What's all the fuss about 'Omar': the lowdown on epic Arab TV drama
Hatem Ali, the director of the TV series “Omar,” which revolves around the life story of Islam’s second Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, said the controversy surrounding the series was no surprise to him.
Actually, the controversy started even before the series was aired during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a high season for TV drama and soap operas in the Middle East.
Hundreds of people joined a Facebook campaign demanding the show not be broadcast, under the title, “No to showing Farouk Omar series.” The reason for the controversy is the impersonation of Omar and several of the prophet’s closest companions and most revered figures in Islam. Some Muslims believe it is forbidden to portray Prophet Mohammed and some of his successors.
Despite the opposition and calls for boycott online, the TV series, a joint production of the Dubai-based MBC Group and Qatar Television, hit the air waves as scheduled, attracting a large number of viewers.
MBC touted the series as the biggest drama production ever in the history of the Arabic television.
“The series needed a huge crew that could amount to 500 actors, actresses, and extras in one single day,” Ali he said during an interview on Al Arabiya morning show.
“This was repeated throughout 180 days during a whole year, the time it took us to film the series.”
The Syrian director added that building a replica of Mecca and the surrounding area was another challenge that faced him until he and the crew finally chose a location in Morocco.
Several scenes in the series, Ali pointed out, were difficult to shoot like the one in which an elephant treads on one of the actors.
“The elephant was well-trained for the scene and we made the actor wear an iron shield just in case anything goes wrong.”
The horses used in the series, he explained, were brought from Eastern Europe and were trained together with the elephants to make them adapt to each other.
“Horses are known to fear elephants and we had to overcome this obstacle by allowing them to coexist.”
The series featured many battle scenes on a large scale. Ali said it took them a total of 54 days with a rate of 12 hours a day and with the participation of 500 extras that were trained on this type of scenes.
“The scenes were performed so well that we had actual injuries, but there was a medical team that accompanied the crew at all times and offered the necessary care for the actors,” he said.
The series traced the life of Omar al-Khattab since he was 18 years old until he became 63. Casting the actor to play the lead role in the series was not easy, Ali said.
“This was quite challenging because I had to choose someone who was quite young and I also needed a new face. I met a lot of fresh graduates from cinema institutes until I finally choose Samer Ismail,” he said.
Ismail then had to undergo a lot of tests and proved that he was the right choice.
“He has sharp looks and a hoarse voice and these were among Omar’s traits, plus the fact that he was a new face gave him more credibility.”
When asked if he minded that a non-Muslim played the role of Omar, Ali replied in the negative. He denied rumors about the conditions he imposed on Ismail in order to give him the role.
“It is not true that I asked him not to act for five years after the series. We only agreed on two years.”
Ali expressed his satisfaction with the fact that the series was dubbed in several languages like the Turkish and the Indonesian owing to its popularity.
“This is due to the significance of the person it is about and it definitely increases the number of people who watch the series.”
Ali added that the series was also dubbed in English and French and that there are negotiations about turning it into a movie.