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We Are All Wanderers in the Desert: Nacer Khemir’s Desert Trilogy

“I have three favorite things in the universe – perfume, women, and prayer.”

Have you ever had a dream that moved you and schooled you and exalted you, where you understood how it felt but not what it meant? Nacer Khemir’s Desert Trilogy films (Wanderers of the Desert, 1984; The Dove’s Lost Necklace, 1990; and Bab’Aziz, 2005) are like those dreams – full of images and metaphors and the kind of beauty that hurts, leaving echoes of barely understood pictures that linger long after the credits roll.

Always exploring the relationship between human and divine, particularly as reflecting the meaning of life, Tunisian-born Khemir’s beautiful, exquisite films take us to imaginary realms where the riddles of fate, love, and time take visual form.  The first in the trilogy, Wanderers of the Desert, takes place in a village which some people say doesn’t even exist.  A schoolteacher is assigned to teach in a tiny hamlet that has no school.  This acts as a metaphor for vanishing ways of life, particularly Islamic, and the clash between modernity’s so-called progress versus ancient customs and life ways.  It stands for the individual’s quest for meaning, purpose, and relevance.  Wanderers asks on both a personal and collective level, what if you find that you’re not needed and nothing is as it seems?  The would-be teacher arrives in town only to find that all his knowledge is useless in that place.  This raises the validity of imposing knowledge from elsewhere on a place that has no use for it.

Half this town’s population has joined the Wanderers: people who have gone off to find – something.  Instead of finding, they have doomed themselves to walking very purposefully to nowhere.  They disappear and reappear from the dust, like a mirage.  Like ghosts.  Meanwhile in the nearly emptied village, one man digs for legendary treasure he will never find.  One day, he, too, gets cursed by the wanderlust, and goes off to join the others, endlessly seeking.

In the village, there is an image of a Buraq; those who see it get caught and go off into the desert seeking the road to heaven.  Al Buraq was the feminine angelic being who carried the prophet Muhammed on her back when he visited Heaven on his night journey.  This makes sense when you understand that the Buraq is a symbol for the spiritual quest – and for things that might not exist.  Often depicted as a small, winged, white, horse- or donkey- like creature, she will also carry the select on Judgment Day.  Though she is not described as having a human face, centuries of Persian art have depicted her that way, and that image has become solidified.

She, in this movie, symbolizes the unattainable: the illusion of greener grass elsewhere, the better life in another country, and the heaven-on-earth modern progress promised but didn’t deliver.  This also works as a stand-in for the thousands of guest workers who have left home: young people who have left their poor, Muslim homelands for better prospects in faraway places.  Often they find themselves marginalized and working for low wages in dead end jobs.  The Buraq, in addition to her religious symbolism, shows the dangers of always seeking a better way, a better life, and the empty allure of greener grass somewhere beyond the horizon.  Fleeing for a better economic life leaves one restless, rootless, aimless, and wandering in the low visibility of dust.  Khemir’s view is that maybe the money is better, but history, tradition, and possibly one’s entire civilization is obliterated.

Instead of even trying to teach his useless store of knowledge, the teacher dreams away his days, captured by the beauty of the daughter of the house where he is lodging.  Meanwhile, with the assistance and encouragement of a djinn (genie) who lives in one of the wells, the village children try to create a garden without ever having seen one.  In the Islamic religion, a garden is a metaphor/substitution/depiction/microcosm of heaven.  Heaven is envisioned as a place of edenic lushness.  The children in this dry, dying place take literally the djinn’s exhortation to make a garden in the image of the sky.  They steal every mirror they can find, which they break into pieces.  They lay these out in a mandala formation on the dry sand to reflect the sky.  It is a beautiful and sad image: the unknowing using what’s at hand to create an image of what they’ve never seen.  They are trying to create a paradise out of dust and sand and broken glass.

One of the town’s elders, El Hajj (El Hajj is a term of respect indicating that a person has made the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims) entrusts a book to the teacher.  If the teacher can deliver the book to the Wanderers, who only come to town when the villagers are away, the Wanderers will come home.  Everyone wants to find a way to bring back the lost, and maybe this sacred book, a book of life, will show them the way.  Instead, the teacher (played by Khemir himself) opens the book, is captured by it, and disappears into the desert too.

Then the modern world intrudes in the form of the ridiculous, pig-eyed, bullying bureaucrat who was sent to investigate the teacher’s disappearance.  He seems to think the book of life was written by Agatha Christie, and looks for clues to this “crime” everywhere.  He insists on imposing facts and sequence on things that will remain a mystery forever.  He derisively asks the local sheik, “What century are you from?” before he, too, vanishes into the desert.

As you can see, the film is layered in symbolism and the tension between reality and illusion.  One of the characters states, “In the end, no matter what road we are on, or even if we follow no road, we are all wanderers in the desert.”  Eventually even the djinn rides away into the sands, never to be seen again.  All things pass.  In this way, Khemir comments on the state of orphanhood, both personal and collective, and the death throes of a society facing anthropological oblivion.

