Maleh`s relationship with the Syrian authorities deteriorated after Fragments, which the director sees as the end of an era in his professional life. A pivotal incident occurred on his birthday in September 1981. As the filmmaker drove by the Foreign Ministry, a guard signaled him to pull over and let an official car pass. The director stopped, but apparently not quickly enough, for the guard beat him on the head with a rifle butt. Maleh passed out and woke to the voice of an officer apologizing in a police station. He decided to leave Syria and traveled to the United States on a Fulbright Grant, despite his longstanding hostility to the country`s foreign policy. Maleh found a warm, enthusiastic reception in various academic settings. He taught film production at Austin and UCLA, but, longing to direct, he joined a Libyan production company in Geneva, in a Switzerland he found culturally cold and creatively sterile, "a world of banks and businessmen." The director and his family spent the next decade in Greece, where Nabil produced films for Libyan television, including Chronicle of a Dream, a Marxist-inspired reverie on human progress imagining an eventual utopia of freedom. It was during this Greek sojourn that Maleh wrote the script for his next major work, The Extras (al-Kumbars).
Maleh originally envisioned The Extras as an Egyptian production, featuring that country`s stars Nour al-Sharif and Yousra. But on a visit to Damascus NFO director Marwan Haddad offered him funding to film in Syria. With Syrian actors Bassam Kusa and Samar Sami in the lead roles, shooting began in Damascus in 1992 on what was to become the best known of Maleh`s films outside his native land. It is also Syrian cinema`s primary object of scholarly attention.
Released in 1993, The Extras reflects the social and political concerns long central to Maleh`s work. The film depicts the struggles of a law student and gas station attendant, Salim, and his widowed seamstress girlfriend, Nada, to forge a romantic relationship amid layers of oppression and censure. The couple has had no privacy during their eight-month courtship. The young protagonist, an aspiring actor with a stammer, borrows his friend ‘Adil`s apartment for a tryst. The entire film, save opening and closing, takes place between the drab abode`s claustrophobic walls, a setting symbolic of the Syrian and perhaps the Arab condition. Establishing shots signal the lead characters` dreary existence: Salim polishing cars and rehearsing bit parts for a theater director who forgets the extra`s name; Nada at her factory sewing machine, and sharing a humble courtyard house with her brother`s family.
On the day of the tryst ‘Adil lingers; he will leave to meet his future in-laws—he is poised to marry well—but frets over his friend`s assignation. A suited stranger knocks on the door and barges over the threshold, asking polite but insistent questions about the next door neighbor. Salim imagines pummeling this mukhabarat agent, who suggests he has met the hopeful actor before. The menacing figure leaves, and ‘Adil dismisses the incident as none of their business, but both men are unnerved.
Alone and waiting, Salim tidies the bed and imagines the agent cavorting with wiggling lovers beneath the sheets. A peddler knocks, but protests when Salim offers money without taking her goods: "I`m not a beggar." Nada arrives, late and flustered, worried her brother has spotted her and that the neighbors she has passed on the stairs sense her visit`s illicit purpose. Salim urges her to consider the apartment a "free space," disconnected from the outside world. A siren punctuates the absurd suggestion.
Salim`s fantasies of making love to Nada interrupt their awkward conversation. When they finally embrace, a toppled glass shatters Nada`s abandon. She asks to leave the apartment, terrified of being discovered. Salim proposes exchanging marriage vows instead, so they no longer need fear. The strains of a neighbor`s plaintive ‘oud filter through the thin walls. Salim talks of acting, and delivers a few lines from his latest production, in which he plays seven different roles but is given no mention in the program. Nada has never been to the theater; Salim stages a mock production for her, draping curtains and bedclothes around the living room. He gives her the part of an oppressive ruler who sends his rebellious subjects to prison. Nada objects to the injustice, but Salim tells her they have no choice but to play the roles as written; he would never countenance the insult if it happened in real life. He then performs two of his other parts: a prison guard and an intelligence agent, figures that rulers "can`t survive without." Nada dislikes these new characters; she prefers his extra roles which, though minor, are decent people. Salim argues he must accept such parts in order to succeed. Every Syrian, Maleh implies, faces a similar dilemma.
