Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 August 2006
Issue No. 808
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Samuel Shimon

Samuel Shimon: Destination Hollywood

Pedlar, traveller, militant, refugee, literary authority? Above all, perhaps, this personable Iraqi is a movie buff, a kind of frustrated filmmaker. It would be hard to follow the chronological life course of so non-linear a man. Suffice to say that 10 years since settling in London -- where his name has become synonymous with both Banipal, the English language's best known journal of Arabic literature, and, the vastly popular "website for Arab and international cultures" -- Shimon's hard-won sense of fulfilment belies dreams unrealised. As Washington's bid to "free" Iraq witnesses unprecedented death tolls, it seems rather more right than wrong to seek an Iraqi who, far from any involvement in politics, has had no direct contact with the country since Saddam Hussein rose to power.
Interview by Youssef Rakha

Click to view caption

Two years after Samuel Shimon was born in Habbaniyah, near Falluja along the course of the Euphrates, a military take-over put an end to the Iraqi monarchy. By the time he left the country at the age of 24 -- incidentally, it happened within months of Saddam Hussein becoming president -- Shimon had absorbed enough of his father's nostalgic attachment to Iraq's former colonisers to call himself a royalist; so basic and ingenuous was his political awareness. This would of course prove disastrous in his six-year Arab sojourn, a time during which he was repeatedly interrogated, tortured and deported, often because his name suggested he might be Jewish. He is in fact Assyrian, belonging to one of Iraq's most ancient and peaceful sects -- but one that has, like the Maronites of Lebanon, been rightly or wrongly associated with colonial power. In early life, none of President Abdul-Karim Qassem's Baathist rhetoric about Arab unity would have made much sense to Shimon. As well as Arabic, indeed, he grew up speaking a form of Aramaic. But like most Arabs of his generation, he had no sectarian awareness at all. "Christian, yes," he says, "but I've never called myself that nor set foot in a church." He recalls how, as a poor man's son, when he came out top of his class, his bearded Muslim neighbour congratulated him using the Assyrian pronunciation of his name, the one his mother preserved till the end of her life: "You put our heads up, Shmouil." The implication is that, under the British, the Iraqis' inborn tolerance reigned.

Yet it was not on Britain but America that Shimon set his sights, for reasons that were crucial to the purpose of his journey. "People at the time, poor people, dreamed of immigrating, but only to huge continent-size countries: America, Canada, Australia. If you told them you were going to France they laughed at you. You know," he looks down again, fumbling with a cigarette, "I think I am the only Iraqi who left Iraq for the sake of a dream," his voice all proud conviction. "I challenge you to find another who left for the same reason."

By the time he reached his 20s, Shimon had a perfectly valid ambition and the imagination to see himself realising it, but nothing remotely as practical as a plan -- or money. Hence its description as a dream. At first it doesn't sound all that far- fetched, in fact. Only on closer scrutiny do you realise how insane it must have been in context. Still, you can only admire a mind that conceived and nurtured it and the courage it must have taken to single-handedly pit it against reality:

Thanks to Kiryakos, a friend of the family who was a walking encyclopaedia of Hollywood, Shimon had been besotted with American cinema since his early teens. His dream was to go straight to California to make a film called Al-Hanin ila Al-Zaman Al-Ingelizi (Nostalgia for English Times). He would cast Robert De Niro in the role of his father, a deaf and dumb, arak -drinking baker who, since working for the occupation forces in Habbaniyah, "the largest British military base in the Middle East", has been in love with the queen. He would make it expensively, in grand style, as Hollywood films should be made. And it would hit the box office like a tornado, bringing him the fame and fortune he had deserved all along...

Reality proves far more complicated, sadly: after a series of catastrophes in the Arab world, Shimon settles down as a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) employee in the West Beirut neighbourhood of Fakhani, obtaining a doctored Lebanese-Palestinian passport and the false name of Robert. He barely survives an Israeli air raid in which François, the young French PLO volunteer he has befreinded, loses his life. Later, much later, while staying in a Paris hotel overlooking the Pere Lachaise cemetery -- the resting place of Proust and Callas -- Shimon is told by a ghost taxi driver that François too is buried here; he finds out what his real name is and takes to tending his grave with water, flowers and endless monologues. In Tunis, where he follows the Palestinians after 1982, Shimon realises a passionate love affair for the first time and impulsively has himself circumcised -- not to convert to Islam, as he tries to tell the barber who does the honours, but to "scale off that remnant of imperialism".

