Ghoshen reviews the film about a blind Sufi mystic who, guided by his young granddaughter, Ishtar, is on his way to a grand gathering of Sufis that takes place only once every 30 years.
When I first arrived at the Pune ashram in 1977, Osho was discoursing about Sufis (“The People of the Path”). Since that time I have encountered the odd few Sufis here and there (exhibitions by whirling and singing dervishes, recitals of Sufi poetry and so on) but I have given little thought to the many Sufis there must be in Islamic cultures around the world. This changed recently when I saw the 2005 film Bab’Aziz – The prince who contemplated his soul.
It tells the story of Bab’Aziz, a blind Sufi mystic who, guided by his young granddaughter, Ishtar, is on his way to a grand gathering of Sufis that takes place only once every 30 years. There is a wonderful, perfectly Sufi conceit here in that, while everyone knows this gathering is about to happen and Aziz and Ishtar meet many other dervishes making their way to it, nobody knows where it is to take place! But, as Bab’Aziz says with authority, “Those who are invited will find the way.”
So the two wander across a sandy desert and, as they go, Aziz tells Ishtar stories, stories which then become dramatized themselves. The primary story is one about a prince who contemplates his soul (hence the second part of the film’s slightly awkward title). Another tells of a man who meets a beautiful woman at the bottom of a well. We also see the various people that our pair meet along their way. In one case it is a group of musicians sitting in the sand, apparently in the middle of nowhere, playing and singing. What do Aziz and Ishtar do? Well, they dance of course! (What would you do? They even have a harmonium – ah, that takes me back!)
The movie includes several beautiful snatches of music and dance and I was only sorry that they did not last longer. It also has some gorgeous visual images such as a mosque sunk in the desert sand, Ishtar’s face glowing with utter bliss, Bab’Aziz petting a gazelle, and, near the end, a stunning aerial shot of a desert city at night where the only light comes from lanterns that people are carrying. It is not made explicit but I take it from all the celebration that is going on in this city that that is the gathering place. The film also has a few short scenes that seem a bit odd and out of place but perhaps I was simply unable to see the cultural significance of them.
The film was made by a Tunisian director, Nacer Khemir, with the intent of its being an antidote for Western audiences to the impressions of Islam invoked by 9/11. Quite how effective it would be in general I find hard to say; it might lead some to thinking that all Muslims are nice but crazy people who live in deserts. But for folks like us it gives a delightful and entertaining peek into contemporary Sufism and serves as a reminder that Islamic mysticism is not something lost in the past but very much alive today. The film has won two best-picture awards, at the Muscat and Fajr film festivals. Okay, they are maybe not in the same league as Cannes or Venice but they do mean something.
Bab’Aziz – The prince who contemplated his soul is available, with English subtitles, on DVD at amazon.com – amazon.co.uk – amazon.de
A taster can be found on YouTube
Poem of the Atoms – Rumi’s timeless poem, part of the soundtrack of the film Bab’Aziz, composed by Armand Amar, performed by Salar Aghili and Haroun Teboul
Review by Ghoshen
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