BEIRUT: The foyer of NOK Yoga Shala is littered with shoes. You wonder whether this is indeed a footwear-free affair. The young woman lingering nearby smiles in confirmation.
This space, it seems, is ordinarily devoted to the practice of yoga. This evening, however, it is hosting a promotional event for the documentary “Wajd – Music Politics and Ecstasy.”
One part autobiographical tale of discovery, one part history lesson-cum-polite interrogation of Islam, “Wajd” is the work of Syrian-Canadian writer-director Amar Chebib. There might seem some incongruity between the event and the space hosting it – in that “Yoga = Hinduism, Islam = well, Islam” sort of way.
Appearances are informative, but they aren’t everything.
During the half-hourlong rough cut of “Wajd” screened this evening, the filmmaker informs his audience that he was raised Muslim and drifted away from the faith, unable to reconcile facets of Muslim practice with his own belief system.
A couple of years ago he decided to give Islam another shot, returning to Syria to study Arabic. During this rapprochement he become a student of Ottoman classical music, which underlined his feelings of dissonance.
Conservative readings of Islam have determined that the Prophet disapproved of music – confusing for a student of a tradition with a strong devotional component. Another sore point for Chebib is his religion’s attitudes toward women – which to many Western eyes makes women look less equal than men.
“Wajd” is hardly an ad hominem attack on Islam. The message that emerges from the doc’s putative inquiry is that the militant versions of Islam that dominate news coverage, much documentary and blockbuster feature-film production, particularly since 2001, aren’t the summation of the faith.
The “other” Islam, the real subject of the film, is the Sufi mystical tradition that has followed in the wake of the 13th-century Iranian poet and theologian remembered as Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.
It so happens that the questions Chebib asks are precisely the ones that trouble Western intellectuals who would quite like to like Islam, but have been challenged by events in the last decade or so.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, “Muslim” terms like “Taliban,” “jihadist,” “Salafist” and “Ikhwan” have become synonymous in the Western consciousness with militant bigotry.
While it doesn’t exclude curious audiences from the Middle East and North Africa, Chebib’s depiction of his journey in search of Islam – narrated in his affable North American English – will speak explicitly to Western audiences.
Based on the film rushes, “Wajd” abjures journalistic approaches to documentary in favor of the more intimate first-person narrative favored by young filmmakers and the festivals that project their work.
It’s an interview-based film, drawing on Chebib’s conversations with musicians, musicologists, Islamic scholars and performing artists in Syria, Turkey, Europe and North America. The interviews are sometimes illustrated by historical footage from Kemalist-era Turkey and the Middle East.
At times visually arid interviews play in counterpoint to photogenic performance – whether instrumental playing or Sufi dhikr (group chant originally designed to induce ecstasy), with that of the Mawlawiyya (aka “whirling dervishes”) taking pride of place.
“Wajd” is still a work in progress and the doc’s production company, Salam Films, hosted the NOK Yoga Shala event in order to introduce Kickstarter – the online pledge system it is hoped will raise the film’s post-production funding.
Dima Alansari, the Lebanese-Canadian producer behind Salam Films, hopes Kickstarter will provide a measure of financial independence for idealistic projects like this one – which often don’t have the hooks needed to penetrate the bottom-dollar ethos of international film markets.
It’s bad journalism to assess a film on the basis of what is essentially a trailer. Yet “Wajd” is not the first project to showcase the charms of Sufi Islam for Western audiences – witness the labors of Paris-born Alsatian qanun-player and composer Julien Jalaleddin Weiss and his multinational, Mawlawi-infused Al-Kindi Ensemble.
Neither is it a secret that, since the 20th century, Muslim militancy has frowned upon the ecstatic practices of Rumi’s followers – indeed it is said that one of the things compelling Hasan al-Banna to found Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was his disapproval of what he saw to be the pernicious influence of Egyptian Sufism.
Since then, a face of stern piety has come to dominate media representations of Islam, making picturesque images of the Mawlawiyya a compelling tool for filmmakers trying to plead the case for a more nuanced Western reception of the faith.
Alansari says that this was one of the main reasons she decided to produce “Wajd.”
“My last coproduction, ‘Journey to Mecca’  is about [the 14th-century Moroccan traveler] Ibn Battuta. I’m interested in stories that cross the divide, that tell the other side of the story. I myself was educated in American schools in the Middle East. [Between Arab and American students,] there was always a curiosity and a misunderstanding about each other’s culture.”
Film is image. The problem with filmmakers trying to present an alternative face of Islam – effectively swapping footage of ecstatic Sufi practice for that of suicide videos, a collapsing World Trade Center, etc. – is that you run the risk of replacing a hackneyed picture with one that’s even more cliched.
Unfortunately, representations of whirling Mawlawis (in soft focus or in slow-motion) have a long history in Orientalist depictions of the Middle East and Muslim world, and in their demotic inheritors – homespun tourist promotions.
Alansari says she and Chebib are aware of these challenges.
“Being an Arab, growing up here, I’m aware that at any given moment I might offend somebody. There’s no way you can represent anything [in Beirut] without three or four people saying, ‘No that’s not how things are.’
“Yes, Rumi has been romanticized. People do have completely different ideas of what’s really happening on the ground. However, there haven’t been many documentaries talking about [these issues] from a [personal] perspective ... for Amar, Rumi is a role model.
“We’re having so many problems today, it’s important for us to dig deep, to go back into history, and learn from it.
“We are aware of this romanticization and we are trying our best to ground it. We’re finding parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now and we’re trying to show that there are other ways, other things we can hold on to.
“Everybody has the attention span of goldfish these days. They just want to listen to Nancy Ajram. It doesn’t take them out of what they need to get out of. If they were just able to – to look in and ground themselves, they’d realize that this music has so much to offer.
“I think we have to do a little bit of romanticizing,” Alansari says, “just to grab some people, but at the same time try to stay realistic, to the issues on the ground. It’s a bit tricky but we are aware.”
For more information on Salam Films and Kickstarter, see: www.salamfilms.com and kickstarter.com.