That interpenetration of reality and illusion permeates all three films in the trilogy.  Your reaction to the series will likely depend on your tolerance for uncertainty.  Wanderers is the most opaque of the trilogy, and it took the longest for me to understand it.  It also stayed with me, haunting me longer than the other two films.  If you think life has purpose and meaning and that they can be discovered, and everything must be neat, tidy, and definite, then these films won’t work for you.  If, however, you are willing to float, then the sheer beauty of these movies can transport you to another space, another place, and another state of mind.

Wanderers, which was all about seeking, was primarily shot outdoors.  The buildings are just husks, little more than doorframes and a few walls.  The desert, in all of its colors, is the star of the show.  The Dove’s Lost Necklace, the second of the three films, is about the search for love, and takes place in interiors.  This is no accident.

Taken both literally and metaphorically, the Middle East/North Africa has a different view of gardens from the West.  In the West, the garden is on the outside, and surrounds the house.  It is a place, outside the self, where you go.  In Arabic cultures, the garden is hidden inside, enclosed by walls, interior.  As the garden is located, so too is heaven.  This further gives rise to the dichotomy between a place for the meditation and contemplation of nature, versus the domination of nature.  They see the garden as a little piece of Heaven with a capital H, not a place as subject to one’s will, for example, by creating the perfect expanse of uniformly green lawn.

The way the beautiful rooms in Necklace are filmed! The colors! The hues in the garments!  This film is so beautiful you could watch it over and over again just for the pictures.  All of Khemir’s films demonstrate his virtuoso use of color.  Set in Medieval Spain, Necklace looks like one of the tales of the 1001 Nights come to life.  Though calligraphy is still the most important specifically Islamic art, Necklace takes place at a time when writing was still considered magical, not mundane, and calligraphy formed a link between the visible and invisible worlds.  It is a fairy tale steeped in mysticism.

Hasan is a student of calligraphy in 11th Century Andalucía.  He wants to know love, and being a dreamy, inexperienced young man, he thinks the nature of love can be discovered from a book.  The title of the film derives from “The Dove’s Necklace”, also known as “The Ring of the Dove”, a famous work of Islamic literature that explores all the facets of love.  Hasan thinks if he can find and write all the different words for love, he will understand it.  He comes across a fragment of a page from a book of poems, and becomes obsessed with finding the rest.

The film starts out whimsical and fairy-tale like, but soon turns darker, like the poem fragment and song that recur throughout the movie: “The beginning of love is light, but its ending is hard.”  This is the saddest story in the trilogy.  The end of everything is hard, and the story is as much about death, the death of love, and the death of dreams as it is about love.  Love and death walk hand in hand.

There is a kind of love that leads you astray.  Love can be a sickness that leads only to loss, like the sickness camels gets called hiam, which makes them unable to follow the road.

All three of the Desert Trilogy films have an adult protagonist and a child protagonist.  It gives you the sense that Khemir still feels in some ways like a child, unknowing but eager to learn.  It also gives him a device whereby the audience sees the film through childhood eyes, as well as adult eyes.  The children in Wanderers and Necklace are street-smart, while the child in Bab’Aziz is innocent.  In Wanderers, the child protagonist Hussein lies down on his grandmother’s grave at the end of the film, waiting for her to wake him up someday.  The child in Necklace, Zin, becomes a victim of Hasan’s obsessive quest for the book holding (he thinks) the secrets of love.  The child in Bab’Aziz carries on her grandfather’s quest after he dies.

Hasan eventually meets the Princess of Samarkand, whose story is partially told on the fragment of poetry he found.  He also meets her alter ego, Prince Aziz.  The fulfillment of his journey teaches him that while love is the universe’s greatest prayer, love’s ending is truly hard.

Everything has an end: hope, time, childhood, fairy tales, and golden ages.  The dream-like atmosphere that suffuses the film clashes jarringly with harsh reality.  Dreams must come to an end.

In addition to his magnificent use of color, Khemir uses animals to add layers of meaning to his films.  The Buraq, the mythical creature of Wanderers, is presented by way of a wall hanging whose image tempts the wanderers out into the desert.  Her presence is also hinted at in the donkeys and horses which carry some of the lost away to their doom.  In Necklace, Hasan’s calligraphy master conducts a long distance chess match by way of carrier pigeons, which are in the dove family.  Like calligraphy, the doves are carriers of words.  Doves are symbols of love, as well as peace and spirituality.  Birds generally are symbols of spirit, spiritual flight, and the soul.  In Bab’Aziz, a gazelle, long a symbol of sublime female beauty and femininity stands in, like the Buraq, for access to the Divine through the feminine path of feeling, intuition, and grace.

