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Jan Leyers explores the Muslim world
10 episodes / 40 minutes
digital betacam – 16/9
English, Dutch, Arabic, French with English subtitles
1. The program
Are the West and the Muslim world heading for an inevitable clash? Or are we just
experiencing the growing pains of a rapidly globalizing and multicultural world? Can
we find a common ground on issues like freedom of speech and the separation of
religion and state? How deep is the ideological water really? Jan Leyers decided to
go out and look for answers.
The goal of his journey is Mecca, the most sacred place of Islam. The route
leads from Cordoba, once the capital of Al-Andalus, to smoldering Morocco. Jan
travels through torn Algeria and unknown Libya to reach Egypt, a country that feels
like a hotbed of fundamentalism. Crossing Jordan and Palestine, Jan continues north
to Syria and Lebanon. The journey takes him through Turkey, a country trying to find
a middle ground between Islam and secularism. Via Iran and the tiny gulf state Qatar
Jan arrives in the mysterious birth land of Islam: Saudi Arabia.
On his long voyage Jan Leyers visits mosques, bath houses and Quranic
schools. He talks to imams and school girls, to former terrorists, Bedouin shepherds
and ayatollahs. Along the road he gets and idea of what’s brooding in the Muslim
world, what Westerners and Muslims have in common and where their ways part.
The story gets more complex and exciting along the way. Gradually Jan realizes he
is exploring a world that is very different from his own. At times he finds it hard to
cope with the absence of doubt, the general lack of self-criticism and the eternal
references to the infallible Quran. But Jan is also ready to be surprised by the heartwarming hospitality of a strange woman in a small sanctuary, by the frankness of
Algerian filmmaker Ali Mouzaoui and the disarming optimism of Syrian scholar
Muhammad Al-Habash.
The Road to Mecca was not an easy program to make. It took tremendous
logistic and diplomatic efforts to get the result as presented to you now. But it was
worth the trouble: as the first foreigners in many years, Jan Leyers and his crew
obtained the permission to film in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the
Rock. The footage they were able to shoot in Saudi Arabia is unlike any you’ve ever
The series is full of extraordinary encounters. Jan Leyers gets through to the
notorious Moroccan fundamentalist Nadia Yassine and meets with Muhammad Akef,
head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In the Palestinian city of Hebron Jan
interviews a suicide bomber’s widow and runs into ultra Zionist Baruch Marzel. A
former Algerian terrorist leader, a high-up Iranian ayatollah and the chairman of the
Saudi parliament are amongst the many remarkable people Jan Leyers gets to talk
The Road to Mecca is the account of an overwhelming adventure in a world
understood by few, feared by many, and from which no one returns unchanged.
2. Jan Leyers
Musician and philosopher Jan Leyers is one of Belgium’s most famous and
renowned TV hosts. In the past years, he and Telesaurus set the standard for
groundbreaking debate programs such as Frontline and Nightwatch. Previous travel
documentaries of Jan Leyers include the multiple award-winning The Shadow Of The
Cross, in which he retraced the crusaders’ journey to Jerusalem on a motorcycle,
and Ludwig’s Dream, a journey through the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004.
3. Summaries of the 10 episodes
1. Dreaming of Al-Andalus
The journey to Mecca takes off in the Spanish city of Cordoba, once the capital of a
vast Islamic empire: Al-Andalus. Jan visits the magnificent Mezquita, a beautiful
mosque that was turned into a cathedral after the Catholics had reconquered Spain.
Dr. Escudero, a Cordobese who converted to Islam twenty-five years ago, explains to
Jan what made him change his religion. Escudero also reveals that every man is
born as a Muslim. That even Jesus was a Muslim.
The crew crosses the Strait of Gibraltar and goes ashore in Morocco. In a small
mountain town, Jan is introduced into the mystical sufi philosophy by a local sheikh
and witnesses a sufi ritual, in which members of a local brotherhood dance
themselves into a trance.
In Casablanca Jan visits the monumental Hassan II Mosque and meets Nadia
Yassine, a notorious Moroccan politician. She proudly calls herself a fundamentalist
and strongly defends Quranic values.
Still in Casablanca, Jan visits Female Solidarity, a women’s shelter run by 60-year
old matron Aisha. She explains that a lot of the young women in her custody are
victims of the so-called Islamic marriage.
