Spring 2008 | ArteZine

Murmur in a Giraffe’s Ear


A long time ago the Syrian Baathist government nationalized cultural institutions, swiftly placing the iron noose around their necks. I must have been 14 years old when I woke up one morning to found the Cinema Orient (Cinema Al-Sharq) moniker covered with a white canvas that read, in red Arabic letters, Cinema al-Kindi. I’d never heard of al-Kindi before and the Arabic script could’ve translated to The Kennedy Cinema or al-Kanady (meaning “Canadian”) Cinema. What a paradox, I remember thinking, for a pro-Soviet socialist government to borrow such western names.

The queen of Aleppo’s cinemas, was located on al-Khandaq Street, a thoroughfare crowded with coffee shops, restaurants, photo studios, bookstores, nightclubs and cabarets like the Moulin Rouge, Madam Lucy’s and the posh Basheer Restaurant Français, a left over from the French colonial mandate where the staff had to speak a minimum of four languages. Al-Kindi had a spacious hall on the ground level and a large second level al Balcon or the Lodge that hovered in mid-air over half of the seats below. Huge wooden panels punctuated by light ornaments crawled up reaching the ceiling from which a massive crystal chandelier hung. Red and blue neon lights framed the lush maroon velvet curtain that covered the gigantic silver window onto the world. Between the salon and the balcony there was a café that served espresso, hot chocolate, brioches, sweets and candy bars.

Aleppo’s prim and orderly audience invariably arrived ahead of time to enjoy a beverage at the café before finding their numbered seat inside the theatre marked on the ticket with a red wax pencil. A loop of La Cumparsita, performed on the accordion, playing in the background until the house lights fainted and the velvet curtains parted like the Bible’s red sea. The neon lights dimmed before the ‘Coming Soon’ trailers flashed on the screen. This grandiose overture marked the al-Kindi cinema from the Ugarit, Aleppo, al-Zahra, al-Hamra, Opera, Roxi, al-Dunya, Royal, al-Suriya, Rio and other cinemas aggregated within a walking distance from the other. Almost all showed class-A American films, but the one with café serving hot chocolate was the best.

Days later, I learned from Mr. Yahya, my civic instruction teacher, who was the Ministry of Culture’s provincial office director in Aleppo, that al-Kindi was an Iraqi Arab known as the world’s first ophthalmologist. The cinema was named after him in part as an attempt to arabize it. Mr. Yahya announced that from thence onwards, the screening would be drawn to fit a new national educational scheme, and that the Ministry of Culture had established Nadi al-Cinema (the Ciné-club), a new association aimed to attract professionals (physicians, architects, lawyers, university students and the diplomatic corps). Clubs were established in Damascus and Aleppo, members could watch a selection of films on the Saturday’s 9:00 pm slot at Cinema al- Kindi, the only nationalized cinema, the other movie theatres remained privately owned but received their films from the central office in Damascus.

Supply of films fitting within the new scheme fell short of meeting expectations, to keep the screens busy, carefully selected old prints like On the Waterfront, Mogambo, Streetcar Named Desire, The Train, The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, La Terra Trema, to name a few, were granted a new lease. I became familiar with Carl Malden, Marlon Brando, Richard Harris, Silvana Mangano, Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, Alain Delon, Joseph Cotten, John Wayne, Orson Wells, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quail, Anthony Quinn, Kirk Douglass, Stefania Sandrelli and slew of others, until Eastern European, Soviet social realism, spaghetti westerns, Arabic and Indian films found their way to our eyes. The best of the ‘art films’ were left for the Nadi al-Cinema members. The films I eagerly wanted to see were reserved for the “elite”, while the rest of the population, enduring the Baathist slogan Wahda Houriya wa Ishtirakiya (Unity Freedom and Socialism -the Arabic of which means partnership or sharing) were served exclusively with second or third-rate commercial films. For days and weeks I knocked on the door of the Cinema Club director until I was able to convince him that I deserved my membership based on my knowledge and love for cinema despite the fact that my age disqualified me from applying. After three months of haggling I was asked to deliver a photo for a membership card. The next day I filled out the form, handed in my photo, signed the document and was given the card with a lapel copper pin that I pierced proudly on the collar of the jacket I was wearing on that rainy day, and went to my Karen Jeppé Armenian High School boasting my feat.