‘Adil`s fiancée, a crass parvenu, barges in looking for a missing shoe. She teases the couple, but sympathizes—if only they had the money to marry, like she and ‘Adil. She leaves them alone, and they laugh their way to the bed, which promptly collapses. To fix it they climb under the grid of the iron frame, and Nada notes the mesh`s resemblance to the prison bars behind which so many of their compatriots languish. A distant bell interrupts another embrace. Nada prepares to leave, and the suited agent returns—this time with two thuggish sidekicks—asking about the neighbor`s frequent visitor. The brutes drag the blind ‘oud player, pleading for help, into the apartment. Salim tries to intervene, but one of the thugs knocks him to the ground, and the musician is taken away. The extra cannot act; terror renders him mute, even to Nada`s entreaties. She leaves the apartment, breaking down when out of Salim`s earshot, and furtively exits the building. Salim follows in the next shot, lingering despondently at the gate before walking in the opposite direction. The camera crawls up the mammoth apartment block, and out over the concrete cityscape.
The Extras is Maleh`s—and perhaps Syrian cinema`s—most explicit condemnation of the Ba‘thist police state. The film`s critique extends beyond the political elite; its skillful linkage of sexual and political impotence and repression indicts Arab society and patriarchy (Wedeen 1999, 116; Gugler 2011, 129-130). Salim`s vocation is telling. An obligation to act against one`s own beliefs and desires implicates all Syrians in a simulated courtship of the regime. Nada laments that she and Salim are forced to behave like a pair of thieves, stealing time alone. Even at this, she notes, they are unsuccessful. Syria, Maleh implies, offers its citizens nothing but bit parts that they must often perform in secret; many involve collusion and cooptation, and fail to deliver the benefits they promise.
The film reached global audiences, earning Samar Sami and Bassam Kusa top acting awards at the Arab Cinema Biennial in Paris and winning Maleh best director at the Cairo International Film Festival (Gugler 2011, 131). It also won the Silver Award at the Rimini International Film Festival in 1995. The Extras was first screened in Syria as a Friday morning side event—rather than a competitor—of the Damascus International Film Festival in 1995. Maleh recalls this as the happiest of day of his life, one that "broke the ice of a long exile." An official from the latter festival, on a visit to Damascus, embarrassed the Syrian authorities into releasing The Extras in Syria, where the film triumphed. Audiences packed the six government owned al-Kindi theaters during its four-month run (Wedeen 1999, 116).
While the 1990s saw a slight improvement of in the conditions of artistic production, the hope that political liberalization would accompany economic opening were dashed early in the decade. When journalists asked Maleh to assess the state of Arab cinema, he would reply: "It`s the state of the Arab world generally: a block governed by the law of inertia, run by thieves, beneficiaries, clans, and those with agendas. Opposing it are scattered, individual creators who possess neither money, power nor weapons, but who embody the national project."
Yet Maleh`s commitment to Syria and its audiences remained constant, and is reflected in his television work. Uniquely among Syrian filmmakers, he has directed several miniseries, musalsalat, for the country`s TV drama industry, among the Arab world`s most prominent. Works such as Situations and Top Secret won awards at the Cairo Radio and Television Festival. After conducting extensive research, Maleh wrote the screenplay Asmahan. This television biopic of the Syrian-born singer and star of the Egyptian screen was directed by the renowned Tunisian Shawqi Majiri in 2008 and aired on various Arabic satellite channels.
