History’s dark side

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

Hani Mustafa watches with interest Egyptian television’s first take on the Assassins

Hassan-i Sabbah
Hassan-i Sabbah (Karim Abdel-Aziz)


Since the launch of Egyptian television in 1960 — and the rise of Ramadan as the high season — historical drama, tying in with Islamic themes, has been a constant feature. The earliest example of this was the 1961 series Azraa Mekka (The Mecca Virgin), directed by Hamdi Ghaith and written by Rashad Hegazi and Abdel-Moneim Al-Kordi. This Ramadan Al-Hashashin (The Assassins) directed by Peter Mimi and written by Abdel-Rehim Kamal, has captured the imagination of many viewers.

The series delves into the origins of a Nizari Ismaili order best known for its terrorist activities and assassination of politicians and intellectuals across the Islamic world in the 11th to the 13th centuries. The group was headquartered in a castle called Alamut in Alborz Mountain near the Caspian Sea in Iran. The meaning of Alamut in Farsi is “the eagle’s nest”, and this name reflected the fact that, barricaded in the mountains, Hashashin strongholds in Iran and the Levant were inaccessible to armies. Terrorising the entire Islamic world, the Hashashin were eventually wiped out of Iran and Iraq by the army of Hulegu Khan in 1256, then the Mameluke sultan Al-Zahir Baybars likewise routed them in Syria in 1273.

Kamal opened his 2021 series Cairo, Kabul — directed by Hossam Ali — with a meeting between four former childhood friends: Ramzi (Tarek Lotfi), the head of a militant Islamist organisation based in Afghan mountains, Tarek (Khaled Al-Sawi), a state security police officer, Khaled (Ahmed Rezk), a documentary filmmaker, and Adel (Fathi Abdel-Wahab) a TV presenter. Kamal uses the same technique in Al-Hashashin, showing a close friendship between the founder and leader of the Hashashin Hassan-i Sabbah (Karim Abdel-Aziz), the poet Omar Al-Khayyam (Lebanese actor Nicolas Mouawad) and the vizier Abu Ali Tusi aka Nizam Al-Mulk (Fathi Abdel-Wahab). Most historical references suggest that the three knew one another, but their childhood friendship is Kamal’s interpretation, possibly taken from Amin Maalouf’s 1988 novel Samarkand. Here too Kamal uses Egyptian Arabic, not the classical language usually employed in historical drama.

In the introduction to the first episode, there is a scene that shows how a group of French soldiers try to meet with Sabbah to threaten him with the power of the French crown. He demonstrates his own power by ordering a soldier of his to jump off the top of the mountain, which the soldier promptly does. In another scene, the young Sabbah is being chased by bullies when he falls into an abandoned well where he meets a supernatural woman who insists on him declaring that he prefers darkness to light and will always obey her: a banal Faust-like justification for his career.

It is well-known that Sabbah was charismatic and articulate, but the series presents him as having otherworldly powers as well. In the second episode — still a young man with now power — he meets with Rasad, the mother of Fatimid Caliph and Ismaili Imam Al-Mustansir Billah’s (Sudanese actress Mona Abdel-Rehim), and when she mentions her dream he recounts the contents of her nightmare exactly. He then asks her to stand up even though she is paralysed from the waist down, and immediately she manages to walk. The scene gives Sabbah the fabled powers of Jesus and the Prophet Joseph combined. It is his way of reaching the caliph.

This is an occasion to show the ethnically Armenian Grand Vizier Badr Al-Jamali’s hatred for Al-Mustansir’s favourite heir apparent Nizar. It is Al-Jamali’s son-in-law, a younger son of Al-Mustansir’s, who should succeed his father, the vizier feels. Later Nizar is sent on a mission to Alexandria where he is killed, and it is at this point that Sabbah establishes his order, a sect based on the belief in Nizar as the true Imam (hence Nizari). Al-Jamali exiles Sabbah to Morocco and on the way he manages to stop a life-threatening storm with a wave of his hand (though it is later explained that the book he was reading when the storm hit the boat was a meteorological almanac that told him it would stop when it did).

As the drama evolves, the story diverges into three paths, showing Sabbah’s trip to Egypt and Nizam Al-Mulk becoming the Seljuk emperor’s grand vizier and Khayyam moving to Samarkand. But the series doesn’t explain the reason behind these travels. Khayyam — a flat character, showing neither good nor evil — manages to anger a great emir by falling in love with a slave girl while reciting poetry in praise of him, promising to write his biography if he spared his life and let him have the slave girl. All three friends return to the capital of the Seljuk empire, Isfahan. Nizam Al-Mulk gains the trust of the young Seljuk sultan Malik Shah after the death of his father Alp Arslan, convincing Shah to make use of the skills of Sabbah and Khayyam. However, the vizier feels that Sabbah, an esoteric Shia, may not be faithful to their friendship, so he keeps him under surveillance.

The series has a subtitle, Falsehoods and Heroes Inspired by History, which may be a reference to the classic structure of traditional historical narrative that relies on the struggle between good and evil, or truth and falsehood. However, this notion isn’t central to the drama in the first few episodes. In fact the series seems to lack a coherent structure. Designed to show the different paths of the three friends — the notorious rebel who wanted to change the world by blood and the strong statesman who became the most powerful man in the world’s most powerful state and the greatest polymath of his time — the story focuses instead on a Seljuk soldier who cannot marry the girl he loves because he must avenge the killing of his parents’ — carried out on Sabbah’s orders by his assistant Zaid Bin Sayhun (Ahmed Eid).

The comparison with contemporary extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, IS or even the Muslim Brotherhood is unavoidable, and perhaps that is why the series has generated so much debate on social media, with Islamists and secularists fighting it out. Some even argued that the Hashashin were a revolutionary group, not terrorists. No one knows for sure if the Hashashin ever really used hashish as their name implies. Only Marco Polo mentions the fact, in the course of his description of how Sabbah would show his warriors a version of the paradise described in the Quran with the help of mind-altering substances, making it easy for them to commit suicide — this is precisely how contemporary suicide bombers operate today — but Marco Polo is hardly a reliable source. The idea that the name came from Hassan is unconvincing, but the association with hashish may have been an invention of their enemies.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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