"My Life as Cinema: A Conversation with Samuel Shimon"

An Iraqi in Paris is Samuel Shimon’s (b. 1956) debut novel, detailing the author’s real-world journey from his home in Iraq to Paris, France. The novel was long-listed for the 2007 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Al-Hayat called it a “gem of autobiographical writing in the modern period.” In addition to his novel, Shimon edited the anthology Beirut 39 (Bloomsbury 2010), which featured thirty-nine Arabic authors and their works. Shimon currently lives in London with his wife, and together they publish and edit Banipal, an Arabic literature magazine published in English. He is also the founding editor of an online cultural journal, Kikah, promoting free culture and tolerance through Arabic and world literatures.


Kaitlin Hawkins: In An Iraqi in Paris, you meet many people, all with diverse backgrounds and intentions. Some of these people are quite mean to you, most notably the groups of people that attack and torture you. Did their acts of unkindness shape or influence your opinion and beliefs about their countries of origin?

Samuel Shimon: Fortunately, they failed in causing any change in my beliefs and principles. I was a big movie buff and dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. I was constantly trying to find a way to make it to Hollywood and to start my film career. That, of course, turned out not to be very realistic, but the whole idea, the dream, made my pain less severe. Let me tell you something—and I hope you do not think I am crazy—but when they were beating me up, and despite the fact that I was feeling pain from their punches, and although I was screaming and protesting (which, by the way, made them beat me even harder), I started escaping in my mind to the world of cinema. Right when they were torturing me, I was thinking about torture scenes I had seen in American movies. All of a sudden, I was asking myself that in such a scene like the one I was going through, if I were a filmmaker, where would I put the camera! Sometimes, while being tortured, I would imagine the camera in a certain position and I would turn my face toward that imaginary camera to show the audience the blood coming out of my mouth and nose and covering my head.

I was tortured in more than one country. In the part of the book about my childhood, I described how I was attacked and beaten severely by some kids, and I described how I was protecting my face as I was being beaten up, thinking to myself that only those with handsome faces could work in cinema, and I did not want mine to be disfigured by those kids assaulting me.

But to go back to beliefs and principles, I would like to say that I became fascinated by such principles as patience and tolerance at around the age of thirteen or fourteen. That was in the early 1970s, and around that time Iraqi TV was showing a weekly program called The Fugitive with David Janssen playing the title role. It is no exaggeration that almost all of Iraq followed that show, and we all took the side of Dr. Richard Kimble. I do not know how that happened, but I remember my mom telling me, “I know you would like to be like Dr. Richard Kimble.” My mother’s words pleased me immensely. Later on, I came across a condensed Arabic translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and I very much empathized with Jean Valjean, the novel’s main character. And it soon dawned on me that Richard Kimble was Jean Valjean and that The Fugitive is but an adaption from Les Misérables.

KH: You also meet many more people that are incredibly kind, offering you shelter, money, and friendship. Some of these people were from the same countries or areas as the ones who deliberately hurt you. Did this change or reshape your original ideas about people?

SS: It is said that Paris is the city of fashion and beauty, but for me it is the city of compassion par excellence. I do not think I could have lived in any other city the way I lived in Paris.
As I mentioned in my answer to your first question, those who tortured me were security and intelligence men, working for their Arab regimes. As for the Arabs I met in Paris; they were running away from those lousy regimes. Others were immigrants who had, to a certain degree, integrated into French society. Besides the French, who were generous and kind to me for the most part, I had strong ties to the Algerian community of Paris. Here I would like to point out that many Arabs consider the Algerians to be rough and gruff, but that is not true at all.

In my experience, the Algerians are very kind and loving people. They were always very kind to me and always welcomed me into their homes, despite the fact that I am not a Muslim and am always very critical—to the point of being sarcastic—of the traditions of Islam. They were never offended even though I was a regular guest of theirs and was being disrespectful. The Algerians are principled and tend to be straightforward. They also take special pride in and care of their friendships.

KH: Many figures influenced and inspired your youth, including your father and director John Ford. Why were these two men so significant in your youth, and what did they contribute to your development as an aspiring filmmaker and author?

