Post Mortem January/February 2006

Moustapha, Messenger of Hollywood

Moustapha Akkad (1935-2005)
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When John Carpenter sold the idea for Halloween to Moustapha Akkad, he pitched it in one line: "Babysitter to be killed by the bogeyman." "The babysitter part grabbed me," Akkad said, "because every kid in America knows what a babysitter is." The movie became the highest-grossing independent film to date and spawned the most successful of the several franchises in which undeserving victims are butchered at random in archetypal small towns.

By the time the bogeyman came for Moustapha Akkad, he had bigger fish to fry: mass slaughter not of stock types in hick burgs but of powerful and well-connected elites in Amman's Western hotels. On November 9 a team of suicide bombers dispatched across the Jordanian border by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi self-detonated at the Radisson, the Grand Hyatt, and the Days Inn. Akkad was in Jordan for a high-society wedding and greeting his daughter Rima in the Radisson when Ali Hussein Ali al-Shamari and his wife reached into the folds of their clothing for the explosives belts. The California-raised Rima died first, her father two days later. And so the jihad claimed among its five dozen latest victims Hollywood's most prominent Arab-American.

Like a lot of youngsters, Akkad decided early on that he wanted to be in pictures. The odds aren't helped if you happen to be growing up in Aleppo, in French Syria. But at eighteen he was packed off to Hollywood by his father with $200 in one pocket and the Koran in the other, and the division of his coat contents neatly summed up his work over the next fifty years. Moustapha Akkad made two kinds of movies. As a producer he delivered slashers to the teen market with an efficiency that made him very wealthy: the original Halloween cost $300,000 in 1978 and grossed $47 million. As a director he wanted to be an Arab David Lean, and specialized in films that used Hollywood stars to explain Islam to a wider audience: The Message was about the life of Muhammad and starred Anthony Quinn. Lion of the Desert celebrated plucky anti-colonial Bedouin fighters, played by Quinn, Oliver Reed, and John Gielgud, with members of Arab Equity relegated mostly to the roles of excitable extras. And at the time of his death Akkad was developing a film about Saladin with Sean Connery. It was his misfortune to have the benign intentions of this side of his oeuvre perpetually tripped up on the way to the multiplex. The Message was targeted by angry Muslims who thought the infidel fornicator Quinn was playing Muhammad rather than his uncle; and Lion of the Desert suffered in America from the twin PR setbacks of opening a few months after the Iranian hostage siege and being co-financed by Colonel Qaddafi.

Nonetheless, Akkad persevered. "Islam right now is portrayed as a 'terrorist' religion in the West and by doing this kind of movie, I am portraying the true image," he said of his Saladin project. Long before September 11 he was always good for a quotation bemoaning how Hollywood represented Muslims only as terrorists. "We cannot say there are no Arab and no Muslim terrorists," he told The New York Times in 1998. "Of course there are. But at the same time, balance it with the image of the normal human being, the Arab-American, the family man."

He half got his way. Movies about the Arab "family man" are still thin on the ground, but the Muslim terrorist has all but disappeared: the film of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears de-Islamicized the bad guys and turned them into German neo-Nazis, and Sean Penn's The Interpreter eighty-sixed the Muslims and made them terrorists from the little-known African republic of Matobo. Post-9/11 Hollywood perversely recoiled from its preferred villains of the 1980s and 1990s, and now your poor Arab thespian can't even get gainful employment as a crazed jihadi. Meanwhile, Akkad saw the Islamophile half of his work win a new lease on life as Oriental works in an Occidentally accessible form: according to Queen Noor, the Pentagon bought 100,000 copies of The Message to show to U.S. troops before they left for Afghanistan.

And in the end, for all his efforts, the people who murdered Akkad were the most stereotypical Muslim terrorists of all: they behaved more like the psychos in his slasher movies than the noble Bedouin in his Islamic-outreach pictures.

The original Halloween introduced us to its highly resilient protagonist in a memorable and effective way: The hand-held Panaglide camera (a state-of-the-art novelty in 1978) roams around. It's as if we are silently prowling the house, entering the kitchen, selecting the knife from the drawer, taking up a plastic clown mask and pulling it on, so that now we see the action only through two eyeholes. Up the stairs, into the bedroom; the girl dishabille at her dressing table turns, half irritated; and the knife goes in, again and again and again.

The filmmaker in Akkad might have found something similar in the husband-and-wife suicide-bomber team who killed him: Mrs. al-Shamari entering the Radisson, the camera's eye nervously darting around, shuffling through to the ballroom; the guests standing about, Muslims holding their wedding party in a semi-Westernized style, the ladies with bright glossed lips and coiffed hair bursting through their perfunctory head coverings. What does the jihadi think? Is she disgusted? Or just concentrating on her mission? She struggles with the cord on her explosives belt, but it jams, and she tugs more frantically, and her husband sees her fumbling and pushes her out of the room, either in what passes for gallantry in the death cult or because he's concerned she'll jeopardize the operation. And then he pulls his cord, and he and the wedding party explode.

