A Study of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Time of Love’s” intertextual references to Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi’s poem “The Three Fish”

Cinema and Poetry

by Gilda Boffa Volume 10, Issue 7 / July 2006 39 minutes (9570 words)

Time of Love (1991) is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ninth feature film and the first film of what he calls his “third period” (Dabashi, 187). It is a romantic trilogy that offers three variations of the same story. All center around a love triangle between a woman, her husband and her lover. The roles of the two men alternate depending on the version. All versions end either tragically or with no clear resolution of the conflict. Very little has been written about this film in comparison to his later works for a variety of reasons. One is perhaps because it was made before Makhmalbaf achieved international success. Furthermore, as it was filmed in Turkey and then banned shortly after its release in Iran for treating the controversial subject of female adultery, its distribution and exhibition has remained limited. Yet Makhmalbaf has called it, along with Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992), the best film he made during that period (Dabashi, 188). It is thus unfortunate that there has not been more attention drawn towards Time of Love, not only because of its numerous narrative and formal achievements, but because it is very important in understanding the shift that Makhmalbaf made artistically and ideologically at this time of his filmmaking, especially as Time of Love is the film that started this phase. The director describes this period as being one in which he chose to explore themes from a relativist perspective, as he felt that his two previous periods had been governed respectively by absolutist, dogmatic outlooks on religion and politics (Dabashi, 210).

In this essay I will briefly review the limited literature that has been produced about the film, while combining this approach with an intertextual study of Makhmalbaf’s use of the poem The Three Fish (Rumi in Barks, 193-200, see poem at end of essay) by the most well known Persian mystic poet, Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi [1], as a source of inspiration and imagery for this film. No English or French language publication has yet acknowledged this direct link to Rumi’s The Three Fish, probably because of the Western ignorance of Persian poetry; however reading the film through this angle adds many new dimensions to it as well as to Makhmalbaf’s ideas at the time. My goal in analysing the film in this way is to demonstrate that despite his claim to relativism, many elements about Makhmalbaf’s discourse in interviews relating to the film, as well as elements depicted in the film itself, are in contradiction with the concept of relativism. When analysing the film from this position, it is possible to see that an absolutist idea of Sufism2, and of many other monotheistic religions, is subtly conveyed in the film: that of God being the only holder of absolute Truth about existence. This idea in itself can seem quite contradictory and even mind boggling because if it supposes that humans cannot know the Truth, how can they affirm this truism about the nature of God, or even confirm His existence with certainty? Sufi philosophy is full of these contradictions however, and even thrives on them, because attempting a resolution between dichotomies is for them a proof of the unity of God.

Western critics have repeatedly seen Time of Love as a call for more freedom in the Middle-East, especially for women, because it is a female character who is striving to be with the man whom she truly loves, and she is not afraid to commit adultery in the process (Anquetil; Remy, 44; Bottéon, 9). Yet the film is not as “freeing” as they say it is, even though freedom is an important notion that it dwells upon. But as we will see, it is freedom on more of a spiritual level that is advocated.

Because they are so influenced by Islamic mysticism, Makhmalbaf’s persistence in calling the films of this period, and particularly Time of Love, relativist, can thus be seen as a contradiction. This is by no means a negative spirited observation however, because, as Bertolt Brecht has said (and Makhmalbaf would certainly agree with this): “In the contradictions lies the hope.” I nonetheless wish to provide an alternate reading to the film’s subtext, not to necessarily impose a reductive interpretation on it, but rather to add a new facet to the possible meanings that are conveyed in this film. Thus if I seem to contradict myself in this essay, it is a deliberate strategy to make a link to the Sufi dichotomy between the unity and the multiplicity, which I see reflected in Time of Love.

Sufism has produced a long tradition of ecstatic love poetry which celebrates the direct union with God, a state called fana’ (Baldock, 224), as Sufis believe that they can achieve this while still being on the terrestrial plane. Much like Makhmalbaf’s ideas during his third period, Sufism strongly stresses the multiplicity of experiences that are available to humans on earth in an attempt to have a more tolerant perspective on the nature of life and on the correct “behaviour” that humans must abide by. However, this multiplicity, they argue, is only possible because it is an intrinsic part of the unity of God, because everything is created by God and thus it is of God, therefore denying polytheism, as Sufism is after all under the effigy of Islam, one of the great monotheistic religions of the world. A line from a poem by Rumi can sum this up: “It is because of God’s utter incomparability, that He has so many comparisons!”(Burgel, 45) So though the Sufis, much like Makhmalbaf, acknowledge the importance of multiplicity (which is a concept close to relativism), this can exist only under the inclusive power of divine unity possessing the ultimate (and thus absolute) Truth about existence.

Though Iranian art cinema has always been called poetic, very few writers have extensively commented on the poetry inherent in Time of Love, and not a single Western scholar has observed the tremendous influence that Rumi’s poem and Sufi thought has had on the film. This is perhaps in great part because Makhmalbaf himself has not mentioned this link during interviews about the film (though as we will see later the connection is more than obvious after one has read the poem in question). Perhaps he did not want to admit to having been so greatly influenced by another artwork, or maybe he simply wanted to avoid creating the possibility for his audience to make too direct associations to the poem to understand the meaning of the film, thus limiting its relativist ambitions and apparent refusal to provide clear cut answers about its narrative and the fate of its characters. Nonetheless, the intertextual approach is in itself a useful strategy to express varying viewpoints in a film, as Robert Stam has noted:

Intertextuality is less interested in essentialist definitions than in the active inter-animation of texts (…) intextextuality is more pro-active [than “genre”]: the artist actively orchestrates pre-existing texts and discourses rather than simply following a formula. [It] allows for dialogic relations with other arts and media, both popular and erudite (Stam, 154).

