Karma, I believe, doesn't appear in Islam, so maybe it was just fate that I'd be stopped in my tracks by the poster outside one of Washington DC's Smithsonian museums.
It was Ibn Battuta who immediately caught my eye. I had just completed hours of meetings inside that same museum, discussing future cultural and educational programs to be conducted in Ibn Battuta's birthplace - Tangier, Morocco - and here he was! U-turn back inside, where I got myself not only an IMAX ticket, but also a couple of related books to lug back in my suitcase.
Enough of my patter. Here's the thing: Journey to Mecca (official website) is an experience I hope more will share, for it is not only a worthy effort, but breathtakingly beautiful and historically accurate. How in the world do we know that? After all, "IB" (as author Tim Mackintosh-Smith called him) lived more than 7 centuries ago.
Because he wrote it down. In the Rihla, or Book of Travels, one of the first of that beloved genre. Writer/director Bruce Neibaur, fellow screenwriters Tahir Shah and Carl Knutson, and the Cosmic/SK producers have expended prodigious efforts - desert location shooting, thousands of extras (people and camels), multilingual cast - to recreate Ibn Battuta's 14th century world. The result is a unique look at not only Ibn Battuta's initial, epic 5,000 mile journey across the Sahara and into Arabia, but a pilgrim's-eye look at the Haj as it is performed today.
All on the giant IMAX screen, so that you fly over the desert to the Kaaba, as Ibn Battuta dreamed he would as a young man in Tangier. The casting of the young Moroccan actor Chems Eddine Zinoun, of whom more later, is inspired, as is the murky figure of his bandit protector, played by Hassam Ghancy. Ben Kingsley narrates, though the voice-over is mostly excerpted from Ibn Battuta's Rihla. For Muslims and non-Muslims concerned about authenticity, rest assured that the film makers relied on an illustrious collection of consultants and advisers, scholars from the Muslim world to western universities.
We know how it ends, since we have Ibn Battuta's famous Book of Travels resuming his life of exploration. But when he sets out from Tangier, he has no illusions about the dangers of solo travel in the wilds of North Africa. Ibn Battuta confides to family and friends that if he dies, at least it will have been on the road to Mecca. He is soon put to the test, one of the most dramatic moments in the film. Though brave, Ibn Battuta knows when to use his wits instead of his sword. It was a winning strategy, and it served him well to Mecca and beyond: over the next three decades, his travels took him as far as China and India.
If Ibn Battuta lived into old age, sadly the same cannot be said of the young actor who portrays him. Chems Eddine Zinoun passed away in a tragic car accident in Casablanca just as the film was to be released. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Journey to Mecca is a moving experience, and even the non-religious cannot fail to share some of the emotion that the pilgrims feel when they succeed in what for many is the dream of a lifetime. That this pillar of Islam - the Haj to Mecca - has been made accessible to world audiences through an historical docudrama is a tribute to its backers.
Now, can we get it shown in Tangier, Ibn Battuta's birthplace?