COVER STORY

66 JO Magazine September 07

“She changed the destinies of those around her, and their relationships. She was the only one who failed to realize that society had rules - or if she realized, failed to care. That’s why she was freer and bolder. She obeyed her inner freedom, and no one scared her... The only possible relationship with Sultana was to submit to her.”

- from Sultana, by Ghaleb Halassa

WORDS Lina Ejeilat
September 07 JO Magazine 67

COVER STORY

Qamar Khalaf in the title role. And scenes from Sultana (Right).

“We challenged a lot of the common taboos, while maintaining decency and sometimes resorting to indirect ways of telling what happened”
When the fledgling Al Ghad Television started looking for a Jordanian story to produce as a drama series for its first Ramadan season, Ghaleb Halassah’s Sultana stood out from all the potential choices. “Sultana was appealing, first of all, because it was a purely Jordanian story,” said ATV programs manager and presenter Paul Hijazin. “Two years ago, [when ATV began] no one was talking about a purely Jordanian drama.” This despite the fact that the controversial novel was banned in Jordan until 1989, presumably because of it’s sexual and political content. Sultana is a vivid and unusual portrayal of Jordanian society in the first half of the twentieth century, depicting village life, the move into the city and the transformations Amman was undergoing; presenting simultaneously the raw and genuine experiences of a young man, and a young society, coming of age. “It was probably one of the first Arabic books that really captured me, and kept me reading, for three or four days,” Hijazin said. Taking a work that was both highly political and sexually explicit to the screen was definitely a challenge, says Ibrahim Gharaibeh, a journalist and writer who was part of the group ATV assembled to manage the dramatic treatment of the script. “This work is less audacious than Syrian or Egyptian dramas, but definitely bolder than any Jordanian drama series ever made,” he said. SEX She did not stay long. She pulled a pillow and sat on it. He realized that he mustn’t force her to have sex. She was the way he liked to see her, and liked to listen to her. She was reshaping him without him knowing, and without her intending. Neither knew that Sultana represented a new kind of woman, formed outside the context of village life and norms and values; a woman who knew not a tribe’s suppression, a father’s authority, or a strict mother’s watchfulness. She was a free woman… - from Sultana Sultana’s sexual content was shocking at the time it was written, The story begins in a small village, very like Ma’in, where Halassah grew up. The viewpoint character, Jeries, often thought to be an analog for Halassah himself, is a young man back from boarding school in Amman who spends his days reading Madam Bovary and wandering around the village with his friend, and his nights masturbating in bed, fantasizing about the different women he meets.

Jeries introduces two women who come to shape his view of all females: Amneh, who is a second mother to him and who he idolizes in a mythological way, and Sultana, fifteen years his senior, for whom he develops a passionate infatuation that haunts him until much later stages in his life. “Amneh was the village’s outspoken romantic dream, while Sultana was its secret, lustful, cursed, and scandalous fantasy, granted and impossible at the same time,” Halassa writes. Sultana is a wild, strong girl who matures quickly, in a village salaciously described by Halassah as full of sexual misbehavior. Sultana eventually bears a daughter to man not her husband: Amira, who grows up to be as notorious as her mother. Adapting the story for television meant taming some of the plot events to make it acceptable for a Jordanian audience. “The concerns were over the social issues, not the political,” Gharaibeh says. “In Jordan, the real censor is society itself.” While the series pushes the envelope of what is acceptable in Jordanian drama, a lot of the explicit sexual content was taken out, as well as the social hatreds, and issues that could provoke religious sensitivities. For example, the character of the corrupt priest, Saliba, who Sultana seduces in the book, is more or less written out of the series, and his action transferred to another character. “We challenged a lot of the common taboos,” says director Eyad Al Khzuz, “while maintaining decency and sometimes resorting to indirect ways of telling what happened.” According to Gharaibeh, the impact of what is seen on screen is different from reading it on paper. “There are tricks in drama that

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enable you to say something without actually showing it,” he explains. In order to adapt the relatively short novel into a 30-episode Ramadan serial, ATV also incorporated two other works by Ghaleb Halassah: Wadie’ and Saint Miladah, which deals with village life and religious rituals and practices, and Bedouins, Niggers, and Farmers, which exposes the complex relationships between different segments of Jordanian society at the time of its social and political formation. According to Hijazin, this was needed because Sultana, autobiographical in nature, did not have enough plot and cliffhangers. ATV pioneered a new approach for the dramatic adaptation by forming a reading committee, which included Hijazin and Gharaibeh, to review the script as it was being developed, verify historical accuracy, fill the gaps and add flavor. THEATER One of the main challenges in producing the series was finding actresses for the roles of Sultana and her daughter, Amira. A number of Jordanian actresses who were approached, declined the roles – at least some of them because they were not willing to be seen playing morally questionable characters. In the end, ATV had to cast Syrians in both lead roles: Sultana was portrayed by Qamar Khalaf and Amira by Kinda Alloush. “The number of professional actors in Jordan is limited,” Al Khzuz says, “and they are still governed by social taboos.” According to Al Khzuz, Qamar Khalaf was one of the most comfortable people to work with on the set, despite the controversy and difficulty of her role. “Her role spans 20 years,” he explains, “and Qamar manages to reflect those changes in the character’s spirit and maturity over time.” Qamar admits that she, too, had some professional concerns before accepting this role. “I had to ask myself whether I’m capable of embodying such a character,” she says, “Sultana is a very complex character that allowed me to bring out the best that I have. This is a challenge an actor doesn’t find very often.” She did not like Sultana’s character, she said, “but I embraced her artistically.” Al Khzuz put a lot of emphasis on working with the actors, and trying to steer them away from the stereotypical characters in Jordanian drama. “You will see Jordanian actors like never before,” he says.

