Muslim students in Rome see learning as a two-way street

As they study Christianity, they find themselves ambassadors of Islam.
By Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer
November 28, 2006

ROME — When Zeinep Ozbek told her parents how she planned to pursue her education, they were shocked.

Not only was the young Muslim woman about to leave her native Turkey, she was venturing into a strict traditional bastion of Christianity: Rome.

Ozbek, 25, is now one of several Muslim students ensconced in the Vatican’s system of higher learning in and around the Italian capital. They attend pontifical universities, schools sanctioned by the Vatican, taking lessons from nuns and priests and sitting in classrooms decorated with crucifixes, in buildings adorned with larger-than-life statues and symbols of papal power.

As Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey today, international attention is riveted on his attempts to improve troubled relations between Christians and Muslims. But here in Rome, at a more grass-roots level, a less-noticed experiment is taking place.

Officially, the Muslim students attend the Jesuit-run Gregorian Pontifical University and other Vatican schools to learn about Christianity. In reality, they have become mediators navigating the suddenly very tricky world of interfaith dialogue and understanding.

Some are meeting Christians for the first time, and they are often the first Muslims their Christian classmates have encountered. Several said they wanted to correct Western misconceptions about Islam.

Interfaith dialogue was a favorite theme of the late Pope John Paul II, who became the first pontiff to enter a mosque. Benedict asks for an honest interaction that might ultimately lay bare mistrust and chafe historic sensitivities.

His speech in September at the University of Regensburg in Germany was seen by many Muslims as an insult to their faith and its founder, the prophet Muhammad. In it, Benedict quoted a medieval emperor who branded Islam “evil and inhuman.”

Ever since, in the face of Muslim anger, the pope has sought to explain that he was attempting to illustrate the incompatibility of faith and violence and that he has profound respect for Islam. In Turkey, crowds have been protesting the planned four-day visit.

The Regensburg comments also proved problematic for Muslim students in Rome, and raised questions about the pope’s commitment to interfaith dialogue.

“All the trouble of the recent months has been pushing people to think carefully about where dialogue is headed, and to realize how much more urgent it is,” said Father Daniel Madigan, head of the Gregorian’s Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, where most of the Muslim students are based.

The program at the Gregorian is facing some uncertainty because Madigan, a leading expert on Islam and interfaith relations at a time the Vatican needs such insight, is leaving Rome for a position at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.

Ozbek, the Turkish woman working on a master’s degree, had never met a Christian before she came to Rome. The Christian communities in Turkey are tiny and generally linked to ethnic groups such as Greeks or Armenians that Ozbek did not find particularly embracing.

Some of her friends and relatives were afraid her immersion in a Catholic world would cause her to lose her identity. But that is a fear of those insecure in their faith, she said; for her, learning about the “richness” of Christianity only expanded her own devotion and helped her see “the other” as a fellow human being.

“Generally I’m the first Muslim person they have met and they ask lots of questions,” she said.

Ozbek wears a head scarf. An irony of her experience here is that most Turkish universities, obeying a strictly enforced government policy of secularism, would not let her attend class with her head covered.

Naser Dumarreh, 34, of Damascus, Syria, said the pious Catholic milieu that Rome provided was more comfortable than a secular Western environment.

“I’m living in a Christian society, not a Western society, and there’s not such a big difference from an Islamic society,” said Dumarreh, one of the first Middle Easterners to join the program.

The students said they felt a fair amount of pressure as representatives of Islam.

“They expect me to know everything about Islam, to be able to quote all the verses of the Koran by heart,” said Mustafa Cenap Aydin, 28, a Turk who has been studying in Rome for three years. But he says there is a mutual learning curve. Until arriving at the Gregorian, he did not know of the many positive references to Christianity contained in the Koran.

“I’m not the same Mustafa who came here,” he said.

Several of the students said understanding Christianity had broadened their understanding of Islam, a later religion that incorporates some of the earlier Christian and Judaic traditions.

“To study in Rome on Christianity means to me to discover the historical, literary and theological background of the Koran,” said Esra Gozeler, who is working here on her PhD and teaches theology at the University of Ankara in Turkey.

