Sunday, June 12, 2016

Wait, was Rumi White?

The news that actor Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing Rumi in an upcoming biopic about the 13th century mystic's life has, not surprisingly, provoked some criticism. Using the hashtag #rumiwasntwhite, a number of people have pointed to this as another example of Hollywood whitewashing Middle Eastern characters. Indeed, there's a long and troubling history of directors casting white actors in lead roles as Middle Eastern characters while actual Middle Eastern actors get relegated to roles like "terrorist number 4." Absent any clearer historical evidence about what the Afghan-born Rumi looked like, it seems safe to conclude that his skin color was definitely darker than DiCaprio's.Which is why this whole story also sheds light on just how strange the history of race and representation really is.

For one thing, according to pseudo-scientific racial categories prevalent a century ago, Rumi was white. As the map below, and many others like it, reveal, people from the Middle East and South Asia were regularly categorized along with Europeans as members of the white or Caucasian race. At the same time, a competing racist tradition would have taken issue with the implicit assumption that DiCaprio, as an Italian-American, was fully white himself.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this whole anachronistic discussion of Rumi's race is the way he was portrayed in the centuries after his death. Today, Hollywood, along with American political and economic power, have helped spread American culture and beauty standards around the world. But in the 13th century the Middle East was subject to cultural influences from a very different direction. The Persian and Ottoman miniature-painting traditions through which many images of Rumi have reached us show the role of Chinese art in shaping aesthetic standards across the Middle East in the wake of the Mongol invasions. One result is that historical figures from the era often end up looking a little more East Asian in artistic depictions than they might have in real life. Which is to say that if Hollywood makes Rumi look whiter than he was, it wont be the first time the vagaries of geopolitical power have influenced his appearance.