When Hamid Dabashi asked him which poets had influenced his work, Makhmalbaf modestly answered that he knows very little about poetry but that his favourites are Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farokzad (Dabashi, 198). In the conclusion of the interview however, he quotes a fable by Rumi:

…the truth is a mirror that shattered as it fell from the hand of God. Everyone picked up a piece of it, and each decided that the truth was what he saw reflected in his fragment rather than realizing that the truth had become fragmented among them all (Dabashi, 212).

He has quoted this story in at least one other source, relating it specifically to what he wanted to express in Time of Love (Hurst, 19). We can thus assume that Rumi has had an influence on him, even though this connection is rarely alluded to. So though humans in this fable seem to embody a relativistic perspective in each believing that their own “different” truth was The Truth, they fail to see that it is a part of the one Truth; that of God.

Many film scholars seem perplexed or reticent in analysing the meanings conveyed in this first film of Makhmalbaf’s third period, perhaps because with its three variations on the same story, none of which express clear resolutions of the conflict at their conclusion, it doesn’t lend itself easily to rational analysis. This is why, however, a metaphysical approach to examining it may be more useful. The only source that comes close to making this kind of analysis is Eric Egan’s new book focusing exclusively on the work of Makhmalbaf: The Films of Makhmalbaf, Cinema Politics and Culture in Iran. However, though he writes about some of the symbolic elements of the film being reflexive of the Persian literary tradition (the birds signifying poetic love and the sea as a symbol of eternal truth and love, and drowning in it a reunion with God) he makes no references to mysticism, Sufism or Rumi, so we can presume that he had no knowledge of the existence of the poem nor of course of the film’s intertextual use of it (Egan, 132). This is slightly disappointing, because the chapter in which this is discussed is called The Poetics of Contemplation, yet he does not delve sufficiently into an explanation of the poetic symbols that Makhmalbaf uses in his films, something that would have been useful for a Western audience in appreciating his films more fully.

I will now write more extensively about this intertextual use that Makhmalbaf has made of Rumi’s The Three Fish, to demonstrate that though Time of Love allows for different perspectives on reality to be explored, it still is potentially a carrier of one absolutism; the belief in the supremacy of God in holding the Truth, thus making its claim to relativism a contradiction, because in essence relativism refuses fixed meanings.

Countless elements in the film provide hints that Makhmalbaf was deeply influenced by mystic poetry in the making of Time of Love. The name of the main female character for example, is Ghazal. In his book entitled The Essence of Sufism, John Baldock defines the meaning of the word ghazal as follows; “a short poem of between ten and fifteen verses, used primarily for love poetry” (Baldock, 225). When she wears a wedding gown at the end of the film it can be related to the fact that “many a Persian poet compared poetry to a veiled bride” (Burgel, 45). This was done to indicate that poetry should not be taken literally, that one should look under the veil to see its true meaning revealed. Makhmalbaf was presumably saying the same thing about the meaning of his film. Islamic film reviewers in Iran saw Time of Love as encouraging `carnal and earthly’ love, and all the criticisms it received after its screening at the 1991 Fajr Film Festival resulted in it being banned in Iran. This is ironic because other films about love from that year were accepted because they “exhibited attributes of `spiritual and mystical’ love” (Naficy, 1999, 60), but unfortunately the critics failed to see these qualities in Makhmalbaf’s film as well.

Moving more closely to the associations that Makhmalbaf makes to the poem of The Three Fish, many similarities to the film can be found. First, simply in their structure, both the poem and the film divide their narrative into three parts; Makhmalbaf by showing three variations of one story, and Rumi by expressing how three fish dealt with the same threatening situation of being chased by fishermen in three different ways, depending on their level of intelligence. The triangular structure of the film is not limited simply to its three distinct parts, but to many other elements that reinforce it. Most evidently, we are witnessing the consequences of a love triangle throughout the film. The children that play music for the characters always come in a trio. Ghazal’s mother makes an ambiguous statement during the first segment when she replies to Ghazal’s question as to why she has forced her to marry a man that she did not love; “Love is not everything. I’ve had three experiences in life.” The scene then cuts with no explanation to this odd utterance. Another reference to the number three could be read in the image of Christ that sits above the judge’s pulpit, which may be referring to the concept of Trinity in Christianity. One of the oft praised elements of Sufism is of its tolerance and even high respect of other religions. A Christian church in Shiraz, Iran, has a quote by Rumi carved in stone over its door (Barks, 201). Rumi repeatedly wrote about Jesus in his poems. A passage of the aforementioned quote is as follows: “Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather” (Barks, 201). The meaning of the Holy Trinity in Christianity is very similar to the Sufi concept of the multiplicity forming the unity. God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are often referred to as separate entities, yet they are understood as being all one in God. This brings us back to the idea of God being the supreme knower, possessor and maker of all meaning, thus another element to contradict the relativist aspirations of the film. As it has been previously mentioned, this film happens to be the first one of his third period. And finally an interesting quote by Makhmalbaf where he separates the nature of people in three distinct categories can add to this obsession with the number three. The first category is the kind of people that are constantly worried with the unending “little miseries” of their lives. The second is the kind that live like children, with delight in living, and searching only for happiness. The last type is those whom are burdened by human misery (Dabashi, 199). For a man who claims to have moved into a relativist approach to life and art, these are very absolutist sounding statements. The previous is one example, but another quote from the same interview is even more striking in its lack of objectivity, even though it is full of wisdom: “But the fact is that truth is not found in a single place” (Dabashi, 205). This statement, as relativist as it sounds, can become absolutist, especially if we change one word: “But the truth is that truth is not found in a single place.” However it is also a self-contained contradiction that proves its own point!

