Secrets and Highs, or the Beatification of the False Wali

16/7/2014 | postmuslim

Even as it ages, a corpse shows no sign of decay. People start having visions of the dead man. He gives them advice in their dreams. When miracles begin to occur through his apparent intercession, he is declared a wali or vassal (of God). A shrine is built over his grave, and those who tend to it command kudos among his devotees…

It would be wrong to reduce the multifarious phenomena of Sufism to such a story. But in the Egyptian popular imagination, at least, that story remains the quintessential narrative of Sufism.

Sufi doctrine is impossible to sum up with any clarity anyway. Claimants range from the ninth-century Malamatiyya of Khorassan to “the Proof of Islam” Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). The first group actively sought ill repute by flaunting sinfulness and making themselves worthy of malamah (or blame), the better to reject piety, which they saw as a worldly value and a factor in distance from God. The second is arguably the central figure in Sunni orthodoxy.

So the beatification of the wali is as good a way as any to set the dervish apart from the ordinary believer: the gnostic secrets he has access to (sometimes enabling him to perform miracles), the higher states of consciousness he experiences as a result of those secrets, his sheer unmediated joy (making him willing to give up all worldly powers and possessions), and his often strained relations with the Umma’s sober patriarchs.

In the television series Al-Saba’ Wassaya (or “The Seven Commandments”) — written by Mohamed Amin Radi, directed by Khaled Marie and currently showing on any number of channels including CBC and Al-Qahira wal-Nass — what drives the story is the persistent presence of a dead man whose corpse, rather than resisting decomposition, has disappeared.

Chants of praise and ceremonies of remembrance (inshad and dhikr, respectively) may be better recognized as specifically Sufi — and there is no shortage of such music in Hesham Nazih’s brilliant soundtrack, with the opening titles featuring verses by “the Greatest Sheikh” Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) newly set to music. But even these rituals can be seen as part of the wali’s life cycle.

After all Sufi rituals are in their origin a way for the community of seekers to honor the memory of their spiritual guide, presumably finding God by following the devotional recipe he set down for them in his lifetime: the Mawlawiyyah whirl in honor of the moment Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) broke into spontaneous dance; the Khalwatiyyah take up khilwah or voluntary (solitary) confinement to follow the example of Muhammad Karimuddin (d. 1578); etc.. But what if the guide in question wasn’t actually a good man?

There is no canonisation in Islam, and the most orthodox strains of the faith, while venerating the Prophet Mohamed, his family and Companions as well as prophets and messengers before him, prohibit sanctification. In the mystical and popular traditions, how someone becomes beatified and hence a recognised wali remains a subjective question.

On the other hand dervishes call themselves knowers of God because they seek to experience the divine directly rather than simply following sacred law, and the lengths they go to to achieve this, no less than its effects on their character, have sometimes cast them in the same role as madmen and wrongdoers.

The discourse frequently focuses on either love (union with the object of desire standing in for becoming one with eternal spirit) or wine (whose impact is a reflection of the ecstasy produced by contact with Allah). In one line frequently translated from the Farsi, Rumi tells his companion, “I am drunk and you are crazy, who now will take us home?”

Another, Arabic verse, sung to a traditional tune in the course of the series itself, is by the modern Algerian sheikh Ahmed Al-Alawi Al-Mustaghanmi (1874-1933): “To the point when those who do not belong with us thought we’d gone mad invoking God.”

Intentionally or not, “The Seven Commandments” forces you to think about iniquity and insanity in the context of the sacred mysteries. Had it respected that context instead of diluting and trying to explain what supernatural elements it contains, the drama might have achieved something remarkable. As it is the script crams too many implausible story lines, flat characters with set motives, and increasingly mindless suspense into what ends up being more an unconvincing Sufi-flavored whodunit than the far-fetched and hence thrilling beatification of the wrong man.

Still, by subverting and playing with the role of the wali and his supposedly God-fearing realm, “The Seven Commandments” does suggest the possibility of a Sufi realism, i.e. a contemporary style of narrative that takes one or more Sufi tropes and the attendant fantastical elements as its reference point.

