I'm sure by now we've all heard about this issue called whitewashing. Whitewashing in Hollywood has been happening since at least the 1930s. From Cleopatra, to Cloud Atlas, to Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood has long used the claim of maximum profits as an excuse, instead of acknowledging and changing institutional racism. I know I'm preaching to the choir; black, Latin, and Asian individuals are too-aware of this phenomenon.
To coincide with the start of Ramadan, as a beacon of growing Muslim acceptance, screenwriter David Franzoni (of Gladiator fame) and producer Stephen Joel Brown announced the production of a movie on Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi. As if that wasn't bad enough--more on this later--they wish to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Rumi and Robert Downey Jr. as his spiritual teacher, Shams-e Tabrizi.
Hey, I love RDJ as much as an Avengers fan (although Chef is underrated). Leo finally got an Oscar. These are legit actors. This is still not okay--but for reasons beyond what we usually talk about with whitewashing.
But let's start with the usual reasons: my parents came from Iran at 16 (dad) and 21 (mom). Both sides of my family trace their history to a nation with a rich history--a people who had one of the greatest empires in existence. In the US, with perhaps the exception of LA, the Persian population is too small to be considered a minority. We are technically Aryans, and northerners like my mother have light skin. In the census, we are forced to mark "white" as our race.
We aren't Arabs, but we aren't white either. That's one identity lost. But there is another angle to this story: Rumi was a Sufi, and a beloved Sufi at that. Sufism is not quite a sect of Islam, and to call Rumi just a "Muslim" poet is beyond sloppy.
Rumi is one of the most famous Sufi mystics. Sufism, usually called the "mystical sect" of Islam, is a spiritual path and lifestyle. "Sufism is the apprehension of reality through the lens of Divine Love," in the words of late master Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. Yes, Sufism has its roots in Islam, but it does not follow Muslim law, as such.
Sufis are invisible in society--which is part of the idea. Sufis don't wear headscarves or grow facial hair to mark them out. Most Sufi sects don't dance, and the sensationalization of the "whirling dervishes" diminishes the spiritual process they are undergoing. How do I know all of this? I was raised in a Sufi center, by Sufi parents, and am initiated.
From my perspective, as both Persian and a Sufi. the news of this movie and the possible directions is nothing short of horrifying. Ignoring or misrepresenting these critical aspects of his background is not just a disservice to him, but an insult to our communities. To understand Rumi's life, his poetry, his relationship to Shams, one must study Sufism. It is not enough to acknowledge that he is Persian. It is ridiculous to praise him as an exemplar of Islam. No--in order to give true deference to one of the greatest Sufi masters that has been, one must turn to Sufism.
The larger issues of whitewashing aren't just economic in nature, but fundamentally racist: it is the misappropriation of a people's background. It robs minorities of the portrayal of their backgrounds. But the Hollywood-ization and whitewashing of a film on Rumi goes a step beyond that, because Rumi has been eroticized, fetishized, and sensationalized in the West for years. The relationship between Rumi and Shams has been eroticized. His poetry has been translated without a hint of God in it. Even the poet that brought Rumi's work to popularity, Coleman Barks, doesn't speak or read Persian. This is not only insulting to Rumi and to Persian heritage, but to Sufism--which he claims to follow.
I would rather no film be made than to see someone butcher his life and what he means to so many of us. So remember: #RumiWasntWhite, #RumiWasPersian, and #RumiisaSufi.