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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Israeli actor playing Saddam in BBC drama

From Reuters:
The Israeli actor playing Saddam Hussein in a new television series once narrowly escaped a missile fired by the late dictator's army.

But for Igal Naor, taking the lead role in "House of Saddam", the BBC/HBO dramatisation of Saddam's 24-year rule airing in Britain from Wednesday, it was not about revenge.

Instead, the 50-year-old from near Tel Aviv believes his experience of the conflicts and complexities of the Middle East, and his childhood effectively raised as an Arab in Israel after his family left Baghdad, gave him the edge over other actors.

"In the street everyone spoke Iraqi. It was a 'little Baghdad' around Tel Aviv," he said of the neighbourhood where he grew up that was dominated by Iraqi Jews who left Baghdad after Israel's founding 60 years ago.

"I could understand much better than, say, a British actor or an American actor about what this man is and the environment he was living in," Naor told Reuters by telephone.

"This is my area, the Middle East, Iraq. I can understand things like the special need for honour, pride. I live in an environment of war and blood."

He recalled how a missile fired by Iraq at Israel in 1991, during the first Gulf War triggered by Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, landed close by.

"As an Israeli, he was an enemy," Naor explained. "In 1991 a missile he sent to Tel Aviv fell 50 metres from my house with one tonne of explosives. Luckily nothing happened to us."

Nevertheless, he added: "I didn't love him or hate him."

Naor, who has appeared in Hollywood movies "Munich" and "Rendition", rejected the idea that casting an Israeli as Saddam should be seen as controversial.

"We are actors, we are artists. Why should we be Israelis, Lebanese or Egyptian?"

Although he encountered no negative feedback at home, there was a backlash against him, and more particularly his co-star Amr Waked, in Waked's native Egypt, he added.

Reuters of course doesn't expand on this last point. From Variety last year:
Egypt's Actors Union, which opposes normalization of ties with Israel, is furious and says Waked now faces being banned from ever filming in Egypt again.

"The position of the union is clear in its rejection of normalization and requires that members abide by this position," declared Ashraf Zaki, chairman of the union.

"He will be facing an investigation as soon as he returns," Zaki added. Waked is in Tunisia for the shooting of the drama, "Between Two Rivers," which is backed by the British Broadcasting Corporation and HBO.

The actor has defended his position, telling Egyptian papers he did not know an Israeli was involved. Furthermore, he told the Egyptian Mail, the film is pro-Arab and criticizes US foreign policy.

He has made it clear he has no intention of leaving the series, in which he plays Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law who fled from Iraq to Jordan but eventually returned and was executed.

Were he to quit now, the actor said, he would be in breach of his contract.

Notice how bold Waked is in the face of criticism: first he says he didn't know, then he says the film is critical of the US and finally he falls back on not wanting to breach his contract.

Outside of that, he fully supports the Egyptian actors' boycott of Israel.