Much like Sufism was accepted by and accepted other monotheistic religions, Makhmalbaf has encoded his film with many ideas taken from other great religions, as we have started to see with the references to Christianity. Another example is when at the end of the first segment the character of the brown haired man is sentenced to death, after the judge has told him that he can choose his own death sentence since he has delivered himself to the authorities. The man says that he wishes to be drowned in the sea because his grandmother told him that when one dies at sea, he is reborn. Particularly because of the image of Christ that hangs on the wall of the court, this can be a reference to resurrection, as the man does indeed “come back to life” in the following segments.

It can also be seen as an allusion to the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation. Furthermore, it is an indication that Makhamalbaf’s religious upbringing is still an influence on him even if he no longer has fundamentalist tendencies, because he has said that it was his grandmother who taught him all about religion, as she would tell him bed time stories about the prophets when he was a child. He has said about her: “She was so kind that God and my grandmother merged into one in her stories. When I think of God, I think that this is still the case –the God that rests in the depth of my heart looks like my grandmother” (Dabashi, 165). And if we want to find even more autobiographical elements in the film, we can think of Makhmalbaf’s sheltered childhood during which he was forced to stay inside his home at all times because his father (who had divorced from his mother after only six days of marriage) had hired a man to kidnap the young Makhmalbaf, and this man would always stay outside their house waiting for him to come out. The director has said that this has translated into him making many films about fear (Hurst, 19). That sentiment is still present in this film, even if more obliquely than in other films, as the symbolic threat of the “fishermen” from the poem as oppressors blocking the way to the ocean is obviously alluded to by the impossibility of the lovers living out their love story, as well as to the attainment of a greater love, that of the Divine, that they do not seem to know the existence of; we will come back to this point later. Makhmalbaf has also said that the thing that would make him feel “more secure than any place in the universe” (Dabashi, 165) during his early childhood was to sleep beside his grandmother. And as we have seen, his grandmother is like God to him, thus the feeling of safety that she provided to him can be related to the way Rumi writes about the ocean, the ocean being a symbol for God, or “the Divine Unity” in Sufi poetry (Baldock, 76): “…the edgeless safety of the sea” (Rumi in Barks, 195). Additionally, this is also a direct reference to a passage of Rumi’s poem The Three Fish. In Sufism, fish represent the individual human beings that can survive only inside the ocean (i.e. God) (Baldock, 76). When the brown haired man in Time of Love is about to be sentenced to death for the first time, he reacts like the stupid fish when he is near his tragic end in the frying pan after the fishermen have caught him, as he thinks to himself: “If I get out of this, I’ll never live again in the limits of a lake. Next time, the ocean! I’ll make the infinite my home” (Rumi in Barks, 197). Well, in Time of Love, Makhmalbaf grants “the stupid fish” his wish in many ways. Another indication that the character of the brown haired man can symbolize the character of the dumb fish in the first segment, is that he gave himself in willingly to the authorities, similarly to the fish in Rumi’s story who did not dare escape towards the ocean and got caught by the fishermen. At other moments in the film there are references to this, as when Ghazal’s blonde lover removes the fish that she is cooking from a frying pan and brings it to the ocean and it magically comes back to life. These symbols all work on many different levels, so that even if a viewer is not aware of Rumi’s poem, or of the symbolic meaning of these things in Persian poetry, he or she can link it to ideas more familiar to the Westerner, such as resurrection. What Ghazal’s blonde lover says to her after giving back the fish to the ocean is symbolic of the mystical meanings of this action: “It was the sea that made me fall in love. I was in love with no one to love, until I met you.” This is a recognition of the infinite love that God (the sea) represents. Yet it is perhaps also an indication that carnal love is inferior to that kind of love, because Ghazal responds to him: “But you have just lost me,” which is soon followed by the scene where Ghazal’s husband kills him. It can be seen as an indication that forgetting God’s love in favour of purely carnal love is a mistake. And finally, however accidentally this has occurred, it is still interesting to note that the name of the actress playing the role of Ghazal is Shiva Gerede. Shiva is the name of the God of destruction and regeneration in the Hindu sacred triad (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1997, 1098). Shiva is furthermore considered to be the third great Hindu deity after Brahma (the creator God) and Vishnu (the preserver God of the sacred triad) (Le Petit Larousse, 1994, 682). This fact is reminiscent of our earlier examination of the Christian Trinity and another, however unintentional, reference to the number three, as well as an example of a multiplicity forming a unity.

Makhmalbaf has spoken about his trips to India as having greatly shifted his perspective on filmmaking. He says that his experiences there brought him “…moments of enlightenment, almost mystical ones…” (Dabashi, 202), that were later of great inspiration to his work. He speaks of Hindu mysticism as being more open than Islamic or Buddhist mysticism in the sense that it is more immediately available to the population. He says that the street beggars in Bombay taught him this. Despite their dire living conditions, he was amazed at how they were always dancing in the street, as in a celebration of life. He tells of how after asking for a bit of money to buy food, they will follow their request with that of a bit of money to buy a ticket to go to the movies. Makhmalbaf believes this to be the case because the positive images in Indian cinema are like medicine to soothe their pain, a tool to help them dream. So he believes that filmmakers have the responsibility, and not only in India, to make films that do not dwell on the misery of the world (which he calls “black” cinema, and compares it to the kind he was making before his third period). He calls his new ideology “white”: “…I slowly came to accept that I believe in nothing but the simple fact of existence –living. And living is white” (Dabashi, 201). He also credits his realisations about fatherhood as having provoked this shift: “…you begin to see all of humanity as being similar to your children. You begin to feel that you don’t have the right to stand in the way of their peace” (Dabashi, 200).

