Sunday, August 09, 2015

"A Sinner in Mecca": an up-close account of the hajj, from a Muslim who is also gay

A Sinner in Mecca”, by Parvez Sharma (“A Jihad for Love”), will get the viewer (especially a non-Muslim) the opportunity to experience what the week-long hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia looks and feels like.  Much of the video, even if from cell phones, is quite engaging and seems to put the viewer there.

The film is controversial for two reasons:  Sharma says he is gay (and has just married in New York City) but wants to re-examine and rediscover his Islamic roots (from where he had been brought up in India, under Sufi).  The other is that photography in most of the holy areas of Mecca is forbidden.  However, news media have presented footage from the hajj before, and numerous commercial videos and books showing scenes of the event are available.  So I’m not sure how big a deal the “no photography” is.  Certainly, some pilgrims would want to believe that their journey is not for the world, other than other attending Muslims, to see.

The film shows all the steps in the hajj, including the camping in tents, and the long foot journey, much of it through tunnels (the entrance to one of them in a desert cliff is shown) that give the film a sci-fi look sometimes, but this very real to the faithful.  One is overwhelmed by the presence of others;  there is no privacy, there is only a bizarre connectedness, unity and sameness. In one scene, a man from Pakistan (who is not identified) confesses to Parvez his own violent terror activity, apparently for the Taliban or radicals, which the man has now come to be seen as morally wrong and not-Islamic and demanding of Allah’s forgiveness almost in a Christian sense.

At the end, Parvez was to complete the ritual of the sacrifice (of Ishmael, where Allah (or God or Jehovah, depending on one’s faith) intervenes and a goat is sacrificed instead, after the Saudi facility runs out of animals.  So Parvez completes this step back in India, with a scene that is quite brutal for the animal.  To me, sacrificing animals makes no sense, in my moral compass.

There is a whole commercial city in Mecca around the hajj site and the Kaaba, with some underground shopping malls (a lot of green in the flag color with Islamic art).  The place is part of Earth, and yet being there confers a sense of being on another planet, far away from the familiar, needing a wormhole or an “In ovo” to return.  But one could say that about much of China, or even maybe Dubai.

The “gay angle” is somewhat played down, not so much out of necessity as out of the idea in the end it does not matter as much as the whole process of reclaiming one’s own faith.  Religions with anti-gay teachings, while claiming scriptural authority, are trying to impose discipline on all its members so that most of the people will find marital commitment and child-rearing meaningful;  there is a perception that participation in the risks of procreation and lineage is something that everyone must experience for the whole system to work.

The official site is here.   (Haram and Arte films).

I was able to watch the film on a free private screener on Vimeo.
The film is in festivals now (it won awards in Outfest), with an official street date of Sept 4.  I would expect a brief theatrical run (maybe the West End or E-street, or Pop-Up in DC soon, I hope). 
Wikipedia attribution link of hajj rotation photo, by Zakaryaamr, under Creative Commons 3.0 Share Alike license    There are many quality photos from the entire hajj on Wikipedia.

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