Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul. Directed by Nacer Khemir. Switzerland /Hungary /France /Germany /Iran /Tunisia /UK, 2005.
“Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis (sic) in the desert.”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Whether Thoreau really understood the religious ecstasy of Sufi practice firsthand or was offering an off-hand orientalist reference may remain debatable, but what strikes one as most compelling in the above quote is the acute contrast of the simile: a bustling intellectual center and the starkness of an exotic locale.
The desert, that powerful setting, is just the type of place where contradiction, like the one Thoreau offers, seem to resolve themselves and where paradoxes shape reality. It is a landscape where the unseen is as undeniable as the awesome forces of nature that cut the extreme terrain. Nacer Khemir evokes this leviathan of the desert sea and then tries to wrestle a harness over the beast by contrasting it against an alienating modern world.
Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul is a protest film, a work that rejects how its subjects have been previously represented while offering a new take on Sufi methods of understanding meaning. Accordingly, the work fits into Khemir’s larger corpus of literature, visual art and theory. The Tunisian-born Parisian engages with many oft-explored themes in the Sufi tradition: the incommunicability of the divine, the necessity of spiritual questing, and the porous borders of the real and the imagined. Rounding out Khemir’s Desert Trilogy, Bab’Aziz joins Wanderers of the Desert and The Dove’s Lost Necklace in what has been an award-winning series.
According to the director, two major forces informed the making of the film.
First, Khemir produced the film in a post-9/11 world, where the most common depictions of Islam are of fundamentalist extremists killing their way to a narrow practice of Islamic supremacy. Bab’ Aziz, then, offers a way for Khemir to show a very different, anti-fundamentalist Sufi tradition that holds as a central tenet what we hear several times in the film: “There are as many ways to God as the number of human beings on earth.”
Like many classical stories, Bab’ Aziz is framed by a journey. Bab’Aziz and his granddaughter, Ishtar, who is essentially birthed from the desert after a sandstorm, travel to a grand gathering of dervishes from across the ummah, the entire Muslim world, that only happens once every thirty years. To the frustration of his granddaughter, Bab’Aziz does not know where the gathering is, but travels by faith alone.
Along the way, Bab’Aziz recounts the story of the Prince who forfeited his kingdom and earthly possessions to contemplate his soul by spending years gazing into a desert pool. All desert him except for one Sufi, who presumably understands the value of the Prince’s contemplation and who is bound to the Prince by love.
The story of the Prince represents the second major force of the film. Khemir says that he was inspired by a 12th-century plate made in Iran that shows a prince leaning over water and offers the inscription: “The prince who contemplated his own soul.” Likely, the plate and Khemir’s film are directly inspired Ibrahim ibn Adham, the eighth-century Prince of Balkh, in present day Afghanistan. Farid Attar’s Memorials of the Saints (Tadhkirat Al-Auliya) recounts how this prince, like the Buddha, renounces the material world and ascends to annihilation through motionless meditation.
The story of the Prince’s contemplation offers a foil to the Ancient Greek story of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own image and dies for his lack of desire to do anything else. When the Prince looks at himself in the water, however, he doesn’t see his own image like the selfish and vain Narcissus. Instead, he sees his soul, and therefore the divine unity and purity of the world. This ultimate individuality becomes an inward turn that allows the Prince to see a collective identity and an understanding of the all-encompassing unity of the world vis-à-vis Sufism. Unlike the praetor-Western Narcissus who is “incapable of love” because he can only see himself, the Sufi Prince embodies a pure, collective love unified with the divine.
Visually, the film continues the Sufi poetic tradition of the masters recalled throughout the film, such as Rumi, Hafez and particularly Attar. Bab’ Aziz is a work of cine-poetry, where water and sand become beautiful symbols of reflection and a contemplative life. In the desert, a tenuous tension between scarce substance and abundant sand is delicately maintained.
Against the strength of stunning imagery, however, the plot strikes the viewer as a bit weak at certain points. Although the film emphasizes a unified collective human identity, one can’t help but regret losing track of some individual compelling characters along the way. Take for example the sand collector turned would-be clandestine emigré who jumps into a well to find his lost palace. The viewer is left longing for more of his story. However, true to the form found in works like Attar’s Conference of the Birds, the film offers vignettes as a part of the story of a longer journey, instead of a pure novelistic approach that favors individual character development.
Despite the filmmaker’s intention of critiquing the West, the full force of the film, with its symbolism pulled from Islamic tradition, might be lost on viewers not completely familiar with Muslim lands.
A salient tension in the film is the relationship between the particular and the universal, offering Sufism as a path between the two. When speaking to each other, Bab’Aziz and Ishtar converse in what appears to be Persian. However when interacting with other people they switch to a haltingly eloquent classical Arabic. It is through Arabic and the universal idiom of Sufism that the peripatetic pair are able to commiserate and commune with Africans, Arabs, and even the occasional drumming Qawwali.
Khemir would probably tell Thoreau that the New England writer had it backwards; that the dervish in the desert may be solitary, with miles of space separating him from his fellows, but he is as immersed in a human collective as anyone in the crowded hives of Cambridge College and is always in good company.
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Wendell Hassan Marsh is a graduate student in African Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is interested in the political economy of cultures in Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas. He has written for Reuters, AllAfrica.com, Viewpoint, and The Harvard Journal of African American Policy. Follow him on twitter @theafrabian.