Such a style of narrative applied to contemporary life — showing shrine keepers for the greedy charlatans that they are, for example — would all but refute orthodoxy-governed Sufism (and, by extension, religion as a whole). But it might also suggest a modern-day Malamati reading of the Way as the doctrine of mindful worldliness, a mode of being that embraces immorality and corruption the better to transcend the fake dualities that veil human beings from the ultimate reality of Oneness. Under the circumstances, that would be a credible enough reading, surely…

Awareness of such potential could have made for a significant improvement on Niran Sadiqa (or “Friendly Fire”), the Radi-Marie duo’s acclaimed debut, screened last Ramadan: a similarly congested thriller that, instead of Sufism among the poor and all over the country, dabbles in magic and murder through the lives of rich and powerful Cairo dwellers, using a much longer time frame.

In both works the two young artists are able to juggle parallel and intersecting narrative lines, withholding and letting go of tantalizing clues as they surge through the horror and laughter of contemporary life. They certainly know how to tempt the viewer into a labyrinth of forking paths. What they evidently don’t know is how to sensibly lead them out of that labyrinth — where to stop.

That suspense presupposes a coherent and compelling storyline, something meaningful enough to work even if no suspense were there, is a lesson lost on their narrative exhibitionism.

A storyteller may be good at evoking atmosphere and building momentum, and they may benefit from excellent acting performances and the comic potential of any dangerous situation as well. But without a good story to tell the tension will boomerang and, instead of immersion and interest, what they’ll end up inducing in the viewer is irritation and a sense of having been cheated.

Insofar as it happens with “The Seven Commandments” this is particularly annoying because, as potentially ground-breaking Sufi realism, the series starts out powerfully enough. It starts with the patriarch dying, a wicked man. He has been in a coma for a long time when his eldest daughter Poussy (Rania Youssef), who has remained unmarried to take care of him, finds out that despite the life of destitution and want he has imposed on her and her siblings he actually has LE28 million to his name, a sum to which they are now heirs.

Poussy gathers the family and announces her intention to take her father’s life by removing his drip feed. How that is supposed to instantly kill someone is one of very many errors of verisimilitude, but this is hardly the point.

Once he dies, Sayed Nefissa (Ahmad Fouad Selim) — pimp, thief, hooligan, and very cruel father — inexplicably disappears, only to reappear intermittently as a ghost to his now terrified murderers — and later, throughout the show, to guide them in their dreams.

There are three brothers: Sabri (Mohamed Shahine), Mahmoud (Sabri Fawwaz), and Munsif (Haitham Ahmad Zaki); there are also three sisters: Hind (Aiten Amer), Marmar (Nahed Al-Sebai), and Imim (Hana Shiha). There are the spouses some of them have had and the people who, in their new lives, they will come in contact with. Too many characters to manage even without a very complex plot: they are clearly differentiated, of course, but they have neither individuality nor subtlety.

Pooling efforts while still in shock, the Nefissa children eventually manage to replace the missing body, but the dead man they purchase from the morgue (after first bringing home a dead woman that they have to return) turns out to have died of poisoning. The doctor who arrives to register the corpse informs the police and Poussy is arrested and jailed for killing her father anyway.

The others each flee to a different part of the country, and on that night they are each seen at the town’s local shrine, alone, requesting the relevant wali’s intercession to help them as they embark incognito on brand-new lives.

By the ninth episode, with help from a fellow inmate, the failed movie star Samah Kamel or Oussa (beautifully played by Sawsan Badr), Poussy has managed to overcome the persecution she is subject to for refusing to be the most powerful inmate’s lesbian lover by becoming known as the daughter of Sheikh Sayed Nefissa, a saintly man whose intercession can bring down her enemies.

This, Oussa and Poussy achieve by consciously tricking the inmates into believing in Sayed Nefissa’s powers. But meanwhile, by conferring with her father in dreams, Poussy truly finds out about the seven commandments that make up her father’s will, left in a sealed envelope for each of his children in an ornate box back at the house. Once each has carried out their commandment, Nefissa tells her in her sleep, the corpse will reappear — and the children can finally enjoy their inheritance.

Sixteen episodes into the story, the content of these commandments is as yet still hidden, and having seen how silly the excruciatingly delayed answers to other riddles have been, I for one am no longer curious about what shallow little puzzles they must contain.

