Dynamite in the Middle East

Source: Khalil Totah, Dynamite in the Middle-East (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), pp. 146-147

Text: Before leaving the Syrian capital, I must relate the tale of American influence. The film of Hamlet was advertised and as I had been unable to see it in the United States, I asked myself in what better place could it be seen than in Damascus. I invited Miss Jane Hockett, whose parents I know in Whittier, to go with me. She is in the United States service as a librarian in the Information Center. People at the Semiramis Hotel advised against my going to that theatre because they thought it was cheap, noisy and dirty. I warned Miss Hockett about the probable undesirability of the place, but she was a good sport. The hall was down in a kind of cellar and full to overflowing. There were no reserved seats and one had to take his chance. I came to the theatre early and requested one of the ushers to save me a couple of seats as I was bringing a lady. He held the seats. The hall was crowded with a noisy lot of adults and children. How a film like Hamlet should attract so many “kids” was rather astonishing. Of course the film was in English, but on the side there was an Arabic translation. People were eating peanuts, pumpkin seeds and roasted peas. At the intermission Coca-Cola, lemonade and ice cream were hawked by boys in the aisles. The seats were crude and hard, but it was a unique experience to see Hamlet in Damascus. The crowds and goings on which are so unlike an American movie theatre were indeed worth the admission of fifteen cents.

Not far from my hotel was another ramshackle cinema house. The performance started at 9 p.m. There was bedlam at the door! It seemed as if half of the ragged bootblacks, porters and errand boys were there. There were hardly any women to be seen. The place looked more like a market place or an oriental street scene than a cinema house. Everything was being hawked. Boys were yelling at the top of their voices and selling everything — chewing gum, cakes, cigarettes and chocolates. People felt at home, shouted, yelled, visited, laughed and enjoyed themselves to the full. It was more like a circus or a baseball game in America. There was no reserve, no hushed tones, no restraint. The boys and young men just “let her go.” But when the curtain was up and those Hollywood beauties appeared in their underwear, you should have heard the exclamations of the crowd’s delight. “Ya salam! Ya Allah!” No wonder there was such a mob at the door and several performances. As to the admission fee, it was in two classes. First class on the balcony was 12¢. Second class for the riffraff was 8¢.

In the balcony, and therefore first class, was a rotund, corpulent gentleman. He took his seat and then ordered an usher to bring him a nargileh (a hubble bubble). While feasting his eyes on the Hollywood girls, he drew on his nargileh, the long pipe attached to a large bottle almost full of water. On top was a sort of tobacco called tunback, which was placed on some burning coals. The smoke passed through the water, through the pipe and to the mouth. This gentleman was relaxation itself. The bottle gurgled and laughed, he drew and drew and hugely enjoyed a rare smoke. What would Americans give to see that scene in an American movie house on Main Street? “Ya Allah! Ya salam!”

Comments: Khalil Totah (1886-1955) was a Palestinian author, lecturer and educationalist, who wrote books on Palestinian history and political development. He became an American citizen in 1946. The book from which this this extract comes was his final work, posthumously published, giving a view of Middle Eastern affairs for an American audience. The film he saw was Hamlet (UK 1948), directed and starring by Laurence Olivier.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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