by John Sullivan
Prologue — A view of Elders
A first sketch of elders is to look at grandparents at their best. I see such grandparents having three tasks relative to the younger people: (1) To keep the little things little and the big things big, (2) to encourage creativity, and (3) to bless the young. Let’s look at each in turn.
Keep the little things little and the big things big
Grandparents can hold in mind what youth does not know: “This too shall pass.” Think of your first rejection, first betrayal, first suffering of injustice. You thought that the world was coming to an end.. But grandparents have a longer view. Though they cannot say so immediately, they know that life will continue and love will reappear. Additionally, by letting go of small and petty actions or incidents, the grandparents allow what is significant to appear.
Grandparents do this by encouraging youth not to be fearful, to take risks, to live their own lives, to follow their hearts. Aiding the young to let go of obstacles, the grandparents help the young rediscover their hearts’ desires.
Bless the young
Grandparents let each grandchild know that she or he is unique in all the world, of inestimable worth, most lovable, and beautiful beyond measure. Thus, the young are released from social or cultural definitions that are too small to live in. Young people often see such vital elders as allies, if not co-conspirators.
I am not saying that every grandparent exhibits these virtues. I am not saying that one has to be biologically a grandparent to manifest these traits. Indeed, those who reach a certain age, whether having children or not, can stand toward the next generation in a grandparently way, if they choose. They can see themselves as elders and perform toward the children the three functions I describe. And whether we speak about grandparents at their best or speak about elders, such folk are as unique and surprising as any of us at any age. We can gain a fuller and more textured view by exploring three marvelous films: Monsieur Ibrahim, Central Station, and Captain Abu Raed.
Monsieur Ibrahim is a 2003 French film with Omar Sharif playing Ibrahim and the young Pierre Boulanger playing the Jewish boy Ibrahim calls “Momo.” Set in Paris during the 1960s, Moses or Moïse Schmdt is a young Jewish boy in the Blue Road suburb of Paris. Ibrahim calls him Momo. At first we see his coming of age, especially with the prostitutes, for whom he struggles to gain money to pay them and give them small gifts. Ibrahim Demirji, “the Arab,” is a small grocery store owner/operator. He says he is from the Golden Crescent; he is Turkish speaking Arabic as well. He reads the Qu’ran, and later we learn he is a Sufi, a member of the mystical strand of Islam. Momo steals from him but Ibrahim tells him: “You owe me nothing. If you must steal, I prefer you steal from me.”
Ibrahim also tells him he prefers Momo 100 times to Momo’s brother, Paulie. (In contrast, Momo’s father had often compared Momo disparagingly to Paulie.) Ibrahim also visits prostitutes: “Heaven is for all of us, he says, “not just for minors.” He teaches Momo to smile, saying “A smile causes happiness.” Walking beside the Seine on Sunday, they encounter dancers. He tells Momo he is a Sufi, “religion interior” says a dictionary that Momo refers to.
Momo’s father is fired. Ibrahim asks Momo, “What does being Jewish mean to you?” “To be depressed all day like my father,” Momo answers. His father leaves and later kills himself. His mother shows up, but Momo does not reveal his identity to his mother.
Momo falls for the Jewish girl Myriam who lives across the way. Her family does not approve and she breaks it off. When he sees her with another boyfriend, Momo throws a record he had bought for her out the window.
Ibrahim is with the boy in the bathhouse, and Momo learns that Ibrahim is circumcised too. Ibrahim buys a car and learns to drive. They are off to Switzerland, Albania, Greece, Istanbul. “Slowness is the key to happiness,” Ibrahim says. Then smells: they go to an Orthodox Church (incense), Catholic Church (candles), Mosque (smell of shoes). On to Anatolia to a sema, a sacred dance of the Whirling Dervish branch of Sufism. “When you dance your heart opens,” says Ibrahim. “The dervishes spin around their hearts like torches.” Also Ibrahim — in the spirit of the Sufi teacher Rumi — tells Momo that our movement is from dust to plant, from plant to animal, from animal to human, and from human to angel.
