2016-06-30
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The hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, on November 9 brought the death of a favorite son of the Arab world. Syrian-American filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, arguably the best-known and most beloved filmmaker in the Arab and Islamic worlds, was struck down along with his daughter, Rima Akkad Monla. Though identified in the U.S. media as the producer of the eight "Halloween" movies, Akkad's death has struck a deep nerve throughout the Arab-Muslim world with the loss of this champion of positive Muslim-oriented films.

The Amman bombings, for which Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility, were roundly and immediately condemned throughout the Arab world. But Arab media coverage increased exponentially following Akkad's death a day after the bombings. The killing of Akkad revealed a grim irony. As Syrian film director Samir Zikra explained to Lebanon's Assafir on November 12, despite all of Akkad's efforts to rectify the Western depiction of Islam and Arabs, "his death solidifies and symbolizes the Arab reality much more than anything he was able to do in his films."

Akkad is an icon in the Arab-Muslim world for the specific content of his two most famous movies-among non-American audiences, that is-his 1976 film "The Message" and 1981's "Lion of the Desert." Both films, which starred Anthony Quinn and were directed and produced by Akkad, are considered by Arabs and Muslims the only historically accurate depictions of Muslim Arabs to come out of Hollywood.

"The Message," which is about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the emergence of Islam in 7th-century Arabia, garnered an Oscar nomination in 1978 for Best Music and Original Score. The film's wide scope was aided by Akkad simultaneously filming English and Arabic versions. "The Message" has been widely viewed and applauded throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, where it has become an integral part of Muslim families' popular cultural-religious tradition akin to that of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 classic "The Ten Commandments" among Jewish- and Christian-Americans.

Although neither "The Message" nor Akkad's "Lion of the Desert" (about Omar Mukhtar, the hero of the Libyan resistance to Italian colonization during the Mussolini era) were box-office successes in the U.S., they were popular within the American Muslim community. He also produced historical documentaries in the Arab world, in collaboration with major Arab literati and intellectuals, and his efforts for the past 15 years had been divided between film projects on Islamic Spain and Saladin. Sean Connery had already agreed to star in the latter film.

The intense coverage of Akkad's death by Arab and Muslim media vividly illustrated his stature as the quintessential spokesperson for positive and moderate Islam. The title of Talal Salman's November 12 op-ed in the Lebanese Assafir, "The Assassination of the Message," echoes the widespread view among Arabic press editorials and op-eds that Akkad's death does great harm to Muslims' attempts to defend the true message of Islam. And the London-based pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi ran an elegiac cartoon of Akkad on November 12 with the heading "Those who have distorted the message killed the father of `The Message.' " These sentiments were perhaps best represented by Syrian actor Ayman Zeidan's statement to Syria's al-Thawra on November 15: "[Akkad] was able to be the true ambassador for Arab and Islamic affairs."

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  • Numerous Arab artists have added their voices to the outrage and sadness in the Arab/Muslim world. Akkad's friend Samir Atta Allah, who remembered his halcyon days with a young Akkad in Beirut's coffeehouses, wrote in his November 12 op-ed in Saudi Arabia's Asharq al-Awsat, "Moustapha Akkad wanted to be something different-to be a director like David Lean. No less."

    Akkad was also mourned at the official level. Jordan's Prime Minister Adnan Badran accompanied his body from the hospital to the Jordanian-Syrian border. In Syria, Jordanian Minister of Culture Amin Mahmoud represented the kingdom at the funeral services, which were attended by a delegation of Syrian politicians, artists, and religious figures including Syrian Prime Minister Naji Attari.

    Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid's November 13 op-ed in Asharq al-Awsat put the matter in clear perspective: "Akkad is the man who gave the most magnificent image of Islam, [and] he was killed by al-Qaeda, which holds the distinction-and entirely appropriate-as the greatest group to do evil to Islam." Al-Rashid, a man whose September 2004 op-ed titled "The Sad Truth is that All Terrorists are Muslim" caused quite a stir in the Arab world, doesn't mince his words.

    Castigating those who have justified the use of suicide bombings over the years, he writes that those who defended such actions have lived far removed from the impact of bombings and could more easily believe that the targets were valid for some reason. However, with events such as the Amman bombings, "the majority of the justifiers of terrorism have been deprived of their claims when the people see the crime in front of their eyes and that the real victims are innocents, and [see] that all of the justifications are merely lies used to cover up the actions of criminals."

    The hotel bombings are the latest attacks on Jordan, and revealed Al-Zarqawi's motivations, according to a November 12 editorial in al-Quds al-Arabi, based on his own statements: First, Al-Zarqawi was avenging himself on Jordan because of the torture he claims he underwent while in prison there. Second, he was punishing Jordan for its peace treaty with Israel and its cooperation with the U.S. occupation of Iraq, especially training Iraqi troops in Jordan. And last, Al-Zarqawi sought to spread chaos in Amman to thwart the billions in investments and revenues that derive from Jordan's stability and businesses such as tourism.

    The reaction in Jordan to the bombings, including a demonstration of more than 100,000 people, and the press coverage of the 59 people killed-including Akkad and his daughter-led to Al-Zarqawi's second statement, issued a week after the bombings. In it, he incredulously argued that "trusted sources inside the hotels and elsewhere showed that they were centers for Jewish, American, and Jordanian security" and claimed he didn't intend to kill innocents. He concluded "the target was a meeting of intelligence agencies, but a roof collapsed on a wedding party from the explosion."

    The Amman bombings and the symbolism of Akkad's death proved cathartic for many Arabs and Muslims. In an elegiac poem titled "O Night of Amman, What Did They Do to You" printed in Assafir on November 15, Rafiq Nasr Allah wrote of Akkad ".Are you still searching for another Omar Mukhtar/to say that the hearts of Arabs are still producing heroes.?" However, Nasr Allah may also be making a statement, as the word "heroes," if pronounced another way, can mean "ruin."

    Zaid Nabulsi's November 17 op-ed in the Jordan Times is typical of the soul-searching in the wake of the bombings: "Standing speechless in the middle of that disturbing, turbulent sea of emotions, I realized that each single murdered soul is an unspeakable calamity in itself," Nabulsi wrote. "In the aftermath discussions that gripped a somber Amman, I heard people talking about how the blessed survivors who barely got away were meant to live. I would respectfully add that all the victims were also meant to live. .. Moustapha Akkad was meant to live. His daughter, too, was meant to live. For Almighty God's sake, we are all meant to live."

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