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Gideon Raff’s Tyrant: Dallas in the Desert

November 14, 2014

Ashraf Barhom and Adam Rayner


I’m currently on a quick trip home between visits to Saudi Arabia. When I’m in the Kingdom I never watch TV. I get my news via the local newspaper, the web and the London Times IPad app. Sitting in a dark hotel room browsing channels for something worth watching is not my idea of fun. When I’m not meeting people I’d rather read or post to this blog.

But when I get home I tend to go into catch-up mode. I still don’t watch that much TV. I record loads of stuff, and then watch it drop off the hard disk unwatched. What I do watch often disappoints me. I’ve had it up to here with crime series. Left to my own devices, I avoid watching violence, acts of mental cruelty, psychopaths, food programmes, football matches and Formula 1 (unless I want to go to sleep). And don’t even mention the aliens and neo-conservative conspiracies.

So what’s left? Retrospectives of musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant. News, history, science, and occasionally a dash of comedy. The odd current affairs show. Perhaps a side-effect of approaching senility is that just as the choice of programming has massively increased over the past ten years, my preferences have reduced by the same factor.

However I do follow a few series, partly because they give me the opportunity to watch stuff with my wife, and partly because it’s not difficult to succumb to series addiction, though sometimes reluctantly. In the reluctant category I would include the work of Gideon Raff, the Israeli producer responsible for such shows as Homeland, Prisoners of War, and his latest, Tyrant.

Prisoners of War was interesting because it offered an Israeli perspective on the endless Israel-Palestine conflict The plot is pretty typical of the “national security” genre: conspiracies, interdepartmental rivalries and secret operations within the security apparatus. Brutality and collateral damage on the ground. But in its portrayal of the damaged individuals caught up in plot and counter-plot on both sides of the divide, the show offers a glimpse of Israeli society not often seen out of the country: secular, paranoid, similar to the west but not of the west. I get the same “familiar yet alien” sense when I listen to Israeli spokesmen speaking in perfect American-accented English about Gaza or the settlements. Reasonable words set in a twisted narrative.

Homeland I only caught up with during the last series, so I missed much of the early plot about Brody, the erstwhile central character, captured by an Al-Qaeda-like group and converting to Islam. Much of the focus of the past two series has been on the travails of the bi-polar CIA operative, Carrie Mathieson. Spending an hour in Carrie’s company is enough to leave me reaching for the Prozac. Her face is an ever-shifting map of insanity in waiting. Despite the calming effect of the medication, you also wonder at the sanity of her CIA boss in entrusting his operation in Islamabad to her. Not surprisingly given that the series was inspired by Prisoners of War, stable characters are not Homeland’s hallmark.

And so to Tyrant. Basically the recipe is this: take a prime cut of Syria, add some Libyan flavouring and a large dollop of pureed Saddam-era Iraq. Simmer in a broth of Truth, Justice and the American Way, and before serving stir in a soupcon of Gulf opulence.

The principal dramatis personae are the father, a durable dictator with blood on his hands, his brother, a Chemical Ali clone, the elder son, an amalgam of Uday Hussain, Maher Al-Assad and Mutassim Gaddafi, and the younger son, who escaped from his nasty family a couple of decades ago to become a paediatrician in California.

Dad dies during a family reunion, and Jamal the psycho takes over as president. Bassam, the younger son (known to his American friends as Barry – shades of Obama) is visiting with his family when Dad pops his clogs. He’s a straight shooter, in more ways than one, as becomes evident as the series unfolds. He valiantly tries to act as a moderating influence on his murderous brother. Meanwhile revolution threatens as the oppressed people of Abbudin seize the opportunity presented by the old man’s passing. Wicked uncle Tariq readies his torture chambers and lines up the troops to clear the city’s equivalent of Tahrir Square. And things develop from there.

Just about every caricature of the post-Saddam Middle East makes a cameo appearance – the tribal sheikhs, the scheming American diplomat, the exiled insurgent leader and his hot-headed son who leads the opposition within the country, manipulative wives and a palace that looks like a seven-star hotel in Dubai, in which much drinking and various deviant sexual practices take place.

Curiously enough, two ingredients in the Middle East recipe are missing: Islamism and the nearby influence of the Zionist Entity, as even politically moderate Arab politicians like to call Israel.

Ashraf Barhom, who played the dignified police colonel responsible for investigating the terror attacks against westerners in The Kingdom, the 2007 movie set in a fictional Saudi Arabia, does a fine job of portraying Jamal, the unstable elder son. Adam Rayner, all blue eyes and chiselled jawline, less so. As Bassam, the second son who rejects his Arab family and becomes an all-American version of Bashar Al-Assad, the noted former London ophalmologist, he fails to convince you that there’s an expatriate Arab under the skin, let alone the brother of a psychopath. Far too po-faced.

If you ignore all the grating “oh come on” moments of inauthenticity, some weird casting and all the usual stereotypes that so madden educated Arabs, it’s not a bad series. Think of it as a tale of a feuding family; avoid being seduced into confirming your prejudices about the Arab world and think of Tyrant as a modern Dallas without the stetsons, and you should have enough decent plotlines to keep you engaged for the duration. Actually I suspect that the worlds of Saddam, Gaddafi and the Assads were (and in Bashar’s case still is) far more mundane, yet at times far more brutal, than anything you’d see in Gideon Raff’s glossy confection.

But having sat through all these convoluted tales of betrayal and brutality in this very bloody year – and I almost forgot to mention The Honourable Woman in the list – I’m ready for something different. The horrible reality of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Gaza speaks too loudly.

If we must return to dysfunctional dictators and feuding courtiers, there’s a ten-part series that’s begging to be made: the story of Stalin’s final two decades. Now that would make Tyrant look like an minor domestic spat. And speaking of Russian autocrats, I should have thought that Ivan The Terrible was well overdue for a remake.

Mr Raff should look to the golden domes of the Kremlin, and leave the Middle East to its all-too-pervasive suffering for a while.

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