I THOUGHT OF HIS ONE-LINER: "THE ONLY WAY TO stay free in the Arab world is to remain silent", when I heard of Mohamed Al Maghout's death of a stroke on 3 April. The 73-year-old Syrian poet and playwright, with his flat cap and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, was famous for his poetry and his plays, but especially for his sharp, satirical one-liners, delivered without even a hint of a smile.
Teaming up with Syrian comedians Dureid Laham and Nihad Qali, Al Maghout's work--which satirised what he saw as ethical decline among the ruling oligarchies in the Middle East--became known far beyond the Levant. In plays, television sketches and films the trio presented, in a thousand guises, Charlie Chaplin-like plots of the little man coming up against rigid state bureaucracy.
Arab viewers identified with Al Maghout's highlighting of the injustices inflicted upon the individual by repressive regimes. Perhaps a reflection of his own 1955 imprisonment without trial in the infamous Mazzah jail near Damascus (with a reputation rivalling Abu Ghraib's in Iraq), which he recorded on cigarette papers and toilet tissue. Words like 'jailer', 'torture' and 'handcuffs', are seldom absent from his verse.
His film Al Hudoud (The Borders) where a man is trapped between countries after losing his passport, gained regional popularity as it satirised the inhuman treatment of the individual by sadistic officials. Similar themes were explored in plays like Exile or Tishreen Estate.
Some of Al Maghout's political plays were performed on makeshift stages in the late 1970s by Egyptian students opposing peace with Israel, but made little impact on an Egyptian public accustomed to a long tradition of sophisticated comedy.
Born in 1934 in the town of Salamiyya near Hamah, 130 miles north of Damascus, his family enrolled him in the local agricultural...