A symbol of this change in Makhmalbaf’s filmmaking in Time of Love that can be correlated to this, is when the old man frees a bird from a cage at the beginning of the second segment. It is of course an ode to freedom, but it can be read in other ways as well. The bird that he frees is black, yet in the following shot a white bird is seen flying over Istanbul. This is indicative of Makhmalbaf’s statement of having moved from making a “black” cinema to a “white” one, no longer seeing the value of the former. Though there are still elements of suffering in some of Makhmalbaf’s films made after Time of Love (in Kandahar (2001) for example), their colourful poetry seems to override the “dark” elements. Though it is an honourable aim for him to strive to convey hope in his films, this opposition between black and white has created a few potentially stereotypical symbols in Time of Love that do not sufficiently allow room for the grey areas of relativism. Another example would be how the blonde (light) haired man is depicted as more good in nature than the dark haired man throughout the film. One critic has seen Makhmalbaf’s refusal to give these two characters a name an indication of how interchangeable they are as they exchange roles from one section to the other (Thoraval, 89); yet there are fundamental differences in their character that remain constant in every section that refute this suggestion. The dark haired man is always the killer in the parts in which there is a murder. He is much harder on Ghazal when he finds out about her affair, as he beats her savagely twice. However when the blonde man is put in the position of being Ghazal’s husband, he is shown as somewhat weak and unable to confront her about her affair, as illustrated in the comical scene where he practices an angry speech that he wants to deliver to her, but upon her arrival he can only sheepishly ask if she needs help preparing dinner. In the last segment, the dark haired man threateningly uses a knife to spread black shoe polish on the blonde man’s face, the polish potentially symbolizing his dark, negative characteristics. Under the influence of the speech by the blonde man about humans not being born to kill each other and about being ready to die rather than stopping to love Ghazal, the dark haired man does radically shift his position at the end by refusing to kill his rival and even allowing him to marry Ghazal. At this moment he seems to reach a higher understanding of the concept of unconditional love. Perhaps, in Buddhist terms, this is an effort to regain the balance in the yin/yang pair that the two seem to make. The blonde man understands it much faster than he does, however, as it does not take him three recreations (or reincarnations…) of the narrative to let go of his hold on Ghazal when he realizes that she no longer loves him. When Ghazal says that she now believes that her heart is with the brown haired man, the blonde one runs out of the car to go get him back for her. The man he now finds is the mysterious character of the old man who was stalking them throughout the film, who is now also seen longing for Ghazal’s love (whom he furthermore calls “my Ghazal”). This seemingly odd twist in the narrative is not necessarily another way for Makhmalbaf to blur the meanings of his film, as it can be interpreted in a very specific way that will be discussed in the following section.

Multiple Meanings

If we want to dig even deeper into the possible meanings of the symbolic imagery of the film, we can use the associations that Makhmalbaf makes with Sufi poetry and philosophy to make sense of the absolute Truth that this, at first glance, unclear narrative could be read as expressing. Islamic mysticism, much like other esoteric systems, sees the possibility for many planes of reality co-existing. It furthermore sees time and space being illusionary concepts that can be easily overridden in the context of a spiritual quest. Some writings of Rumi on this subject are as follows:

You are in space but your essence is in the Spaceless Realm (…) This world (of space) has come into existence out of the Spaceless, and out of placelessness it has secured a place (Abdul Hakim, 18).

And about time he has written the following:

Thy thought is about the past and the future; when it gets rid of these two, the difficulty will be solved (…) In the spaceless realm of the Light of God, the past, present and the future do not exist. Past and future are two things only in relation to you; in reality they are one (Abdul Hakim, 18).

After knowing this, if we start with the premise that the character of the old man in Time of Love is simply the ghost of the dark haired man revisiting the tragic moments preceding his death by “going back in time” and stalking his wife and her lover, the film makes sense in so many new ways. This association, though of course not literally uttered in the film, is very simple to make, although no Western writer has made the connection. The indication that this reading is a plausible one is in the end sequence where, as we have seen, the dark haired character becomes one with the old man. After we have realized this, perhaps upon a second viewing of the film, we can potentially read much of the action through the eyes of the character of the old man. Many signs are indicative of this. The film starts with a shot of the old man, possibly alluding that what we will see will be from his perspective. It is never quite explained why he is so adamant on persecuting, or “haunting,” the young lovers. The reading of him being a ghost is further supported by the fact that much of the action occurs in a cemetery. When the couple speak of their impossible love story, the old man has his hand on the tombstone of an unidentified woman. Her picture is caged under a metal frame, and though she looks young, the black and white photograph seems to have been taken several decades earlier. We can presume that she is the old man’s former wife, who relives through the character of Ghazal, or perhaps these characters are only figments of his soul’s tortured imagination, as it has never accepted the tragic murderous faith that fell upon him after being involved in the love triangle. At the end of the first sequence the dark haired man is sentenced to death after expressing the wish of being drowned at sea, as he believes that it will bring him back to life. The following image that we see as an opening to the second chapter is of the old man sleeping in the cemetery and waking up to the sound of birds chirping. This is yet another allusion to resurrection or reincarnation. It can also be seen here as the old man (who is, we must not forget, also the dark haired man) being given a second chance at life, in an attempt to reconfigure events in a way more suitable to him. This is the case it seems, as this time the dark haired man is Ghazal’s lover, the one she is truly in love with. However, this story once again ends tragically, with the dark haired man killing Ghazal’s husband, who is now being played by the blonde man. Ghazal also commits suicide for a second time. This failure to reconstruct reality with a happy ending, or perhaps to “clear his karma” in relation to the murder he committed in the previous lifetime/segment, is alluded to by a reflexive statement made by the judge. He incredulously asks the dark haired man why Ghazal preferred him over the blonde man, as the blonde man was more attractive and had a better job. The dark haired man has no answer to this, yet in his last wish before being sentenced to death he tells God that loving Ghazal made his life worthwhile, and if he is to be given another life, he would like to come back to the exact same one. The judge responds, ironically and reflexively, that a law forbids convicts to die by drowning at sea. Thus the brown haired man is not given another chance to be reunited with the re-birthing power of the sea, and his wish to relive the same life is prohibited to him, as he comes back to the first situation in the final segment. This “punishment” may be due to the fact that he refuses to accept that reunion with God is the supreme form of Love, and that he should not regret the past as Rumi says in The Three Fish (Rumi in Barks, 196). Finally he will learn an important lesson about unconditional love in the last segment, as we have previously seen, yet the movie still ends in a somewhat tragic way, as none of the characters are happy. After a wedding ceremony to celebrate the union of Ghazal and the blonde man, where both of them look more as if they are in a state of mourning, the couple is offered the taxi from the brown haired man as a wedding gift. After he leaves them wishing them happiness, Ghazal laments that she is still not happy. The blonde man asks: “What is happiness?” After replying that she does not know, Ghazal says that she now feels that her heart is still with the brown haired man. Her new husband rushes out of the car to go get the brown haired man for her. Yet when he arrives, he has turned into the old man, who sadly wonders “where is my Ghazal?” The film ends with the same image that is found at the beginning of each section: that of Ghazal leaving her home alone to go visit her lover clandestinely in the cemetery, suggesting that there could be an unending series of variations on this story until the characters “get it.” Much like when religions that carry the belief in reincarnation tell their followers that they will be reincarnated numerous times until all their karma is released and they can finally return to God. This idea is further supported when we know that Makhmalbaf had initially set out to make nine variations of this story (Anquetil). He allegedly abandoned this more ambitious format because he did not receive permission to film so many versions of it (Anquetil). The use of intertextuality is furthermore another way to allude to the collapse of time and space, as a poem written several centuries ago becomes relevant to post-modernist filmmaking.