2. Jealous Hearts
From Casablanca the road to Mecca leads to the ancient city of Fez, home to one of
the oldest universities in the Islamic world. In the library Jan is told that all scientific
knowledge can be found in the Quran. Driss Laraichi, local historian as town poet,
reveals the secret marvels of Fez and warns Jan against the Evil Eye. Driss also
introduces Jan to the last remaining Jews in Fez.
Jan leaves Morocco and enters Algeria, still recovering from a brutal civil war. In the
picturesque town of Oran he visits Halima, an aged singer who – because of her
‘sinful’ way of life – received numerous death-threats from fundamentalists and has
been living undercover ever since.
A little further down the coast Jan learns about the tragedy that befell the small
theatre company of El-Moudja. Still in shock, the actors tell the story of their
colleague Menad, a 20-year old girl who was burned alive by her brother after
ignoring his demand to give up acting.
3. The Colour of the Revolution
Algeria’s capital Algier still breathes a French colonial atmosphere. But even here the
civil war has left ugly scars. Jan witnesses one of the weekly demonstrations of SOS
Disparus. Its members demand that the truth be told about their sons, brothers and
husbands, who disappeared overnight during the civil war.
After an exciting search including several car switches and a lot of nervous running
up and down by informers and bodyguards, Jan gets through to one of Algeria’s most
notorious public enemies: Madani Mezrag, leader of an extremist Islamist group.
Mezrag admits that nasty things happened by his doing, but that his intentions were
always clean.
In the green mountains of Kabylia Jan visits a community of Muslims who turned
Christian and learns that conversion to Christianity is a heavily fined crime in Algeria.
Jan travels the sands of the Sahara and crosses the border into Libya, land of
colonel Gaddafi and his Green Book. In the ancient caravan city of Ghadames Jan
learns to what extent Libya’s great leader is being revered. In Libya’s capital Tripoli
Jan visits the Green Book Center, where the colonel’s visionary writings are being
studied and translated. The chief librarian has some deep wisdom in store.
4. The real Allah
Still In Tripoli, Jan witnesses a Quran recital competition, an event attracting
contenders from all over the world and broadcast live on Libyan television.
The road to Mecca leads into Egypt, one of the largest and most influential Muslim
countries. In Alexandria book lover Naguib Mahfouz, namesake of Egypt’s greatest
writer, leads Jan around the city’s pride: the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The
impressive library was built on the exact same spot where once its famous ancient
predecessor stood.
On the train to Cairo Jan strikes up a conversation with an elderly man who tells him
about the unhappy effects of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet and the Pope’s
speech in Regensburg.
In Cairo Jan spends a day with Elham Fathi, an attractive and deeply religious young
woman. Elham works at Islamonline, a website handling questions of Muslims from
all over the world. Elham tells Jan she wouldn’t mind being someone’s third wife and
suspects him of entertaining strange ideas on marriage.
Elham takes Jan to Magda Amer, a female preacher who spreads the word of Allah
at women-only tea parties. Muhammad Akef, leader of the notorious Muslim
Brotherhood, has his own plans for Egypt. When he gets to power, he assures Jan,
full sharia will be implemented. The Coptic bishop Marcos complicates matters even
more when he tells Jan that his God, too, is called… Allah!
5. Hunger in the Desert
It’s the month of Ramadan. At sunset, Jan is invited to break the fast at one of the
many tables filling up the squares of Cairo. He hears different opinions on the origins
and the use of the Islamic fasting tradition.
The next morning, Jan visits Cairo’s Art School, where the students tell him how to
combine the sketching and painting of humans with the Quranic ban on portraying
living beings.
Jan leaves Cairo for the timeless silence and beauty of the Sinai desert. Near the
mountain where God spoke to Moses, Jan spends a day with the monks of StCatherine’s monastery. Hospitality is a holy duty in Islam: Jan is invited by a Bedouin
shepherd and is explained how to perform ablution in the desert, when no water is
available. In Dahab, a diver’s paradise at the Red Sea coast, a restaurant owner tells
Jan that his corrupt and ailing country can only be saved by a revolution.
The crew crosses the Red Sea by ferry, goes ashore in Aqaba and travels north to
Jordan’s capital Amman. Jan is led around the International Baccalaureate School,
where the children of Jordan’s upper class are trained to be model world citizens.
