Alexander Siddig

The Accidental Arab

The setting for our encounter could not have been more English. Alexander Siddig lives in a farmhouse in a small village in Sussex, just over an hour from London. In the summertime the locals, including a sprinkling of rock musicians and film stars, play cricket on the village green. In his spare time he has constructed a greenhouse in which he nurtures a staggering array of plants; fish swim in a stone-lined pond outside. We talked in Siddig’s studio, formerly the barn, as the sound of a small tractor puttered softly away in the distance.

Born Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi, Alexander Siddig is an actor. He is perhaps still best known for his leading role as Dr. Julian Bashir, chief medical officer of the frontier space station on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which ran from 1993 to 1999. Unlike many alumni of that venerable franchise, Siddig has had considerable success after Star Trek — not least, he says, because of what happened on September 11, 2001. A few directors began to query the stereotype of the Arab fanatic, and new roles and opportunities opened up for actors of Arab descent. He has been working ever since, including star turns as an ex-terrorist on the TV series 24 and as a progressive Emirati prince in Syriana. Next year Siddig stars in Julian Schnabel’s Miral, the story of a Palestinian woman’s struggle to found an orphanage in Jerusalem in the wake of the events of 1948.

I first heard of him in Egypt in the 1990s. The 1989 military coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power drove many Sudanese into exile. Cairo in those days was packed with Sudanese refugees, including the painter Hussein Shariffe, an old family friend whose flat was always crowded with artists and poets of one sort or another. I used to see him whenever I was in Cairo, and one evening he told us the strange story of Alexander Siddig, a Sudanese who had made it in Hollywood.

As his elaborate name suggests, Siddig is the great-great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad, the boatbuilder’s son who proclaimed himself Mahdi in the late nineteenth century and led the revolt against the Turkish-Egyptian rulers of Sudan. The Mahdiyya era was the founding moment of modern Sudan, and the Mahdi’s descendants are the closest thing to an aristocracy the country has. As it happens, I wrote a novel about Muhammad Ahmad, In the Hour of the Signs, published in 1996. On the cover of the book was a painting by Hussein Shariffe, who turns out to be Siddig’s uncle. Another of Shariffe’s paintings hangs on the wall of that studio in Sussex where we conversed. As Siddig and I discovered that afternoon, these are not the only coincidences that link the two of us, both born in the 1960s, the children of Sudanese fathers and English mothers.

Jamal Mahjoub: Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell me how your parents met.

Alexander Siddig: My mother had gone to Sudan with a friend, an archaeologist of sorts. He took her to Nubia — it must have been a romantic thing. To impress her, he introduced her to the ruling family at the time. And one of his friends was a young man, Tahir, who became my father. Tahir’s father, I am told, had prophesied that he would marry a white woman. My mother fell in love with him as he walked in, wearing his white djellaba and headscarf. She spent the next three years in Sudan. She was an adventurous spirit. She had lived in Paris. She had a brother, Malcolm McDowell, who was a blossoming film star, so she was quite worldly, quite pragmatic. It was only a few years later, when she brought Tahir back to London, that people would spit on her as she walked along the street. How did your parents meet?

JM: My father was posted to London to take care of the students coming from the Sudan, my mother was a trained accountant working in Sudan House. They got married here and moved to Khartoum. And they stayed there for decades, until the coup, when Omar al-Bashir closed down the Sudan Times, the newspaper where my father was working. But I think our parents must have overlapped in Khartoum for a time. A friend of mine who remembers you as a child described your parents as having a touch of glamour about them. Your father, in particular, had that “mysterious Mahdi thing.”

AS: That would make sense, because they were probably quite cosmopolitan. He had studied at Cambridge in the ’50s, he was a socialist, very secular. He spoke the most beautiful, prosaic English and was a meticulous conversationalist.

JM: So your connection to the Sudan was broken off when you came here as a child?

AS: Yes, I only spoke Arabic when I arrived. According to my mother, within six months I had learned English and within two years I had forgotten Arabic.

JM: Did it ever come back?

AS: No, and I never learned it again. I find it very hard to learn it for films. Some of the sounds I find easy, but my accent is very vague and slides around. I miss all the nuances, even if I am listening to someone else speaking. I just hear a noise and repeat it like a song.

JM: So you were completely assimilated?

AS: Totally British. I even picked up a slightly East End accent. I was at an Anglican school. Singing Sunday worship with all the other Christians, playing cricket — I was, you know, perfectly happy. I was only exposed to English people — in school, in my mother’s milieu. At that time she was a publicist in the theater world.