Makhmalbaf’s refusal to grant his characters true happiness throughout the film is the foremost element that permits a Sufi reading of the film, which can lead to the perception of the aforementioned absolute Truth about the love of God being the only True love. A Qu’ranic love story that is often cited by Sufis to explain this concept is that of Yusuf (Joseph) and Zulaykha (Baldock, 80). This story, set in Egypt, similar to the one of Joseph in the book of Genesis, tells the story of Yusuf (considered to be a prophet by Muslims). He was the slave of the Vizier called Potiphar, whose wife Zulaikha, fell deeply in love with him from the first moment that she saw him. It is said that Yusuf was the most handsome young man who ever lived. She attempted in many ways to seduce him, but he always resisted her advances as he did not want to betray his loyalty to his master. Eventually after the Vizier’s death, the Pharaoh freed Yusuf and appointed him to replace Potiphar. As time passed Yusuf became the most rich and powerful man after the Pharaoh. During this time, Zulaikha, still consumed by her love for Yusuf, had given up all her precious jewels to anyone who would bring her news of Yusuf. She was eventually reduced to begging in the street. One day Yusuf came across her as she had lost consciousness and was lying on the street. He went up to her and as he spoke, her eyes opened, and he saw that they were filled with light. He told her that they now could be together. To this Zulaikha replied:

My eyes have been opened. My all-consuming love for you was but a pale shadow of Divine Love, a veil between myself and the Beloved. But the veil has been torn aside. Now that I have found the Beloved, I no longer need your love (Baldock, 82).

The love of the Beloved that she speaks of here is of course, the love of God. The consuming, even self-destructive love stories that the characters of Time of Love pursue can be seen as a direct reference to this story. In this light we can see how the film is stressing spiritual freedom, rather than simply sexual freedom for women. It is also another indication that Makhmalbaf has not completely abandoned his religious convictions, but has chosen to use them as a mystical, rather than dogmatic, inspiration in his filmmaking. He has said himself that:

…my film style is inspired by the Koran, in so far as it moves from realism to surrealism…just as in our holy text the human and the divine co-exist, so in my stories the real and the surreal may be found side by side, resulting in a personal narrative technique (Totaro, 38-9).

Because of all these references to the Sufi notion of the Beloved that Makhmalbaf has subtly added to his film, the characters can be seen as being references to the character of Zulaikha, but before she reached her state of “illumination” or fana’. Because none of them are able to reach this state, it is thus obvious that the film never resolves its conflicts fully. It is then possible to see it not only as a relativist exercise, but also as a potential carrier of the latent absolutism about the Truth of the Love of God. The characters are never allowed to be truly happy because they have not yet reached the state of the “intelligent fish” that knows that the best and safest place to be, even if the journey to get there is a difficult one, is within the loving arms of the ocean. They never fully understand that what they are really looking for to fulfill them is the love of God. And truly the viewer who is not initiated to Sufism will not understand this either, which is why the relativist readings of this film have been the most popular ones so far.

Much like Rumi does in his poetry, Makhmalbaf has a forgiving attitude towards his characters’ (and maybe as an extension his own…) inexperience and mistakes on their journey back to God. Because like Rumi says in the poem of The Three Fish: “…you’ll be forgiven for forgetting that what you really want is love’s confusing joy” (Rumi in Barks, 193). He says this after warning his readers that if they strive only for the rewards of visible reality or those of the unseen world without seeing the connection between the two, they are being foolish. This can be related to the Sufi idea that there is “…no other way to perceive the Invisible than through the visible, to contemplate the Creator than through His Creation” (Burgel, 44). And after all, Rumi says that: “The ultimate quest behind all quests is God” (Arberry, 257). So, the film seems to be saying that as humans we are all on our path to find God, and though on the way we may sometimes act like the stupid and the half-intelligent fish, we will eventually find our way back to Him (or Her!) because that is where we all come from originally.

