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From Maplewood to Mecca
Documentary Maker Anisa Mehdi Films a Spiritual Journey.
By Irene Tiersten

Inside Mecca airs on PBS on October 22nd.
Click here for the PBS page.
Anisa Mehdi wanted to ask questions for a living. So there she was boom microphone in hand, wading uphill through a sea of weeping, praying people climbing and sitting on the Mount of Mercy on Saudi Arabia's plain of Arafat, a key destination for Muslims making their required once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. "The sky was a rich blue with puffy clouds," she says of that February day. "I looked out over this crowd and thought, 'Whoa, this is just extraordinary.' I snuck in a prayer asking for forgiveness, and for strength to continue to do the right thing."

The "right thing," the documentary filmmaker from Maplewood says, was to "impart some understanding" of Islam and of the epic annual event called the Hajj, in whim some 2 million people converge on Mecca for a five-day ritual-filled trip to the Valley of Arafat - about 15 miles - and back. The fruit of Mehdi's journey, Inside Mecca, which she produced for National Geographic Television and Film, airs Oct. 22 on Channel 13. It was not Mehdi's first trip to Mecca; she had gone twice before, once to cover the Hajj and once to make a small spiritual pilgrimage. Nor was it her first time producing a film on Islam her Muslims aired on PBS's 'Frontline' last year. With Muslims under scrutiny since before 9/11, there is, Mehdi acknowledges, "heightened interest" in Islam.

With Inside Mecca, which follows three pilgrims - from Malaysia, South Africa and the United States - on their trip, Mehdi hopes to tell the story of a spiritual journey but also to dispel "preconceptions.. .that Islam is an 'other' or Eastern, or unfamiliar religion. When you look at it," she says, "it's very familiar to anyone who's been raised in a Jewish or Christian tradition. Many of the stories are the same - Abraham and Moses, the flood and Noah, John the Baptist and the Virgin Birth" can all be found in the Qur'an, she says. The similarities between religions - common stories and ethical threads - are "the stuff I like to highlight" Mehdi adds. "It's a different story than everyone else is highlighting. There are rotten apples in every bunch.

She was, she says, a natural choice to produce the film. A former arts reporter for NJN News who turned to independent producing shortly after becoming pregnant with her first child, Mehdi had 20 years of broadcast journalism experience and had covered the Hajj before. "I knew what I was getting into," she says, "the physical endurance, the chaos I'd be coming up against." Figuring out how to keep tabs on her crews and her subjects in the crowds was part of the challenge. Her ability to diplomatically negotiate with the Saudi government," which coordinates the event, also helped. "The story in many ways told itself" Mehdi says, "because the Hajj has its own form."

The Hajj falls during the last month of the Islamic calendar and is one of two major events in the religious year. It is a desert journey, with rituals that involve praising and thanking God, asking for forgiveness of sins, garnering strength to resist temptation. The route is based on Abraham's footsteps. Upon arrival in Mecca, before starting, men exchange their clothing for two white strips of cloth; women wear modest garb and cover their hair. These simple garments show them all as equal in the eyes of God.

The pilgrims chosen for the film are shown during various emotional, spiritual and physical stages. "We wanted to make a film that focused on an actual journey based on the commitment of body and soul," notes Mehdi, adding, "A film like this is a big responsibility. You have to be deeply respectful of your subjects' religious experience."

Explaining Islam is part of Mehdi's family history. Her father, the late Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi, was an Iraqi expatriate who founded the National Council on Islamic Affairs, which promoted acceptance of Muslims as part of "the American fabric," she says. He also founded and led the American-Arab Relations Committee, becoming a U.S. spokesman for Arab views and an expert on the Mideast. Anisa's mother, teacher Beverlee Bolton, is the granddaughter of a Baptist minister and came to the U.S. from Nova Scotia as a child. "My mother set that model for me...of a mother who has and loves her family and has a career," says Mehdi.

After graduating from Wellesley College, Anisa earned a master's in journalism at Columbia University. She was a news writer in Boston, returned to New York to work at CBS, and then joined the New Jersey News Network, a PBS affiliate. Early in her first pregnancy, she became an independent producer. She and her husband, Peter Zimmermann, an environmental consultant, have two daughters, Janna, 12, who attends Maplewood Middle School, and Katherine, 9, who goes to Jefferson. "Peter is just amazing;" Anisa says of his enthusiasm for parenting and his support of her work.

Mehdi views that work an education in itself: "You have to go with a very open mind, and you get insights that may contradict your earlier notions about a story. I'm very fortunate that I have a job whose description is learn, then show and tell."

Working with the pilgrims was both profound and fun, she says. She grew closest to Fidelma O'Leary, the American pilgrim, who wanted to see historic sites that were off the beaten path. Before being chosen for the film, Fidelma confessed that she feared getting lost in the crowds. Her growing friendship with Anisa assured her that she would always be found. "We laughed and cried and prayed together," says Mehdi, "We gave each other gifts...I miss her every day. Back to that February day."

"Fidelma wanted to spend some of her time climbing the Mount of Mercy," where the prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in 632, Mehdi recalls. As she and her cameraman followed, O'Leary "set off with her bright green umbrella, walking through the crowds...We were struggling to keep up, trying to be in front of her, and she wanted to climb,There was not an inch of space; it was covered with humanity."

That moment is at the heart of what Mehdi would like the film to convey. "Many people journey either physically or within themselves to find peace, resolution, self-actualization, all of those things," she notes. "That's what many pilgrimages are about - to come to grips with who you are in the world."

Irene Tiersten will be watching Inside Mecca at 8 p.m. on Oct. 22.

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