There are some texts you carry around in you so naturally that you don't realise how important they are. Writing them is like breathing, and they seem to get written in an exhalation.
Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran is a text like this. I wrote it in a few days for a friend, perched at the corner of a table. It came to me effortlessly without fuss or bother. I never dreamt it would be so successful and go around the world, still less that I'd become known in many countries as 'the author of Monsieur Ibrahim'.
Bruno Abraham-Kremer, a friend and actor, was spending a few days with me at my house in Ireland. He had been travelling in Turkey, where he'd crossed the arid landscapes of Anatolia on foot, visited Sufi monasteries, and whirled with dervishes in prayer. He came back full of the mystic poetry of Islam. We fell to talking about Rumi, a wonderful sage and writer, and about the humility he advised, about dance as a form of prayer. As we talked, my thoughts took off on a flying carpet towards the Orient.
Wisdom often has its roots in childhood, and we naturally enough began to remember our grandfathers who we realised had marked us in as much as we had loved them. Before the laughing, soothing images of our forebears, Monsieur Ibrahim was already taking shape. Then Bruno told me his family history; I described my own…
When Bruno Abraham-Kremer left, I promised to write something in which our love of the Islam he had experienced came together with our memories of adolescence.
In the event, he had hardly boarded the plane when I began scribbling. Momo spoke unbidden; I just had to listen to everything he dictated. A week later, I phoned Bruno Abraham-Kremer.
- 'I've got the text I promised you.'
- 'Oh, yes… have you started?'
- 'No, I've done it. Where are you?'
- 'In Paris, in the street.'
- 'I want to read it to you. Is there a bench around where you can sit down?'
- 'No. But there's the kerb… OK, I've got my feet in the gutter. Fire away.'
And I read him the adventures of Momo and Monsieur Ibrahim straight off. Now and again, he laughed in encouragement. Sometimes, I couldn't hear him.
- 'Are you still there? Can you still hear me?'
- 'I'm in tears…'
My last words to him, as I wound up the conversation, were that if he wanted to recite the narrative on stage, it was his for the asking.' After this, my thoughts turned to other things, and I immediately got involved in another piece of writing. For me, the matter was over. Written from the heart by heart, Monsieur Ibrahim inhabited a private universe, and I didn't really consider consigning it to the stage or even to the public. I wasn't allowed to get away with it.
Friends, family, my publisher - everyone was thrilled with the book. Far from being pleased, I was a bit annoyed by so many compliments, which seemed excessive: why were they so excited about these pages that had demanded nothing from me when I'd spend hours sweating blood over others? Like anyone else, I like things I've had to work at, things that cost an effort, because they improve my self-respect.
I was wrong. Sweat is not a sign of talent. What comes naturally is often better than sheer hard work; an artist should admit that some things come easily. This was the lesson I learnt from what happened to Monsieur Ibrahim.
Who are Momo and Monsieur Ibrahim?
Two people who pass unnoticed through the world. Momo is an only child with no mother, and a father who barely deserves the name of 'father', too sunk in depression to take care of his son and bring him up, or teach him and hand on to him a taste for life and its principles. As for Monsieur Ibrahim, the only thing anyone asks of him is that he give them the correct change. Both man and boy change their lives as they get to know one another. Their encounter is a marvellous enrichment.
There's been a lot of verbiage about the fact that the child is Jewish and the grocer Muslim. Rightly so. It was a deliberate move to create them like that. I set out to prove something and be provocative.
What I wanted to prove was that in many places in the world (European capitals, ports, American cities, North African villages), people of different religions from different backgrounds live together in harmony. In Paris, Rue Bleue, the road where this story takes place and where I once lived and which definitely isn't blue, was largely inhabited by Jews with a few Christians and Muslims. They all shared not only the same street, but daily life, their joys, discontents and conversation. Friendships or mutual understanding developed among these people who came from just about everywhere, either geographically or spiritually. In this unpretentious quartier down from Montmartre, I felt I was living somewhere rich and burgeoning, where cultures met, took an interest in each other and joked about their differences - like the old Jewish doctor who told the Muslim grocer that he would only celebrate Ramadan if he lived in Sweden where it was dark at three in the afternoon.
Sadly, the news we get from journalists only reflects what is going wrong, never what is running smoothly. It thus perniciously reduces Jewish-Arab relations to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, neglecting areas of agreement and peaceful cohabitation and giving weight to the idea of irremediable opposition. I don't want to deny the tragedy of the conflict, but one shouldn't confuse the world's real sounds with a part of the world or with journalistic and political fury. I felt it was important to tell a story of fraternity with a message of happiness. One of my proudest moments was when I discovered that in Israel, for instance, Arab, Christian and Jewish peace supporters use Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran to try to spread their hopes, acting it out in the same theatre in Hebrew one night, Arabic the next.
The provocative element was to give a positive image of Islam at a time when monstrous acts of terrorism were distorting the Islamic faith. If today Islamicism is an insult to Islam, if it is infecting the planet, we should as a matter of urgency make a distinction between Islam and Islamicism, wrest from our minds the irrational fear of Islam and stop associating a religion, whose thousand-year old wisdom is an inspiration to millions of men and women, with the excessive and deadly scowl of certain militants.
Stories have their part to play in the life of the mind, even short stories about minor characters. Monsieur Ibrahim and Momo are united by a love that dismisses our fears of otherness and difference because it occurs simply in flesh and blood beings with emotions like our own.
Monsieur Ibrahim teaches Momo essential things: to smile, to talk, not to move too much, and to look at women with a look that comes from the heart not from lust. He reveals to him a more contemplative universe and even teaches him to accept death. All these things Monsieur Ibrahim has learnt from his Koran. They are things one could learn elsewhere, but Monsieur Ibrahim has learnt them from his Koran. 'I know what is in my Koran' he keeps saying.
When Momo is handed Monsieur Ibrahim's old copy, he finds what was in it: dried flowers. His Koran is the text but it is also what Monsieur Ibrahim has placed in it: his life, his way of reading, his interpretation. Spirituality is not about repeating sentences parrot-fashion, but about grasping the meaning and understanding the concept and shades of meaning, the implications. True spirituality is only worthwhile when obedience and freedom are balanced.
There you have the explanation I'm always asked for, the explanation of the mysterious title, Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran.
Brussels,16 November 2004