Ibrahim goes ahead to his village, not sure of what he will find. He finds his wife had died long ago. Ibrahim dies in a car crash and leaves his shop to Momo, who follows Ibrahim’s example, e.g., with shoplifters. We see him at the shop when he is in perhaps his later 20s. When he opens Ibrahim’s Koran he finds two blue flowers. (“I know what is in my Koran,” Ibrahim has said several times.)The French title of the film is Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qu’ran.
Ibrahim is a grandfatherly figure and a mentor in many ways. His Sufi devotion is a religion of the heart — he is free from rules yet acts compassionately throughout. He leaves Momo far more than the shop.
Central Station is a 1998 Brazilian-French film that is set in Rio de Janeiro’s Central Station, with Fernanda Montenegro as Dora and Vinícius de Olivera as the 10-year-old Josué. Dora is an older woman whom we might see as grandmotherly. She is not married and has no children. There is both spunk and sadness in her. She writes letters for the illiterates in Rio’s Central station, and often she does not even mail them. Her friend Irene helps her to decide which letters to mail.
A woman (Ana) — the mother of a young boy Josué — comes to Dora to write a letter to the boy’s father Jesus. Shortly thereafter, the boy’s mother is run over by a bus. At some point Dora invites the boy home, and he finds her unsent letters. Dora first decides to sell the boy to a colleague who claims to arrange adoptions with wealthy families. She receives $1000 and buys a TV. Irene discovers this and berates Dora for crossing a line, and Dora steals Josué back. Taking the original letter with the address, the boy goes in search of his father (Jesus) — Dora puts him on a bus and then decides to go with him. During the journey, the boy runs away and Dora searches. The boy finds her. In one scene, she is lying with her head in his lap while he strokes her hair. They make money by writing letters to a local saint, Dora posts the letters she wrote for the people, and Josué spends some of their money to buy Dora a dress. After a first false track, they finally find, not Jesus but Josué’s brothers Moses and Isaac. Dora puts on her new dress and leaves while the three brothers are sleeping in the same bed. On the bus back to Rio, Dora writes a letter to Josué — she is afraid that he will forget her.
The film is infused with a populist religious spirit. The brothers are Joshua, Moses, and Isaac. There is a quest for Jesus who has gone away but promised to return — or has he returned in the self-realization of Dora?
Captain Abu Raed1 is a 2007 Jordanian film, with the lead, Abu Raed, played by Nadim Sawalha, and Nour, a female pilot, played by Rana Sultan. As the film opens, we see Abu Raed working as a janitor at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan. He is taken home on a shuttle with flight crews. He goes to his apartment and glances at a picture of his wife who, we learn, is dead. He reads; he is a literate man who later will boast of having 2000 books. We shall subsequently learn that after losing his son, and then his wife, he lost all motivation and finally became a janitor. At the airport he finds a pilot’s hat discarded in a trash bin. He puts it on as he heads up the long stone stairway to his house. Children see him and ask if he is a pilot. No, he tells them — but they insist. So he begins to tell the children stories of adventures, of flying to great cities: “Once upon a time there was a man, Captain Abu Raed.”
One of the boys, Murad, is unconvinced he is a real pilot and finds a way later to take some children by cab to the airport where they see Abu Raed on hands and knees washing the floor. Meanwhile, a beautiful young female pilot from a wealthy family, Nour, comes to befriend Abu Raed and bring back for him small souvenir trinkets from her travels. Her father is constantly trying to arrange a marriage for her, toward which she is dismissive.
Murad , the boy who in a sense betrayed the children, has an abusive father — abusive to Murad and to Murad’s mother. Abu Raed first reports him, but Murad’s father employs trickery to slip free. Abu Raed persists and bandages Murad’s hand where his father had burned him. As the abuse worsens, Abu Raed, with Nour’s help, takes Murad and the family to her house for shelter. Abu Raed waits for the abusive father in the father’s now empty apartment. The father reaches for a baseball bat, and that is the last we see of Abu Raed.
At the end of the film — time having passed — we see a fairly young man in an airline pilot’s uniform gazing out a window in the airport. A colleague says to him, “Time to go, Captain Murad.”
This film — worthy of watching again and again— has lessons of great humanity.