During recess, Mr. Khachadourian, the superintendent noticed the attention my pin earned amongst my classmates. He walked closer to me with a pre-emptively negative attitude and asked what was that thing I carried on my jacket. When I explained myself he slapped me harshly and condescended how careless I was about my Armenian heritage joining an Arab organization, being assimilated through this worthless form of entertainment called cinema and how I ought to utilize my brain for more worthwhile endeavor. Rebellious, my teenage temper exploding, I retorted bravely: “You don’t have the brain to understand what this pin means to me! Check with the Ministry of Culture if I’ve done anything wrong!” I was instantly suspended from attending classes for three days. A score years later, he moved to Los Angeles, I was at the UCLA film department and heading the Armenian Horizon TV show. He visited my Glendale office and asked what was I up to besides my TV work that made him proud. When I told him that I was completing my cinema studies he replied, “You haven’t given up on that stupid field!” Instantly I asked him to leave my office.

Less than a few weeks after my admittance to the Nadi al-Cinema, my classmates Vahé Sakalian, Hovig Noubarian, Hratch Nersesian, Garo Kebabjian, Hrant Peltekian, Kevork Der Vartanian, Sarkis Ghazelian, Levon Baghdassarian, Hrair Kazanjian and many others, who have immigrated from Syria since then, followed my suit. Every Saturday at 9:00 pm we watched films like Memories of Underdevelopment, Is Paris Burning?, Satyricon, Borsalino, Oedipus Rex, Children of Paradise, King Lear, I’m Cuba, The Cranes Are Flying, Ashes and Diamonds, Kanal, Birchwood, Cleo in the Afternoon, Claire’s Knee, L’Aventura, The Red Desert, The Gospel According to Saint Mathew, The Working Class Goes to Heaven, Sacco and Vanzeti, Au Hasard Baltazar, Pick-Pocket, Les Diaboliques, Juliet of Spirits, Behold a Pale Horse, A Man and a Woman, Le Passager de la pluie, Before the Revolution, War and Peace, The Trial, Citizen Kane, Porcile, Taras Bulba, Umberto D, 400 Blows, The Battle of Algiers, and other strange, beautiful, old and new films. Most distinctly I remember the night I watched the Cuban film Lucia. The organizers had prepared a handout with information on the film and its filmmaker Humberto Solas. I volunteered to distribute the single-sheet flyer to the audience. When the lights dimmed, I handed the remaining sheets to the elderly tall and husky ticket controller, whom I had befriended, and ran to take my seat. Lucia, a black and white three-hour masterpiece depicting the history of Cuba, was a compelling experience. Unfortunately there was no post-screening discussion for me to understand why I liked a film that looked and sounded so different from all the others. I was overwhelmed with the majesty of Lucia and couldn’t stop talking about it even when my father scolded me for staying up late at the cinema instead of learning from textbooks. Besides the sacrosanct Saturday night screenings, Nadi al-Cinema programmed Polish, Bulgarian, Soviet, etc. film weeks. I attended every single one of them until I left Syria, when the October war of 1973 unleashed hell on everyone. By September of 1972 my father had gone to the USA and successfully converted his tourist visa to immigrant visa and sent after us. At the outbreak of the war we left to Beirut where a few months later we obtained our immigration documents from the American Embassy and with the rest of my family I flew to Boston on January 1974 leaving behind abundance to recall. After graduating from South Boston High School I moved to NYC to study cinema at the School of Visual Arts. In 1982 I received my Bachelors of Fine Arts in cinema and went on to UCLA’s graduate film school for Masters’ of Fine Arts.