Near the beginning of Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul, the prince of the title sees a gazelle in the desert.  He looks at her and she at him, and they have the same eyes.  It is a beautiful moment in a film about the quest for the absolute and the infinite.

Filmmaker Khemir belongs to the Sufi branch of Islam, the most mystical arm of that religion.  Sufism is best known in the West through Coleman Barks’ translations of the poems of Rumi.  As an expression of Khemir’s intimate, passionate love affair with the Divine, Bab’Aziz is the most fully realized film in the Desert Trilogy.  It is his love letter to God.  It is beautiful, and it is terribly sad.

An old man travels with his very young granddaughter to a once-a-generation gathering of Sufi dervishes in the desert.  Layered within that simple tale are other stories, like that of a young man who is trying to break free from his late father’s profession.  He falls into a well, and finds himself in a palace of dreams.  He later crawls back up out of a different well and back into reality.  A young singer tries to find his lost love, who has disguised herself as a man in order to find her father.  Whether that father is the paternal one or the Paternal One or both is never made clear.  Identical twins separate to find very different fates.  A red-haired dervish occupies all of the tales.

Bab’Aziz is constituted almost entirely of metaphor.  While it seems unlikely that such a film could succeed creatively, it does.  The gorgeous cinematography and soundtrack by Armand Amar layer tone and chroma on top of Khemir’s beautiful ideas about fate, the purpose of life, and our relationship to the divine.  The film is visually so stunning, as are all three in the trilogy, that in the words of the grandfather, Bab’Aziz, it is enough to just walk.  That may not seem like enough support to hold up a movie, but like the lacy patterns in the structure of the Alhambra and the Mosque of Cordoba, the appearance belies the sturdiness of what is there.

The films won many awards overseas, but are not well known in this country.  I wonder if they are just too beautiful for a North American audience.  People in the Arabic-speaking world have a different view of beauty than Westerners.  Here, beauty is supposed to sell something.  Beauty for beauty’s sake is suspect.  Especially in the highest levels of the arts, making work that is beautiful is the fast track to the land of artistic oblivion, where lightweights dwell forever.  Deliberately making work that is beautiful means you have no talent and nothing to say.  In the West, outrageous, over the top, heart rending beauty is officially Out of Fashion.

Beauty in the Islamic world has a value all its own.  It is a duty to see and appreciate and create beauty, as part of one’s connection to God.  In the Hadith, the collection of commentaries and treatises on the Koran, it says that God is beautiful and loves beauty.  In the more puritanically-influenced West, beauty does not coincide with religion.  Perhaps it still bears a slight reek of the devil and temptation in Christian-influenced lands.  In Moslem cosmology, beauty is an attribute of Paradise, and is therefore always associated with it.  While beauty may not be heaven itself, it’s only a little lower and off to the side, and is worth attaining for its own sake.

I think the beauty of Khemir’s films may actually make people uncomfortable.  Particularly since film, media, and art in the West is so sexualized, the sensuality of the films is unfamiliar.  The films are pretty chaste, but the colors, fabrics, sands which so often move and ripple like skin belong to a category of imagery for which people just don’t have a pigeon-hole.  Since it is not sexual, they don’t know how to relate to it.

Film audiences in the U.S. have a low tolerance for ambiguity.  It is the nature of our society that people like things to be literal and concrete, and want things spelled out for them.  They get bored without the stimulation of constant action.  This makes for great action movies, and that’s one of the most well-developed and popular genres in the U.S.  Khemir’s films have a walking pace.  That is entirely appropriate to the exposition of these layered, dream-like, soulful films.

Another problem with acceptance in the West is the West’s suspicion of anything resembling poetry.  Poetry and opera are the arts most likely to send people fleeing from a room.  In the Middle East, however, poetry is an extremely important art form, in both Arabic and Persian cultures.  Ordinary people have a personal, passionate relationship with poetry at a level which we cannot imagine.  Just as you have a favorite band, someone from that area might have a favorite poet.  These films not only rely on poetry within them, but the films themselves are visual poems: odes to indistinct, metaphysical values beyond material reckoning.

These factors all slant against large viewership in the U.S., and that’s a shame.  Individually and as a whole, the trilogy is exquisite, a soul journey far out of ordinary existence.

Khemir tells us in Bab’Aziz that the atoms are dancing.  The poet Rumi urges us to always prepare for our wedding with the Beloved – our union with eternity.  It is enough just to walk, but dreams help us on the journey.  The Desert Trilogy is a dream worth having.

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Amy Anna was raised by wolves. She spends all her time eating and watching movies while lying on the couch . Her animal totem is the velociraptor.

  • Barbara Swanson

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  • Salwa Al-Khalifa

    great article it really deepened my understanding of the symbols in Nacer Khemir’s work. it’s worth mentioning that his work reminds me alot of the work of Sergei Parajanova specially the girl from Wanderers in the desert reminds me alot of poet’s lover in the colour of pomegranates