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Portraying Saladin, a Middle Eastern Hero

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Of course, that movie's leading Muslim character, Saladin, holds particular interest for audiences in the Middle East. On July 4th, 1187, Saladin's forces defeated the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin. A few months later, they recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem. NPR's Deborah Amos talked to the Syrian actor who plays the legendary Islamic commander.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

At the music and drama school in Damascus, students know Massoud Ghassan as a drama professor and theater director, but this well-known Syrian actor may soon be an international star. Last year, he got a call from Hollywood--a chance to play one of the most heroic figures in Middle Eastern history--Salahadin--known in the West as Saladin. Ghassan has strong ideas about Saladin's character. The actor is a history buff. More than a warrior, Saladin was a diplomat, says Ghassan, who wanted dialogue and peace with the Christian West. But Ghassan worried: Would Hollywood treat the man who defeated the Christian crusaders and captured Jerusalem fairly? He was convinced director Ridley Scott would when the director opened the casting interview with a question.

Mr. MASSOUD GHASSAN (Actor): The question was, `Do you believe that Saladin statesman or fighter?' And I said, `I believe that Saladin was a statesman first of all. Statesman.'

AMOS: This being Hollywood, of course, there is a love story in the "Kingdom of Heaven," plenty of battle scenes, grisly beheadings, extremists on both sides--a story that could come from the latest headlines. But in this medieval tale, the defeated Christians are given safe conduct out of Jerusalem by the Muslim warrior chief. It is a victory for diplomacy--not warfare--says actor Ghassan, as he delivers his favorite line.

Mr. GHASSAN: `I will give every soul safe conduct to Christian lands--every soul: children, women and your soldiers and your queen. Your king I leave to you and what God will make of him.'

AMOS: Everyone in Damascus has strong ideas about Saladin. He ruled here and was buried here. His stone castle, the Citadel, is being refurbished again. A bronze statue of Saladin dominates central Damascus--a giant of a man atop a rearing horse. But there's one historical detail missing, says Damascus University professor and Saladin specialist Zuhail Zucker(ph): There is no recorded physical description of him.

Professor ZUHAIL ZUCKER (University of Damascus): Unfortunately, none of the historians, none of the travelogues, leaves to us description of this great man.

AMOS: And that leaves plenty of room for the imagination. Stop anyone on the street in front of the statue and ask them to describe Saladin. This man, Azzazo Ahad(ph), had a precise mental picture.

Mr. AZZAZO AHAD (Damascus Resident): He has big head.

AMOS: A big head?

Mr. AHAD: A big head, yeah, and big mustaches. And big abdom(ph), yeah.

AMOS: Abdom?

Mr. AHAD: Yeah, big body.

AMOS: A big body.

Mr. AHAD: Big body.

AMOS: Yeah.

Mr. AHAD: Anyone who saw him fled from him.

AMOS: Really?

Mr. GHASSAN: (Laughs)

AMOS: Back at the drama school, Massoud Ghassan is amused. He is a slight man with delicate hands, a chiseled face with piercing, intelligent eyes. Muscles do not ripple under his elegant black suit. In a time when there are few heroes in this part of the world, will Middle Eastern audiences accept his portrayal of their greatest historical figure?

Mr. GHASSAN: When you lost the hero in your day, you can make mind about him--that something is very, very, very, very great--like a god. When they watch the movie, oh, they have to change something about this image.

AMOS: An image that may be controversial for audiences in the East and in the West. How will they react to this victorious Muslim leader, defending his homeland but offering safety to a defeated Christian Crusades? Deborah Amos, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Co-host): And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.