Under the pretext of celebrating Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystic, poet and philosopher, the Hollywood Bowl presented a showcase of Islamic fundamentalism on Sunday, September 27th. The event attracted a huge crowd (15,644 officially attended) made up mainly of Iranians who have emigrated to Southern California since the Islamic Revolution swept Iran in 1979.
Initially, they were proud and excited that the Hollywood Bowl was paying attention to their culture. They thought that perhaps the grandeur of the Bowl, together with a grand budget and grand vision has yielded a grand tribute to the beauties of their culture. But, by the end of the night, many of them, if not most, found themselves disappointed after being trapped for almost four hours, and forced to witness the less grand aspects of that same culture.
They were “trapped” because as all Angelenos know, you cannot leave the Bowl mid-show. In a regular theater or stadium, if you are not enjoying the program, you can express your displeasure by simply leaving. But, at the Bowl, you don’t have the luxury of escape. Your vehicle is stuck in a jungle of automobiles, or the bus you arrived in will not depart without your fellow passengers. This was the case for me and for many others who wanted desperately to leave the Hollywood Bowl on the night of September 27th. Instead, we had to sit back and watch our beloved Rumi be misrepresented to the point of becoming unrecognizable.
The title of a music review, written by Richard S. Ginell, (special to the Times, on Monday September 28th) is “The Silk Road to Happiness,” referring to the tenth anniversary of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and Ensemble, a group whose 2005 appearance at the Bowl drew a similarly large crowd. The article, however, does not tell us who actually experienced any “happiness” that night. Certainly, nothing “happy” was taking place on stage. And the audience was subjected to a constant barrage of traditional Islamic chanting and the recitation of Koranic verses, both of which share the quality of being quite mournful. Nour-Mohammad Dorpour set a poem by Rumi to music, but did so in the style of the traditional Islamic lament, usually meant to draw sobs from the listener.
The Qaderi Dervishes of Kurdistan set that same poem to music, but soon completely overwhelmed the poem in ecstatic chants calling on Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, until that was all that was left. With the exception of some poetry recital by Mr. Iraj Gorgin in Persian, and by Ms. Shohreh Aghdashloo in English, the evening was one of lamentation. Mr. Ginell seems unaware of 90% of that evening’s content, as do Mr. Yo-yo Ma and certainly the Bowl’s artistic advisors.
Sheik Hamza Shakour, lead vocalist with the Ensemble Al-Kindi, and backing the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus, starts his Koranic recitation by cursing “the cruel Great Satan” (“Al Sheitan al rajeem”). With the current tensions between the US and Islamic Extremists, that felt like a rather aggressive and ungracious opening from a group invited to Hollywood from an Islamic country known to be hostile towards Western values, and the US in particular. Sheik Hamza then goes on singing his verses, as if his doing so has any relation to Rumi whatsoever. These are the same verses chanted by devoted Muslims during daily prayers. And they are also recited at funerals as “fateha” over the tomb of the deceased Muslim.
Rumi’s “universal manifesto” as Ginell labels it, is “I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Zoroastrian, nor a Moslem.” From time to time, the moderators Gorgin and Aghdashloo reminded us of this important part of Rumi’s philosophy. But, in the rest of the program, the universal Rumi was sorely missing and missed. Instead, Rumi was represented as the most devoted of Muslims, and even as a fundamentalist.
In his early life, Rumi can be mistaken as being an Islamic cleric, which was the dominant interpretation at the Bowl on the night of September 27th. But Rumi’s famed philosophy and his global appeal does not stop at such a one-dimensional interpretation. For most Iranians, as well as many scholars, Rumi changes drastically upon meeting his muse, Shams, the mysterious Sufi philosopher. Rumi, at that point, turns into a figure of rebellion against his own previous views, religious dogma and the established morality coming from Islamic clichés.
Rumi then went further by humanizing the Divine. In his work, he reduces the Almighty into the figure of Shams, and elevates Shams to the level of the Almighty. At this point, he can no longer be seen as a Muslim cleric. What he says and what he suggests would be considered blasphemous, and therefore punishable by death to any actual Muslim cleric.
For the Iranian audience at the Bowl, listening to Iraj Gorgin reciting Rumi was enjoyable. Mr. Gorgin who is now working with a US government-backed radio network in the Czech Republic is best remembered as a lead news anchor and television personality during the Shah’s regime. Seeing him without a tie for the first time, on a wide screen at the Hollywood Bowl was a bit shocking for those who knew him. Whether it was to pay homage to the evening’s religious mood, or to the style of Islamic Republic diplomats attending the UN at that time, his simplicity was in complete contrast to the actress Shohreh Aghdashloo’s attire as Madam Butterfly, displaying herself more than Rumi’s poetry as she waved her arms like an actual butterfly!
Sitting there for over 3 hours, watching one of the greatest, most progressive thinkers of all time butchered on stage, brings you to a point at which not even the most magical piece of music could change your mood. That was the point for me when Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble took the stage to finish the last segment of the show. It was also a time when, even those not particularly sensitive about Rumi, were just plain bored by the fundamentalist Islamic version of him, accompanied by pathetic and amateurish music, the miserly lack of stage decoration, and the mind-numbing action of returning repeatedly to the calligraphy of Ostad Yadollah Kaboli. Talented as Kaboli is, when did calligraphy become acceptable as performance?
“Blue as the Turqoise Night of Neyshabur” composed by Keyhan Kalhor, the evening’s curator, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble was a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the show, but not so fresh as to save us from a suffocating night.
Parviz Sayyad is an actor, playwright, filmmaker and political activist.
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