Ghassan Matar, the Palestinian star of Egyptian cinema

Ghassan Matar, the Palestinian star of Egyptian cinema
3 min read
23 February, 2015
Feature: The actor's portrayal of Palestinian resistance fighters provided inspiration to a nascent movement struggling for justice.
Ghassan Matar's career has spanned decades [al-Araby]
This is not an obituary.

For a long time I thought Ghassan Matar's face had more tender detail and expression than his rigid features might allow, and his haircut was different from the one he had at the end of the 1960s and in all his films - whatever role he played.

I thought his voice was less harsh than his actual voice, one that gave a special character to his presence, and an identity that differed from his Palestinian one - an identity that is a curse in many professions and occupations.

Matar started his career as a professional actor at the end of the 1960s. He played major roles in films accompanying the rise of the Palestinian resistance such as The Revolutionary Palestinian by Syrian director Rida Mayser, and All of Us Are Fedayeen ["one who risks life for a cause"] by Lebanese-Armenian director Gary Garabedian, both released in 1969.

Although these films were popular with those sympathising with the Palestinian resistance and they encouraged some young men to become Palestinian fighters, they did not have the same impact at the cinematic level and are hardly mentioned in discussions of Palestinian cinema.

     Perhaps Egyptian cinema had no room left for an actor with features like Matar - that differed from those of typical Egyptians.

I knew Matar was a Palestinian national, but I did not know he had lived with his family in Baddawi refugee camp. Neither did I know that his real name was Arafat Al-Matari.

I did, however, know he named his son Guevara, after the Argentinian revolutionary, and that Guevara, Ghassan's mother and his wife were all killed by Syrian intelligence agents at their home Beirut during what was known as the "war of the camps" between 1985 and 1988.

This was a phase in the 1975 to 1990 Lebanese civil war, when the Shia Amal movement, supported by the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's regime, laid siege to Palestinian refugee camps.

Matar's family were killed because he was close to the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. The actor would proudly remember that in 1982 during the Israeli siege of Beirut he hosted Arafat for days - in the same house that witnessed the ugly crime against his family.

However, Matar was never given a cinematic role to help him reach the peak of his creativity. Throughout his career he played no more than the role of evil killer or gangster.

Perhaps Egyptian cinema had no room left for an actor with features like Matar - that differed from those of typical Egyptians.

Even during more recent years his films with actors such as Mohammed Hneidi and Ahmad Makki, which were more comedies, were not successful.

After two decades of acting out Egypt's evil roles, Matar's only opportunity to play the role of a Palestinian fighter again was in the 1981 film Circle of Deceit, by prominent German director Volker Schlöndorff. Perhaps this actor is himself an example of human tragedy - a refugee who lost his son, mother and wife because of his political affiliations. The irony is that most of his cinematic roles completely contradict such a tragedy.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.