Determined to benefit from the same racket outside as she did inside, on her release Oussa takes up residence in the family house with Poussy’s approval, building a shrine within the apartment for Sheikh Sayed and holding dhikr ceremonies around it. In this connection the action seems to be building up to a moulid or saint’s anniversary.

Thus the beatification of the false wali — but is he?

By the 14th episode Poussy has escaped from prison, joined Oussa, and adopted the infant son that Mahmoud abandoned at hospital during his brief visit from Assyout, having killed his wife for catching her cheating on him. Poussy is already finding her brothers and sisters — a process no more plausible than anything else so far — and handing them the commandments that are theirs, desperately thinking of ways to persuade or force them to carry them out as planned by Nefissa.

It feels besides the point to demonstrate how completely unconvincing each of the other six subplots is, or how ludicrously they are now being conjoined. It is hard to understand the progress of the action at any beyond the most superficial level because the characters, even as they act out their melodramatic passions — covering up and uncovering endless deceptions and dodges — seem suspended on a two-dimensional plane.

As in “Friendly Fire”, their lust for money takes up what would still be a disproportionately large space in the motivation of even the most mercenary gold digging character.

Sex comes in a close second, with no attempt whatsoever at unpacking desire or showing how amorous entanglements develop rather than simply stating that they have. All of which echoes much Egyptian drama of the past: predictable motives, insufficiently researched settings, arbitrary laughter, and cheap thrills for their own sake.

In this regard the main innovation is exotic color, from pet monkeys to djinn, an ex-husband buried alive in an Alexandria apartment, atypically licentious family feuds in Upper Egypt, sperm-soaked woolen rags sold to barren women (also in Upper Egypt), even a miracle aphrodisiac that turns out to cause (or not cause) death.

Any one of the plot lines in question, plausibly developed and free of the cliches of the culture, would have made for a more powerful treatment of some resonant aspect of the Sufi conundrum. It might not have been quite as suspenseful in the unfolding, of course, but it would have satisfied far more deeply, and what suspense remained would have had solid ground to stand on.

Nor would “The Seven Commandments” have to worry about being lifelike if it didn’t present itself as so action-packed realistic. Only in a world where LE28 million didn’t really matter all that much could a pious, uneducated mosque cleaner end up marrying all four ring leaders of the prostitution cartel in Suez, operating effectively as their pimp while clearly retaining his faith. Sabri’s initial efforts to ruin his retired-prostitute wife’s business do not make the viewer any less incredulous, either.

Fantasy would work as fantasy even in a vaguely realistic setting. It does not work at all as a substitute for the real-life drama that is supposed to nurture and make believable a wholly supernatural premise.

I’ll probably go on watching “The Seven Commandments”, but mainly out of respect for so many of the actors managing to hold up their characters against the odds — and the odds are not in the faults of the narrative alone but equally in character development — how Hind transforms from a demure and law-abiding schoolteacher in hijab to the bare-headed, catty purveyor of illicit stimulants, for example — which is likewise subordinated to the overriding compulsion to make viewers pant as they ask,“What happens next?”

The fact that Radi and Marie live up to their reputation of producing a new kind of fast-paced and visually true-to-life drama shouldn’t matter considering that they did it once before — and with fewer obvious faults. They are simply the first to apply the principle of narrative parsimony in Egyptian television.

What matters are the interesting, unanswerable, undeveloped questions. What does it take for a wicked man to become a saint? Does Sayed Nefissa’s beatification depend on supernatural powers (perhaps gained, as it is occasionally suggested, through connections with the djinn) or on the gullibility of the faithful? Or is Sayed Nefissa actually a saint intent on spiritually educating his seven children, whose mystery is veiled from ordinary people including those self-same, unwitting acolytes by the mere appearance of evil?

Religiosity is of course no longer very Sufi in Egypt — something the series hardly touches on at all, even though it does mention “the revolution” — but, even with the sensuous and mental appeal of Sufism, what does religion have to say to morality, to human relations, to self definition, to the material conditions of existence?

I’ll probably go on watching “The Seven Commandments”, as I’ve said. But I’m no longer expecting it to take me any further on the path of exploring those questions. I will enjoy the acting if I can ignore the peremptory suspense, even as I know how Nazih’s contemporary take on Sufi music must leave me, all things considered: high and dry.

Al-Ahram Weekly