Story Publication logo August 29, 2008

Yemen: Fake beards

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The poorest nation in the Arab world struggles with high population growth, 40% unemployment and a...

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I went to chew qat with the actors who play terrorists in a new feature film called 'The Losing Bet'. Ahmed was the first to wander in to the production offices. He had left his shoes outside and was wearing socks, Yemeni-style. He sat down next to me.

Ahmed plays Murad in the film – an unemployed youth turned suicide bomber. "What's in your bag?" I joked. "Don't worry. You're safe," he laughed. "I won't detonate."

In real life, Ahmed is clean-shaven but his character Murad sports the signature bushy beard of a Salafi jihadi. It took him four months to grow a beard before the crew started filming, but it didn't look big enough on camera.

"I decided to shave it off and wear a fake beard," he said. "I wasn't the only one. We had to order a bulk batch of fake beards from Syria."

Next door, in the edit suite, AbdulKareem was holding court under a framed poster of Yemen's moustachioed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. AbdulKareem plays the charismatic commander of the counter-terrorism forces.

Smoking Rothmans cigarettes, his cheek stuffed full of qat leaves, AbdulKareem pointed at his colleague, Issam, who plays an al-Qaeda cell member. "He's another bad guy," AbdulKareem said.

'The Losing Bet' addresses a tragic subject but it's shot through with humour. Comic scenes poke fun at the feckless unemployed and dogmatic, sanctimonious jihadis. It had the VIP audience at Sunday's premiere in stitches of laughter. One Arab diplomat privately doubted whether comic acting was appropriate for such a serious issue – but the Yemenis loved it.

It's a novelty for Yemenis to see themselves on the big screen, and the director has really hit on the quirky, national sense of humour.

The film has its thoughtful moments, too. It portrays dialogue on the boundaries of al-Qaeda – between those who are tasked with recruiting new members, those are turning away from radicalisation, and those who have already renounced violence.

'The Losing Bet' is Yemen's first feature film made by a local production team. The actors are well-known for their roles in a popular social comedy on Yemeni television.

Members of the cast run the full gamut of emotions – from jealousy, betrayal and broken hearts – to grief, envy and remorse. A deserted wife, an abandoned child and a bereaved widow portray the damage to family life when male breadwinner turns to fundamentalism.

The story revolves around rivalry between Emad – an earnest, conscientious graduate – and his lazy, unemployed friend, Mabruk. Once targeted and indoctrinated, Mabruk ends up on a disastrous course.

Astute characterization of Western tourists and rollicking dramatic tension – from kidnap and shoot-out to armed stand-off – over-ride the film's explicit propaganda value and occasional cliché.

The two-hour film will be screened at summer camps, schools and universities and sold on DVD.

"In many ways, the terrorist is himself a victim. He is chosen because the ringleaders find a weak spot. They entice him with money and tell him: 'Even if you fail in this world, you will not fail in the afterlife'," said the film's producer, Dr Fadl al-Olfi.

Photos (c) Rosana Productions

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