The 18th Annual Jewish Film Festival, review by NYCGUY of “A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad”.
During the 1950s & 60s, The Jewish Museum, not MoMA, was THE avant garde showcase in New York City. After decades of taking a safer route, the doyenne of the nation’s Jewish museums seems to be, at least in part, taking this path again, most recently evinced by the stunning exhibit, “Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama,” which asked, in part, just what is a Jew?
For their 18th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, now a long running partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, they’ll be screening an Austrian made- for-TV doc, “A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad,” the story of the scion of a long line of Orthodox rabbis from Czernowitz (now Czernovtsy), born in 1900 in Lemberg (now Lviv), both then part of Austria-Hungary, who began schooling with a religiously rich education until WWI caused his family to move to the secular capital Vienna.
Leopold Weiss would attend university, acquire new languages, dally with the intellectual brilliance of 1920s Berlin, becoming a screenwriter & then a journalist, trek to Saudi Arabia, befriend the king Ibn Saud, convert to Islam, spin a 1st name meaning lion to an analogous last name & in effect, become a light for the then contemporary Islamic awakening as the colonial domains began their march to independence.
In india he became an intimate of the western trained poet/philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (a follower of among others, the French Jewish Nobel Laureate philosopher Henri Bergson) & together with others conceive of a Muslim state – or at least autonomous region – within NW British India that would become Pakistan. Weiss/Asad would become a minister & early UN rep for the new state created to protect Muslims from increasing Hindu hostility.
Before this he would sojourn in mandatory Palestine, where he’d engage with uncles from both sides of his family, one Zionist, one clearly not, adopting the latter’s views, writing for the then liberal Frankfurter Zeitung (indirect forerunner of the similarly named modern journal), living amongst the wandering Bedouin who he came to feel were more like the ancient Hebrews, penning the once influential, now out of print, but still cited The Road to Mecca, visit Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Soviet Central Asia.
He fell out of favor with Pakistan’s governing circles & became saddened with the trajectory of its governance which he envisioned as naturally democratic, settled in Tangiers, wrote what is considered one of the best translations of the Qur’an, fell out of favor in Morocco & made his last home the once glorious Andalusia.
The film covers his wanderings from Lviv to Vienna to Jerusalem to Mecca to Lahore to New York to Tangiers & concludes at his gravesite in Spain. He was always in places that at least once contained a cosmopolitan mix of peoples & engaged with artists, writers, philosophers & politicians who were no less at home in the world of ideas.
The documentary maker Georg Misch – whose film company is named Mischief – takes on the naming this past April of a square by the UN complex in Vienna for Asad – a first for a Muslim in Europe (& a site created by the Jewish Social Democratic Prime Minister Bruno Kreisky), he follows Palestinians making Hajj to Mecca via a flight from Amman, looks in at a gathering of Asad acolytes in Pakistan’s intellectual hub, the decaying beauty of Lahore, engages with two Sephardi sisters in Tangiers who Asad assiduously visited bearing Sachertorte, travels around Manhattan on 9/11/06 with Asad’s son Talal, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the CUNY Grad Center, reflecting, like his father, on the West’s perceptions of Muslims.
One hopes the Museum will pair the two screenings with a symposium or panel. The filmmaker, his co-writer, anthropologist Miriam Ali de Unzaga, an Ismaili & Talal Asad come to mind. Meanwhile, to learn more about the subject, check out the extensive http://www.geocities.com/martinkramerorg/WeissAsad.htm or the shorter http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_Asad. For a brief excerpt from the film’s namesake book, see http://www.sufism.org/books/meccaex.html.