A leading Syrian comedian, actor, and director of plays for theater and television, Dourade Al Lahham, born in Damascus in 1934 into relative poverty, began his professional life as a university instructor in chemistry. But while a student at Damascus University, he began dancing, captivated by the ethnic dabkeh, and later, as a university instructor, taught dancing and clarinet, and acted in amateur theater. Today Dourade Al Lahham is reputed to be the most famous actor in Syria since the 1960s and one of the most famous in the Arab world.
Reflecting in later life on what he could not achieve through his work in the theater, Al Lahham acknowledged one place where he had made a difference—making acting a reputable profession in Syria. Friends and family had disapproved when he gave up university teaching for acting, and his family even suggested he change his surname. Passionately ready to devote his life to acting, Al Lahham refused, and now he has become one of the best-known performers in the Arab world.
Al Lahham was among the first to act on Syrian television when it began in Damascus in 1960. Director Sabah Qabbani tapped him to star in a mini-series, Sahret Dimashq (Damascus Evening) along with Nihad Qali, an established stage actor. The two became an instant team, Duraid & Nihad, a comic duo often compared to Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello. The team worked together successfully until illness forced Qali’s retirement in 1976.
Al Lahham’s acting career moved from the exuberant slapstick of traditional
comedy to serious social criticism and political satire. In 1965 he created the comic character Ghawar for a mini series, Maqalib Ghawar (Ghawar’s Pranks). Ghawar, a wicked prankster who stops at nothing to achieve his desires, playing off Qali as the mild, long suffering al-Burazan, captivated Arab audiences: “The evil yet lovable Ghawar quickly became a household name in Syria and throughout the Arab word.” Al Lahham continued to act, direct, and write screenplays involving Ghawar until 1981.
These light-hearted comedies of the 1960s and early ’70s, providing rollicking and hilarious entertainment, evolved markedly following the massive Arab defeat of 1967 and Egypt’s separate peace with Israel in 1978, both of which affected Al Lahham deeply, as did the later 2006 war in Lebanon (His mother was from South Lebanon).
After joining political playwright Mohammad al-Maghout, Al Lahham’s art was no longer pure entertainment. He turned Ghawar into a more serious character who expressed the “worries of the Arab citizen” in such TV shows as Kasak Ya Watan (Cheers to the Homeland) in 1978 and Wadi al-Misk (The Misk Valley) in 1981. After the 1967 Arab defeat, Al Lahham began to use the theater to criticize weaknesses of Arab society. His plays, popular not only in Syria but in other Arab countries as well, dealt with such subjects as the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, Arab emigration to the West, and “the death of relations between citizens and their country.” A 2006 New York Times interview reported: His “biting critique of Arab regimes was sugar-coated with sarcasm and humor.”
From 1981, Al Lahham’s films, too, often written by al-Maghout, contained symbolic situations and political innuendo. In the 1987 al-Hudud (The Border), an Arab traveler who loses his passport is forced to camp on the border between two Arab countries. Neither country will let him in; he loses his country and his identity. Al Lahham himself said “the idea was to mock and dispel the notion of pan-Arabism.” In another film, al-Takrir (The Report) an honest civil servant who refuses to be bribed and decides to report on the corruption of his bosses is finally stomped to death at a soccer match as the papers of his report flutter across the field.
In the New York Times interview Al Lahham said he preferred the term “nationalist commentary” as safer than “political commentary.” Nevertheless, the relentless social criticism of his plays and films did not escape the scrutiny of the government authorities. But when he was threatened with imprisonment, a strong ally, the then Syrian defense minister, Hafez al-Assad, protected him.
Strong humanitarian feelings animate Al Lahham’s life and work. Concerned with protecting the rights of children, he wrote several plays about young people. The 1990 film, Kafroun, starred Al Lahham and a group of children, and he later performed in a TV series to create awareness of children’s problems. In 2009 he initiated a visit to the Gaza strip by a delegation of top Syrian screen stars to support a campaign to break the Israeli siege. Later that same year he joined over 1,000 international activists from 43 countries on a Gaza Freedom March including such figures as the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Alice Walker, octogenarian holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, and South African anti-apartheid leader Ronnie Kasrils, to demonstrate solidarity with the besieged Palestinians. Only days before the group was to enter the strip through the Rafah crossing, the Egyptian government announced the closing of the border.
Throughout his career, Al Lahham acted with other top Egyptian and Syrian actors and actresses such as the Egyptians Maryam Fakhr al-Din, Shadia, Nabila Obeid, Farid Shawki, and Nahid Sharif; and Syrians Talhat Hamdi, Rafiq Sibayi, Anwar al-Baba, Abdel Latif Fathi, and Raghda.
His career won many awards. In 1976 President Hafez al-Assad awarded him the Medal of the Syrian Republic, Excellence Class. He received from Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba a medal honoring his work in 1979 and a medal from Libya’s leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in 1991. To recognize his two children’s productions, the film Kafroun and the play Al-Usfura al-Sa’ida (The Happy Bird), he was named UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Affairs in Syria in 1992, and from1999 to 2004 he served as UNICEF Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Childhood in the Middle East and North Africa. At a Syrian Culture Club ceremony at AUB in 1997 President Emile Lahhoud presented Al Lahham with the Order of Merit of the Lebanese Republic.
As the years go on, Dourade Al Lahham has become more philosophical about the role of art and the theater. Once he believed he might help change the world through his plays and films. The New York Times writer Michael Slackman wrote in 2006, “Now, he says over and over, art is useless as a tool for political change. Art cannot change anyone’s mind, he says. It never caused a terrorist to have second thoughts, never transformed a dictator into a democrat. In fact, he says, it never did much but entertain.” Shocked by the words of an Arab official who told him, “‘Talk all you want. We will do all we want,’ [he] stopped making politically challenging shows, stopped thinking of his work as making a difference in the world, and decided instead that there was no shame in simply entertaining people. The war in Lebanon, he says, has served only to validate all his feelings.”
“We had thought that artwork could shock and make change. But no, artwork, at the end of the day, even if it is critical, is entertainment.” Al Lahham continues to entertain, coming out of retirement after a sixteen-year absence to act in a 2008 play in Damascus under the aegis of the city’s designation as Capital for Arab Culture 2008.