As Robert, Shimon travelled widely, notably to Egypt -- a place that had fascinated him since childhood. This happened when a battalion of Egyptian maghawir (Iraqi dialect for "foreigners") arrived in Habbaniyah to help the regime liberate Palestine. The maghawir virtually overtook the town, invading the hearts and occasionally the bodies of the women with their exotic dialect and urban demeanour. And along with them came Egyptian cinema, which was sufficiently like Hollywood to engage Shimon. Here as elsewhere Shimon is true to the tone and tenor of his childhood: his fond memories of the time he later spent in Egypt reflect the excitement the maghawir and their moving pictures inspired. "It was in 1982 or 1983," he recalls meeting the late filmmaker Salah Abu Seif, one of his many idols, for an interview in Cairo. "I love that photo."

More recently, when his name stood in the way of obtaining a visa at the Egyptian Embassy in London -- once again he was mistaken for a Jew, apparently deemed a worse threat to national security than Ehud Olmert -- Shimon pleaded with the woman attendant for a long time before insulting her mother in exasperation. As one of "the lovers of Felfela", he does not feel he needs official approval of his name to go to Egypt. And even now his response to the spread of fanaticism and the narrowing margins of cosmopolitanism in Cairo prompts no stronger a response than, "they are poor people with good hearts. There is nothing that I find offensive about them. They are always good to me."

By 1985, however, Shimon had departed the Arab world altogether. He was a legal refugee in France -- the first among his group to willingly leave the compound and make his way to Paris on a false promise of free accommodation; there were to be many such promises. In more than 10 years, in fact, Shimon became an authority on bohemian and Arab Paris, befriending Syrians and Tunisians, street artists and taxi drivers, poets and revolutionaries. "I was homeless for 10 years, you understand," he lets out, as if revealing that he had been a smoker or an alcoholic. We are exiting the pub in Hammersmith as he does so, walking towards the tube station, and he puts his hands to his shoulders as if to weigh out his remaining strength. "It was tiring."

But like Tunis and Beirut before it, Paris reached a stalemate just as abruptly. By 1996, indeed, Shimon was already well at home in London, the husband of Banipal editor-to-be Margret Obank, and a widely trusted figure in contemporary Arabic literature. His web site, Kikah, would become a kind of pan- Arab project in its own right, but one devoid of political overtones. Was there a sense of achievement in finally having a roof over his head, enough to eat and drink and a productive routine?

"I didn't have any kind of literary background," he insists, dodging the question. Certainly something about his tone implies that, in giving up his absolute freedom from the straightjacket of job and home life, he stood to lose something as well. But whether or not he will admit it, Shimon had always been a writer. Much of the work he did for the Palestinians, for example, involved journalism and documentation. He was a radio host, a stringer, a typist for the Paris-based Syrian poet Adonis, who valued his judgement as "free from the linguistic hegemony of the Quran". Still, "I was mad about cinema and an excellent footballer; these are technical things, so I can say 'excellent' without the testimony of others. Anyway, that dilemma was summarily resolved in favour of cinema."

But since filmmaking was to stay in the realm of possibility, an ongoing and unfulfilled dream that probably lives on to this day, Shimon seems to have been content to live a film instead of making one, different as that film turned out to be from Al-Hanin, after all: "In the end how can I complain of a life that's been 100-per cent Hollywood?"

It has.

Judging by his autobiographical "novel" An Iraqi in Paris, at least, Shimon has led an improbably dramatic life. The book was published first in English translation ( Banipal, 2005) and, later in the same year, with the German-based Iraqi house Al-Jamal, in the original Arabic (as Iraqi fi Barees ). In the latter edition it is appended with the only text Shimon had managed to produce by the end of his French stay, Al-Baai' Al-Mutajawil wal-Cinema. A haunting account of childhood with powerful portraits of both his father and Habbaniyah, it seems to contain much of the substance of Al-Hanin. "All of Iraq was in Habbaniyah," he recalls: "the Sunnis, Shia, Sabians and those kind-hearted devil-worshippers, the Yazidis. They were closest to my heart." He takes the time to recall, nostalgically, how his mother, saddened by the fact that he was not a church-goer, would tell him that he, too, would one day be like the Yazidis: "I think she was right." At this point we have reached the house of Shimon's friend Salam, in Ealing; with typical Iraqi gusto, Salam interrupts to explain that Yazidis are not devil worshippers per se. Rather, one of the angels they worship shares a name with Satan; they reject the notion of damnation. But Shimon, who says little in response, is evidently all too willing to accept the misconception: real devil worshippers, not people mistaken for them, were closest to his heart.

Shimon is an easy-going, easily distracted Guinness connoisseur. He has strong, sometimes eccentric views and a hearty enthusiasm for company. Like most Iraqis, he is intense, brusque almost, with a generosity other contemporary Arabs could hardly conceive of. But unlike Iraqis, he is extremely low-key, he knows the difference between irreverence and disrespect. And he is modest, very modest, bracketing his jaw-dropping experiences as "the life of an ordinary, a very ordinary person".

