Portraying Saladin, a Middle Eastern Hero

Kingdom of Heaven portrays one of the most legendary of Middle Eastern heroes, Saladin. Moviegoers in the Middle East will be watching Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud closely, to be sure he gets the character of Saladin just right.

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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.

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