With the controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Center located two blocks from Ground Zero still raging even in the most tolerant of American cities, New York, it’s clear that the wounds opened by 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not healed -- far from it in fact.
That’s why it’s as well to remember that most of us could probably write on one hand what we know about the Arab world and the Islamic faith.
Of course there’s no shortage of professional crank yankers on the cable news channels telling us what to think, but are we wise to take their word for it? Isn’t it about time we heard from more thoughtful, far-seeing voices?
How America (and indeed the west as a whole) makes its peace with the Muslim world is a struggle that looks set to play out over the course of this century, and thankfully some of us are a little further ahead in the process than others.
Imelda O’Reilly is a playwright, filmmaker and Fulbright scholar whose film about the traditions following the holy festival of Ramadan titled Bricks, Beds and Sheep's Heads will be screened as part of the Wee Craic Festival on September 17.
It’s a timely and evocative look at the Arab world though the prism of one of the most important dates in the Muslim calendar. It’s also an intimate and thoughtful examination of the daily lives of people whose rituals and traditions are still largely unknown to us.
O’Reilly draws on her own experiences as an Irish woman in the making of the film.
“Being an Irish woman in a Muslim country gave me a new perspective to look at my own life through theirs. Being exposed to the Muslim culture during Ramadan and its aftermath was a pretty exhilarating experience too, that was not unlike the way Catholics celebrate Christmas. We have a turkey, they have a sheep, but there are rituals and traditions that were very recognizable and I explore them in the film,” O’Reilly says.
O’Reilly, originally from Co. Kildare, won a Fulbright award to travel to Morocco to complete the film, which was her thesis project at Colombia University. The result traverses two landscapes, both Islamic and western, and raises many questions among western audiences watching it.
O’Reilly’s own fascination with the Muslim world began, as fate would have it, around September 11, 2001. She had won a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts to write a book, and on her way to her destination she learned of the horrifying al-Qaeda attack. She arrived in Tangiers, Morocco on the morning after, September 12, 2001.
“I spent a month in Morocco I just fell in love with it. In fact I rediscovered color and I was really intrigued by the place -- it was so vibrant and different from the western way of living and thinking. When I had the opportunity to make a film I thought of it straight away as the place I wanted to visit,” she said.
Studying the local language, O’Reilly discovered a deep sense of community in the 1,200 year old walled in city of Medina. In fact it often reminded her of the Ireland of years gone by.
“It’s a very community orientated and people help one another. They invite you into their homes,” she said.
“I didn’t wear a headscarf but I didn’t walk down the Medina in a miniskirt either. The fact that I studied Arabic and that I could communicate with the locals in their own language made a huge difference. People were helpful and open and everyone wants to talk to you.”
O’Reilly was fascinated to discover the locals did not have the same sense of personal space. In her first three months in Morocco she often experienced culture shock, but once she put down some roots in the community things changed and friendships developed.
“The way people think is very different there. It’s not a linear culture, it’s circular. Even the city of Medina is a labyrinth that you can get lost in,” O’Reilly said.
“It’s an archaic way of living. The pace of life is slower and you barter for everything. I think I rediscovered patience at a deeper level. It’s a bit like having your whole world turned upside down and then realigned.
“As a filmmaker I had to abandon my usual way of working. I shot the film and then I wrote the narrative afterward.”
Bricks, Beds and Sheep's Heads will play at the Wee Craic Festival on September 17 at the Tribeca Cinema Lounge.