A life less ordinary

Why modern film-makers should not be afraid of tackling Islam

When I was growing up, watching The Message was the Eid festival equivalent of watching It's a Wonderful Life at Christmas. An epic detailing the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the rise of Islam, it was shot twice -- once in English with western actors and once in Arabic with a pan-Arab cast. The Prophet was never represented on screen, but his disciples, enemies and followers were. The power of the film, as far as I was concerned, never really resided in its religious significance but lay in the storytelling and characterisation.

Barrie Osborne, one of the producers of The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, is reportedly planning a biopic of the Prophet's life. This is to coincide with a remake of The Message by Oscar Zoghbi. What is to be gained from this surfeit of coverage of the Prophet's life? Shahed Amanullah, writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free website, believes that the world, steeped as it is in prejudice and negative attitudes towards Islam, is not ready for all of this. He also suggests that observing the Islamic prohibition against portraying the Prophet (which Osborne et al will reportedly respect) renders "a serious biopic with this subject matter nearly impossible" in this day and age.

I would imagine that the opposite is true, as developments in cinematic production since the 1970s would allow much more scope to be creative. Moreover, it will facilitate a focus on the actual message and values of Islam as espoused by the Prophet, minimising the risk of stereotyping or caricaturing him. This was done before and it worked; there is no need to be gratuitously offensive just to "push boundaries". Controversy is no proxy for talent. Aversion to the idea stems partly from obvious accusations of self-censorship, informed by reaction to the Danish cartoons.

In one of the most powerful scenes from The Message, the Prophet destroys the idols within the Kaaba. Shot from his point of view, even using quite basic production facilities, the image of the Prophet's staff smashing the idols and then emerging into the sunlight could not have had more impact if he had been shown. The tone of deference did not ever ascend into reverence, as the film retained a gritty, sand-swept, sun-scorched ambience but did not go out of its way to be iconoclastic. The story was merely told, not proselytised. In this way, it managed to bridge a cultural divide, earn an Oscar nomination and eventually win over audiences in the Muslim world, especially in Arab countries.

I have more faith in both the viewing public and the resourcefulness of film-makers. There is so much more to the Prophet's life and story than Aisha's age at marriage (a hackneyed and pivotal part of efforts at character assassination). Besides, this is a point of detail that not even Muslim historians are in agreement about.

Muhammad's tale and the birth of Islam are part of universal human history, and Muslims should not be covetous or culturally territorial. This only plays into the hands of those who have made a priori judgements about Islam, and deprives us of enjoying and retelling what is, above all else, a gripping story.

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer who lives in London

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.