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#RumiWasntWhite: Outrage over Hollywood Choice to Play Persian Poet

  • Cecily Hilleary

Rumi meeting Shams-i Tabrizi for the First Time [Persian Manuscript]

Rumi meeting Shams-i Tabrizi for the First Time [Persian Manuscript]

It was only four months ago that the U.S. film industry was slammed for snubbing actors of color by casting white actors to play the part of Asians, Hispanics, or Native Americans, and ignoring great performances by minorities when the nominees for this year's Oscars were announced. But Hollywood, say critics across the Middle East, doesn't appear to have gotten the message.

Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown are working on a film about Jalaluddin al-Rumi, the 13th Century theologian, poet and mystic beloved to Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Jews across the globe.

The filmmakers say one of their motives in making the film is to challenge stereotypes about Muslims. But the actors they have in mind to play the leading roles are Leonardo di Caprio as Rumi—or Maulana, as he is known in Iran and Afghanistan—and Robert Downey Jr. as Shams-i-Tabrizi, Rumi's close friend and spiritual mentor.

That revelation sparked outrage across the world, especially in Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, where Rumi is revered as a national hero, and folks vented their frustration on Twitter using the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite.

Writing in gal-dem, an online magazine that speaks for women of color, Paniz Khosroshahy challenged the producer to explain why he favors casting the two white men in the film.

"Los Angeles is the capital of the Iranian diaspora. So how come, Mr. Brown, there are always enough South Asian and Middle Eastern men to cast as the savage Persians in 300, but somehow only Jake Gyllenhaal available to act in Prince of Persia?"

At least three online petitions have been launched, asking Hollywood to cast actors more appropriate for the roles of Rumi and Shams. Names that have been suggested include the Canadian American American star Donnie Keshawarz, of Afghan descent (below left), or Iranian American actor Shaun Toub (below right).

Go into any Afghan home and you are likely to see a copy of Rumi's Masnavi on a shelf, said Crystal Keshawaz, co-founder of Afghan Women in the Diaspora.

"We as children are taught his poetry from a young age, and it becomes part of the core of who we are as adults," she said. "We finally have the opportunity to share our true cultural history with the world through the lens of Maulana's [Rumi's] life story, and they want to give the role to a man who has no dearth of roles available to him."

But not everyone is outraged, pointing out that Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan and spent most of his life in Turkey, was not a "person of color." They launched a counter-hashtag on Twitter, #RumiWasWhite.

​Still others believe the issue of skin color should be irrelevant.

No final announcements about casting have yet been made, and sources quote DiCaprio as saying he's not interested in the role.

The actor Donnie Keshawarz, who has played a wide variety of television and film roles, weighed in on the debate.

"The fact that an actor not of Middle-Eastern heritage wants to play Rumi doesn't necessarily affront me as an actor," he said via email.

What would bother him more, he said, would be to see an actor do it badly.

"Since Hollywood seeks to tell stories of the human experience, then I think it should take delicate care to tell the stories in a way that honors the diversity & complexities of said human experience in as truthful way as possible," he said.

Would he consider the part?

"I would be honored to be considered to play Rumi—or any role of such importance and scope, and am humbled that my name would even figure in."

As for Rumi, if he were asked about the controversy today, his answer might well be:

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