But Moustapha Akkad made Muslim movies and violent movies, and ne'er the twain did meet. His mentor was a master of the latter, Sam Peckinpah. In the late 1950s the director had in mind a film on the Algerian revolution, and asked UCLA to find him someone who knew the turf. The only graduate from that neck of the woods was Akkad. The French gave up on Algeria, and Peckinpah gave up on the picture, but he kept the young Syrian in tow for a movie called Ride the High Country (1962). At dinner in Hollywood, Akkad kept getting asked what he thought of American food, American houses, American girls, so he sold a series to CBS in which a group of foreigners talk about their reactions to American life. Then he did a travel show with Cesar Romero, and pretty soon he had the career they'd said back in Aleppo was impossible: he was a Hollywood moviemaker.

Akkad prided himself on his "duality." "In my house I am a pure Arab," he told The Star in Jordan two years ago. "When I step out, I am thinking like an American." The "pure Arabs" who killed him despise that kind of flexibility, and some Americans would raise an eyebrow at quite how pure an Arab he was in the privacy of his own home. In an interview with Luke Ford for his 2002 book The Producers, he agreed with the author's estimate that Hollywood's muscle was "70 percent Jewish," but reckoned you got along fine as long as you steered clear of certain subjects. "The media runs the world," he said. "No tanks or planes. The media and the public companies. This is what The Protocols of Zion is all about. The Zionists, last century, were persecuted in Europe. So they immigrated to America. They had a target. They were united. They did not permit [statements] critical of Zion. They went all the way to control the world and to control the minds of the people through the media. There's a lesson to learn from them."

Anyone who's spent any time in the Middle East will have heard that, from Saudi businessmen and Bahraini doctors and Palestinian intellectuals and other urbane, educated Arabs of the kind you find in the bars and lounges of Hyatts and Radissons. But professed admiration for the cunning of the Zionists is a more unexpected cliché from a man enriched by Hollywood whose children went to Los Angeles high schools filled with the progeny of liberal Jews. In hindsight Akkad's "duality" seems more like professional schizophrenia. And though he claimed that Halloween was nothing more than a savvy commercial decision, for a schlock horror fest it was, as it happens, very Middle Eastern in its pathologies. Its principal character, Michael Myers (no relation to Austin Powers's Mike Myers, though they're about the same age), begins his impressive tally of corpses with what can be seen as an old-fashioned Muslim "honor killing": he stabs his sister to death after she's had sex with her boyfriend. Its conflation of sexual insecurity and male violence is at least as relevant to Arab culture as it is to alienated losers in small-town America. The only difference is that unlike the various unprosecuted perpetrators of honor killings from Jordan to Pakistan, Michael Myers eventually winds up getting decapitated, in one of Halloween's many sequels. "With H20 we chopped off his head," Akkad exulted, while leaving himself a loophole: "But was it really his head?"

The "duality" of Moustapha Akkad finally came together in one freakish finale at the Amman Radisson. But he'd encountered terrorism once before, nearly thirty years earlier. Many Muslim scholars were outraged by The Message—or, as it was then called, Mohammed, Messenger of God. Though Akkad had observed the prohibition against representations of the prophet, even a rumored glimpse of his shadow (which the director had at one time considered) provoked objections. Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, formerly a Seventh-Day Adventist called Ernest McGhee, decided to do something about the abomination. A dozen Muslims seized three buildings in Washington, D.C., and took 150 hostages, including (in an early example of the many internal contradictions of the Rainbow Coalition) the future mayor of Washington, Marion Barry. Barry was one of a couple of dozen injured. Jewish hostages were abused. A reporter was killed.

Khaalis had several demands, including a ban on Akkad's movie and the transfer of Muhammad Ali, among others, to his custody. The ambassadors of Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan stepped in and drew the kidnappers' attention to Surah 5:2 from the Koran: "Let not the hatred of some people in shutting you out of the Sacred Mosque lead you to transgression and hostility on your part. Help ye one another in righteousness and piety."

It worked: Khaalis threw in the towel. Alas, by November 9, 2005, Islamic terrorism had refined its techniques beyond intercession. Explaining the success of the Halloween franchise, Moustapha Akkad said, "If you're locked inside a house and there's somebody there who wants to kill you, that could happen to anybody. You can relate." It was the bogeymen closer to home he couldn't relate to.

Mark Steyn is a columnist for Britain's Telegraph Group, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other publications.
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