Mahmoud Said: Keeping culture alive
Mahmoud Said’s deep voice is instantly recognizable and his talent has made him the undisputed star of scores of television and radio series. The star of Fares and Nujud was especially famous among Lebanese and Arab television audiences in the seventies.
Mahmoud Said was born in the Palestinian city of Jaffa in 1941. At the age of seven, his mother, who belonged to the Beiruti al-Banna family, brought her youngest child to Sidon. His brothers were fighting in the Arab Liberation Army against Israel who displaced the Palestinian people in 1948. When his father died, his mother enrolled him in the Islamic Orphanage school, where he studied up to secondary level. He then joined the UNRWA schools, finishing his second secondary year. “After that I worked on myself to improve my language and my knowledge.”
In those days, the head of broadcasting at the Lebanese State Radio (RL), Shafik Jadayel, would visit the orphanage to organize an end of year drama production. It was there that Jadayel discovered Said’s talent for acting. “He began to cast me in the lead roles in many plays,” Said tells Al-Akhbar.
In 1959, the young man, now passionate about drama, entered a competition run by RL looking for actors and broadcasters. Mahmoud Said al-Jariya was chosen to be an actor and performer for the radio station. “As soon as I started in drama, I began to use the name Mahmoud Said. It was very helpful that those in charge of programming were the most prominent pioneers of radio in the Arab world. I learned language and enunciation from them. I had also been hugely influenced by my brother’s recitation of the Quran at home and by things I’d read. I still read regularly.”
His first appearance on Lebanese state television (TL) came in 1961 with a single line with a Bedouin accent, assigned to him by Rashid Alama, on the program Inspirations from the Desert. He said, “If you do not want to sleep, others do.”
This one line was followed by appearances on popular shows such asAbu Melhem, The Court Has Decided, Thursday Theater and Beirut at Night. He also played historical personalities such as Alexander the Great and Omar al-Khayyam.
Rashid Alama cast Said for many of his productions for the Lebanon and Mashreq TV such as The Stranger’s Secret (1967), directed by Antoine Remy and written by Golbahar Mumtaz. It was the first ever television series written in classical Arabic. During this period, he also played roles in films such as Antar Conquers the Desert (1960), Garo (1965), The Arab Falcon (1968) and The Prisoner of The Pulpit (1969).
Soon after, TL became the main platform for local and Arab drama. Its directors offered Said an exclusive contract for three series a year. “It was up to me to decide on the writer, actors and quality of the work and to supervise the executive production.”
In 1970, Said even found fame in Morocco and North Africa when he played the leading role in the television series The Lost Man, adapted from Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights. “This series, which was in classical Arabic, was a big step for me, especially after it was shown on Moroccan and North African TV, where people received it so well because they were familiar with the original novel. When I visited the region, people would call me by my character’s name, Gharib...I was stuck with this name for a long time, even here in Lebanon.”
After The Lost Man, he worked on a series calledFrom Our Heritage (1970), where he played 18 historical Arab figures including Ibn Sina, al-Razi, Ibn Khaldoun and al-Farabi. Antoine Remy also cast him in the series Mirage where he acted alongside Remy’s wife, Hind Abi Lamaa. He also brought them together in the series Sunset.
After that came the first Bedouin series in the Arab world, Fares and Nujud (1974), where Said played the leading role alongside Samira Tawfiq (directed by Elie Saadeh, written by Nizam al-Azem). The series brought fame to Fares, the young dark Bedouin. His fame resonated for many years as Said’s name became synonymous with Bedouin films and television series. Samira Tawfiq played the heroine alongside him in most of these.
In 1976, Syrian director Mustafa al-Aqqad made The Message, a film on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He chose actors from all over the Arab world for the film. His schoolfriend and the head of Kuwaiti TV, Muhammad Nasser al-Sanusi, suggested Mahmoud Said as a possible cast member. Aqqad asked Said to come and see him in his office in Beirut but he did not ask him for an audition, he just listened to him while he read from historical biographies. “After that he called me and said: ‘We have chosen you to play Khaled Bin al-Walid in the film.’ I was overjoyed. He treated me with respect and appreciation...I will never forget him.”
Said has also played parts in series on Palestine, such as the popular historical series And Jerusalem Returns and the film For Palestine. When the Lebanese civil war erupted, he left for Athens, where he lived for three years.
Said then went to Jordan where he lived for five years and took part in many television series. In the theater, he played parts in works such asThe Clown by Muhammad al-Maghout, The Season of Migration to the North by Tayyeb Saleh, The Battle of Anjar directed by Nizam Mikati andSong For the Land with Ayda Abdul-Aziz.
Mahmoud Said now lives in Bustan village, close to Qabr Shmoun in Mount Lebanon. He spends his time driving his car around nearby villages, “Now I know every single tree there, every tortoise, frog and chicken.” Then he settles at Abu Ali’s cafe near Aley. “I drink coffee and then I go back home and read...I am an avid reader.”
He is not working at the moment. He still reads many scripts, “I reject most because they are a huge insult to my career as an artist.” The last role he was offered was in a Gulf television series. It was to play “a Lebanese taxi driver working in one of the Gulf countries. I take a man from the airport to his home, then I visit him with my unveiled wife and my daughter who is wearing a miniskirt. I asked the director: ‘With all the work I’ve done, is this the only end you can see for me?’ Unfortunately, there are so many like him.” It makes Said angry that one mindset controls all Arab television stations, but he “will not give up hope.”
He is not happy with what is happening now in the Arab world. He believes that it is all “concocted by America and Israel.” He says, “Our enemy does not want us to live free. It kills everything beautiful inside us, particularly culture, and we seem to follow everything our enemy plans for us without any hesitation.”
Said adds, “I am sad for our nation. We are close to the 100th anniversary of the Nakba and we have achieved nothing. We are now about 400 million people and we have no television station or newspaper reflecting our point of view in America and Europe, delivering our voices to their societies, voicing our opinions and explaining the injustice we face.”