Expendables director to make film about Bedouin warrior Antara in Neom

One of the Gulf's most celebrated poets and knights is the subject of a new epic production in Saudi Arabia

Antara, or Antar, was among the most renowned Arabian poets and knights in history. Getty Images
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The Expendables 2 director Simon West is shooting an epic film based on the life of celebrated pre-Islamic Bedouin warrior Antara ibn Shaddad in Neom.

Set to begin production in early 2024, the movie will be filmed in north-west Saudi Arabia at Bajdah Studios, as well as the Red Sea coastline.

Joining a long line of filmmakers who have brought the life of Antara to the big screen, West hopes to take it to a global audience.

He described the project as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to continue his legend”.

He added: “The life of Antara is one of those relatively little-known true stories that prove that fact can be so much stranger than fiction. The opportunity to film in the homeland of the Banu Abs tribe means we will keep true to the piece while helping to grow the emerging film industry in the region.

“It’s a project I’m thrilled to be involved with and I am looking forward to creating something unique for a global audience.”

Co-producer Alexander Amartei, meanwhile, described the film as “the first great swords and sandals epic since Troy and Gladiator”.

As Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon marked a complete paradigm shift for Chinese cinema, we see Antara as a cultural extravaganza that will be a complete game changer in the region and dazzle the world in a lavishly artistic and sophisticated way," he said.

Who was Antara ibn Shaddad?

Antara, or Antar, was among the most renowned Arabian poets and knights in history. A household name across the Arab world, he is as celebrated for the great love story between him and his cousin Ablah, as for his unrivalled ability on the battlefield.

Although his father was a renowned knight of the Banu Abs clan, his mother was an Abyssinian slave, and he inherited this status from her. However, throughout his life he fought with such courage, his father eventually acknowledged him as a full member of the clan.

Reflecting on his rise to power, Antara – who is remembered as one of the three ‘Black Ravens’ – wrote: “Fools may mock my blackness, but without night there’s no day! Black as night, so be it! But what a night generous and bright! All the paltry 'Amrs and Zayds my name has eclipsed. I am the Lord of War!”

Despite his prowess, Ablah’s father considered the warrior unworthy of her betrothal and asked for an unreasonable dowry of 1,000 camels – sending him on an epic journey to complete the Herculean task.

This quest was compounded by war. Although Antara’s Banu Abs tribe once dominated its parent group, the Ghatafan conglomerate, when the Abs leader was murdered, his son feuded with another tribal branch known as the Farazah. The two sides determined to resolve their issues through a horse race, but the Fazarah were said to have cheated – winning the wager, but sparking a multi-generational conflict.

As the Banu Abs were driven from their homeland, wandering the desert in desperation, Antara repeatedly rescued them from the brink of utter defeat with heroic exploits, which he documented in his poetry.

The Hanging Ode

Dubbed "Cleftlip", Antara was a master of the ancient Bedouin form of Ode, known as the Qasida. These were usually 120 lines and composed in a range of metres, tied together with a constant single-end rhyme. They were written by illiterate warriors and preserved by master performers, who memorised them word for word.

The Qasida usually spanned three major thematic movements: The nasib, or remembrance of the beloved; the rahil, where the poet goes on a great journey on his camel or horse; and a boastful conclusion known as the madih.

Antara’s most renowned work was a piece deemed so remarkable, it was hung inside the Kaaba as one of the seven Mu’allaqat, or Hanging Odes – which were said to be inscribed in gold upon rare Egyptian cloth.

Antara’s Hanging Ode begins with a dramatic lament over his unrequited love for his cousin Ablah. As Antara reflects on his sorrow, he lists a set of a visions that descend into chaos: “The lone hopper, look, screeches its drunken song scraping out a tune leg on leg like a one-arm man bent over a fire stick.”

As Antara embarks on his journey, his camel undergoes a series of transformations. At one point, its teats are snipped, leaving it “cursed to be dry”; at another, it transforms into an ostrich, resembling a funeral briar – further morphing into a slave in a fur cloak with ears docked; and a brick fortress on tent poles.

To the Bedouin warriors of ancient Arabia, the camel was not just a means of transport, but a way of life - it provided milk; its hair was used to make tents and on very rare occasion, it might even be consumed. As the warrior was an extension of the tribe, the camel was an extension of the warrior.

As Antara’s ode reaches its conclusion, rather than ending with him completing his quest, instead he arrives at a morbid scene of his dead enemies decaying. His journey was not one towards love and reconciliation but death, transmutation and decay. He writes: “With quick thrust of my pliant spear I felled a decent man, his jugular hissing, split like a harelip, spurting 'andam resin red.”

Aside from his quest to win Ablah’s hand, Antara’s other works cover a broad range of topics – one laments the death of one of his tribe’s heroes, other boast of repelling a surprise dawn attack. In another, having won her hand, Antara rebuffs Ablah, after she chastises him for feeding camel milk to his horse.

“Don’t mention my colt or what I fed it lest I chase you away like a scabby camel,” he says. “The evening milk is his. You lose out, so go moan and scream all you want. Enjoy your dates and cold water from the skin, but if you’re here for the milk, go on your way.

“Remember – other men might capture you. If they do, make sure to line your eyes and dye your hair. You’ll be carried off on one of their camels but that’s when I will saddle The Ostrich.”

Yet another still beautifully summarises his love for Ablah: “My words are pearls, Ablah, and you the iridescence of its necklace. Noble princess, I race to you on a purebred Mahri [camel] through hills where the rivulets glisten green and myrtle, saxaul, jujube, lote and rose all burst into bloom.”

Antara’s poetry was not written down until the start of the 800s, by Arabic-language scholar Al Asma, who collected oral traditions from tribes passing through the deserts of Basra and Baghdad. Later accounts sensationalised and expanded his exploits, such as the 5,000 page Romance of Antar epic, which has him journey all the way to Constantinople, fathering children by a Frankish princess and dying by a poisoned arrow.

In a previous interview with The National, James Montgomery, the Sir Thomas Adams’ professor of Arabic at University of Cambridge, said Antara’s story deserved to be told on the world stage.

“Every society in every age needs figures who are bigger than life – people with any superpowers or who are able to achieve the maximum that a human being can achieve," he said.

“In terms of warfare and bravery, that’s what Antara achieves.”

Updated: September 04, 2023, 8:01 AM