Another important strategy that Makhmalbaf uses to convey these mystical ideas is through his manipulation of the film’s soundtrack, which he often mutes or renders inaudible by disruptions, such as a loud train passing by at crucial moments. Though this tactic has been called the film’s only failure (Burdeau, 76), it was undoubtedly misunderstood because of once again the Western ignorance of Persian poetry. The value of silence, because of the insufficiency of language in expressing the love one feels for the Beloved, because this sentiment is beyond the limits of language, is a recurrent theme in Rumi’s poetry (Burgel, 63). It is present in The Three Fish when he writes:

Silence is an ocean. Speech is a river. When the ocean is searching for you, don’t walk to the language river. Listen to the ocean, and bring your talky business to an end (Rumi in Barks, 198).

The old man’s odd use of a tape recorder and his constant need to wear earphones to hear what is going on around him is an indication that he refuses to hear the sound of the ocean, and that he is still concerned with terrestrial realities, though he is, presumably, dead if we want to abide by the reading that sees him as ghost. The symbol of the ocean is even overstated by the actual physical presence of an ocean near the cemetery.

An additional important symbol of mysticism that is used in the film is that of children. There are hordes of children always playing in the street, or just walking by in the frame at any moment. The street musicians are also always children. Children are very important in Sufism. They can express contradictory meanings, not surprisingly. Though they are often praised for living in a perpetual present and thus transcending the artificial barriers of time and space, they can also be a symbol of spiritual immaturity, as is for example expressed in this verse of one of Rumi’s poem: “If you haven’t left the child’s play, how can you be an adult?” (Rumi in Barks, 4) The latter meaning is more acutely expressed in Time of Love. The character of Ghazal is sometimes seen as a child herself, or as attracting children easily. In the first segment, she waves to an off screen presence, and when she turns around to keep walking, dozens of children come running after her and follow her. The sense of wonder in her eyes when she watches the freshly caught fish being dropped in her basket, or the way that she skips from one row boat to another are examples of moments when this side of her is most apparent. This can also be related to what Makhmalbaf has said about all humanity being like children to him after he became a father.

Another important message that is conveyed in Time of Love relates to the transcendence of the national identity. To introduce this idea, we should go back to a passage of The Three Fish:

Muhammad says, “Love of one’s country is part of the faith.” But don’t take that literally! Your real “country” is where you’re heading, not where you are. Don’t misread that hadith (Rumi in Barks, 194-5).

Though Makhmalbaf shot the film in Turkey because he was not granted permission to make it in Iran, this location was certainly not chosen arbitrarily. It is furthermore set on the coast of the Bosporus sea which crosses Istanbul and makes the references to fish and the ocean more evident. Rumi’s tomb is in Konya, Turkey (Baldock, 173). Moreover, the poet wrote not only in Persian, but also in Arabic and Turkish. He would often mix the languages in his poems, and there are even some that were written using all three languages at once (Burgel, 56). Much like Makhmalbaf has reached international fame and made films in many different countries using many different languages, Rumi did the same with his poetry and he appeals to people of all countries and religions. He is even the most-read poet in America today (Barks, back cover). This transcendence of nationalism can also be seen as an expression of Makhmalbaf’s changing views about the Iranian revolution. Though in his earlier days he was a militant supporter of it, this is no longer the case, as he has often said it himself and expressed with the changes in his filmmaking. In many ways the film can also be seen as an allegory for Makhmalbaf’s own artistic “path” and its evolution, from that of the “stupid fish” that did not want to leave the confines of his country (or more symbolically, the sometimes restrictive ideas that it presented to him), towards the more enlightened attitude of the intelligent fish that recognizes the value of undertaking a liberating journey towards the ocean.

Some scholars have approached Makhmalbaf’s complex relationship with relativism. Godfrey Cheshire has said about it:

…for him, relativistic truth does not equal relative truth, does not convert into nihilistic or arbitrary values, and does not support oxymorons like “absolute freedom”, that chimera which has proved to be so corrosive to the West. What it does imply are a universe of endlessly expanding realities that are nonetheless governed by the laws of nature, laws that include the observer’s –or artist’s– transforming perception (Godfrey, 70).

In Sufi terms, these “endlessly expanding realities” are simply more proofs of the multiplicity expressing God’s unifying infinite love, wisdom and creative power. Hamid Naficy, in writing about Makhmalbaf’s and Kiarostami’s use of post-modern strategies to question secular humanism and realism has said:

Their post-modernism is to be differentiated from that of most Western film-makers by its gentle irony, not the neo-nasty cynical irony so endemic to American television talkshows and series and popular films. This sort of irony adds to their humanistic ethos, instead of undermining it. Nonetheless, such narrative strategies, which generated uncertainty, were deeply counter-hegemonic, for nothing is as subversive as doubt for a regime that insists on an official version of reality and on doctrinaire certainty, and which patrols all boundaries of gender and genre assiduously (Naficy, 2001, 182).

After all this has been said, we must recognize that though Time of Love may not be a completely relativistic film, perhaps it was made purposely in this way to avoid what happens when relativism is applied too radically: it becomes an absolutism in itself. Did Makhmalbaf recognize this and implant the possibility of reading an absolute meaning in his film as just another clever attempt to achieve relativity? Does it become another contradiction that resolves itself by proving its own point? Answering these questions is not necessary, as that would create the potential for labelling this essay as absolutist… (And only God knows the answer to them, anyway!)

All photos taken from Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s website, Makhmalbaf Film House.