SS: One family friend with the name of Kiryakos, who had no family of his own, visited us constantly. He was a very generous man and always brought fruit and sweets with him. Kiryakos was a big fan of American director John Ford and dreamed of traveling to Hollywood and working with him. When his dreams met with no success, he turned his attention to me in a very strange way.

My family felt quite uneasy about his close relationship with me, but eventually realized that ours was an innocent friendship. He used to take me with him on walks and talk to me about John Ford and his films. He would also show me pictures from those films. We would watch films that featured John Wayne and Henry Fonda, both of them very popular in Iraq at the time. I clearly remember Kiryakos telling me when I was around seven years old that John Ford is a genius and a man of high principles. “A genius and a man of high principles” is a phrase that still echoes in my head to this day. I remember him telling me, “Be like Jack Ford! Do a great job but never take life seriously.” To this day, if you ask any of my friends they will tell you that Samuel works very hard but never gives the impression of being self-important or serious about anything.

My father and I had a special kind of friendship. I was ten when I announced that I was going to travel to Hollywood to make a movie about my father. And so, forty-five years later, I still stand by that announcement.

When I look at the life of both my parents, tears fill my eyes. They suffered a great deal, were oppressed since childhood, and very poor throughout their lives. My father died toward the end of the 1980s, and my mother is now a refugee of the Iraq War living in Damascus, Syria, and suffering from Alzheimer’s. The last time I visited her, she did not recognize me and just stared at me silently.
I can simply say that I have learned patience, hard work, and kindness from my parents.

Arab readers found, besides the simple, expressive style of writing that was true to the spirit of the book, a totally unfamiliar kind of protagonist, a protagonist with no machismo and no heroics.

KH: Your portrayal of your family in “The Street Boy and the Cinema” shows that you were very close to your family, including the people that were not blood-related but “family” nonetheless. How do you personally define the concept of “family”? Are you still close with your family today?

SS: My family was very poor, like most of the families of Habbaniya, where I spent my delightful childhood. Habbaniya was a great example of coexistence between the different components of Iraqi society. There you could find Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Jews, Turkomans, and even some Indian families and individuals who decided to stay in Iraq after the departure of the British army in 1958. By the age of six I was able to speak Arabic, Assyrian, Farsi, and some Kurdish, and I was on my way to learning Hindu at the time. People lived side by side in complete harmony. It was the age of innocence. Religion was a very private matter, and all clergymen were very kind and gentle.

One day the school-keeper, a pious Muslim man with a thick beard, said to me, “Come here, Shmuel!” When I went to him, he kissed me on the head and said, “You have made us proud!” He then informed me that the school administration had chosen me as the best student in the school. This pious man was proud of me because he knew my father and because he bought bread from the bakery where my father worked. 

This coexistence came to an end with the rise of both nationalist and religious ideologies. In my book I make it clear that the rise to power of Nasser in Egypt in 1952 brought catastrophe upon the Arabs. That catastrophe was made worse by the control that the Saudi Wahabi branch of Islam has exerted on many Arab societies since the mid-1970s, which led to the rise of many extremist Islamic groups.

After the appearance of my novel, I received many emails from young Iraqis inside Iraq. They expressed how touched they were by my novel, especially the part about my childhood when I spoke about the life of harmony and coexistence that was prevalent at the time.

KH: Why did you choose Robert De Niro for the role of your father in “Nostalgia for English Times”?

SS: Isn’t he a great actor? I very much love American actors and believe that they are the best in the world. Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp.
At one point I considered Marcello Mastroianni for the role of my father. But I also envisioned Robert De Niro playing him. I could see De Niro as that wiry, edgy man who becomes a bakery manager, and who at times hides behind the flour sacks to dream about his imaginary beloved, the queen of England. It would have been nice to see De Niro playing the role of a moody deaf-and-mute man, but one who has a strong romantic streak in him.

KH: Even though your dream always remained to go to Hollywood and write for films, you took many jobs that involved writing of a literary nature, for instance, translating poetry. Did these jobs ever make you think about changing your mind about Hollywood or your dream career?

