This post is an extended version of my review that appears in Heeb Magazine.
The Taqwacores is a kick, a film that brings a more expansive view of Islam to the screen than you’re likely picturing if you’ve been seriously fretting the appearance of a mosque in a former Burlington Coat Factory in downtown Manhattan recently. Michael Knight’s originally self published book describes a world in which a collective of Muslim rebelling misfits live together in an old school “punk house” in Buffalo New York. There they challenge their personal and religious boundaries which we’re exposed to through the viewpoint of (at least) initially “straight” resident Yusef. The title comes from the amalgam of “Taqwa’ (an arabic word suggesting piety or god fearing) and ‘Hardcore’ the fast paced stripped down style of punk rock. For a community where ‘could lead to dancing’ may well be a serious concern this is truly subversive material.
Yusef, an engineering student in Buffalo, is searching for an apartment off campus. As the film starts he’s inquiring about a room to share with a group of other Muslims. His family feels that such a shared environment would be good for him and “keep him out of trouble.” As per the laws of nature, or at least those of movie irony, we know from the outset that this housing situation is going to be more complex than he bargained for. Not that this really should have been lost on Yusef either - as he’s led on a tour of the house one of the first things he sees is a Saudi flag with an anarchy symbol painted on it. The rest of the house’s decor is equally subtle, looking very much as CBGB’s would have appeared if it were re-imagined as a youth hostel. For reasons that are not altogether clear given his conservative bent, Yusef signs on for living in the house - a decision that seems to constantly press on his comfort zone.
Through Yusef we are introduced to the rest of the roommates, each an archetype within the spectrum of punk rock (straight edge, skater, drunken goofus, mohawked fellow, etc.). NOT what Yusef was expecting when he knocked on that door. The kicker of course is that they All consider themselves practicing Muslims, all questioning their faith in different ways though, which inevitably causing conflict in the house, and not just what you’d expect with a skinhead and a old school punk sharing the same house (itself an issue for the ages addressed in the 7 Seconds classic ‘Walk Together - Rock Together’). I expect that this questioning of faith is more unexpected within Islam - as evidenced by the absolute shock Yusef displays when confronted by the fact that Rabeya the burka wearing ‘riot grrrl’ has crossed out portions of the Koran. She reasonably (or blasphemously, depending on your view) explains that the portion about a man beating his wife bothered her deeply, but she’s felt much better since taking a marker to the page. Such questioning about what is or is not true Islam is key to the film - the author’s message that while having different clothes, colors of hair, and liking different bands they are all true to the same faith (at least that’s how I see it). Or better put by Jehangir who gets almost all the great lines in the film “Allah is too big, and too open for my Islam to be small and closed”. I suspect it’s that sort of progressive dialog, as well as his other great line in the film “it’s only Muslims who use the term ‘innovation’ to mean something bad”, that will make some peoplevery uncomfortable with the material - which is why I imagine Knight’s work has been so well received by many others.
The arc of the story is modest and from what I can tell follows the book pretty closely. Yusef moves into the house and begins to grapple with the concept that it’s not wrong to be different. The various groups argue and occasionally fight, but continue to come together to pray considerably more than in any punk house I’m familiar with. As Yusef’s learns more about the other housemates his feelings towards what being a good Muslim, and possibly a good person mean seems to evolve. He struggles with temptation as well - most directly in the persona of Lynn a young, partial convert to Islam with let’s just say more traditional US college students sexual mores. I felt Yusef was changing, but one of the weaknesses of the film is that I’m not exactly how and to what degree the environment alters him as a person. At times equally perplexing is why he moved into the house in the first place. I ended the film feeling he he purposefully did the thing that scared him and was molded by the experience - in which case good for him. The final portion of the film ends with some punch as Jehangir (the one with the best hair and probably the choicest role) imports a series of Taqwacore bands from California - including a conservative punk band (Bilal’s Boulder) that doesn’t go over so well with the more liberal members of the house (for example the women, gay, and drinking members of the community). But that sequence allows the story to come to a definitive end to the arc, though we’re cast out with the need to interpret for ourselves what to make of the proceedings.
Clearly the source material speaks directly and deeply to at least a subset of Muslim youth who have been said to have passed the xeroxed pages of the book from person to person in its early years until it found a publisher. I’d imagine that for conservatively raised kids the view that they could both retain their faith and stray away from their elders definition of it must have been a spiritual mind-fuck far beyond that of my personal revelation that bacon is rather delicious. The clearest indication of the power of the material is that the fictional construct of taqwacore bands created by Mr. Knight has since become a reality. A documentary (Taqwacore - The Birth of Punk Islam) about some of these bands on tour with Michael Knight is also making the rounds of the festival circuit. My thoughts on that and a recounting of the sadly not very punk rock disagreement I had with the filmmaker’s entourage in that case are chronicled elsewhere. A bit of self disclosure - having lived in Buffalo for 7 years coming via NYC where I was definitely into the hardcore punk scene I have more than a casual affinity to this material. But I don’t believe one needs that - and in fact I think having that may actually hurt due to an ability to over analyze the sub-genre of the characters in the “punk” continuum. Though I suspect folks from all walks of life will recognize the over the top militant straight edge dude.
I liked the low-budget DIY feel of The Taqwacores which I think fit in well with the punk aesthetic that the filmmakers were trying to cultivate. From time to time they take the imagery to black and white evoking xeroxed show fliers or punk zines from the 80’s - a nice touch. And having spent time in Buffalo - while there aren’t a lot of exteriors onscreen the ones they use evoke the town I remember just as accurately as Buffalo 66 did (though in reality Taqwacores was filmed in Cleveland). The actors deliver on their roles well - though I felt at times their believability as fully formed people was challenged by the the level of caricature of the punk types and simplification of the script’s dialog at times. One area in which the movie excels in comparison with the novel is the degree of difficulty for non-Muslim viewers. Both require close attention because they’re throwing around tons of religious lingo that wasn’t covered at Temple Sholom’s Hebrew school’s comparative religion hour. At times for me the book was as confusing for me as I’d imagine it’d be for ones shiksa girlfriend listening to you go on and on about tallis and tefillin. Sadly the film has far fewer references to Minor Threat relative to the book. Those I’m quite sure I would have gotten.
It’s an interesting if less than deeply engaging work. At some basic level I like the idea of the film more than the movie itself. If I were in NYC or LA when it opens (this weekend in NYC) I’d probably try to catch a theatrical screening with folks who may have a more personal connection with the material. I think that could only add to the viewing experience. As someone raised in a questioning environment the material didn’t resonate with me on a personal level. All in all I found it an entertaining enough affair full of energy and delivering its simple message to question authority in a positive way. Some points off for the meandering, particularly the why is he here what did he learn aspect of Yusef as written. But if you look at it more as a slice of life film than something with a dramatic arc I think one won’t be too disappointed. In addition to some solid soundtrack support from Taqwa bands depicted in the documentary (love the rude boy version of Shariah Law in the USA by The Kominas paying tribute to the Sex Pistols that plays over the intro) the filmmakers saved some bucks to mix in classic Bad Brains over a key concert montage towards the picture’s conclusion. Which I’ll admit - may have bumped up my evaluation slightly.
Oh - and if you get really into the film (or the book) you’ll thank me for pointing to this fellow’s Taqwacore to Heathen Glossary (my name, not theirs).