Interview with Omar Amiralay

"My Optimism Is Hair-Thin"

Three films by Syrian director Omar Amiralay were featured in the "Middle East News" project curated by Catherine David in Berlin in late January. Youssef Hijazi met with him to discuss his films and the role of the intellectuals and the Baath Party in Syria

Mr. Amiralay, how would you describe yourself? Who is Omar Amiralay?

In the film A Flood in Baath Country, director Omar Amiralay encounters schoolchildren who are taught with Maoist rigor

​​Omar Amiralay: Omar Amiralay is an unhappy person. It was his fate to be born in a time of misfortune. I come from an old Ottoman family; we are part of the region’s Ottoman heritage. I was born toward the end of the war, in 1944, two years before Syria achieved independence.

I was four years old when the Nakba happened in Palestine and six years old at the time of the Arab world’s first putsch. As you can see, these beginnings set the course. We set out on a path strewn with catastrophes, and a life filled with obstacles lay before us.

At that time I wasn’t thinking about film, of course, but through my brother, who was a painter, I had contact to art at a very early age. I grew up in an environment which gave me access to art and music.

My brother’s generation was the first generation to consciously dream of establishing a society that was open to the west and its culture. They began to build up a civil, culture-based society in Syria. That was the beginning.

Catherine David, the curator of the project "Middle East News", said in her opening speech that while the Middle East plays a major role in the media, this event illuminated a neglected aspect of the region. Do you agree with her, and what message do you want to convey yourself?

Amiralay: She is certainly right when she says that politics reduce the Arab world to the political, and that the media, in turn, reduce the politics. As you can see, the understanding of the Arab world is belittled, in its totality, complexity and diversity.

Can you explain exactly how and in what respect this reductionist view comes about?

Amiralay: The view of the European media is restricted by their fears. That happened even at this event. One of the two main talks focused on a portrait of Zarqawi. I find it rather unfair to reduce the Arab world to a person like Zarqawi.

Over and over again people who actually work outside the western media claim to be specialists in the region. They give the European media access to events in the region by exploring phenomena like Bin Laden and Zarqawi and giving them a special meaning. They narrow the focus, which means they are consciously or unconsciously playing along with the media’s game.

Who would be in a position to present a better picture?

Amiralay: I lost control of myself in a discussion yesterday. I said that we were sick of European specialists providing a one-sided approach to the Arab world.

People have to start accepting the fact that the Arab world has its own representatives. People who think according to western models and methods and produce rational, methodical examinations of their own reality. They reflect the position of people who are directly affected, rather than that of the observer or the analyst. The west must accept that the Arab world has these capabilities itself and is able to present itself on its own.

In your first film, Attempt at the Euphrates Dam, you glorify technology and the anticipated modernization. Machines and cranes are filmed from below, which makes them appear imposing. And again in your latest film, A Flood in Baath Country, there are oversized images of the reservoir. In both scenarios people seem to be portrayed as tiny and lost. Is that the way you see it?

Amiralay: That’s true of the first film. People were mere cogs in the machines that built the dam. The second film features two people: the first represents the Syrian conscience. This masked person tells of the country’s history, of how the country and its culture was lost to the flooding. The film ends with a close-up in which this person says: There is no river anymore.

Now we have a lake. We used to swim in the river, and we went walking on its banks. Today our children can’t swim or dive anymore; they think this river has always been a lake. They’re afraid of drowning in it.

At the beginning of the film, before we enter the village of al-Maschi, a close-up shows the Syrians as very small and lost. A drop in the water.

In these two films you move between two extremes: glorification and admiration in the first, and criticism, even condemnation in the second. There is no doubt that the latest film criticizes those in power. Aren’t you condemning yourself as well, if we look back at your first film?

Amiralay: In the 1960s and 70s I participated in the political life of the time. I didn’t follow the Baath party line, because I wasn’t a Baathist. I was a Marxist, and I still am. My conception of modernity was oriented toward the Soviet model, that is, the Leninist understanding of modernity, and that means modernization.

Omar Amiralay (photo: Youssef Hijazi)
Omar Amiralay: "If I allow myself to criticize the Baath Party, I must first practice self-criticism. I collaborated with this Syrian ideology of modernization."

​​The Baath Party adopted trivial aspects of Soviet philosophy and tried to put them into practice because it had neither an economic program nor a socialist ideology. It was just a bad copy of the Soviet model. It’s no coincidence that the Soviets built the dam themselves.

We believed that this understanding of modernization – that is, the revolutionization and development of the means of production and the mechanization of agriculture and manufacturing – would change the relations of production and people and human relations along with them.

However, that does not release intellectuals from their historical responsibility, and it does not permit them to wash their hands of the matter as if they have always been in the right and have a monopoly on the truth.

What I mean is: if I allow myself to criticize the Baath Party, I must first practice self-criticism. I collaborated with this Syrian ideology of modernization. Thus, we intellectuals shared the responsibility for our country’s ruin.

A Flood in Baath Country ends with a snowstorm, terrifying rumbles of thunder and the call to prayer. An infinite pessimism. Have you lost hope?

Amiralay: I wanted to point out at the end of the film that the totalitarianism of the Baath Party paves the way for a different kind of totalitarianism, the totalitarianism in the name of Islam. Tomorrow the Islamists will force people into a certain kind of thinking and behavior which will not be much worse than the supposedly secular nationalist and totalitarian regime.

We are confronted with a historical heritage of totalitarianism, and I don’t believe we have yet reached the last station of this journey in the region.

Let’s talk about the opposition and the changes in Syria. Will Syria’s fate be similar to Iraq’s?

Amiralay: There are two reasons why Syria will be spared this fate for the time being. One is the fear that Syria will break apart, just like Iraq. For another thing, three hundred holy men are buried in Damascus, and I believe their bones would ache if American tanks rolled over them. These holy men have come together because they represent Syria better than the 218 members of parliament do.

But seriously: I believe the history of Syria and the Umayyad political heritage show to this day that politics cannot be allowed to ruin the country. That means that at some point a compromise must be reached. That is exactly what the story of the hair of Caliph Mu’awiya tells. The Umayyad heritage differs from the Abbasid heritage. Baghdad was destroyed several times over the course of history, while Damascus has existed uninterrupted for more than four thousand years.

You’ve become somewhat more optimistic.

Amiralay: My optimism is hair-thin. I am counting on the continuation of Syria’s Umayyad history.

So you are reckoning with a compromise?

Amiralay: Yes.

Interview by Youssef Hijazi

© 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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