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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/3/16

Rumification by Hollywood: Whitewash and Backlash

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Meeting of Jalal al-Din Rumi and Molla Shams al-Din
Meeting of Jalal al-Din Rumi and Molla Shams al-Din
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Everybody became my friend according to their own consideration; none searched for my secrets from within me
-- Rumi, Masnavi, Book 1: Prologue


In one of the closing chapters of his masterpiece 'Occidentosis' (gharbzadegi), Jalal Al-e Ahmad (d. 1969) famously observed:

[Today] a film studio calls upon a person to portray some historical or legendary"[figure].. and then spends fantastic sums to market these heroes for advertising, embroider their lives, their marriages"divorces"struggles" Beginning a year or two before the film appears, the newspapers, radio, and television report this and the news reaches the ears of the media [everywhere]. Then it comes time to reap the harvest: the film hits the screens in fifteen world capitals with the participation of leading society figures in a single gala opening night. As a result, another hero has been added to the ranks of the heroes of the silver screen. That is, another historical or legendary hero has been bled dry of any dignity or credibility [1].

And so, after thirty years since the New Age pop culture of Euro-America first appropriated the medieval Persian Sufi mystic and poet Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi (d. 1273) (better known to posterity as 'Rumi') -- an appropriation, I might add, facilitated via a Rumi publishing industry spawned from the adaptations (and not proper translations) made by American beat poets Coleman Barkes and Robert Bly -- we are now to anticipate a forthcoming Hollywood biopic about his life on the big screen.

The rumoured casting for the film has Leonardo DiCaprio in the main role as Jalaluddin Rumi with "Iron Man" Robert Downey Jr. being hinted at the supporting role as Rumi's spiritual preceptor, the Shams of Tabriz (d. 1248). David Fanzoni, of "Gladiator" (2000) fame, together with Stephen Joel Brown are the screenwriters and producers for the forthcoming Hollywood extravaganza; and ever since its announcement earlier in June, the future film has already created a storm of controversy, with accusations of whitewash abounding in the corporate media, blogosphere and social media alike. An online petition has even been made directly calling on Fanzoni and Brown to reconsider their choice of casting with over 14,000 signatures collected as of this writing that correctly characterizes this choice of casting ""as both ludicrous and offensive." The petition further highlights the fact that ""Muslim actors are readily typecasted as terrorists, but when a movie portrays a Muslim in a positive light, they are shunted off to the side to make room for another white actor [2]."

Although perhaps a first for Hollywood, it should be mentioned here that this forthcoming Hollywood biopic by Fanzoni and Brown will not be the first instance of an on-screen adaptation on the life and times of this among the most widely known and universally cherished figures of Persian Sufism. Dozens of productions, too many to name here, have already been made in Turkey over the years; and Iranian producers Shahram Asadi and Arash Meyriyan's acclaimed Persian language mini-series dramatization of Rumi's childhood entitled "Jalaluddin" --- a series that covers his early life all the way to the period of his family's flight from Balkh --- aired its final, eleventh episode in Iran only last year (2015) [3].

Rumi, Shams and History

Mawlana (our master; Turkish 'Mevlana') Jalaluddin (the majesty of the religion) Muhammad ibn Muhammad Baha'uddin al-Walad al-Balkhi was born in Balkh (located in modern north-east Afghanistan) --- others contend his birthplace was actually in Wakhsh in modern south-eastern Tajikestan --- during the early thirteenth century to a notable religious family whose father traced his lineage back to the family of the first Sunni caliph Abu Bakr (d. 632) [4]. Rumi's father Sultan al-Ulama Baha'uddin Walad (d. 1231) -- who was arguably his first teacher on the spiritual path -- was already an accomplished Sufi as well as a renowned exoteric religious scholar in his own right. Political rivalries with other scholars in the royal court of the kingdom of the Khwarizmshah -- together with the Mongol onslaught that would soon engulf the whole of Central and most of South-West Asia (and beyond) in an orgy of blood and destruction -- forced Sultan Baha'uddin Walad to move his family out of Balkh, eventually settling in Seljuq Anatolia in the town of Konya. Here Sultan Baha'uddin Walad quickly established himself as one of Konya's chief religious dignitaries. After his death (only two years after arrival) this function would pass over to his son Jalaluddin, now an adult.

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Wahid Azal is an independent scholar and political commentator living in Berlin, Germany.

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