SS: When I arrived in Paris in the mid-1980s, it was full of Arab intellectuals who took refuge there, escaping oppressive governments in their home countries. Beirut used to be the place of such refuge, but after the Israeli invasion of 1982, that place became Paris and, to a lesser extent, London. Nicosia, Cyprus, was also such a harbor for a short while for those who left Beirut. So I found myself in the midst of a group of novelists, poets, and artists from all the Arab countries. We used to spend hours in the cafés of St. Germain and St. Michel. At night we used to get drunk and talk about literature and art. I was influenced by those writers, and, slowly but surely, I entered the world of literature.

For example, I bought a typewriter and started typing the manuscripts of those writers for small amounts of money. I was homeless and penniless when I first met the great Syrian poet Adonis. I typed many of his poetic and intellectual works for him. I spoke about my relationship with Adonis in An Iraqi in Paris, but in the book I gave him a pseudonym. Adonis was very kind to me and used to help me financially, even when I did not do any typing for him. Thanks to his help, I could afford to stay in small hotels for many a night in the cold winters of Paris. I am so proud that we are still good friends to this very day. A few days ago, I called him only to find out that he was at the hospital of the American University of Beirut and about to undergo a surgery right as the world media was abuzz with talk about him being a strong candidate for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

Adonis, Khaled Najar, Kadhim Jihad, Hassouna Mosbahi, Mohammed Qaroui, Mahmoud Darwish, and many other writers and intellectuals are the reason why I grew to love literature—to love it to the point that I started spending my days reading novels and books of poetry at the Centre Pompidou. It is in that center that I opened a dictionary for the first time and started working on improving my knowledge of English and French, and it is there that I read the major works of world literature.

And, amid all that, Hollywood was my constant companion. Or let us say I was a “Hollywoodphile.” I used to spend the night walking all over the city, dreaming of writing a screenplay that I would not only direct but for which I would also serve as the casting director. I used to think to myself that Keanu Reeves was a good choice to play me, whereas Robert De Niro would be ideal to play the role of my deaf-mute father. And so I used to while away the night occupied by daydreams. By dawn I would enter the first café to open, seeking rest and warmth.

While leading such a life, I wrote my first book of poetry. Most of the poems in it were published in Al-Karmel, the prestigious and demanding literary journal that was edited by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Sometimes I was attacked vehemently by ideologues who made fun of Hollywood and of my cinematic dreams.

Once I became known as a typist for the Arab writers of Paris, I reached an agreement with the owner of a printing press and started a publishing house that I called Gilgamesh, which published a number of poetry and short-story books. One of the poetry books that we published was translated into French and went on to win the prestigious Max Jacob Award. Once I was asked why the books that I publish do not carry the address of their publishing house, and I told him that it is simply because the publisher himself is homeless. 

KH: In a review of An Iraqi in Paris (www.banipal.co.uk/book_reviews/5/an-iraqi-in-paris-by-samuel-shimon), Fadhil Al-Azzawi proposed that your novel was a different way of creating the film narrative that never emerged from Paris. Do you agree? Are your endeavors in the literary world, including your contributions to Banipal, a way of still achieving your dreams, even if by a very different means?

SS: Yes, that’s true. I wrote the novel in such a way so as to make the reader feel as if he or she were watching a movie. An Iraqi in Paris is a mixture of cinema and novel. Of course, anyone who has read my book knows that I dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and never entertained the idea of writing a novel. Similarly, I have written a few poems that were published in a major Arabic magazine.

As to how I wrote the book, one day, while I was still living in Paris, I was at my wits’ end and had no one to turn to, so I took the train and headed to Reims, the champagne capital of the world. However, I found out that the friend I was planning to visit there was away and wouldn’t be back before a week. So it was back to sleeping in the street again. One day, I was starving and cold, so I wandered into the famous cathedral of Reims, seeking some rest in a warm place. There I observed dozens of tourists putting some money in a small box, lighting a candle that they put in front of a statue of the Christ, and then proceeding to exit. I approached the box, and it seemed full of money, with even some coins on the ground around it. I looked around me, and seeing that no one was watching, I took as much money as I could and rushed out of the cathedral.

