Mus­lim punk?

They’re the mis­fit Amer­i­cans who pray, party and pick apart the Ko­ran. Tara Brady on a rol­lick­ing new film called Taqwa­cores

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

THERE’S AN EARLY mo­ment in the ter­rific new film The Taqwa­cores that alerts the viewer to the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the en­ter­prise. In the scene, Yusef, a young, con­ser­va­tive first gen­er­a­tion Mus­lim hap­pens upon his fem­i­nist flat­mate’s copy of the Ko­ran and is ap­palled to dis­cover that she has crossed out an en­tire ayat (verse).

“What?” cries Yusef. “You just felt like you could cross out the word of God? I mean, you can’t do that! “Well that ayat ad­vises men to beat their wives, so what do I need that for?” comes the re­ply. “I read what all the schol­ars said, okay, even the pro­gres­sives. I did all the tap dancing around that verse that a des­per­ate Mus­lim could do. And in the end, you know what I said? I said, fuck it! And now I feel a whole lot bet­ter about the Ko­ran.”

Huh? Five years ago Eyad Zahra, a young film­maker from Ohio, was idly click­ing around the in­ter­net when he hap­pened on a two-word con­junc­tion that caught his eye. “Mus­lim Punk”. One click later and he had stum­bled on “Taqwa­core” a con­fla­tion crash­ing to­gether hard­core punk rock and the Ara­bic word “taqwa”, or piety.

It got bet­ter, there was a book. Michael Muham­mad Knight’s The Taqwa­cores – a novel about mis­fit Mus­lim Amer­i­cans liv­ing in Buf­falo, New York – was first pub­lished by Jello Bi­afra’s Al­ter­na­tive Ten­ta­cles im­print in 2003. Known to fans as the Is­lamic Catcher in the Rye, Knight’s work has sub­se­quently in­spired a thrilling new sub­cul­ture of mu­sic, writ­ing and art.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it,” re­calls Zahra. “I had the wind knocked out of me. I called up the lo­cal in­de­pen­dent book­store and they had it but there was an hour be­fore they closed. I ran in there and read it cover to cover. It was beau­ti­ful. It wasn’t a car­i­ca­ture. It was a real, full-on punk book and a real book about Mus­lims. And it merged those two worlds in an un­apolo­getic way. The ver­nac­u­lar it used, the dis­cus­sions that they had: it was so re­fresh­ing. For me, hav­ing grown up as an Amer­i­can Mus­lim, I found it to be the most sin­cere ex­plo­ration of the Amer­i­can Mus­lim that I had ever come across – in books, films, any­thing. It was right-on there.”

Eyad Zahra’s re­ac­tion was not atyp­i­cal. Mus­lim punk used to re­fer to anoma­lous Bri­tish acts such as Alien Kul­ture, or a hand­ful of per­form­ers found on Asian Dub Foun­da­tion’s Nation Records. But on the back of Knight’s sem­i­nal novel, an en­tire North Amer­i­can scene has blos­somed to pro­duce such dis­parate sounds as The Kom­i­nas, Vote Hezbol­lah, Sagg Taqwa­core Syn­di­cate, Di­a­crit­i­cal, Se­cret Trial Five, No­ble Drew and Fe­day­een.

Is­lamic fem­i­nist Asra No­mani, mean­while,

“We got some bizarre re­views in the US be­cause they think it’s sup­posed to be a com­edy. They see a punk girl in a burka and they think it’s hi­lar­i­ous

has cred­ited the novel’s burka-wear­ing riot grrl hero­ine, Rabeya, as in­spir­ing the first Mus­lim woman-led prayer. Two years af­ter the novel’s ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion – when the text was still con­fined to blurry pho­to­copies be­ing passed around cam­puses and school­yards – a his­toric woman-led con­gre­ga­tion took place with Amina Wadud acting as imam.

“It’s a pool of re­flec­tion for my­self and many other Mus­lims,” says Zahra. “This isn’t a com­mu­nity where ev­ery­one thinks and acts the same way. All over the world the Ko­ran is chal­lenged and de­bated and dis­cussed. Is­lam is not sim­ply a mono­lithic un­think­ing cul­ture.

“There were al­ways these kids that felt out of place in Mus­lim Amer­ica and else­where. Taqwa­core gave them a name and a banner.” Zahra quickly con­tacted the au­thor with a view to adapt­ing the novel for the big screen. The pair col­lab­o­rated on the screen­play: “Michael was very heav­ily in­volved,” says Zahra. “He co-wrote the script and he was on set ev­ery­day. It was great be­cause we were all on the same page. Af­ter a few months of go­ing back over the script we had the same mind. We wanted to keep the spirit of the novel and keep the spirit of a punk man­i­festo.

