By divine intervention, Saul Landau entered my life 12 years ago and taught me how to write, film, and live with dignity.
We instantly bonded over having fathers from the “old country” — his father from Ukraine, mine from Syria — and being Semites with prominent noses. We exchanged stories and news articles, watched and dissected films, explored puns, and tested one another’s tolerance for salacious humor. His was legendary.
Regardless of the time of day or time zone, he delivered his pearls of wisdom in pairs: “Don’t be a victim,” followed by, “Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have one shot at life.” Unrelenting wit, even at bleak moments, encapsulated his pearls: “If you ask the Rabbi, nothing’s kosher.”
And sadly, in more recent months, “Cancer schmancer, as long as you have your health!” As reported widely in the U.S. and foreign media, he died at age 77 of bladder cancer on September 9 at his home in Alameda, California.
In August 2001, I walked into Saul’s office before my sophomore year at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught courses on Latin America, history, and digital media.
My first day on the job as his assistant came the next month: on September 11, 2001. As soon as Saul arrived, we had to depart for the day. Nonetheless, he still managed to instill the most valuable lesson of my life — in a parking lot, no less.
As the hours passed and it became clear that Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and those who looked “suspicious” would face backlash, for no other reason than their identity, Saul uttered these immortal words as I entered my car: “Do not be afraid. You have a duty to speak out.” He knew I was an Arab. And a Muslim.
But for him, righting wrongs, regardless of where they occurred, always trumped narrow identity politics. How else would a boy from the Bronx go on to make documentaries exposing hypocrisy, torture, militarism, and the consequences of neoliberalism in Cuba, Brazil, Iraq, and Mexico, respectively?
Saul gave me my radio debut on his Pacifica radio show a few days after 9/11, then challenged me to write a commentary from my community’s perspective. With his literary scalpel, he rearranged my sentences, deleted extraneous words, and converted the passive into the active voice. He winked, delivering another Saulism that still haunts me: “Never fall in love with your own work.”
For the next three years, his office became my intellectual equivalent of Warhol’s Factory, without the Velvet Underground, drugs, hangers-on, and troubled pseudo-starlets. Instead, film scripts, detective novels, and muckraking percolated. His friends would often stop by, including Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, and Arianna Huffington, before giving campus-wide talks organized by Saul.
Saul converted his views about war and peace, justice, and the environment into a timeless body of 40 films (notably Fidel, the Emmy-award-winning Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang, and most recently, Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?), 14 books, and thousands of articles. He also empowered as many members of the next generation of filmmakers, activists, and public scholars as he could.
After graduate school, I craved Middle East policy work at a think tank that espoused Saul’s core ethics. He directed me to the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., where he served as a fellow from 1972 until his death.
As the Institute’s Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow, I focused on Iran and Syria in 2008 and 2009. Inspired by my teacher, I incorporated film into my public scholarship. My education with Saul, although never incomplete, came full circle.
In the midst of President Barack Obama’s pushback on bombing Syria, I miss my mentor and friend’s shrewd analysis and penetrating wit more than ever.
I treasure everything we wrote together. I traveled to Syria for the first time with him just after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The trip simultaneously let me discover my roots and the art of filmmaking. All roads lead to Damascus — and Saul.
“In times of need the living need a poem,” he once wrote.
I call mine Saul Landau.