13 May 2009

Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Assad

I knew absolutely nothing about Muhammad Assad before seeing this movie, other than that my friend Ruchama had written her BA thesis about him. So this movie was particularly fascinating, because let me tell you - Assad was a very interesting guy. Born Leopold Weiss, raised a Jew in Lwów, he headed to Vienna and then Jerusalem where he became... Muslim. From there it's a camel ride to Mecca, then on to Pakistan, which he helped to found, and then New York, then Morocco, where he set to work translating the Qu'ran.

So, the story itself is fascinating. The man had some really interesting ideas, particularly about religion and the interaction between Eastern and Western culture. And the movie does a pretty good job presenting them, though it doesn't tell you as much as you'd like to know (I am definitely adding Assad's autobiography, Road to Mecca, to my to-read list). And it definitely romanticizes him as a figure, not perhaps as much as other such films might, but enough that it sort of makes you wonder what they're NOT telling you.

But what's really interesting about the movie is that it takes the tired trope of following in its subject's footsteps and actually makes it interesting. So the movie starts in the Ukraine, with a museum and a talk show, then continues to Vienna and the attempt to name a street or public square after Assad, then goes on to Israel and the Bedouin communities Assad fell in love with, etc. At each point, people discuss Assad and his legacy, and their takes on him are very, very different. The movie also subtly examines what these places are like now, often with very distressing results. Most jarring is the discussion of the construction of the wall on the west bank, and the view of Bedouin life today. But the scenes in Saudi Arabia and Lahore are also rather melancholy. There's a somewhat less interesting interlude in NYC that kind of talks about September 11th, but honestly, what really struck me about that portion was how absolutely revolting and tasteless, and politically instrumentalized, the various processes of memorialization are. There's a subtle implication throughout that while there certainly exists a subgroup of Islamic fanatics who believe in violence, their presence seems to serve primarily as justification for appalling hate rhetoric directed at the remaining (majority) of peaceful Muslims.

The underlying theme in these exchanges is a question of how Assad's vision of religious tolerance and coexistence has survived, and what kind of lessons his thought has for the problems of the contemporary world. Ruchama said later that she doesn't really think that Assad is necessarily such a role model for today (hello Orientalism), but I think the movie did make some really interesting points about how, for instance, the Crusades have left a kind of permanent mark on Western thought, which still sees Islam as dark, savage, and dangerous, and really doesn't bother to learn more. I hadn't really thought about the Crusades as historical trauma, but it's a good point. 

Anyhow - a fascinating and well made documentary. If you can find it (it just came out), definitely check it out.

4 comments:

Calculus said...

nice review...

culture_vulture said...

thanks!
It's a great movie, I hope it gets some wider distribution.

Samy said...

You can watch the movie in French and read his book here.
www.islamicbulletin.com free ebooks, teh Road to Mecca. Wher you able to find teh movie in English

culture_vulture said...

Thanks!
I was fortunate enough to catch the movie in English at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.