I went to the main street in town and entered one of the pubs. There I ordered a beer and a ham sandwich. I then took out my pen and a notebook that I always carry and started to write. The barmaid asked me what I was writing, and without thinking I said that I was writing a movie. She asked, “Do you mean a screenplay?” So I told her that I had already written a screenplay and now I was turning that screenplay into a novel. In that pub I wrote the first chapter of my childhood story called “The Street Vendor and the Movies.” I clearly remember how that barmaid, a plump blond woman, looked closer at what I was writing and said that she never saw anyone before write from right to left. She then noticed some candle wax on the cuff of my sleeve, and I told her that I was just in the cathedral where I lit a candle in memory of my father.

As for the second part of your question, you are absolutely right. In the beginning, my literary work was just an attempt to forget my failure to work in cinema. But gradually I grew to love literature immensely, and I often say that I will enter the world of cinema through the gate of literature.
It is no exaggeration to say that, since I started working as a literary editor on a weekly magazine and later became co-founder and editor of Banipal magazine, I have introduced to the world of literary journalism the importance of giving considerable space to the photos of authors. Fifteen years ago, publishing images of authors next to their work was not of the essence in Arabic papers and magazines. Many authors have pointed that out. Now it is usual practice.

KH: Do you still have dreams of becoming a filmmaker?

SS: Yes, I still dream of working in cinema, both as a director and a screenplay writer. I believe I can make a good actor, depending on the role, of course.

And I would like to let you know that I have made arrangements to live in Hollywood for four months early next year!

KH: Of all of the places you traveled to and lived in on your journey to Hollywood, which was your favorite and why?

SS: Beirut brought a radical change in my life. I am glad I have had the chance to live in Beirut for a while before moving to Europe. It was in Beirut that I discovered for the first time ever the true meaning of freedom. My first true love story took place in Beirut, and it was in Beirut that for the first time I was able to have sex without having to go to a brothel, as I used to do in secret back in Baghdad.

The last time I was in west Beirut, I found it to be a sad and sullen place. The famous Hamra Street, which, even in the height of the civil war was always busy with people in bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and nightclubs, has been sadly taken over by pizzerias and Starbucks cafés. I was told that young people now head to east Beirut for its active nightlife. Beirut is my favorite Arab city.

KH: Do you have any future plans for other novels?

SS: I have to admit that the great success that met An Iraqi in Paris took me by surprise. Arab readers found, besides the simple, expressive style of writing that was true to the spirit of the book, a totally unfamiliar kind of protagonist, a protagonist with no machismo and no heroics. He was an innocent and goodhearted young man who was exposed to torture and all kinds of terrible things, but one who managed to keep his innocence and to stay true to his beliefs of love and tolerance. I think Arabic literature needs this kind of character more and more.

Three years ago, I started writing another novel, but I stopped after a few chapters. The events of the new novel start with the beginning of my obligatory military service in the Iraqi army in October 1974. I remember that a few months after my service started, we were taken to the north of Iraq where the Iraqi army fought a war against the Kurdish Peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters), who were supported then by the shah of Iran. I clearly remember that we were in the province of Irbil and Iraqi planes were raiding the Kurdish villages. I used to wonder for how long such wars would continue.

However, in the same mountains in Irbil in 1917, the Kurdish Peshmerga, aided by the Turks and Persians, killed hundreds of thousands of Christian Assyrians, and among them was my father’s family. He was the sole survivor, a nine-year-old deaf-mute boy. But he managed to escape the Peshmerga. During my time in Irbil, I always heard the ghostly sound of panting in the mountains there, the panting of an orphan deaf and mute boy, later to be my father.

I stopped writing that book because I felt as though I were just settling an account with the Kurds; I don’t want that. Also, that was not what my readers expected from me.

For the last few months I have been working on a new novel about a young Assyrian Iraqi man who finds himself working with the PLO in Beirut in the late 1970s during the Lebanese civil war. There he witnesses street warfare, car bombs, Israeli air raids, collapsing buildings, kidnappings, and daily assassinations. Through this young man, we see different and untapped facets of life in Beirut during that time period. In this novel as well, the protagonist is obsessed with Hollywood films, even while living in a city that was going through an extremely violent civil war.

October 2011