Omar Sillah, a 30-year-old student from Gambia who is specializing in the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), has seen the traditions of his Muslim faith reflected in Catholicism. He knew Christians before coming to Rome; in fact, he studied at a missionary school in Gambia. But Rome was an eye-opener.

After the pope’s Regensburg speech, Sillah said, he was bombarded with e-mails and questions from fellow students. He told them that a religion of violence and evil “is not the Islam that I follow.”

His goal, he said, is to show Christians in Rome “by our actions” a different kind of Islam.

But he doesn’t mind the endless queries. “That’s our goal — that’s dialogue,” he said.



“Casino Royale.”
Issue of 2006-11-20
Posted 2006-11-13
The NewYorker.Com

Who said this: “It is interesting for me to see this new Bond. Englishmen are so odd. They are like a nest of Chinese boxes. It takes a very long time to get to the center of them. When one gets there the result is unrewarding, but the process is instructive and entertaining.” The speaker is Mathis, a kindly French liaison officer in “Casino Royale,” Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, published in 1953. More than half a century later, we are back with “Casino Royale,” No. 21 in the roster of official Bond films, and we are back with Mathis. As played by Giancarlo Giannini, who was recently seen having his intestines removed in “Hannibal,” he is pouchy, affable, and dangerously wise, and his presence hints that this new adventure will not be an occasion for silliness: no calendar girls, no blundering boffins, no giants with dentures of steel. The same goes for hardware, with rockets and gadgets alike being trimmed to the minimum. It is true that Bond keeps a defibrillator in the glove compartment of his Aston Martin, but, given the cholesterol levels of the kind of people who drive Aston Martins, a heart-starter presumably comes standard, like a wheel jack. Whether Bond has a heart worth starting is another matter.

He is now played by Daniel Craig, as the world knows, and, if I had my way, the world would have shut up about it for the past thirteen months and waited to see the result. Mathis was right: what we get is a Chinese box, although one’s initial impression is that the outermost box is a packing crate. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that God may have designed Craig during a slightly ham-fisted attempt at woodworking. His head is a rough cube, sawed and sanded, with the blue eyes hammered in like nail heads. He could beat a man’s brains out with his brow. That suits the Bond of “Casino Royale,” who has only lately acquired his license to kill, and, like a kid who’s just passed his driving test, is eager to step on the gas. He will slay anyone, if he so wishes, and the news is that he does so wish, and that he worries about the wishing—not enough to stop the killing, although at one point he tenders his resignation to M (Judi Dench), but enough to make him wonder if he’s fit for anything else. Craig has the courage to present a hollow man, flooding the empty rooms where his better nature should be with brutality and threat. His smile is more frightening than his straight face, and he doesn’t bother with the throwaway quips that were meant to endear us to the other Bonds. The only thing he throws away is a set of car keys, having borrowed a Range Rover and slammed it backward into a row of parked cars, in order to set off their alarms. Calm down, you want to tell him, have a Martini; and so he does. “Shaken or stirred?” the barman inquires, and Bond spits back at him, “Do I look like I give a damn?”

The plot, unusually for a Bond picture, leans heavily on the novel. Bond is up against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who has a six-foot-tall mistress, a weepy eye, and nothing to cry about. His pleasure is gambling, and his career as a banker takes him to selected trouble spots, where he likes to meet the locals and help them with their plans for terrorism. What sets Le Chiffre apart from Bond’s preceding nemeses is that he has absolutely no interest in running the planet, preferring instead to profit nicely from its ruin. This is a welcome twist, one of the pitiable things about the 007 franchise being its fixation on global conquest—a cheesy homage, I often think, to the ubiquity of the Bond brand itself. When Martin Campbell, the director of “Casino Royale,” made “GoldenEye,” in 1995, the outcome was spirited enough, but it also felt stupidly grand, all wall-size computer screens and electromagnetic pulses fired from space. The new film has a leaner streak, and the high-tech attack methods are as follows: drowning your enemy in the washbasin of a men’s room; throttling him in a hotel stairwell; and, best of all, chasing him through a construction site.