JM: At some stage in this, you decided you wanted to become an actor.

AS: Not until very, very late. I am, by nature, not someone who decides things for myself ahead of time. It never occurred to me until much later, when I was about twenty and I had finished schooling and gone to university and left after a year. Then I went to drama school. I remember thinking that being a director would be something I would really enjoy — I love working with actors.

JM: It didn’t occur to you that you had what it took to be an actor yourself?

AS: I was a skinny boy. I wasn’t what I thought of as Hollywood material. And I’ve never liked being in the limelight. Then someone called. They wanted me to do a TV show. Then another film came up where they were looking for an Arab actor. That was A Dangerous Man, starring Ralph Fiennes and produced by David Puttnam. This was big league. It was somehow much easier to act on film than it was onstage.

JM: And already you were playing Arabs.

AS: Playing Arabs. But I was totally English. I certainly wouldn’t have described myself as Arab.

JM: So you find yourself in this strange situation where you don’t see yourself as Arab, but you are playing one on all fronts.

AS: Yes—more absurd than ever because I don’t even consider myself an actor! So I am really just busking this, trying to get away with it. I’m getting paid. I wasn’t getting paid as a director.

JM: In A Dangerous Man you played Prince Faisal — following in the footsteps of Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.

AS: Yes, I even got a letter from Alec Guinness afterwards, saying, “What a lovely job.” But there was no competition. There was no one else, apart from Omar Sharif, who had long since become a different animal. No one had been introduced, so it was quite glamorous. A lot of people in England and America had never seen an Arab man. I was of course half-English, half-Arab, and I had nothing to do with the part of the world I was portraying.

JM: But you wouldn’t even explain…

AS: No, I would say my father is Sudanese. It gave me the credentials to play an Arab. I think it still does, because the Arab roles I play are not designed for Arab people, they are designed for the West. So, being half-Arab and half-English, I think you make a good messenger, in the same way as in your novels. You can express what you need to for an ear that is not accustomed to an Arab speaking. As a half-and-half person, you are bicultural in some weird way. It’s like a language, and to be able to speak in a culturally understandable, coherent way is very valuable. It was very glamorous. I suddenly had money to burn. And as a result of Dangerous Man, I got the job on Star Trek.

JM: Which is like a world unto itself.

AS: I was on a course to being where I am now before Star Trek, which was a complete interruption. Don’t forget that at that point in my life, I didn’t have a philosophical compass for how I should be as an actor.

JM: Going to LA meant you were in the Hollywood system.

AS: I never looked for another job while I was doing Star Trek. The Arab world wasn’t on the radar. There weren’t even Arab taxi drivers in New York. It was all just starting.

JM: Thinking about your connection to the Mahdi, I notice that Deep Space Nine has a strong spiritual angle to it, all about prophecies and oracles.

AS: It’s a soap opera, for mass consumption. For two million dollars an episode, they’ve got to deliver mass-market product. The religious aspect was really a thinly-veiled nod toward Palestine. It was all about terrorism, which was quite prophetic. I was about as apolitical as you could be at that point. I barely read a book in a year. I watched loads of movies. I played loads of computer games. I wasn’t hedonistic. I didn’t get massively drunk. I didn’t take many drugs. By the end, I began to become more frustrated with politics in America. Also I had had a child and got married. I’d changed my name for ordinary reasons of people not being able to say my name.

JM: So what happened after Star Trek? You left LA not long after, right?

AS: Los Angeles felt like the wrong place to be, so I took my family and we went up to New York. The town seemed dark and dismal and boring. Lonely. But it wasn’t, that was just my life. And I couldn’t find any work. I did a couple of films right away. Vertical Limit and Reign of Fire. In Vertical Limit I had six lines. I spent six months in New Zealand to deliver those lines. I was playing a kind of Afghani or Pakistani Sherpa dude, a mountain guide. It was fun. It kept me going financially. No one was sending me scripts. No one wanted to know, really. I was flailing. My marriage was falling to pieces. In my imagination, we were in New York for a ridiculously large amount of time. It was a year. And then they blew up the World Trade Center.

JM: You were there?

AS: My wife and son were. I had gone back to England on September 10. I was going to direct a film. The very next day, they blew the building up. And that was the beginning of a new chapter of my life, the beginning of becoming Arab, becoming politicized. I think that happened to the whole swath of people who have Arabic or Islam in their culture. Everybody had to change their tune on that day.