But he is not without gripes; any mention of Lebanese leftists, for example, will introduce an upsurge of spleen into an otherwise genial conversation. And illusions of grandeur annoy him. "You interviewed that many Arab writers," he wonders. "How many were convinced they were great?" A squat, dark, ageless man in jeans with irregular teeth and a baseball cap on his head -- "I'm wearing blue and a blue cap," he told me on the phone while I sat on the bus to Hammersmith, concerned that we might not recognise each other -- Shimon turns out to be a talented storyteller as well. Perhaps he would have made a successful actor. "When people ask me why I've published two books in the same volume, I tell them that I live in London," he comments, completely deadpan. "As you know, to bolster sales in the supermarkets here, they give you two for the price of one."

Here as in Al-Baai', Shimon keeps a wakeful eye on the economic conditions of day-to-day life. With startling precision, he describes the early morning ritual of collecting salt (to be packaged and sold), evenings spent indoors making summer drinks and winter sandwiches, which he would be let out of class early to sell out of a cart in the playground when he went to school. The scene shifts drastically on the bus to Damascus, his first destination after Baghdad. Politics rings louder than economics.

But unlike the nitty-gritty of financial exchange, power play never came naturally to Shimon. At the first stop on the way to Hollywood, therefore, enter Kafka. Light years away from the glamour of the silver screen, the wannabe film-maker is subjected to an endless rigmarole of barbarity. At one point, he has to recite the names of all the Hollywood stars he knows at gunpoint -- to prove to a militiaman that he left Iraq for no purpose other than to make cinema. To the Phalangists, he is a Syrian spy; to the Syrians, an Israeli in disguise; in Jordan, protest as he may that he is actually a royalist, he is at the centre of a plot to overthrow the monarchy.

Ironically, in a way, Shimon's experience is potent testimony to Arab and pan-Arab failure -- an implicit aspect of hankering after "English times". But An Iraqi in Paris is more than a long-in-the-coming vindication. "The story of a whole generation of Arabs," wrote Amir Taheri, describing the book, "whose life was destroyed by the stupid ideologies that controlled Arab politics." Others would stress the cinematic force behind Shimon's writing, confirming the author's confession to having led such a life made in California. " An Iraqi in Paris (the title reminds us, of course, of a Hollywood film) is, perhaps unconsciously, the author's long-dreamed of but unaccomplished film," wrote Fadhil Al-Azzawi, "some kind of compensation or attempt to arrive at his dreamland, even by other means of transportation."

Reviewing the book in Al-Ahram Weekly, Hannah Ziadeh, for his part, pulls a totally unexpected string: "[My] disbelief was shattered when in one of the laconic anecdotes in this book Shimon writes about a young French volunteer... My disbelief was shattered because I knew this same François, and I remember asking after him... as if it was only yesterday, only to be told " istashhad ": he is now a martyr." Ziadeh never heard again of the young volunteer until he read this book.

"When I saw that review," Shimon confesses, "I cried. He says that, without illusions, life would turn into hell." In fact it is Shimon who says this in his book; Ziadeh merely quotes him. "And then he goes on to talk about this young Frenchman we both knew, a person he'd been looking for for years, many years -- until he finally found him in my book." This sense of long awaited, and inevitably unexpected recognition crops up again and again in Shimon's conversation.

Having replaced his pint of Guinness with a glass of wine, he recounts one of the book's most moving episodes: A friend has directed him to an abandoned house in which he can squat, just outside Paris. The house's earlier "owner", with the help of a small gang, were to drive Shimon out -- eventually to the most recent stop on his way to Hollywood: London. But for a few weeks, in the company of an elderly "grandma" and her cat, Shimon enjoys the gift of basic amenities. Among these was a tub full of hot water. Lowering himself inside it, he says, he was transported back to Habbaniyah, where his mother used to bathe him in the exact same way. "It felt identical," he kept repeating. "It gave me a very strong emotion." Wisel, perhaps, he refrains from any attempt to describe the emotion in question. After all, he had had no contact with his parents after leaving Iraq -- so much so that he found out about his father's death three whole years after the fact. Another of the Assyrian's paradoxes, this: the absolute conviction with which he embarked on his journey to the New World. As if he was aware that Hollywood, like Ithaka, would be but a pretext for the incredible wealth of first-hand knowledge he was destined to acquire, he promised himself never to turn back. Whatever happened, he would march onwards -- which meant, in effect, marching on a Habbaniyah of the mind. In this sense, too, it seems accurate to say that he left Iraq "for the sake of a dream".

An Iraqi in Paris opens with Shimon meeting his mother near her sister's residence in America -- a stone's throw away from Hollywood, as it happens. It is 2004, and mother tells son that she beat him to Hollywood, for which he had left her and his country more than 25 years before; they had not seen each other. First, she cries. Then, commenting on her son's incongruously large nose, she bursts into laughter. And Shimon, fielding with a similar jibe at the holes in her socks, joins in. Hollywood may be in sight, but he knows he has not arrived.

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