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In search of Rumi

Far from being another instance of Hollywood whitewashing, the planned biopic on the life of Rumi could prove more unifying than divisive.

Darius A. Kamali
3 August 2016
An artist's impression of Rumi. Wikimedia/Molavi. Public domain.

"No one knows what the historic Rumi looked like, as all representations of him are based entirely on the imagination of artists who lived centuries after his demise." Wikimedia/Molavi. Public domain.As a producer who has unsuccessfully shopped this idea for some time, I was nothing short of giddy to hear the news that there’s now a major Hollywood biopic brewing based on the life of the great Persian poet, mystic and philosopher Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi (also known as Mawlana).

Given my excitement at hearing the news I was taken aback, if not entirely surprised, by the near-immediate backlash to the possibility of Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr. playing the roles of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. Hardly had the news become public when a hashtag, #RumiWasntWhite, appeared on Twitter and a great many people started letting their opinions be known in various outlets.

So I feel it my duty as a Persian-speaking Iranian American filmmaker to chime in here and correct a number of erroneous, if well-meaning, misconceptions.

Certainly it would be wonderful to have an Iranian actor for the role, one who grew up with the language and poetry of Rumi — on his mother’s knee as the saying goes. At the same time, the notion that Rumi wasn't white is frankly confused and essentially wrong. 

The notion that Rumi wasn't white is frankly confused and essentially wrong. 

This widespread belief demonstrates the degree to which racist and orientalist Hollywood films such as 300 and to a lesser extent Alexander have, for their own political reasons, succeeded in misrepresenting Iranians as uniformly swarthy and dark featured and in doing so, robbing them of their diversity and ethnic identity in the minds of western audiences.

Leaving aside the deeper problems inherent in the very notion of ‘race’, the fact is that Persians/Iranians — along with most of the peoples of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (even Semitic Arabs and Jews) are members of the same caucasian race.

The term 'caucasian' comes from the Caucasus mountains, original home to such Iranian tribes as the Medes, Sarmatians and the Scythians, known to be generally fair-skinned with distinctly ‘European’ features. Persian/Farsi, the language of Rumi, is an Indo-European tongue, an ethno-linguistic group running, as the name implies, from North India through Afghanistan, Iran, the Caucasus to Europe.

To do a deeper dive, Iranians are not only Caucasian in this inclusive sense but specifically Aryan. The very word Iran actually means Aryan. Iran, in other words, is the Iranian pronunciation of the English word Aryan.

The confusion regarding who is ‘white’ stems from the inaccurate and anthropologically-lazy use of the term 'white,' which in popular parlance has become synonymous with the word Caucasian. The inconvenient fact is that, the skin tone of Caucasians varies greatly from region to region. Anthropologists tell us that skin tone is one of the least reliable and most fluid markers of 'race' and often shows enormous variance even within a given region.

Just as Leonardo DiCaprio is lighter-skinned as compared to many darker Italians, there are Iranians with darker skin and many with blue eyes, red hair and even paler skin than Mr. DiCaprio. No one knows what the historic Rumi looked like, as all representations of him are based entirely on the imagination of artists who lived centuries after his demise. The great irony is that given the politicised, confused and ‘loaded’ vocabulary as well as the hypersensitivity of contemporary culture, one suspects that such light-skinned Iranian actors would also be found objectionable because they too, while actually Iranian, would not fit audiences expectations of what Iranians look like.

So again, it may be terrific to have a specifically Iranian actor for the role of Rumi. But as an Iranian American producer I would not have any real problem with seeing actors as talented as DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr. in this important film, which has the potential to open eyes both spiritually and culturally.
Given the political relevance and import of the project, then, having well-known stars attached is unquestionably helpful to drawing the audiences this story deserves.
Given the political relevance and import of the project, then, having well-known stars attached is unquestionably helpful to drawing the audiences this story deserves. They may not speak or read the melodic and poetic Persian language, but at least 'racially' these actors are not inappropriate. Indeed, far more inaccurate and ironic is the depiction in film after film of Jesus Christ — a Jew from Palestine (not a European Jew), likely darker than an Iranian such as Rumi — by northern European actors. Strangely, people seem to have little problem with that.

At such a harrowing time of conflict, bloodshed, and deep ignorance of the common heritage between Islam and the West, I'm both grateful and ecstatic that there may be a motion picture on the unifying and transcendental mysticism of this Persian poet. Through the sheer power and beauty of his words, Rumi has managed across seven centuries to speak to those outside his religion, language, even ‘race’ to become the best selling poet in America today.

Bravo to the brave and visionary David Franzoni and Stephen Joel Brown. Let us hope that the film will do justice to the universal and humane poetry of Rumi, and in doing so, shorten the imaginary chasms that separate us all.

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