Documentary: "Visiting the Prophet"

The Political Implications of a Pilgrimage

Young German Muslims documented their first trip to Mecca in a film project. Even the Saudi ambassador graced the premiere - and witnessed an unexpected political discussion. Ariana Mirza reports from Berlin

​​In the spring of 2008, a group of young people, mainly of Turkish origin, set out from Germany on the "lesser" pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the Umrah. The unusual aspect of their trip: the participants made their own documentary with the technical support of the "Media Project Wuppertal". The film explains which rituals an Umrah involves, what the individual stages mean and not least what feelings the pilgrimage provoked in each of them.

The 60-minute documentary "Besuch beim Propheten" (A Visit to the Prophet) also manages to bring across the world through the eyes of young believers for non-Muslims. In numerous interview sequences, the participants report on their motives for the pilgrimage, their personal expectations, thoughts and feelings. The result is a collage of individual statements and images, telling a diverse story of submersion in the community of believers; of humility, seriousness and joy.

Faith became everyday

While a young woman tells how her heart skipped a beat on first seeing the Kaaba, a young man describes the inner peace and feeling of wellbeing in the midst of the noisy crowds. Many of the participants explain how relieved they were that their faith became an everyday fact during the pilgrimage. "In Germany, I'm sometimes worried I might be praying in the wrong direction. That doesn't happen here; everyone prays together here and I can see the right direction."

​​Yet the documentary does not whitewash cultural irritations. One girl from the group, for example, reports that she kept being told her clothing was not modest enough when she arrived in Saudi-Arabia. At home in Germany, she doesn't even wear a headscarf, but her reaction is pragmatic: "I'll just buy myself something else tomorrow." The pilgrims from Germany find the business activities around the holy sites surprising and rather disappointing. "I don't think it's very good that people are doing business here everywhere," says one member of the group.

The film was first shown at "Berlin 08", a political festival for young people, and was conceived and produced by Medienprojekt Wuppertal. The documentary does not touch on Saudi-Arabian politics and society. However, this apolitical standpoint prompted strong protests among the mainly young audience at the premiere in Berlin.

"Politics wasn't our subject"

Whereas the Saudi-Arabian ambassador to Germany, S.E. Ossama Abdulmajed Ali Shobokshi, admitted after the showing that the documentary had made him feel rather homesick, one young woman in the audience pointed out efforts to place the administration of the holy sites under the control of all Muslims.

S.E. Ossama Abdulmajed Ali Shobokshi (photo: Stephan Schmidt)
S.E. Ossama Abdulmajed Ali Shobokshi: the Saudi-Arabian ambassador to Germany was guest of honour at the premiere in Berlin

​​ "Many Muslims don't think it's right that the Saudis have the only say there." Various people in the audience also accused the filmmakers of ignoring the issue of human rights violations in Saudi-Arabia.

The young members of the team were obviously unprepared for this kind of reaction. The aim of their documentary, they emphasised, was to build bridges as Muslims living in Germany and improve understanding for their religion. The focus of "Besuch beim Propheten" was solely on their spiritual experiences. "Politics wasn't our subject," commented one of the filmmakers.

Subjectivity as a narrative medium

In fact, many of the young people in the audience had more understanding for this subjective standpoint than the older people present. "I could put myself in their shoes and discovered a lot of parallels to Christianity," one teenager said. Another girl felt prompted to take a deeper look at her grandfather's Muslim belief. "There was so much I didn't know that they explained in the film."

Medienprojekt Wuppertal is convinced that "Besuch beim Propheten" can play an important part in intercultural and interfaith dialogue, especially through the young people's authentic and very subjective narrative style. "Young people don't make balanced journalism, they talk about themselves and their feelings. And that's precisely what appeals to other young people."

The team hopes to promote constructive cultural dialogue with the film, which was certainly not produced for the archive. The documentary is now available as an educational aid for schools and youth projects across Germany.

Ariana Mirza

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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