We lost track of try­ing to keep it as close to the book as pos­si­ble and set about mak­ing the best film pos­si­ble.” Mak­ing the best film pos­si­ble in­evitably pre­cluded stu­dio in­volve­ment. Ex­cited by the prospect of a hip, hap­pen­ing global move­ment, the ma­jors did come a’call­ing, but ques­tions about di­lut­ing the all-Mus­lim cast with name stars en­sured that the film was forged in the same in­de­pen­dent spirit as its lit­er­ary pre­de­ces­sor.

“There are peo­ple who just don’t get it,” sighs Zahra. “We got some bizarre re­views in the US be­cause they think it’s sup­posed to be a com­edy. They see a punk girl in a burka and they think it’s hi­lar­i­ous.

“Some crit­ics just wanted it to be a gag. It doesn’t oc­cur to them that there are all sorts of peo­ple un­der burkas. They seemed to as­sume these women don’t think or have their own pol­i­tics, or that they can stand up for them­selves.”

Like the book, the film fol­lows Yusef (Bobby Yaderi, think younger Ira­nian Ge­orge Clooney) a well-brought-up Pak­istani-Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dent who moves into an apart­ment full of other Mus­lims only to find out that most of them are punks and bor­der­line haram. Be­tween wild par­ties and var­i­ous ex­cesses, how­ever, they de­bate the Ko­ran and hold al­ter­na­tive, touch­ingly de­vout prayer ser­vices. Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf) gives a khut­bah on Mary as a prophet, ar­gu­ing that Je­sus is Mary’s book; the charis­matic, Mo­hawk-wear­ing Je­hangir (Do­minic Rains) swears at the Ko­ran on the grounds that Is­lam and Al­lah is big and beau­ti­ful enough to take it and calls to prayer with Iggy Pop riffs.

“I got a letter from this Mus­lim girl who thought it was aw­ful and who was ready to walk out and was cov­er­ing her eyes,” says Zahra. “But she sat through it and ended up be­ing re­ally in love with the film. We get a lot of re­sponses like that and that’s so great. I love when peo­ple go in al­most look­ing to hate it or to find it of­fen­sive and they end up be­ing on its side.”

The film duly re­ceived crit­i­cal wows when it played at Sun- dance last year and was named one of Time

Out’s 10 quin­tes­sen­tial films to see. Amer­i­can Mus­lims have been equally pos­i­tive. “We haven’t had threats or protests or any­thing like that which I think is a tes­ta­ment to how open the Is­lamic com­mu­nity is in Amer­ica,” says Zahra. “Un­for­tu­nately, if you’re watch­ing the news you might get the im­pres­sion that Mus­lims are al­ways ri­ot­ing or that they’re al­ways up­set at the West or that they’re al­ways out is­su­ing fat­was against Sal­man Rushdie or some­one who named their teddy bear Muham­mad. It’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than that.”

At the heart of the film, there’s a fas­ci­nat­ing dia­lec­tic played out against Knight’s one-time as­ser­tion that the United States can save Is­lam.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to ex­plain,” says the di­rec­tor. “Cer­tainly af­ter 9/11 and var­i­ous Bush wars it’s a com­plex is­sue. The States is big enough to pro­duce Taqwa­core and this film. Not ev­ery­body may like this film but we’re al­lowed to make it. I de­bate with my­self – just as the film does – this view of the west that it’s a place of spir­i­tual free­dom or that free­dom is ex­clu­sively an Amer­i­can pre­serve. But it is a young cul­ture and the Amer­i­can Mus­lim com­mu­nity is younger still. We’re see­ing hi­jabs and mosques in smaller mid-west­ern towns. Taqwa­core is an ex­ten­sion of that growth.

“It shows that the Mus­lim com­mu­nity is not a ho­mo­ge­neous com­mu­nity. You’re not just in or out. There are shades of grey to be ex­plored.” The film does a tremen­dous job of ex­ca­vat­ing these is­sues while stand­ing out as a bril­liant, ex­hil­a­rat­ing en­ter­tain­ment. Like the novel, The Taqwa­cores movie has, in turn, in­spired a sec­ond wave of an­gu­lar cul­tural forms.

“I know there’s a gig hap­pen­ing in Lon­don next month to co­in­cide with the film’s re­lease,” says Zahra. “But it’s one of those things that’s dif­fi­cult to quan­tify. Ev­ery­one keeps won­der­ing what city do I go to? What club do I go to? It’s re­ally not that at all. It started out as lit­tle pock­ets of peo­ple in dif­fer­ent cities around the world. They come across the book and got to­gether and find their way into it. There’s a whole net­work on Twit­ter and a whole net­work of blog­gers. We have 5,000 fans on our Face­book page, and there’s 6,000 more fol­low­ing The Kom­i­nas, who you see in the film. “There are a cou­ple of dozen mu­si­cians and pho­tog­ra­phers and writers all do­ing some­thing Taqwa­core. There’s an un­der­ground com­mu­nity in New York. There are bands that split up and re­form. There are peo­ple who are Taqwa­core who don’t al­ways wear a uni­form.” That sounds prop­erly punk and hard­core to us.

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