1 Though Rumi was born in 1207 in what is present day Afghanistan, it was part of the Persian Empire at the time.

2 The mystical branch of Islam to which Rumi belonged.


Abdul Hakim, Dr. Khalifa. The Methaphysics of Rumi. Maktaba Jadeed Press, Lahore, 1965, 157 pages.

Anquetil, Gilles. “Un nouveau coup d’éclat du cinéma iranien. Tolérance mode d’emploi,” Le Nouvel Observateur. No. 1642, Paris, April 25th-May 1rst, 1996, page number unknown.

Arberry, A.J. Discourses of Rumi. John Murray publishers Ltd., London, 1961, 276 pages.

Baldock, John. The Essence of Sufism. Indigo Books, Toronto, 2004, 238 pages.

Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi. New Expanded Edition, Harper San Francisco, New York, 2004, 388 pages.

Bottéon, Christophe. “Le temps de l’amour.” Cinéma. No. 572, April 1996, p.9.

Burdeau, Emmanuel. “La coupe roque.” Cahiers du cinema. April 1996, volume and issue number unknown, p.76.

Burgel, Christoph J. “Speech is a ship and meaning the sea: some formal aspects of the ghazal poetry of Rumi.” In: Poetry and mysticism in Islam, the heritage of Rumi. Banami Amin, Houannisian, Richard and Sabagh, George eds., Cambridge University Press, California, Los Angeles, 1987, pages 44-69.

Cheshire, Godfrey. “Makhmalbaf, The Figure in the Carpet.” Film Comment. No. 33:4, July-August 1997, pages 60-62.

Dabashi, Hamid. Close Up, Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future. Verso London, New York, 2001, 302 pages.

Egan, Eric. The Films of Makhmalbaf, Cinema Politics and Culture in Iran. Mage Publishers, Washington, DC, 2005, 229 pages.

Hurst, Heike. “Makhmalbaf questionne le pouvoir.” Jeune Cinéma. No. 237, Paris, May-June 1996, pages 15-19.

Le Petit Larousse Illustré. Larousse, Paris, 1994, 1777 pages.

Meriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Tenth Edition, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A, 1997, 1559 pages.

Naficy, Hamid. “Iranian Cinema.” In : Oliver Leaman, ed. Companion Encyclopedia of Middle-Eastern and North African Film. London, Routledge, 2001, pages 161-193.

Naficy, Hamid. “Veiled vision/powerful presences.” In: Issa, Rose & Whitaker, Sheila. Life and art, the new Iranian cinema. British Film Institute London 1999, 160 pages.

Remy, Vincent. “Le Temps de l’amour.” Télérama. No. 2413, April 10th, 1996, p.44.

Stam, Robert. “Text and Intertext.” In Film and Theory. Miller, Toby and Stam, Robert eds. Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, 2000, pages 145-178.

Thoraval, Yves. “Le Temps de l’amour de Mohsen Makhmalbaf.” Avant-Scène. No. 444, Cannes, July 1995, pages 89-90.

Totaro, Donato. “Reflexivity in Recent Iranian Cinema : The Case of Mohsen Makhmalbaf.” Asian Cinema. Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2000, pages 32-47.


The Three Fish: Gamble Everything for Love by Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi


To a frog that’s never left his pond the ocean seems like a gamble.
Look what he’s giving up: security, mastery of his world, recognition!
The ocean frog just shakes his bead. “I can’t really explain what it’s
like where I live, but someday I’ll take you there.”


If you want what visible reality
can give, you’re an employee.

If you want the unseen world,
you’re not living your truth.

Both wishes are foolish,
but you’ll be forgiven for forgetting
that what you really want is
love’s confusing joy.


Gamble everything for love,
if you’re a true human being.

If not, leave
this gathering.

Half heartedness doesn’t reach
into majesty. You set out
to find God, but then you keep
stopping for long periods
at mean spirited roadhouses.


In a boat down a fast running creek,
it feels like trees on the bank
are rushing by. What seems
to be changing around us
is rather the speed of our craft
leaving this world.


This is the story of the lake and the three big fish
that were in it, one of them intelligent, another half intelligent,

and the third, stupid.

Some fishermen came to the edge of the lake
with their nets. The three fish saw them.

The intelligent fish decided at once to leave,
to make the long, difficult trip to the ocean.

He thought,

“I won’t consult with these two on this.

They will only weaken my resolve, because they love
this place so. They call it home. Their ignorance
will keep them here.”

When you’re traveling, ask a traveler for advice,
not someone whose lameness keeps him in one place.

Muhammad says,

“Love of one’s country

is part of the faith.”

But don’t take that literally!

Your real “country” is where you’re heading,
not where you are.
Don’t misread that hadith.

In the ritual ablutions, according to tradition,
there’s a separate prayer for each body part.
When you snuff water up your nose to cleanse it,
beg for the scent of the spirit. The proper prayer is,
“Lord, wash me. My hand has washed this part of me,
but my hand can’t wash my spirit.

I can wash this skin,

but you must wash me.”

A certain man used to say the wrong prayer
for the wrong hole. He’d say the nose prayer
when he splashed his behind. Can the odor of heaven
come from our rumps? Don’t be humble with fools.
Don’t take pride into the presence of a master.

It’s right to love your home place, but first ask,
“Where is that, really?”

The wise fish saw the men and their nets and said,
“I’m leaving.”

Ali was told a secret doctrine by Muhammad
and told not to tell it, so he whispered it down
the mouth of a well. Sometimes there’s no one to talk to.
You must just set out on your own.

So the intelligent fish made its whole length
a moving footprint and, like a deer the dogs chase,
suffered greatly on its way, but finally made it
to the edgeless safety of the sea.

