheddin reconquered Jerusalem and many other principalities, but he did not wipe out Latin kingdoms altogether. It took many more wars by his Ayyubid descendants and their Mameluke successors before the Crusader threat was nullified. Recovering Jerusalem was not the end of the story.

Nisr Al-Sharq will probably be a popular TV series. All the ingredients are there: a good story, and an audience hungry for a reminder of good old days and legendary heroism. The protagonist is already an admired legend. Yet there is something missing. It took me a while to figure it out and then I realised: it's just too bland. The fervour is gone from the story of "us" uniting against a common enemy and emerging victorious. Does this signify a maturity in our analysis of the modern predicament? Or is it that we are still clinging to the Arab dream, even though we are no longer naive enough to believe it might one day come true?

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