The pilgrim's progress
While on a short visit to Cairo Anisa Mehdi, a prominent American journalist and documentary filmmaker, chatted with Rania Khallaf
This is Anisa Mehdi's second visit to Egypt since 1992. And for the woman director, half Canadian, half Iraqi, "Egypt has not changed that much. It has the same old fantastic image that had been engraved in my memory." She looks the part of the secular, progressive Muslim woman -- and Islam has been her principal career interest, which makes this doubly interesting -- elegantly dressed without a headscarf. At the woman-only dinner, held by the American Embassy at Al-Azhar Park, she spoke openly, cordially, with artists, directors and writers, demonstrating an intellectual and creative kinship beyond that of religion, and seeming to communicate the message that women artists around the world have much scope for integration and dialogue -- similar interests and concerns. She showed the skill and aptitude of the seasoned journalist.
Mehdi has directed many a TV programme about religion -- for CBS and other channels. Her work deals with, among many other topics, the Holocaust, young American Muslims working in Congress, the holy month of Ramadan and how it is celebrated in the United States. The American Embassy did well to choose her for implementing its programme concerning inter-religious dialogue. For 25 years, indeed, she has featured in some of the United States' most prestigious newspapers; her documentary Inside Mecca, produced by National Geographic, caused a wide-ranging positive response; fortunately, it was screened twice during her three-day stay in Cairo. She is, in this sense, in an excellent position to address the vexed issue of the West's relations with Islam, and in the light of the constraints on her time here she did so with astonishing aptitude. Topics in theology, international relations, intercultural dialogue were all discussed with insight and understanding, and the screenings made the conversations even more engaging.
The 2003, one-hour production was intended to depict the rituals of the Hajj -- pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of the faith, required at least once of every Muslim with the physical and financial ability to undertake it. But Inside Mecca cannot be described as simply educational. It lives up to its mandate, maintaining National Geographic standards, but in addition it traces the life histories of three Muslims from different parts of the world -- a recent Irish convert, a Malaysian and a South African -- performing the ritual for the first time. It depicts the preparations they undertake for the journey back home, and follows them all the way to Mecca. In so doing it delineates their thoughts about Islam, their anxieties and spiritual experience. The film also depicted the historical background of the Hajj -- an ancient ritual dating back to the Prophet Ibrahim, stressing the deep links connecting Judaism and Christianity with Islam. A triumphant achievement, it is accessible and engaging without compromising on depth.
The film is the first production on the topic by National Geographic, and it is based on Mehdi's perception of life as a journey. "Each human life is a journey from birth to death," she says, "and the Hajj is a journey as well. The film touches on the idea of a transitional period in everyone's life -- that hidden desire, in each of us, to accomplish something great, which differs from one to another." But to what extent was the film a political gestures? Can American Muslims be said to represent what might be called a pressure group? "Nowadays," Mehdi comments, "there is a rather strong Muslim pressure group and it is going in the right direction." For a moment she glares at me in response to the question of whether the film managed to achieve the goals it had set itself. Then she speaks, quietly, "The aim was originally to inform audiences in America and elsewhere about Islam and Muslims in the form of a narrative story, told by real people describing their experiences, so that Muslims would no longer be perceived as vague, wild people." Mehdi pauses. "Since its production in 2003, I have been giving lectures around the world at universities, schools, even churches. And thank God, people increasingly admire the film..."
What about Mehdi's own subjective experience of the creative process, though? What did she learn from the journey herself. "Oh, a lot," she beams. "I learned how to perform the Hajj, for one thing; I had never done it. And I learned to trust God -- that miracles do happen." There were many "logistical difficulties", she reports: "Getting permissions from Saudi official circles, putting together an eligible team -- all Muslims, which is required for entering Mecca -- these were probably the most serious technical difficulties. It took us a year of very hard work to complete the film. Besides, as a Muslim, I could not afford to make a single mistake on so sensitive a subject." Yet Mehdi is not a member of the Muslim Women's League in the USA, devoting her time to public issues individually: "I volunteer in the board of directors of the Shakespeare Theatre in New Jersey, and I also volunteer in an organisation called Music for All Seasons that brings music to hospitals, prisons, etc. I believe that Muslims in America should be involved in many life aspects, not only in Islamic events or issues."
Right now she is busy raising money for a new project: a documentary about Muslim and Christian young people in Algeria working together for peace. She is also writing a biography of her father, who is believed to be the first Arab American activist in the United States. How does she see the situation in Iraq, one is tempted to ask, especially from the viewpoint of an artist? A whole minute of intent concentration precedes her reply. "All I could think of is the year 1258," she says finally, "when the Moguls went in and destroyed Baghdad, and the rivers were blue with the ink of the books, and the streets were red with the blood of the people. I have always wanted to do a film about the religious traditions of the Iraqi people. But, being the mother of two daughters, I am wary of starting at present."