This chase goes on far longer than expected, like a theological discussion in a Bergman film, with both the fleeing baddie and the pursuant Bond careening off walls and cranes and anything else that juts into their path. Rather than zipping through some customized hideout beneath the waves, decked out with nuclear reactors and sharks, they are merely making the best of their environment. Could this be something new in movies: green violence? It looked pretty natural to me, with Bond forever getting nicked and bruised. “Casino Royale” is allegedly the first 007 saga to feature rain, and Craig is the first proper bleeder, standing in front of a bathroom mirror and contemplating his own downpour. (Look how he swallows a Scotch to numb the hurt, and then try to imagine the Roger Moore equivalent—the pensive sip, the appreciative smile at the distiller’s art.) This is still Bond, however, so the next scene finds him sliding into his seat at the poker table, in a bloodless white shirt; indeed, if my math is correct, he goes through three freshly ironed dress shirts in a single night, which suggests that he has off-loaded Q in favor of a silent Jeeves. Also, he has to look good for Vesper Lynd.

Miss Lynd is an accountant, employed by Her Majesty’s Government, and, just as “The Spy Who Loved Me” is said to have burnished the sales figures for Lotus sports cars, so “Casino Royale” should transform accountancy into the most erotically charged of the professions. (There is one horrific attempt at product placement, and I hereby propose an international ban on Omega watches.) Vesper is played by Eva Green, who retains from her role in Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” an unnerving blend of the fleshly and the spectral, and one thing she definitely is not is a Bond girl. Vesper is a Bond woman—a Bond Lady of Shalott, I would say, with all the sufferings of the world reflected in her dark-shadowed eyes. Her skin is paper-pale and her lips are vampirically red, as if she hadn’t slept in a hundred years, although, whatever has been keeping her awake, it isn’t sex. She is the only woman with whom 007 partakes of coitus uninterruptus, and even that takes two hours to bring off. For a Bond picture, “Casino Royale” is amazingly short on lust. There is a moment when our hero lands in the Bahamas and glances over his shoulder at a couple of flirters in tennis gear, but Craig looks so embarrassed, almost insulted, by such levity that the experiment is never repeated. Bodies, it would seem, exist to be abused, not caressed, and Campbell takes care to incorporate, straight from the novel, a sequence in which Bond is denuded and tortured, with particular attention being paid to his organs of desire. Poor fellow. If Pussy Galore showed up, he’d pour her a saucer of milk.

Things have been so moribund for so long in the Bond business that it was always going to take some major defibrillation to jerk it back to life. “Die Another Day,” the last film, was a gruelling nadir, although the producers would be right to point out that it earned four hundred and fifty million dollars, which is three times the purse that Bond and Le Chiffre battle for at the tables. This means that the sight of Pierce Brosnan driving an invisible car, though bound to dismay every Bond-revering adult, was catnip to the larger constituency of teen-age boys, who were comfortable with a film that felt like a video game. What they will make of “Casino Royale”—no babes, no toyland, and the poker not even online—is anyone’s guess, but the earnings of the new film will doubtless affect the look, and the casting, of the next. If Craig falters, then I guess it’s full speed ahead to Chris Rock as 007 and Borat as Blofeld. That would be a shame, because “Casino Royale,” though half an hour too long, is the first semi-serious stab at Fleming, and at the treacherous terrain that he marked out, since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” in 1969. Like that film, this one ends in despair.

To be precise, it ends with Daniel Craig wearing a dark-blue three-piece suit and toting a machine gun, which is the best, though not the most cost-effective, way to overcome despair that he can think of. The name Le Chiffre means “the cipher,” but, once the stage is bare, it is Bond who remains the enigma—as unbreakable to the cryptographer as to the torturer, and even to himself. Raymond Chandler once challenged Fleming in a letter, saying, “I think you will have to make up your mind what kind of a writer you are going to be. You could be almost anything except that I think you are a bit of a sadist!” As with Fleming, so with his creation: the fledgling Bond of “Casino Royale” has yet to make up his mind what kind of a man he is going to be. The cruelty he can manage, with ease; what he still lacks is the license to live. Hence the scene in which, flush with winnings, he shares a late supper with Vesper, as if hoping to dine himself into being a gentleman. Even his grainy features are flattered by the soft lighting, and, savoring the mood, he pays his companion a wooing compliment, then blows it by adding, “I thought that was quite a good line.” Even James Bond, in other words, wants to be 007. Join the club.