Hatem Ali, the influential Syrian multi-hyphenate whose hit historical TV dramas provided collective insight across the Arab world on the roots and complexities of the region’s turbulence, died on Tuesday at 58.
The cause of death, which took place in a Cairo hotel, was a heart attack, according to multiple Middle East news reports.
Born in 1962 in Syria’s Golan Heights, the strategic region occupied by Israel in 1967, Ali started out writing short stories and plays in which he also performed. In 1986 he graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus with an acting degree.
After starting out in showbiz as an actor, Ali segued into directing during the 1990s helming several made-for-TV feature films, including “The Long Night,” a potent drama about the lives of three dissidents released from a Syrian prison after 20 years of incarceration that in 2009 won the top prize at Italy’s Taormina Film Festival.
In 1990 Ali married Syrian writer, artist and human rights activist Dalaa Al Rahbi, with whom he had two sons.
The prolific Ali’s many successful subsequent TV dramas in various formats comprise the 2007 biopic “King Farouk,” about the last monarch of Egypt, who was overthrown by the country’s general and future president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, a role for which the director made the bold choice of casting a Syrian actor, Tayem Ali, rather than an Egyptian thesp.
“Farouk,” which aired on MBC, was Egypt’s biggest Ramadan hit that year and also “greatly contributed to a rehabilitation in the public mind of the image of Egypt as a vibrant society heading toward democracy until veering disastrously off-course,” wrote Variety critic Jay Weissberg in an essay on how Arab artists laid the groundwork and anticipated Arab Spring upheavals that followed a few years later.
Hatem Ali’s standout TV series, however, is the 2004 “Al-Taghreba al-Falastenya” (“The Palestinian Exodus”), which chronicles the plight of Palestinian families forced to flee their homes by Zionist militias during and after the 1948 exodus known as the Nakba, when roughly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were uprooted from their towns and villages. Produced by Syrian Art Production International, it was shot entirely in Syria and remains an Arab TV staple.
Ali’s last directorial effort was the 2019 drama series “Aho Da Elly Sar” (“Once Upon a Time”), now playing on Netflix, about a palace guard in Alexandria, who after meeting a high-class girl from Cairo, claims that he is the rightful heir to the palace and to prove it recounts tales of what took place behind its opulent walls.
In a Facebook post, first-time Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh fondly reminisced about meeting Ali earlier this month.
“One of the best moments in my life this year was meeting the wonderful director and humble artist Hatem Ali,” Nayfeh wrote, noting that Ali “honored me with some advice and with his presence just 12 days ago” when he attended a Cairo screening of Nayfeh’s film “200 Meters.”
“When the film was over, you came to greet me and told me we should speak on the phone…I swear you are in my mind and I want to call you, Mr. Hatem.”