JACKI LYDEN, host:
"The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" was once one of the most-read collections of poetry in the United States. Khayyam was an 11th-century Persian poet. Mark Twain and Ezra Pound spoke of his brilliance. There were clubs devoted to studying his four-line poems. Maybe this one will ring a bell: `Here, with a loaf of bread beneath the bow, a flask of wine, a book of verse and thou,' it ends, `beside me singing in the wilderness and now wilderness is paradise.' Sometime after the 1950s, Khayyam became popular mostly with college students.
Now he's making a return as the subject of a lush epic film and a new scholarly book. The film is called "The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam." It was made by an Iranian-American lawyer, Kayvan Mashayekh, who left behind that career to tell this story. He spent seven years making the movie in five cities on three continents. He even convinced Vanessa Redgrave to appear in it.
Mr. KAYVAN MASHAYEKH ("The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam"): Hi, Jacki. Thank you very much for asking me to come today.
LYDEN: And welcome to you, Mehdi Aminrazavi, who's the author of "The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam."
Mr. MEHDI AMINRAZAVI (Author, "The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam"): Thank you.
LYDEN: What are the range of themes that Omar Khayyam treats in the Rubaiyat?
Mr. AMINRAZAVI: First and foremost is the question of temporality: `This, too, shall pass'; `To exist is to suffer'; `Human existence is steeped in suffering and evil,' a message of carpe diem.
LYDEN: I was just thinking that, but I thought, `Shall I say that?'
Mr. AMINRAZAVI: Exactly.
LYDEN: Or does that sound like a cliche?
Mr. AMINRAZAVI: Exactly. And, of course, there's the imagery of wine and women and lovemaking and so on and so forth. If you read the lines and not between the lines, on the surface here is a drunken poet who is very much a hedonist, and that's all there is to it. But that was precisely what interested me, namely this serious scholar who was called by some of his contemporaries the greatest scholar of Aristotle during his life, was far more serious than that.
LYDEN: Kayvan, you were a criminal defense attorney in Houston. This is kind of a career departure. Why this subject? Why a film?
Mr. MASHAYEKH: This particular film was important to me because of the way my father raised me, and that was to pay homage to my cultural roots and my ancestry. And my...
LYDEN: You're Iranian-born.
Mr. MASHAYEKH: Yes--because I was born and raised in Iran. I came to the United States when I was 11 years old during the Iranian revolution. And at the time that I came here, you know, I was facing a tremendous amount of hatred. And I completely abandoned everything that was Iranian about my past, and my father used to say that, `I'll pay you a dollar for every single page of Farsi that you read in front of me.' And I wouldn't do it. I mean, as I was growing up, he saw that, you know, there was this discoloration, this fading happening in his--within his own family. You know, when he died of brain cancer 11 years ago, I decided to, you know, go and pursue a film that had a lot to do with what my heart told me to do and what he would be really proud of.
LYDEN: So you have a parallel story line working here in this film. You have a 12-year-old Iranian-American boy, who's about to lose a family member who's telling him the story of Omar Khayyam. And he wants very badly to go back to Iran after his brother dies, so that he can be the new keeper. You finish the story. And then the parallel is the young life and then the adulthood of Omar Khayyam, who, of course, becomes the great astronomer and mathematician and eventually the poet. But it's an awesome undertaking for a first-time filmmaker. Let's just listen to a clip.
(Soundbite of "The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam")
Unidentified Boy: I don't really understand poetry.
Unidentified Woman: Omar's poetry expressed a very deep belief. One day your life will end, and all that will remain are the moments when you've lived your life to the fullest. And if you're lucky, those moments live on in the lives of the people you have touched. My grandfather used to read these poems to me: `The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on. And all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.'
LYDEN: This is a luscious film to look at. This is an epic. You do have a cast and crew of 300. You shot it in how many days?
Mr. MASHAYEKH: We shot the film in five cities, three continents in 37 days.
LYDEN: You should have a T-shirt made like that.
Mr. MASHAYEKH: Well, you know, it's amazing. I've said that word so many times because, to this day, I still can't even believe the fact that we were--it was a miracle of God that it was completed.
LYDEN: You have romanticized the epic--the real life of Omar Khayyam.
Mehdi Aminrazavi, how well-documented is Khayyam's life?
Mr. AMINRAZAVI: Well, that's a good question. Certain parts of his life are well-documented. We do know that he wrote 13 short treatises in mathematics, algebra and philosophy. His personal life is less documented. We do not know anything about his wife, children. We know something about his travelings: Turay(ph), Isfahan. But he was--his lived a semihermetic life. He was an aloof man and part of it, I think, because he was either concerned that he might be branded as a heretic or that he, as he says in some of his quatrains, had very little patience for dogmatic and sort of orthodox mind-set. And it is interesting to see that Omar Khayyam himself was actually trying to defend a certain interpretation of Islam.
He was a practicing Muslim. He was a tolerant man. He was a voice of reason. He defended rationalism. He was an Aristotelian. And he lived at a time when the Taliban of the Islamic world in general, Persia in particular, had taken over. And the first two, three centuries of free thinking was coming to an end, and Omar Khayyam was angry. As the defender and a keeper of the authentic Islamic intellectual tradition, he began to write the Rubaiyat as a way of deconstructing the orthodox mind-set in a sarcastic way.
LYDEN: The film does deal with the question of Turkish Muslims coming in to invade the territory that today we would call Iran. What is--are you trying to say something about Islam here, Kayvan?
Mr. MASHAYEKH: Well, I think one of the subplots of the film--I may need to underline that, subplots to the film--is how this child is interpreting religion as it's being relayed to him. He's putting everything in the historical time frame of what Khayyam was facing at the time. So I wasn't necessarily trying to comment on Islam, you know, in such a direct manner. I was just using it as a side issue; the fact that--you know, there's a scene, of course, in the film I'm sure you're referring to when he's being challenged on whether or not he's really a Muslim. And...
LYDEN: And what is the true meaning of the word `jihad'?
Mr. MASHAYEKH: Exactly. And then, `The greatest struggle in life that you'll ever face is the struggle you have with yourself,' which is a quote from the prophet Muhammad. And in the movie, it says, you know, `The most excellent jihad is that of the conquest of self.'
Mr. AMINRAZAVI: He was actually questioned with regard to his faith. He was accused of being a heretic, and he actually had to go to Mecca and perform his pilgrimage just to show that he was really a serious Muslim.
LYDEN: So in many ways he is a figure as relevant today as he ever would have been in any previous century.
Mr. MASHAYEKH: Completely, absolutely. And that was why the--cinematically I chose him as a subject to make a film about. And I'm not the first filmmaker who's done a film on Omar Khayyam; I'm actually the fourth. The first two were done in the '20s, and the last one was done in 1957 by Paramount Studios. And then what I found relevant to him in the 21st century is how his message is still alive and well and powerful. And, you know, men of--men who could balance reason and faith at that time period are still, you know, extremely important and relevant today. So...
LYDEN: Yes. Well, we still might like to find people who can balance reason and faith all over the world. Well, Mehdi Aminrazavi, author of "The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam," and Kayvan Mashayekh, writer and director of the new feature film "The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam," thank you, gentlemen, both very much for being with us.
Mr. AMINRAZAVI: Thank you.
Mr. MASHAYEKH: Thank you very much for having us over.
LYDEN: The film "The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam" opened this weekend in New York City, and it travels soon to Chicago and Atlanta.
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