Saturday, August 18, 2007

People At Bus Stops

After I saw Takva, I walked to the bus stop, the same one where a complete stranger had placed his face two inches from mine and insisted that I say hello to an apparently mutual friend.

Checking the bus timetable, I was pleased to see that my bus was due in about five minutes and proceeded to take a seat. As I turned to sit down, a man walking along the street, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, hesitated in his tracks before deciding to sit down as well.

I didn’t know if I’d imagined the man’s split second decision to change his plans upon seeing me take a seat. I tried not to look at him. I took in the streetscape around me. I glanced at the activity of the markets in the Brunswick Street Mall. I risked a quick look at the man at the other end of the bench from me. He was looking straight at me.

He took the opportunity, afforded by the briefest moment of eye contact, to strike up a conversation.

He told me, in the most prosaic way, that he was on an hour release from hospital. I absorbed that information while he continued to talk. He was out buying some caffeine drinks for a fellow patient. I wondered aloud whether the hospital encouraged the consumption of caffeinated beverages. The man explained that he couldn’t have them, but they were good for his friend who was not prone to any great bursts of activity. He said his friend enjoyed being around him because he talked a lot.

I learned the man’s name; that he was 38; that he had been in hospital for 6 out of the past 11 years; that he didn’t have an eating disorder, but was always admitted for not taking care of himself. He talked about his parents’ inability to take care of him, expressing some understanding about the difficulty he presented for them.

He asked me if I would give him my phone number, producing a pen from inside his jacket. I shook my head. He said he would call me and we’d talk. He said he didn’t like skinny women, and without taking his eyes from mine, for any more than the briefest flicker, asked me to confirm that I was ‘voluptuous’. He asked me if I was interested in having children. I replied that it wasn’t a burning ambition. He was pleased by my response, saying that differences over the question of having children had been the problem in a previous relationship he’d had. He had a sixteen year-old daughter.

The sun was shining straight into my eyes, rendering my sunglasses ineffective. He noticed and adjusted his position to block out the sun for me, observing that my ‘shades’ weren’t very shady.

At some point in the conversation he told me about a government scheme where it’s possible to get 6 free appointments with a psychologist on the recommendation of a GP.

He asked me again for my phone number. I said no, but that it had certainly been worth trying. He presented his forearm, a white expanse on which he said he could write down my number. He said how difficult it was for him to meet anyone. I agreed that it must be.

He started to look around. I followed his gaze. A woman standing nearby made eye contact with me and smiled encouragingly. My bus arrived. I said goodbye to the man and boarded my bus. He crossed the road without a backward glance.

Friday, August 10, 2007


While looking through next week’s TV Week I noticed that SBS will be screening a film I’ve just seen at the Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF). My first thought on seeing the listing for Takva: A Man’s Fear of God was, ‘Oh, I could have used my ticket to see another film.’ And just now I’ve had a brief recollection of how I had to pay an extra $6 to see Takva because there was a mix up in one of the universities’ timetables and I had to exchange my ticket for the first screening, instead of the second, so I could meet my teaching responsibilities.

In that light, the prompt appearance of Takva on SBS is a bit annoying, but in another, if the three people in Australia who read this blog are interested in the film, and have decent SBS reception, the opportunity to see it for themselves won’t be too delayed.

At BIFF Takva was one of several films that formed a focus on Rumi, the 13th century ‘mystic and poet’, whose work ‘is one of the most important sources of inspiration for theology, poetry and philosophy in the Islamic world’ (Official Programme 2007, 8) . I was attracted to this film, in particular, because it was about the Dervish order. Here I anticipated seeing the mesmerising dance of the Whirling Dervishes. Further, the brief synopsis in the BIFF Programme described the central character, Muharrem, a man who led an ascetic life, and there’s something that I find intriguing about that kind of existence.

While the order of Dervishes portrayed was not of the Whirling variety (or at least I didn't see the iconic dance), the centrality of poetry, music and movement to this order of Dervishes’ worship was evident. Extended sequences depicted the order immersed in prayer. They were seated, but they oscillated in their meditation, synchronised with one another and the sounds of their chanting.

Muharrem is invited to join the Dervish order as a lay member. He is recruited from his job working for a sack retailer by a local religious leader. His role is explained to him as one where he will concern himself with the worldly affairs of the order. In effect he is to collect the rent on the various residential and commercial properties that the Dervishes own, and oversee the maintenance and accounting associated with those business interests.

Before moving into the order’s premises, Muharrem has lead a simple life. He submits himself to the orders of his somewhat self-satisfied boss, without complaint. He lives in a small, worn apartment, and heats his plain dinner for one on a gas burner. He wears clean but shabby clothes and a knitted hat. He is devout. The invitation to serve the Dervish order is an honour for Muharreme. He is frightened that he won’t fulfil the faith the order has placed in him, but to decline would be akin to an insult.

From the moment Muharrem accepts the position his life is altered. His boss begins to defer to him, if somewhat insincerely. The order gifts him with a range of luxury items, including a brand new car and wardrobe, accoutrements, they explain, that are necessary for his work, which enables the order to continue its operations, such as the education of the poor.

It is perhaps not surprising that a man as devout as Muharrem begins to struggle with his new found power and wealth. Ironically, perhaps, it is the religious members of the order who prove to be far more prosaic about ‘worldy affairs’, while Muharrem is shocked by tenants who drink alcohol and wants to extend charity to the poor families from whom he collects.

In this age, where many representations of the Islamic faith, in Australia and other Western countries, are routinely imbued with the fear of terrorist acts, it is an important role that film festivals (and SBS) play in bringing to our attention the lives of ordinary Muslims as they go about their every day lives. Takva: A Man’s Fear of God is a film that effectively portrays one man’s efforts to live a life according to the principles of his faith; that the institution of his faith presents the greatest test of those principles is the paradox that makes Muharrem’s story so compelling.

See Sarsaparilla for a look at another BIFF screening.