6. Separated by God
Jerusalem is a holy city for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Here the Prophet
Muhammad ascended to heaven, to return to earth the very same night. The mosque
that was built on the spot where this mythical event happened is called Al-Aqsa, “the
most remote one”. Jan is the first foreign journalist in five years to be allowed to film
at Al- Aqsa.
Despite its holy status, Jerusalem has not known peace for the longest time. Swissborn Ruth Berger, a Jewish inhabitant of the city, takes Jan to the place where her
son was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber on a city bus. But there’s two sides to
the story. On their way to Ramallah the crew witnesses a bitter scene at a
checkpoint: Israeli soldiers refuse to let pass a Palestinian boy, in spite of his needing
urgent eye surgery and carrying a written invitation from a hospital in Jerusalem.
Dutch journalist Ankie Rechess accompanies Jan to Hebron, a Palestinian city on the
West Bank. Jan has an unsettling encounter with the widow of a suicide bomber who
takes pride in her late husband’s action and hopes her sons will live up to their
father’s ideals.
In Hebron two thousand Israeli soldiers protect an enclave of five hundred Jewish
settlers. One of them points out that it is unthinkable for Jews to give up the city
where the Patriarchs were buried. Near the Tombs of the Patriarchs Jan unknowingly
strikes up a conversation which ultra Zionist Baruch Marzel. He ominously warns Jan
about the surprises Muslim immigrants in Europe have in store for him.
7. Praying on the Rubble
In the Syrian capital Damascus Jan visits the magnificent Umayyad Mosque. A group
of Iranian Shiite pilgrims drag him along to the shrine of Hussein, the Prophet’s
grandson who was killed at the battle of Kerbala. Jan watches the pilgrims break into
tears and shrieks as they mourn the fate of their beloved Hussein.
In a toy store Jan discovers Fulla, the Arab answer to the Barbie doll. Dressed and
made up a lot more traditionally than her Western sister, Fulla turns out to be a big hit
all over the Muslim world. In a quiet suburb of Damascus, Jan has a revealing
interview with Muhammad al-Habash, an Islamic scholar who is convinced that the
Quran is but one of the possible ways to the truth.
The crew crosses the Lebanese border and makes its way through the colorful
Bekaa valley. In Baalbek, Jan visits a Palestinian refugee camp. Lebanon’s capital
Beirut is still suffering from the recent Israeli bombings. Jan talks to civilians who lost
everything they had and still wonder what they ever did to deserve this. The only
support they get comes from Hezbollah. Jan talks to one of their spokesmen and
discovers the humanitarian side to the notorious movement.
Overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lebanon is
an oasis of peace and quiet. To his great surprise, Jan finds Christians and Muslims
praying and singing peacefully together in the church. But before long, reality shows
its ruthless face again. In downtown Beirut Jan meets a young couple facing an
insurmountable problem: the fact that he’s a Shiite Muslim and she a Maronite
Christian, makes it impossible for them to get married in Lebanon.
8. Children of Atatürk
The heirs of Atatürk are having a hard time getting along. In Istanbul Jan runs into a
demonstration of secular Kemalists, admirers of Turkey’s founding father Atatürk.
They are deeply worried about their country’s growing Islamification. But Muslims are
equally worried: a religious girl complains to Jan about the ban on the headscarf at
universities and in public buildings. Mustafa Karaduman, an Islamic fashion designer,
dreams of a society where every single woman is veiled.
Jan meets a businessman who was recently threatened with crucifixion by Islamic
fanatics. The businessman had revealed his plans to start a pork plant. A deadly sin
in the Islamists’ eyes.
In Turkey’s capital Ankara Jan visits a Imam Hatip school. Atatürk’s picture is in
every classroom but his ideas are not really honored: the headscarf is mandatory and
Quranic courses are in Arabic. The school’s principal assures Jan Darwin’s evolution
theory is nonsense.
Still in Ankara Jan explores a fairly unknown branch of Islam: Alevism. Alevis rarely
visit mosques, they won’t refuse a nice glass of wine and Alevi women don’t wear
headscarves. The question whether they are real Muslims turns out to be a hard one,
even for Alevis themselves. An Alevi girl offers Jan to take him to the Alevis’ most
sacred place: Hacibektash, where their medieval founder was buried.