JM: Certainly, you had to have a position.

AS: You and I particularly. It’s as much an internal problem as it is external. Your father is Sudanese and your mother English. These are the two sides, which are at war.

JM: It did seem to have repercussions everywhere. My children in Denmark began to feel confused about where they belonged. It sent a seismic shock through what was already a very uneasy social fabric.

AS: My ex-wife changed my son’s last name so that it didn’t sound Arabic. All sorts of things happened. And I started to work. After about six months, people began to approach me with projects.

JM: That fast? Was that The Hamburg Cell?

AS: Yes. The director, Antonia Bird, was a fan and just wanted me in the film. She gave me a cameo as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It was the first of those movies discussing that subject and probably the last that I did. But actually the first thing to come out was an episode of Spooks, which I did after The Hamburg Cell.

JM: Your character in Spooks, Ibhn Khaldun, was quite complex — a reformed terrorist, a freedom fighter now committed to trying to stop the violence. You come across the channel clinging to the back of a train in a very elegant white suit.

AS: That was the beginning of a particular crusade of mine. The first of a series of characters in which I have tried to explore that element of academic Arabs who are disenfranchised by the modern militant wave, whose ideas of Islam have been completely usurped by a much more vocal youth and the various clerics. To me, he represents old Islam, where you can shake someone’s hand or have a whiskey and talk about whatever.

JM: So, a familiarity with the West while remaining rooted in Arab culture?

AS: That character was a godsend, because it enabled me right away to portray various aspects of an Arab man who was readily credible. He came out of a new identity I was looking for, trying to take a snapshot of this guy before he disappears. He was my father. He was your father. He was the father of all the generations that had a liberal upbringing and didn’t make a lot of money.

JM: That episode of Spooks was written by Howard Brenton, the playwright, wasn’t it? Your character comes across with tremendous confidence. You know who you are. The British agents have to trust in someone they don’t understand. The story hinges on that doubt, that blind spot in the West’s understanding of what is going on.

AS: The point is — and why this can be a trap for young Arab actors right now — is not to be too sentimental, too giving. We are tough. It’s a tough ethnicity. It’s not a sentimental culture. This is dark stuff. No bunnies. No dogs on the sofa. And it would have been a betrayal of this man that I had in my head had I let him be anything but a very tough man who was empathetic. All of the characters are defiant, from that time to the present day. They change a little bit in their detail, but they firmly stamp that this guy exists and he’s no fool. He is extremely sophisticated and learned. He’s someone you can talk to, make a deal with, make peace with.

JM: He’s also the archetype of old Arab nationalism, the intelligentsia who became marginalized, the technocrats of Nasser’s early ambitions. But they were deemed a threat, and the West feared them. So did Nasser, who imprisoned them. They left a void that was eventually filled by political Islam.

AS: At one end of the scale you have Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism — very proud, extremely strong, capable of creating enormous trouble, vis-à-vis Suez, and on the other hand you have the Saddam Husseins, who are extremely weak but very useful to the British and Americans. My guy is more in the territory of Nasser, though I know Nasser is no hero. In his original vision he was quite an extraordinary Saladin figure.

JM: You went on to use a variation on that character in 24.

AS: 24 was very much in the same mold as Spooks, though I didn’t have the same freedom. I was still able to do stuff, still able to be quite attractive and charismatic — so much so that there was a plan to keep me and Kiefer Sutherland together. We were going to be a double act. So this character just came along and, yes, he’s sexy and dangerous. He’s capable of destroying the World Trade Center, and yet we are drawn to him.

JM: We need him.

AS: At this point we need him. So this was a very definite linear continuation. But then go back to the Kingdom of Heaven, for example, which I think is one of the bravest films to be made in the early part of this century, because it was the first film after 9/11 that said Arabs were cool. It was a tipping point that started a slew of films discussing Arab culture and Islam, reversing the process of vilification.

JM: Well, Kingdom of Heaven was certainly radical by Hollywood terms, though very much in line with Amin Maalouf’s book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, published twenty years earlier. People stood up and cheered in the cinemas in Beirut when Saladin paused in the church in Jerusalem to lift a fallen cross and put it back in its place.

AS: I think it’s an amazing piece. I’m not sure that the whole is as great as the sum of its parts. The film is better dissected. Nevertheless, I’d found my theme as an actor. This seems to be a kind of obsession of mine. The more I see pictures on Al Jazeera or the BBC of mad Arabs with blood running down their faces, wailing because their children have just been blown up in front of them, the more I want to show a solid, still figure.

