Beehive: Ghawwar Tosha: How the Spokesperson for Syrian Arab Nationalism Became a Servant in a Persian Temple
Social networking sites (SNS), television networks and news agencies have been discussing comedian Duraid Lahham obsessively in recent weeks. Lahham, a Syrian author, comedian and television star was known for the biting jabs he directed at Arab leaders and the Ba‘athist government of Syria. Yet, after the outbreak of civil war in Syria, he declared his love for Bashar Al-Assad and his fealty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If this weren’t true, it might have been the comic plot of his next movie.
Lahham was born in 1934 in the Shi’ite al-Amin neighborhood in Damascus, to a lower-class family from the Ismāʿīliyyah sect which split from Shi’ism in the eighth century and is closer, therefore, to the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs. He achieved most of his fame from the role he played in the 13-episode television series “Sah al-Naum” (“Pleasant Sleep”) which was a resounding success in Syria during the 1970s and was widely-viewed throughout the Arab world. The series, which dealt with everyday life in an imaginary neighborhood in Damascus called “Kal min ido alu” ( “Anyone who can afford it”), was written by a friend of Lahham, Nihad Quali, and both played leading roles in the show. The show’s characters, especially Ghawwar Tosha and Hosni Burazan, played by Lahham and Quali, became cultural icons in the Arab world, thanks to the witty barbs they aimed at Arab leaders and the Syrian Ba‘athist regime. Lahham achieve artistic maturity in 1987 in “The Border”, a bittersweet movie dealing with Arab nationalism, bureaucratic stupidity and love without borders, which established Lahham as a comic actor and creator of the first order. The film was awarded a Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Throughout his career, Lahham comically presented the struggle of common men facing the apparatus of government, and openly criticized dictators who ignore the will of the people. Lahham also supported the Syrian-Arab nationalism of the 1970s and 80s, under whose umbrella Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Ismailites came together. Because of his work, President Hafez al-Assad awarded him the Medal of the Syrian Republic in 1976. Apparently the barbs Lahham directed at Assad’s regime were a form of criticism that the authorities could abide and even adopt as an indication of its tolerant attitude. Some even suggested that Lahham won because he is member of the Ismāʿīliyyah sect. Similar prizes were bestowed on Lahham by Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, Lybya’s Gaddafi, and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. In 1992, he was appointed UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to the children of Syria, and in 1999 was promoted to UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to the Middle East and North Africa. The title was withdrawn in 2004 following a visit to South Lebanon where spoke out against US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, whom he comparted to Hitler.
At the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Lahham abandoned any hint of criticism against the government and stood unequivocally alongside Bashar Al-Assad, both in media interviews and posts on SNS where he expressed his sympathy for the regime. Lahham outdid himself in September 2015, when he published a love song to the youthful president, “Mr. President, until now I underestimated you and looked at you with admiration... but today my heart has changed and now I’m really in love with you ....” When the song was published, Lahham was subjected to harsh criticism on social networks, from both art critics and political analysts, who criticized him for ignoring the blood-soaked war in Syria and the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. In response to his critics, Lahham said that, like the president, he strongly opposes, the murderous religious extremism ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front brought to Syria, without referring to the criticism of Bashar Assad.
In January 2016, a clip in which Lahham is heard warmly praising the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appeared on news sites and SNS. The comments were made during a ceremony in support of the Arab Syrian army; Lahham addressed Khamenei: “In your spirit is holiness; in your eyes, hope; and in your hands, action... You have the appreciation and respect of the struggle and the grand army. Long live Iran, Long live Syria.” These words were met with angry reactions throughout the Arab world. An article entitled: “How did Duraid Lahham deceive us all this time?” was published on the Facebook page of Faisal Al-Qassem, presenter of the program “Al Ittijah Al-Maacs” (“On the other hand”) on Al-Jazeera, and on the website of the Al-Arabiya television network. Among the many responses posted by users, one Palestinian wrote: “All Duraid Lahham’s friend are long dead... He has forgotten his Arab nature; now even Ghawwar Tosha is dead, and Lahham buried him with his own hands.” A Saudi user wrote: “Lahham praises sectarian division and can no longer be considered a nationalist.” Another added, “Lahham is nothing more than a servant in a Persian temple.”
Like many icons in Syria, the image of Duraid Lahham, who was once considered a symbol of support for Syrian-Arab nationalism, has become a figure identified with the camp supporting Assad and a fig leaf for the regime. The civil war forced many citizens of Syria, Lahham among them, to return to their ethnic and religious identity as a basic identity group, and support the rule of Assad and his allies; the same government that only twenty years earlier was lampooned by Lahham himself. This indeed reflects how, even in the cultural arena, the severe rift between the Sunnis and the Iran-Hezbollah-Assad axis is feeding the bloody war in Syria. At a time when the civil war in Syria takes a heavy toll of life and destruction, even a comedian who once comforted all Syrians has become a party to the war.
 Haider Farouq al-Jamal, "It is interesting that his father wanted to call him “Hitler” but family members objected", Duraid Lahham Meshuar Amar. (Beirut, 2002), p. 27 (Arabic).