A Mellow Fable of Sweet Amity

Momo and Monsieur Ibrahim
A Mellow Fable of Sweet Amity

By Steven G. Kellman

Shoplifting from the neighborhood grocer, 16-year-old Moise, better known as Momo, rationalizes his crime: "He's an Arab." In fact, Ibrahim Demirdji is not Arab but Turkish, and nothing happens within the store he owns in a working-class section of Paris that the vigilant old man does not notice. A Muslim Sufi who peruses the Qur'an while perched all day at the checkout counter, Monsieur Ibrahim takes a liking to the troubled, lonely boy who is a regular customer and thief. "If you have to steal," he tells Momo, "I prefer you do it in my shop." He is soon dispensing rare delicacies to Momo, along with wisdom and affection.

To Momo, being Jewish means nothing, though he tells Ibrahim: "For my dad, it means being depressed." Although Ibrahim teaches that: "Slowness, that's the key to happiness," a quickening interest in the world around him overcomes the lad's despondency. It also seems to cancel out his Jewishness. Rushing to synagogue one Saturday morning, a girl whom Momo thinks he loves leaves the boy behind. Momo learns more from whirling Sufi dervishes and Ibrahim's copy of the Qur'an, with dried blue flowers pressed between its pages, than from centuries of Jewish sages.

Monsieur Ibrahim (Pierre Boulanger, left) in his neighborhood grocery with Momo (Omar Sharif)
Momo's father concedes: "I'm not cut out to be a father," and his mother cut out long ago. Behavior ascribed to each seems not only improper but also implausible. Reared by a dour and loveless man he can never seem to please (except when he mischievously serves him cat food under the guise of pâté), Momo is mothered - and serviced - by the kindly prostitutes who line the street outside his apartment. He finds a more satisfactory father in the Turkish widower whose name, Ibrahim, recalls the Biblical patriarch of blessed memory to both Muslims and Jews. A mellow fable of sweet amity between Muslim and Jew, descended alike from Father Abraham, Monsieur Ibrahim offers an imaginary antidote to the virulent epidemic of anti-Semitism - bombings, desecrations, assaults - that currently plagues France, especially, but not exclusively within its restive Maghreb population. It imagines that sweet amity when the Jew ceases to be Jewish.

The sentimental fantasy is made more plausible by being set in the 1960s, when acts of violence against Jewish property and Jews were much less common in France. Before the influx of North Africans following the end of the Algerian War, Muslims were less numerous and assertive in the land of Charles de Gaulle. The bond that develops between Ibrahim and Momo splendidly transcends the

Monsieur Ibrahim
(Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran)

Dir. François Dupeyron; writ. Dupeyron, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (novel); feat. Omar Sharif, Pierre Boulanger, Gilbert Melki, Isabelle Renauld, Lola Naymark, Anne Suarez (R)

boundaries of generation and religion. It also causes them to cross borders, before the European Union began redefining the dimensions of a nation. In a flashy new convertible purchased just for the occasion, Ibrahim and Momo travel across France, through Switzerland, Albania, and Greece, to Turkey, where Ibrahim was born. Along the way, adolescent Momo comes of age.

The wise man from the Orient - like the screenplay's whores with hearts of gold - is a hoary stereotype, but Omar Sharif humanizes Ibrahim, makes him somewhat more than just the emblem of Levantine enlightenment. And Pierre Boulanger's Momo is a young man hungry for experiences denied him by straitened circumstances. All it takes is a journey to Byzantium in the company of Ibrahim to straighten anybody out. •

By Steven G. Kellman

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