JM: I was in the West Bank last year for the Palestine Festival of Literature. And the humiliation that you feel just going through a checkpoint made me realize how difficult it is to imagine people still enduring, still working for peace and not succumbing to the same madness.

AS: The trouble is more and more people have no idea about it. I read Haaretz on the internet as a matter of interest, and they are fierce. I am looking forward to going out there in a couple of weeks to see for myself.

JM: It seems to me that your allegiance to this man, this Arab intellectual, is driven by political awareness, but also by personal questions about your own identity and your relationship to your father.

AS: That’s absolutely true. It is self-motivated in that sense and also self-serving. This is the world I would like. These aren’t choices for everyone. This will be the man, the only Arab man that most people are going to remember. Albeit they’ve met him onscreen, they actually form a relationship with him.

JM: I had a similar thing when I began writing my first novel. I was living in London and was aware of the nonexistence of the world I came from. In order to tell my story, I first had to tell the story of Sudan. Being between cultures involves a relationship with both sides, where nothing can be taken for granted. It demands constant interrogation.

AS: In terms of my identity, the childhood need to be English no longer exists. And the forcibly adult Arabism, I’m very aware that it’s happening. This character I’m picking more on the ambassadorial level with much less “them and us” in mind.

JM: You come back to him again in Syriana.

AS: Syriana was kind of going back to the Prince Faisal character, but again he was a tough negotiator. He was a potential Nasser. That was a definite shot at the Emirates, at Dubai, at Qatar, all those states that live behind the smokescreen of American protection.

JM: Have you been back to Sudan since you acquired this new role, this new persona?

AS: No. I went back in 1985. It was uncomfortable. My cousins and aunts and uncles seemed like aliens to me, and I missed the creature comforts of the West. I felt like we spoke a completely different language. It was a bit of a barren visit. I am very ambivalent about my feelings toward the Sudan. The Sudan I remember, the Sudan in my head, is full of generous people who help, just a rich vein of generosity. My family was very much Sudanese, very much part of the blood of Northern Sudan. There was never any sense of “us” and “them.” My grandmother used to take food down to the mosque to feed the children every day. Obviously, they were wealthy, but it wasn’t an ostentatious wealth. It was still sandstone walls. The sense that you could put yourself in a glass-and-steel tower and not interact with “those people” down there did not exist. People were extremely caring and loving and great, and I know that not to be true anymore.

JM: Well, it’s still true of a good number of people.

AS: Still true of a good number of them — but they’re being beaten, too, right now, and they are finding it harder and harder to be sweet and generous. The youngsters are growing up militants.

JM: I went back a couple of years ago for the first time in a long time. It has changed, of course — the old middle class has disappeared, and there is the new oil wealth. Still, a lot of people are dissatisfied with what has become of the place.

AS: I am frightened of what I would think of the Sudan now. I think I would probably despise it.

JM: So where do you go from here? You now have more freedom to choose your projects.

AS: In terms of where I want to go, like Pirandello, I am always in search of an author. I have done two films for Arab women directors, and I look forward to doing more. I have a lot of faith in women in the Arab world.

JM: Those were Un homme perdu and Cairo Time?

AS: Un homme perdu was the first. Cairo Time hasn’t come out yet — a love story by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian/Syrian filmmaker, a very big up-and-coming director. Un homme perdu was more in an artistic vein. That character was the personification of the sadness of the Arab world and more a performance art piece than a narrative film.

JM: Does this mean you’re moving away from Hollywood toward more Middle Eastern and European ventures, more art films, more experimental?

AS: If the characters are there, yes. In Hollywood, I would play a small part. So, I’m just in with all the other actors. But if it is an auteur piece, I will usually play the lead, or one of those leads.

JM: Do you think film is moving on from more immediate reactions to current events, to exploring more complex aspects of the Arab world?

AS: I am looking for solid characters, more in the old-fashioned way that books and films are very similar, rather than segmented films with uneven time. The great narratives, the great stories, have been appealing to all cultures, whether they are written by Tolstoy, or Garcia Marquez, or Mahfouz, and they are usually very simple stories. The film I am about to shoot in Israel with Julian Schnabel is about a very simple man who doesn’t want to fight. He’s a husband and a father.

JM: Beyond that, you have no idea what he is?

AS: No. Most women actors over history have never known what they do — just the housewife or the girlfriend. I’m just the man in this scenario. Which means that I’ll probably make him something like a gardener — something I understand.