A Portrait of the Jihadist as a Young Man

Over the course of two years, Mahmoud al-Massad, a Jordanian director of Palestinian origin, filmed the life of an Islamic fundamentalist in his home town of Zarqa, Jordan. The result shows the complexity and inconsistencies of what is generally seen as a homogenous Jihadist milieu. Amin Farzanefar watched the documentary

​​ He has collected thousands of bits of paper in his cellar; pieces of paper covered in quotes from the Koran and sayings of the Prophet. Someday, he would like to write a book about Jihad. No matter what the issue, he has a clear opinion that is based on the solid foundation of his faith. For example: "No Muslim should ever move to a non-Islamic land." Abu Ammar is a 'fundamentalist'. While he holds forth about God and the world in front of the camera, we generally see him driving around in an old VW van, collecting old cardboard boxes which he sends for recycling.

This portrait of a religious fanatic is painted against the backdrop of the city of Zarqa, with over half a million inhabitants the second largest city in Jordan and the country's military, industrial, and business centre. Social misery, economic poverty, and unemployment rule in the suburbs. Here, the most effective form of social work is still religious indoctrination. Zarqa has long been a breeding ground for extremists. In the past, those who wanted to put the misery of the city behind them and improve their lives, went to Afghanistan as a Mujahid or, more recently, to Iraq.

A son of the city

The Palestinian/Jordanian director Mahmoud al-Massad's path in life took a rather different course: born in Zarqa in 1969, his cinematic ambitions led him to Romania, Italy, and Germany. He now lives in the Netherlands. When he returned to his home town to conduct research in preparation for Recycle after an absence of seven years, he saw that the misery and consequently the extremism had spread; he felt like a stranger in his own town.

The resulting blend of artistic distance and sympathetic closeness really enriches the film. Massad follows his protagonist attentively and closely, with empathy and criticism, but without making a single comment. One of the most impressive aspects of Recycle is the intensive composition of images that captures a routine and a melancholy that cannot be escaped. In this way, the film has absolutely none of the pointed two-dimensionality of conventional television documentaries.

The global aspect - i.e. the conflict between Islam and the West - is, of course, present in the film, not least in the form of the city's most famous son, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Bin Laden's second in command, the self-styled head of al-Qaida in Iraq, and the man who brought terrorism in Iraq to a new level by issuing commands for hostages to be beheaded on camera.

Shaving the beards

​​ Looking back, the early life of Ahmad Nazzal al-Khalaila (al-Zarqawi's original name) was somewhat unspectacular. He left school at an early age, was convicted of sexual assault, surrounded himself with drugs, alcohol, and women until as a result of contact with his religious sister, he learned how to transform and channel his criminal energy in a different direction.

On the one hand, Abu Ammar and his friends relate these and other stories about Zarqa's most famous son with seeming indifference; on the other, the camera frequently captures evidence of a widespread expert knowledge about al Zarqawi and the consequences of tourism founded on sensationalism: there is always someone who knew al Zarqawi's school or fought the "Holy War" with him in Afghanistan.

Even Abu Ammar - who is not as notorious as his compatriot, who was murdered in 2005 - was part of the Afghan Mujahidin decades ago. He worked as a bodyguard. Whether he worked for high-ranking members of the Taliban or not, he is not willing to say. Without giving any reasons, he was arrested after an attack on the hotel in Amman; without any explanation, he was released four months later. Then, during the filming of Recycle, he leaves for Iraq, but not as a warrior. Instead Abu Ammar drives with a colleague to Baghdad to work as a car mechanic and earn some money at last.

A few days later, the pair are back again - minus their beards. Fleeing in panic from US soldiers who appeared out of nowhere, they found themselves in a Shia district, which in itself posed a threat to them. The first thing they did was to shave off their Sunni beards.

Keeping everything in suspense

Mahmoud Al Massad (photo: mecfilm.de)
Mahmoud Al Massad: "I made a film, not a bomb"

​​ Recycle shows the complexity and inconsistencies of what is generally seen as a homogenous milieu. Despite all his ideology, Abu Ammar is still a husband and father who has to feed his seven or eight children and his two wives. At the end of the film, he abandons some of his principles.

Massad followed this man around, filming his life over the course of two-and-a-half years. The result is an atmospherically dense, close, long-term study that raises countless questions. The director does not make any brash assumptions or generalizations: This is Abu Ammar's life; others may be different. The reactions to his documentary have been very telling. Harassed, monitored, and pressurized in Jordan, he was accused in Europe of being a propagandist for Jihad. At times, the double meanings, nuances, and suspense seem unbearable. He himself says with modesty: "I made a film, not a bomb."

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan


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