Rarely have Syrians been united over anything—at least not during the past decade—until legendary director Hatem Ali died of a heart attack in Egypt on December 28, 2020. A native of a village called Fiq in the Golan Heights, his family was displaced after the Six Day War of 1967 and moved to Damascus, where Ali grew up at the Yarmouk refugee camp. He studied at the Higher Academy of Fine Arts, starting his career as an actor in the 1980s, before breaking into fame as a television director.
His sudden death at a Cairo hotel at the age of 58, shocked Syrians of all stripes and backgrounds, who came out in large numbers to pay their respects at his funeral in Damascus on the first day of the new year. Within Syria, Hatem Ali is known for a series of classic works, from Andalusian dramas to comedies and light sitcoms, but to a larger Arab audience, his legacy lies firmly in “King Farouk,” a 30-episode drama that he directed back in 2007.
Until then, Arab mainstream media had depicted Farouk, the last king of Egypt, in negative terms, taking their cue from Gamal Abdul Nasser, the man who had him dethroned, defamed, and exiled back in 1952. Revolutions vilify and destroy all that precede them, after all, and Egypt was no exception. Throughout the years of Nasser’s presidency (1954-1970), cheap movies were made about Farouk, portraying him as a drunkard, a womanizer, and a pawn in the hands of the British. Nasser sat at the front row of those Cairo premieres, clapping enthusiastically.
Throughout the years of Nasser’s presidency (1954-1970), cheap movies were made about Farouk, portraying him as a drunkard, a womanizer, and a pawn in the hands of the British.
Farouk’s property was seized, his name erased from history books and from all monuments erected during his rule (1936-1952). From his exile in Europe, the ousted King was never given a chance to refute accusations that he had been but a passive monarch who cared more for his personal indulgences than for the fate of Egypt. That negative perception continued under Nasser’s two successors, Anwar al-Sadat (1970-1981) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), both officers-turned-politicians who owed their entire careers to the post-Farouk republican era.
Inspired by Nasser, hot-tempered and revolutionary Arab officers in the region staged similar back-to-back coups against civilian rule in their respective countries, replacing them with military regimes. First came Iraq with the officer revolution of July 1958, followed by Syria in March 1963 and Libya in September 1969.
Libya’s King Idriss was toppled and exiled by Muammar al-Gaddafi, and so was Syria’s President Nazem al-Qudsi, who was overthrown by the Baathists. In Iraq, the revolutionaries not only toppled the monarchy, but slaughtered the entire royal family—the king, his mother, and even the royal family’s pets—replacing them with a military dictatorship that eventually led to Saddam Hussein’s rule in 1979.
Like Nasser’s dealing with Farouk, these officers painted a very foul image of the civilian class that preceded them, writing off its main figures as “agents of imperialism” who were collectively blamed for the Arab defeat in the first Palestine War of 1948.
That remained the norm until Hatem Ali released his epic “King Farouk,” forever challenging Gamal Abdul Nasser’s version of contemporary Egyptian history. It was aired during the final years of the Mubarak presidency, when the Egyptian leader felt strong enough to loosen his iron grip on society, releasing political prisoners while allowing people to challenge him at the 2005 presidential election.
Ali’s series showed that it was Farouk who initiated the Arab League back in 1944, hoping to create a united Arab front in the post-colonial era.
Ali’s series, produced by the Saudi-owned MBC channel and written by Egyptian screenwriter Lamis Gaber, showed that it was Farouk who initiated the Arab League back in 1944, hoping to create a united Arab front in the post-colonial era. If anything, it showed him as a fine patriot, rather than a British puppet. It was Farouk who worked to break British hegemony over the Arab World, with the help of Saudi King Abdul-Aziz and Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli, his two main allies in the Arab World. It was Farouk who insisted on going to war in Palestine in 1948, pushing Syria into battle.
Farouk was a womanizer indeed—forgivable perhaps because of his young age, but he never drank alcohol, nor did he permit it to be served in his presence. This was one of the many lies crafted against him by the Free Officers until being refuted by Hatem Ali.
The biography that Ali directed did the young King Farouk a great service, humanizing him and showing the good aspects of his life and career while explaining, instead of glossing over, his many faults. Even Nazli, the notorious Queen Mother whose love affairs scandalized the royal family (and who eventually abandoned her son, went to the United States, and converted to Christianity) is defended and depicted as a good woman at heart. Wrongs are forgiven in a series that aimed at elucidating—rather than defaming—the last king of Egypt.
The work shocked Egypt and the Arab World out of its stuffy Puritanism, creating an uproar from Arab nationalists, the self-proclaimed successors of Nasser. And within a year, a series was made in Baghdad about Prime Minister Nuri Pasha al-Said, who was toppled and killed by officers in 1958. In 2010 another work followed in Baghdad, this time about the last king of Iraq, Faisal II.
Neither could have been possible had it not been for Ali’s work. It also triggered a newfound interest in the monarchial era of Egypt, as television channels started inviting Farouk’s remaining family members to their studios, notably his son, Ahmad Fouad II (whom Farouk abdicated while still an infant in 1952). They spoke of the man, the father, and the monarch.
The renewed interest and perspectives on the king’s life, led many to wonder: If Farouk was as human as Hatem Ali’s work presented him to be, why had newspapers, publishers, and production houses been trashing him for six decades?
This inspired a young generation of Egyptians to start asking questions about their modern history, challenging what until then had been mainstream information in government-printed history books. Those books glorified the Free Officer Revolution of 1952, arguing that all that preceded it was backward, corrupt, and ultimately wrong.
Ali’s series contended that pre-Nasser Egypt was not as bad as they were told, and Hosni Mubarak was not much better—if not worse—than King Farouk. And perhaps Ali’s groundbreaking work—among other things—was one of the many factors that caused Egyptians to rise in revolt against Mubarak on January 25, 2011.
Like Farouk, Mubarak was overthrown by a popular revolution, on the 59th anniversary of the Cairo fire that spelled out the beginning of Farouk’s demise on January 26, 1952. Unlike Farouk, however, he was arrested and tried—only to be acquitted of all crimes—and allowed to die at his Cairo residence in 2018.