9. Allah’s Republic
Iran is a country of surprises: capital city Tehran is the ‘nose job center’ of the world
and Iranian scientists clone sheep, but at the same time alcohol is banned and sexes
are being kept strictly apart on public buses.
Most Iranians are Shiites. Jan’s guide Rahman takes him to Tehran’s soukh and
explains the religious differences between Shiites and Sunnis, the last ones making
up the big majority in the Muslim world. Shiites have no problems with portraying
living beings. At a stall, Jan even stumbles upon a portrait of the Prophet as a young
Jan visits the shrine of ayatollah Khomeini, who was responsible for turning Iran into
an Islamic republic twenty years ago. Many pilgrims present testify of their ongoing
admiration of the contested cleric. Near the campus of Tehran University, where
Friday prayer is being held, patriotic believers vent their hostile feelings towards
George W. Bush and American anti-Iran policy.
In Qom, Iran’s most religious city, Jan visits the splendid shrine of Fatima and meets
with a living ayatollah, who tells him about the bitter animosities between Shiites and
Sunnite. Further down south lies the city of Ispahan, boasting some of the most
beautiful mosques in the world. Jan is introduced into zurkhaneh, an ancient martial
art whose adepts had to change their vestimentary traditions after the Islamic
10. The Land of the Prophet
After a brief stopover in the oil-rich gulf state Qatar, Jan arrives in Saudi Arabia. The
birth land of the Prophet lives its own rigid version of Islam: women are not allowed to
drive, a thief can kiss his hand goodbye and five times a day, when it’s time to pray,
public life comes to a complete standstill.
As one of the first foreign journalists ever, Jan is invited to visit the Saudi parliament
in Riyadh. Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, chairman of the parliament and one of the most
influential imams in the Kingdom, tells Jan that it will be impossible for him to visit
Mecca. He is a non-believer. The Quran won’t allow it. The sheikh adds that Muslims
who think there can be a separation of religion and state are making a bad mistake.
The Road to Mecca leads through the Asir province, a mountainous green region in a
land of endless deserts. Jan meets Susan Baaghil, the first female photographer ever
in Saudi-Arabia. In a small folklore museum Jan sees paintings of local women
showing their faces and hair, something out of the question today. A man in the
village square solves the mystery.
In Jeddah, the most liberal Saudi city, Jan meets Lama Suleima and Tahar Nashwa,
both members of the board of directors of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. They
pity Western women: at every international congress they only hear their sisters
complain. ‘Convert to Islam, it solves all your problems,’ is their good advice.
Then follows the moment of truth: the final ride to the Holy City of Mecca.
4. Broadcast information
In Belgium, The Road To Mecca was first broadcast on Canvas (VRT) in the fall of
2007. The program was exceptionally well received, both by the press and the public:
Viewers per episode: 350.000, i.e. a market share of 16%. (Average ratings for
Canvas, viewers: 150.000, market share of 8,5 %).
In the course of 2008, the series won several national awards, a.o. the very
prestigious ‘The Flemish Television Star’ (i.e. the Emmy Awards) for the best
documentary of the year; and was crowned Best Video Documentary at the Black
International Cinema festival in Berlin.
In the summer of 2008, The Road To Mecca got a rerun on Belgian national
television, attracting even more viewers than the first time.
In February 2009 the Dutch digital channel Het Gesprek broadcasted the series in
the Netherlands.
And from May to July, the VPRO, a Dutch open channel, also broadcasted the series
with success. Viewers per episode: 442.000, i.e. a market share of 7,7%.
The Road To Mecca caused quite a stir in Flanders and had a massive impact on the
ongoing Islam/West debate. The show made people hear and see things they had
never been aware of.
Both the DVD box set (released in the fall of 2008) and the book (published in
Belgium and the Netherlands) were massive sellers (20.000 and 75.000 copies
respectively so far).
5. Production credits
A production of Telesaurus:
Written and directed by Jan Leyers & Johannes Bucher
Camera: Gery Hoebanx
Sound: Miguel Lysens de Oliveira e Silva - Van Acker & Kristof Lebrun
Production: Tom Bouckaert & Ian Claert
Research: Lies De Pauw, Dirk Tieleman & Clem Robyns
Chief of Television Productions Telesaurus
Ludo Porrez
Excelsiorlaan 5, 1930 Zaventem, Belgium
[email protected]
Tel: +32 2 718 03 10
Fax: +32 2 718 03 11