The half intelligent fish thought,

“My guide

has gone. I ought to have gone with him,
but I didn’t, and now I’ve lost my chance
to escape.

I wish I’d gone with him.”

Don’t regret what’s happened. If it’s in the past,
let it go. Don’t even remember it!

A certain man caught a bird in a trap.
The bird says, “Sir, you have eaten many cows and sheep
in your life, and you’re still hungry. The little bit
of meat on my bones won’t satisfy you either.
If you let me go, I’ll give you three pieces of wisdom.
One I’ll say standing on your hand. One on your roof.
And one I’ll speak from the limb of that tree.”

The man was interested. He freed the bird and let it stand
on his hand.

“Number One: Do not believe an absurdity,

no matter who says it.”

The bird flew and lit on the man’s roof. “Number Two:
Do not grieve over what is past. It’s over.
Never regret what has happened.”

“By the way,” the bird continued, “in my body there’s a huge
pearl weighing as much as ten copper coins. It was meant
to be the inheritance of you and your children,
but now you’ve lost it. You could have owned
the largest pearl in existence, but evidently
it was not meant to be.”

The man started wailing like a woman in childbirth.
The bird: “Didn’t I just say, Don’t grieve
for what’s in the past? And also, Don’t believe
an absurdity? My entire body doesn’t weigh
as much as ten copper coins. How could I have
a pearl that heavy inside me?”

The man came to his senses. “All right.
Tell me Number Three.”

“Yes. You’ve made such good use of the first two!”
Don’t give advice to someone who’s groggy
and falling asleep. Don’t throw seeds on the sand.
Some torn places cannot be patched.

Back to the second fish,

the half intelligent one.

He mourns the absence of his guide for a while,
and then thinks, “What can I do to save myself
from these men and their nets? Perhaps if I pretend
to be already dead!

I’ll belly up on the surface

and float like weeds float, just giving myself totally
to the water. To die before I die, as Muhammad
said to.”

So he did that.

He bobbed up and down, helpless,
within arm’s reach of the fishermen.

“Look at this! The best and biggest fish
is dead.”

One of the men lifted him by the tail,

spat on him, and threw him up on the ground.

He rolled over and over and slid secretly near
the water, and then, back in.


the third fish, the dumb one, was agitatedly
jumping about, trying to escape with his agility
and cleverness.

The net, of course, finally closed

around him, and as he lay in the terrible
frying pan bed, he thought,

“If I get out of this,

I’ll never live again in the limits of a lake.
Next time, the ocean! I’ll make
the infinite my home.”


Inside me a hundred beings
are putting their fingers to their lips and saying,
“That’s enough for now. Shhhhh.” Silence
is an ocean. Speech is a river.

When the ocean is searching for you, don’t walk
to the language river. Listen to the ocean,
and bring your talky business
to an end.

Traditional words are just babbling
in that presence, and babbling is a substitute
for sight. When you sit down beside your beloved,
send the chaperones away, the old women
who brought you together.

When you are mature and with your love,
the love letters and matchmakers
seem irritating.

You might read those letters,

but only to teach beginners about love. One who sees
grows silent. When you’re with one of those,
be still and quiet, unless he asks you
to talk. Then draw the words out
as I do this poem with Husam,
the radiance of God.

I try to stop talking,

but he makes me continue. Husam, if you are in
the vision, why do you want me to say words?

Maybe it’s like the poet Abu Nuwas,
who said in Arabic,

Pour me some wine,

and talk to me about the wine.

The cup is at my mouth

but my ear interrupts,

“I want some.”

O ear, what you get is the heat.
You turn red with this wine.

But the ear says,

“I want more than that!”


When I remember your love,
I weep, and when I hear people
talking of you,

something in my chest,

where nothing much happens now,
moves as in sleep.


All our lives we’ve looked
into each other’s faces.
That was the case today too.

How do we keep our love secret?
We speak from brow to brow
and hear with our eyes.



Someone who doesn’t know the Tigris River exists
brings the caliph who lives near the river
a jar of fresh water. The caliph accepts, thanks him,
and gives in return a jar filled with gold coins.

“Since this man has come through the desert,
he should return by water.” Taken out by another door,
the man steps into a waiting boat

and sees the wide freshwater of the Tigris.
He bows his head, “What wonderful kindness
that he took my gift.”

Every object and being in the universe is
a jar overfilled with wisdom and beauty,
a drop of the Tigris that cannot be contained
by any skin. Every jarful spills and makes the earth
more shining, as though covered in satin.
If the man had seen even a tributary
of the great river, he wouldn’t have brought
the innocence of his gift.

Those that stay and live by the Tigris
grow so ecstatic that they throw rocks at the jugs,
and the jugs become perfect!

They shatter.

The pieces dance, and water…

Do you see?

Neither jar, nor water, nor stone,


You knock at the door of reality,
shake your thought wings, loosen
your shoulders,

and open.

A Study of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Time of Love’s” intertextual  references to Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi’s poem “The Three Fish”

Gilda Boffa completed a bachelors in Communication Studies and a masters in Film Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. She wrote her thesis about Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and won a scholarship to travel to Iran in 2008. She published several articles and a book chapter about Iranian cinema. She also completed a certificate in Arabic language and cultures at UQAM and a certificate in translation at Université de Montréal. She directed Belly Dance with a Twist, a short documentary about Syrian Canadian male belly dancer Pierre Khoury. She has been studying, performing and teaching belly dance and other Middle Eastern dances for several years.

Photo credit: Emily Hull

Volume 10, Issue 7 / July 2006 Essays   asian cinema   country_asia   iranian cinema   maulana jalal al-din rumi   middle-eastern cinema   mohsen makhmalbaf   political   time of love