I signed up with Teshome Gabriel who was teaching a course titled Film and Social Change about emerging cinema from the third world. As he distributed the course’s syllabus, my classmates were in shock at the titles, filmmakers’ names and their country of origin, but I felt perfectly at ease, as I had seen most of them at Cinema al-Kindi. My challenge now was now to see these films as an adult. One day he announced we were going to watch a three-hour long Cuban film and that we ought to be prepare for it, before he could utter the title, I asked him if it was Lucia. He was surprised and asked me how come I knew about it. I replied that I had seen it years ago, in Aleppo and further commented that it was way ahead of Andreï Konchalovsky’s Siberiad depicting the Russian/Soviet centennial and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, narrating Italy’s last century. An interesting discussion ensued until he mentioned Syrian filmmaker Nabil Maleh and his brilliant film al-Fahd (“The Leopard”, 1971). I asked him if he had seen the Italian film L’Amante di Graminia starring Stefania Sandrelli and Gian-Maria Volonte that inspired the The Leopard. He had not, and we joked of who was going to teach who.

Jersy Antczak, a Polish filmmaker, joined the UCLA film department in 1985. The short fellow with striking premature white hair was a dynamic man who thought us directing with the camera instead of actors, dialogue, lights, props or music. When we met for the first time he wanted to interview students before accepting them into his class. I realized that I had seen one of his films in al-Kindi cinema in the framework of Polish Cinema. Most of the filmmakers were invited to attend and present their films to the audience with the comical absence of translators. He smiled in his unpolished heavy Polish accent and said “I vil tel to yu sumtting, van of the Polish men vitout translator in Damascus and Aleppo vas me!” The formality of student-teacher vanished at once as it had with Teshome. Jerzy taught us how “organic camera movement” can be a director’s supreme tool.

In 1999 I went to Aleppo for the first time since my departure. Hurriedly I made my way to the cinemas still standing. None was like it used to be, and seemed as if they had been served disaster recipe in cultural history. Not a single one screened a decent or recent film. The fare proposed F-class films like Turkish Hamam, or Women’s Jail, featuring exposed female flesh. The population of the city had changed drastically and downgraded. Cheap kiosks, sandwich shops and vendors selling pirated CDs and audiocassettes replaced all the distinguished restaurants, cafés and bars. The streets were laden with garbage, al-Kindi’s large façade panels carried posters of old Egyptian films while lobby-stills of half-naked chubby females fighting each other with long finger nails, their nipples and bottoms blackened with black ink adorned the now creepy entrance. Socialist Syria’s mission had degenerated to lower depths. None of the cinemas where I spent my youth fulfilling my love of the seventh art could stand witness to the past glorious days now gone for good. With tearful eyes, and loathing I took full stock of the government’s neglect of culture. The aging regime had steered the learned Aleppines back to illiteracy. The city’s wealthy cinematic and cultural heritage that once hosted Pierre Paolo Pasolini and Maria Callas to film Medea, and Nadi al-Cinema, my pride at UCLA, were forever relegated to my memory. I made a last ditch effort to learn about the origin of al-Kindi.

Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq ibn Sabbah ibn Omran ibn Isma’il al Kindi was born in Iraq, hailing from the Yemenite Kindi tribe. Although known as a Muslim scholar, every single one of his names suggests a Jewish heritage: Yusuf is Joseph, Ya’qub is Jacob, Ishaq is Isaac, Omran is the same, and Isma’il is Ishmael. I guessed he must have converted to Islam without changing his name. Al-Kindi, 801-873, was known to be the first peripatetic Arab-Islamic philosopher with 240 books to his credit ranging in subjects of philosophy, astrology, cosmology, chemistry, cryptography, mathematics, medicine, music theory and optics. A giant mind that introduced Greece’s scholarship to Islam. His later rivals, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) belittled his accomplishments. After the Islamic revolution in Iran, the new government established a state-run centralized cinema foundation called al-Farabi. There is a sinister irony to the idea that pan-Arab nationalist socialist Syria uses al-Kindi and conservative Islamic republic of Iran uses al-Farabi, two rival scholars who lived in Aleppo, to oppress filmmakers while they represent two of the brightest and most enlightened minds of Muslim scholarship in the 9th century and beyond.

La Cumparsita remains engraved in my memory from the years of attending al-Kindi, it found its way to the opening sequence of my film Chickpeas as the only none-original music. Unfortunately it didn’t catch the attention of any journalist or film critic who interviewed me around the world. Had anyone asked …

And so it goes.


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