The new millennium brought a young, British-educated Bashar al-Asad to power after his father`s death in 2000. Cultural producers joined many other Syrians in anticipating the dissolution of the police state and the emergence of participatory politics. Maleh spearheaded the formation of the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, which met at the director`s home in Damascus. The organization formed one of the most prominent new "forums" (muntadiyat) in what became known as the Damascus Spring, the brief flowering of reformist discussion and debate that marked the new president`s first months in office. Maleh, the group`s appointed spokesperson, joined other prominent intellectuals to air concerns over the country`s increasing poverty, corruption, and militarization and the growing influence of puritanical Salafi Islam. They signed a series of declarations calling for the same democratizing reforms that opposition groups of 2011 would demand, such as the repeal of the four-decade-old emergency law. Less than a year later, a new series of repressive measures, including mass arrests, laid bare what dissidents see as the brief opening’s true aim: to identify and silence the opposition. A new NFO`s director quickly sidelined Maleh, along with the country`s other leading filmmakers--Omar Amiralay, Oussama Mohammad, and Mohammad Malas--as dissidents. The other members of this cohort received foreign support; Maleh faced a financial dry spell. He borrowed money for a television film, and Najla`s Love Affairs (Gharamiyat Najla) became the first Arabic-language film shot in digital format. Broadcast on Syrian Television, this work explores the upending of life in a Syrian village during the hosting of a television drama crew. He also wrote the screenplay for a political thriller about a corrupt officer`s escape from Baghdad on the eve of the American invasion. Hunt Feast, which Maleh considers his "dream film," was shot in 2005 as a Syrian-British joint venture, but remains locked in a legal battle between producers.
The following year the Dubai International Film Festival honored Maleh (other honorees included American director Oliver Stone and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan), for his outstanding contribution to cinema. He then received a commission from the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs and produced sixteen documentaries and fifty-two "spots." Intended for Syrian television, most were promptly banned. Noteworthy among them is the three-part The Road to Damascus (‘A Sham ‘A Sham). This filmic journey across Syria uncannily presages the current conflict, visiting areas of hardship and deprivation that would, a few years later, erupt in groundswells of anti-regime protest. Maleh frames his road trip with the idiomatic opening of Arabic folklore, "Once upon a time" (Kan ya ma kan ayyam zaman) to tell the all-too-real story of a failed nation. Driving past Syria`s "forgotten cities," monumental ancient ruins, he draws a parallel with the contemporary devastation that forces so many citizens to abandon beloved towns and villages to seek a better life in the capital. The documentary crew travels against this human wave. Spoken in a patchwork of dialects, Syrians` laments are much the same: unemployment, exploitation, pollution, corruption. Most take the state to task, but a singular voice suggests a neoliberal individualism: "Isn`t it enough, all the pressure they face from the outside," a young mother of many children asks, "why should I blame the government for my mistakes?" A singer laments in the background: "Every one of us has a story in his heart." Cinema provides a barometer: a village once had three movie houses, all have closed. Scenes of provincial poverty, and peoples` dreams of leaving it, are answered with those of migrants scraping an existence in the dilapidated informal settlements circling Damascus. Although it never reached Syrian audiences, The Road to Damascus celebrated its international premiere at the Dox Box Global Day in Malmö, Sweden, in March 2012 and was subsequently screened in various academic and nonprofit settings in Europe and the United States.
The film`s masterful blending of imagery and storytelling, its weaving of the personal with the political, reflect its creator`s enduring commitment to exposing an uncomfortable truth. Arab regimes, and other governments, would have done well to heed The Road to Damascus`s powerful message. When most of his colleagues pointed to a growing collective apathy, Maleh is one of the few Arab intellectuals to predict, four years in advance, the massive uprising that swept the region in 2010 and 2011: "I believe that something--an explosion--will happen, because it is not possible for human beings to accept these living conditions for much longer. At least these have been the lessons of history. A light will emerge from beneath the clutter, the pollution . . . I know there are many like me in the Arab world. We draw our strength merely by virtue of knowing that we are out there, alive" (Maleh 2006, 94).
Select Filmography of Nabil Maleh
Crown of Thorns / La couronne d`épines / Iklil al-shawk. 1969. 45 minutes.
Napalm. 1970. 90 seconds.
Labor / L`accouchement / al-Makhad, part one of Men under the Sun / Des hommes sous le soleil / Rijal taht al-shams. 1970. 45 minutes.
The Leopard / Le léopard / al-Fahd. 1972. 115 minutes.
Jealous James Bond / James Bond le jaloux / Ghawar James Bond. 1974. 105 minutes.
Mr. Progressive / Le Progressiste / al-Sayyid al-taqaddumi. 1975. 110 minutes.
