Robert Fisk: Modern Syria through Saladin's eyes

Massoud is a popular actor whose politics are as fierce as those of Saladin
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I met Gareth Peirce more than six years ago but am still embarrassed by our first meeting. I had arranged to meet this redoubtable lawyer - brilliantly played by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father - in the Sheraton Belgravia Hotel, the smallest, the cosiest and, I feel certain, the most expensive Sheraton in the whole world. And for more than 15 minutes I prowled the lobby, looking in vain for Gareth, until a small woman with dark, rather straggly hair walked up to me and asked if I was Robert Fisk. That's when I realised I'd been looking for Emma Thompson.

So when I walked into the coffee shop of the Sham Palace Hotel in Damascus a few days ago, I was very definitely looking for Saladin, the 12th-century Kurdish warrior portrayed by the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud in Ridley Scott's fine epic of the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven. And there he was, looking just like Saladin, his beard turning white, his vast expressive hands moving around his head in fury at the wreckage of Iraq, demonstrating the same suppressed anger, the same humanity - and the same halting English - as he did in the movie.

Massoud is also a popular actor in Syrian films and the Damascus waiters showed due deference to the celebrity in the corner of the coffee shop - not least because his politics are as fierce as those of Saladin, whose real, green-shrouded wooden tomb lies scarcely half a mile from us, beside the majesty of the Ommayad mosque.

"I cannot imagine that what is happening in Iraq is true," he says. "I cannot believe this situation is better than the Saddam Hussein days. This great country of Iraq - it's not fair to see this. We have to prepare ourselves for a very bloody future in Iraq. I think it's now a civil war. Thank you, George Bush.

"You know, the Iranians are geniuses. They know George Bush needs them (in Iraq). So now they are playing him along. I think Bush will make a deal with Iran - he would be foolish to make a strike on Iran. If he wants to destroy all this area - and all the oil that he wants - he will make a military strike."

Massoud leans back in his chair opposite me, recalling the "civil society" and the friendship towards the West shown by former Iranian president Mohamed Katami. "Ah, what a mistake Bush made in not making a dialogue with Katami. America wasn't interested in this man. And so they got (the new president) Ahmadinejad. And know what do we hear? 'Look at the Iranians, they are fanatics - they elected Ahmadinejad!'." There are times when Ghassan Massoud reminds me of the defiant American journalist Seymour Hersh.

The thoughts and the anger bubble over as Massoud lights his third cigarette. You can see why he enjoyed playing the scourge of the Crusaders in Scott's movie, insisting on riding his own horse in preference to a stuntman - Massoud comes from the rugged countryside around Tartous - and taking the role of Saladin only when he was satisfied the script would respect his own culture. It's one reason why he turned down a part in the new film Syriana, a drama of oil, CIA skulduggery and Arab potentates.

"There are many attacks in the West against Islam these days. I met the director Stephen Gaghan in Dubai to discuss Syriana. I asked him: 'Why Syriana? It is one of the historic names of my country, why the CIA? Why oil?' He said it was a point of view. I was frightened. When something frightens you, I say you shouldn't do it. Our profession is very, very, very sensitive. You cannot make a film if you have suspicion in a script. But when I met Sir Ridley Scott, from the first meeting in Spain, I trusted this man. He was a noble man, a knightly man, so I yielded myself to his film."

Massoud's oddly courteous English - Chaucer's "Parfit Gentil Knight" might have spoken like this - runs in tandem with the very Syrian way in which he expresses himself, thrusting his hands forward with thumbs upwards to express agreement, something he did in Kingdom of Heaven when the Crusader Balian surrenders Jerusalem to Saladin. How much is the city worth to the Muslim commander, Balian asks. "Nothing," Saladin replies. Then the Muslim warrior thrusts his thumbs in the air and cries: "Everything." Massoud grins when I recall this scene. "Yes, this is how we talk and express ourselves - I am a man from the street."

Here he glances at the clogged traffic through the coffee shop window. "This is my culture and you cannot make dialogue without respect between communities. We can say, 'OK, there is no dialogue.' We can use tanks, bombs, missiles - and have no dialogue. No one can tell me that George Bush makes dialogue. The American media that 'holds' the world makes Syria into an image, a 'terrorist state', a 'terrorist people'.

"Syria for us means 10,000 years of civilisation - this is not an accident of history! It is very difficult for Mr Bush to tell us what this means, to tell us about democracy. We watch his point of view about democracy with Hamas in Palestine. But the people in the streets, the restaurants, the cafés - I am sure they do no believe this man."

Ridley Scott, according to Massoud, "wanted to make a movie like he dreams". "For him, it was a novel with Balian, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin. I can understand his film from this side. This does not mean it does not look like (Iraq) today. You know towards the end there is a scene when the Crusaders and the Muslim soldiers are fighting and their movements slow down until they stop altogether on the screen. In this way we find Balian and Saladin face to face and they had to make dialogue.

"Scott wanted to say, I think, that wars cannot give us good solutions. The only thing I put into the script was the scene where Saladin goes into Jerusalem and places a fallen crucifix back on a church altar. Scott said: 'OK, let's do it.' He wanted to show that side of Saladin's character." It is a scene that was widely praised in the Muslim world.

"I last went to Saladin's tomb three weeks ago," Massoud says. "Before the making of the film, I read everything about him. Then I went to his tomb many times - to get the 'spirit' of the man."