Ghaleb Halassa, Sultana’s author who passed away in 1988.

This work is less audacious than Syrian or Egyptian dramas, but definitely bolder than any Jordanian drama series ever made
Talal Awamleh, director of the Arab Center for Telemedia Services, which was commissioned by ATV to produce Sultana, says that the difficulty of finding Jordanian actresses is a common challenge for production here, and that Jordan always depends on Syria for actresses. “Syria is definitely more culturally advanced,” he says. “More than 30 or 40 productions are made there every year, which creates more opportunities for actors and actresses. Not to mention their advanced drama and theater institutes.” In Jordan, Al Khzuz agrees, support for art and culture does not go much beyond lip service. “A public official here would be charged with the responsibility of advancing art and supporting artists, but under no circumstance would this person let his own daughter become an actress,” he says. POLITICS The only possible relationship with Sultana was to submit to her. Bshara survived because he accepted his destiny as a facade: Sultana only allowed him to wear the costume of a husband, but not to act the part. He knew her body a few times only, and she never gave him the chance to be the father of her children. She made Saliba the father of Amira and of her third child, while the fourth was the son of Hikmat, the supervisor of the camp near Aqaba, through which the caravans of hashish traders passed to Egypt, and through which diamond trade with Israel was done. - from Sultana

September 07 JO Magazine 69

COVER STORY

Various scenes from Sultana.

In the novel, Halassah provides only glimpses into historical events that were shaping Jordan’s development at the time, and the relationship between Palestinians and Jordanians, Bedouins and farmers, and Muslims and Christians. Many of these are expanded upon in the television adaptation to give a clearer and more grounded context for the plot of the series, which spans from 1936 until 1956. For example, the brief mention of the 1936 revolution in Palestine is expanded and turned into the opening scene, with Palestinian fighters smuggling weapons across Jordan. “There is more openness in Jordan now, and higher awareness” Gharaibeh says, “the books are no longer banned, and with technological changes and the exposure that comes with it, young people are re-examining their history and trying to better understand their identity.” The story of Sultana moves from the village to Amman, in the 1940’s. Jeries returns to the Bishop’s school - one of the few private schools in the capitol at the time, providing English education. His process of sexual, intellectual, and political maturation continues amidst the camaraderie of his friends and the heady intrigues of the city’s 1940’s political climate, where communism was growing as an underground political movement, and increasingly persecuted in Jordan and other parts of the Arab world. While the young men hold heated discussions of politics in cafes, Sultana and her daughter relocate to a newly built home in Jebel Al Webdeh. Their lives entwine with Jeries’ once more when Amira is raped by a Member of Parliament, and then she attempts to blackmail him. Eventually, Sultana becomes involved with a powerful man referred to as

“the Sheikh,” who runs a hashish and diamond smuggling operation near Aqaba. “The series is political in the first degree,” says Gharaibeh, and points out that people familiar with the history of that period could recognize in some of the characters shades of the real people and political figures upon whom they are based. In this case, however, he says the adapters chose not to elaborate on the real history behind the fiction. “This is how Halassah wrote it,” Gharaibeh says, “it’s very subtle, and we’re leaving it to the wit and knowledge of the viewers.” “A lot of people here don’t understand the history of Jordan,” Hijazin adds. “I’ve learned a lot from our research into that era!” FATALITY In the last phase of the novel, Jeries is in exile in Cairo, where he sees a picture of Sultana on a magazine cover: an older but still attractive woman now meddling in politics. She is unhappy with the Sheikh, and her daughter has become a heavy drinker, and enters into a kind of sexual competition, where she steals away her mother’s lovers. Together, they have somehow become engulfed in a world they can no longer control. Ghaleb Halassah’s life was not unlike those of his characters. He had been involved in politics early on during his studies at the Bishop school in Amman and was imprisoned before he was 18, both in Mahatta and in Jafr, alongside others accused of involvement with the thenprohibited Communist Party. He went to study at the American University in Beirut, but left before completing his studies to flee prosecution by the authorities for his political activities. He went to Baghdad, and

then to Egypt to study journalism, where he remained for over 20 years. It was in Egypt that he was happiest, according to his older brother. He was active in literary and cultural circles in Cairo, and received high acclaim there as a writer and critic long before people in Jordan started recognizing him. He fought in the Suez war in 1956, was imprisoned by Abdel Nasser for six months. Then, in 1976, he was deported out of Egypt by the government of Anwar Sadat - leaving behind his apartment in Dokki and more than 7,000 books. He went to Beirut, and during the Israeli invasion he interviewed fighters on the front lines for Radio of the Revolution. But he was never able to return to Jordan, and his work was never recognized in his home country until after his death in 1989, when the ban on his books was finally lifted. In 2007, Ghaleb Halassah was finally awarded Jordan’s State Medal for contribution in literature. LAST ACT There is a final twist to the story: ATV has become embroiled in its own political controversy, and at the time of publication it seems highly unlikely that it will be allowed to broadcast this Ramadan. Sultana, long kept away from a Jordanian audience when she was the protagonist of a novel, may have to wait still longer for recognition as the central figure of a television serial. Whenever or however it finally appears, Al Khzuz expects that the show will raise eyebrows and provoke some people. “I don’t have a problem with that, nor would I respond,” he says. “We need more work that stirs still water and attempts to challenge what people are used to.” JO

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