What Kind of Wine?

by Wassim al-Adel

Sadeq Saba’s recent documentary “The Genius of Omar Khayyam” was awkward to watch at times but was saved by a subject matter that is interesting because of its own virtues. Saba seemed more like an inexperienced rider unable to rein in a vigorous and lively stallion but thinking that its virtues somehow rub off on him. There is no doubting his genuine interest and enthusiasm for the subject, but one is left wondering half an hour into his documentary whether his overall aim was simply to glorify Persian cultural achievements at the expense of Iran’s Muslim identity.

In one scene, where he discusses Khayyam’s poetry with a publisher, the familiar face of Iran’s former Shah peers out seditously from the wall behind him. The parts of the documentary focusing on Omar Khayyam’s mathematical and astronomical works were absolutely fascinating, but again Saba seems bewildered and the topic simply flies past his head. Another reason he may not have found this as interesting is the murky dividing line between his clean cut “Persian” civilization and the Islamic/Persian/Arab cosmopolitanism that Khayyam actually lived within.

At another point, it is quite telling to see one of the experts he interviews lament the one dimensional view of Khayyam as he is portrayed popularly, as a lover of wine and women. Yet the irony is lost on Saba when he begins and ends his documentary sitting in a wine cellar with a tasting glass beside him. Saba’s Khayyam has been appropriated into a Green Revolution style narrative, where the big bad bogeyman of orthodox religious authority is being challenged by the plucky original thinker and his defiance through hedonism; that Khayyam is telling his readers not to worry about some afterlife but to live joyously in the present – wine glass in hand and fair maiden close by. What Saba does not comprehend, and this I suspect because he selectively reads Khayyam, is that the Rubaiyat are not just about scorning an afterlife for the present – in fact even scorn is a harsh word.

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