Friday, August 12, 2016

Yoav Alon's "The Shaykh of Shaykhs"

Yoav Alon is Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Making of Jordan: Tribes, Colonialism, and the Modern States (2009).

Here Alon dreamcasts an adaptation of  his new book, The Shaykh of Shaykhs: Mithqal al-Fayiz and Tribal Leadership in Modern Jordan:
Shaykh Mithqal al-Fayiz, the protagonist in this book, led such a fascinating life that it would make a spellbinding movie. Not only was he one of the greatest Arabian shaykhs of the twentieth century, he also was a founding father of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Mithqal was also able to pass on his power to his descendants, who wield great influence in Jordan today. Unlike many modern-day politicians who win a term in office, a shaykh like Mithqal did not only need to win power but also keep it, by proving to his constituency daily that he was the most able man to lead the tribe. Mithqal’s story has all the ingredients of an epic drama—a charismatic hero, battles and wars, political intrigue, constant twists and turns in the plot, sex and romance, and the exotic and rough life of the deserts of Arabia. This all takes place against a tapestry of rich historical significance, since the Shaykh did not only live through, but also played an active part in, many historic events that shaped the Middle East for almost one hundred years. I hope that a film director decides to bring The Shaykh of Shaykhs to life in a movie!

When I think about the character of Shaykh Mithqal al-Fayiz, I see the legendary Anthony Quinn, who sixty years ago played Shaykh Awda Abu Taya in the Hollywood classic, Lawrence of Arabia. Awda and Mithqal were contemporaries and both led powerful nomadic tribal confederacies in the area that became Jordan in 1921. Although Quinn's portrayal of Awda was at times not accurate, his physique resembled that of Mithqal's.

How about a film in which Mithqal is the new Lawrence of Arabia, now an Arab hero, rather than a Western hero? We would relive the dramatic events in the Middle East during the waning Ottoman Empire through World War I, the colonial period and the establishment of the new states such as Jordan, the Palestine question, World War II and the era of decolonization. Presented from the perspective of a local, rather than a British, leader and be based on historical facts more fascinating than myth, it would clarify some misrepresentations in the original film, which still shape the way Westerners view the region.

In the original Lawrence, Omar Sharif played alongside Quinn, as an Arab figure. Sharif’s grandson, Omar Sharif Jr., might fit the role of Mithqal at the prime of his life. The young and handsome Sharif could play the shaykh as he rose to fame and prominence as a courageous and able warrior who led his men in tribal wars and raids and was admired and adored by the women of the tribe. Another possible actor for that role is Antonio Banderas. His Latin touch and passionate acting would allow him to rise to the challenge of personifying a larger-than-life figure such as Shaykh Mithqal.

Mithqal lived a long life—he was nearly 90 when he died in 1967—so we need an older actor for the latter part of his life, which was the prime of his political legacy. He only came to the position of shaykh of shaykhs in his late thirties, just several weeks after the creation of Jordan. During the next thirty years, Jordan was ruled by the Hashemite Prince Abdullah bin Hussain, under the control of the British mandatory government in Palestine. During the mandate days Mithqal gradually stopped leading his tribes in battle and became deeply involved in high politics and machinations. This elderly Mithqal could perhaps be Ben Kingsley, whose brilliant portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi is unforgettable.
Learn more about The Shaykh of Shaykhs at the Stanford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Shaykh of Shaykhs.

--Marshal Zeringue