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