Rocks / Les rocs / Sakhr. 1977. 16 minutes.
Fragments / Fragments d`images / Baqaya suwar. 1980. 130 minutes. Documentary.
A Bedouin Day / Une journée bédouin. 1981. Revision released. 1992. 45 minutes. Documentary.
Chronicle of a Dream / Histoire d`un rêve / Yawmiyat hilm. 1984. 110 minutes. Docudrama.
The Extras / Les figurants / al-Kumbars. 1993. Distributed in the United States by Arab Film distribution. 100 minutes.
Situations / Situations / Halat. 1997. 450 minutes. Television serial.
Top Secret / Ultrasecret / Siri li-l-ghaya. 1999. Television serial.
Najla`s Love Affairs / Les amours de Najla / Gharamiyat Najla. 2002. 90 minutes.
The Hunt Feast / La fête chasse. 2005. 105 minutes. Not yet released.
The Road to` Damascus / Le chemin de Damas /<ayn>A Sham <ayn>A Sham. 2006. 78 minutes. Documentary.
This article as a condensed version of “Nabil Maleh: Syria’s Leopard.” In Josef Gugler, ed. Ten Arab Directors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015.
ArteEast. 2006. "The Extras," film festival web site, The Road to Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema, http://www.arteeast.org/cinemaeast/syrian-06/syrian06-films/theextras.html. Accessed October 7, 2011.
Boëx, Cécile. 2011. "La contestation médiatisée par le monde de l`art en contexte autoritaire: L`expérience cinématographique en Syrie au sein de l`Organisme général du cinema, 1964-2010." PhD diss., Institut d`études politiques d`Aix-en-Provence, France.
cooke, miriam. 2007. Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gugler, Josef. 2011. "The Extras." In Gugler, ed., Film in the Middle East: Creative Dissidence. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Maleh, Nabil. 2006. "Scenes from Life and Cinema." In Rasha Salti, ed., Insights into Syrian Cinema: Essays and Conversations with Contemporary Filmmakers, 84-94. New York: Arte East and Rattapallax Press. Originally published in Arabic in ‘Alam al-Fikri 26 (1): 194-201.
McCourt, Frank. 1996. Angela`s Ashes. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mina, Hanna. 2004. Fragments of Memory: The Story of a Syrian Family. Translated by Olive Kenny and Lorne Kenny. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas.
Salamandra, Christa. 2004 A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
2012. "Prelude to an Uprising: Syrian Fictional Television and Socio-Political Critique." Jadaliyya, May, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/5578/prelude-to-an-uprising_syrian-fictional-television.
2015. “Syria`s Drama Outpouring between Complicity and Critique." In Christa Salamandra and Leif Stenberg, eds., Syria from Reform to Revolt: Culture, Religion and Society. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Salti, Rasha. 2006. "Critical Nationals: The Paradoxes of Syrian Cinema." In Salti, ed., Insights into Syrian Cinema: Essays and Conversations with Contemporary Filmmakers, 21<N>44. New York: Arte East and Rattapallax Press.
Wedeen, Lisa. 1999. The Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[This article is a condensed version of “Nabil Maleh: Syria’s Leopard,” in Ten Arab Directors, edited by Josef Gugler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).]
 Unless otherwise noted, biographical details of and quotations from Nabil Maleh are drawn from personal correspondence with the author, 22 June and 7 September 2011.
 Maleh here refers to the association of costal dialects with the ‘Alawi dominated regime, and a growing sectarianism and regionalism in Syria more generally. Syria’s Arab nationalists long held the use of dialect in literature, and the teaching of the colloquial to foreigners, as divisive practices. See Salamandra 2004 on the intersection of social, political, and religious distinctions in Syria.
 Interview with the author, 13 February 2012.
 Translated into English as Fragments of Memory: The Story of a Syrian Family (2004), the story draws on Mina’s impoverished childhood. American readers will note the novel’s striking similarity to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996).
 See, for instance, cooke 2007, 102-106; Gugler 2011; Wedeen 1999, 116-117.
 See Wedeen 1999.