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"The Taqwacores" Sheds Light on Mixed Identities in Muslim World

Novel-turned-film looks at the volatile cocktail of punk and Islam
Reviewed by Omid Arabian

When it was released (barely) in theaters last year, Eyad Zahra's film "The Taqwacores" met with reviews that were tepid at best. I missed the film in that go-round but caught it on DVD (just released), and as usual found myself disagreeing with mainstream critics.

In case you missed it too, "The Taqwacores," based on Michael Muhammad Knight's 1994 novel of the same name, focuses on a group of young Muslim punks living in a house in Buffalo. The group is introduced through the eyes of Yusuf (Bobby Naderi), a first-generation Pakistani med student that opts to live in the house presumably to avoid the perils of dormitory life. Straitlaced, virginal and as nerdy as it gets, Yusuf is the perfect foil for the hot mess of idiosyncrasies that comprises the other residents and their friends. These include the cross-dressing Muzzamil (Tony Yalda), the pot-obsessed Fasiq (Ian Tran) and a burka-clad banshee named Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf) who is given to crossing out parts of the Quran because they no longer suit her. 

But Yusuf is most taken with Jehangir, a magnanimous, guitar-playing dreamer sporting a wild red mohawk. Jehangir is the de-facto leader of this ragtag gang, keeping them in line and out of trouble with the surly housemaster Umar (Nav Mann). The plot, what there is of it, involves Yusuf's gradual initiation into the Muslim-punk universe and Jehangir's attempt to organize a Taqwacore music-fest right inside the communal house. But "The Taqwacores" is really about its characters and their quest to carve a tiny niche in the darkly labyrinthine outer reaches of Islam.

Whether acknowledged or not, every religious group includes those who have outgrown orthodoxy, tradition, dogma and all the other limitations of organized religion, but are not yet ready or willing to let go of the religion altogether. That reluctance is usually rooted in the fear of being left without an identity, without something to cling to in the abysmal ocean of everyday life. All the punks in "The Taqwacores" are, more or less, living examples of this paradox, but Jehangir is the only one who expresses it explicitly. He tells Yusuf how much he yearns to be like Johnny Cash, "a fuckin' everyman beyond time and place;" but confesses to feeling too small, "too wrapped up in (his) mix-matching of disenfranchised subcultures."  

Though Yusuf provides the audience point of view here, this is really Jehangir's story-his ongoing struggle with self and identity is at the film's core. Jehangir tries to live his ideal of unity, integration and acceptance even as he recognizes the profoundly fragmenting effects of clinging to any identity-punk, Muslim or anything else. He continually fights for the inclusion of those deemed too extreme by the "establishment." Case in point is his insistence on inviting the band Bilal's Border to the Taqwacore fest, despite their admittedly misogynistic and homophobic stance-a move that, ironically, leads to Jehangir's ultimate demise. The Iranian-born actor Dominic Rains (ne Amin Nezamzadeh) plays Jehangir with an impressive amount of gusto and heart, striking a fine balance between likeability and volatility.

As with most indies, "The Taqwacores" features a tiresomely episodic structure and wildly uneven acting-which is probably why it wasn't a big critical or box-office smash. But the film is thoughtfully written and directed, and often speaks in eloquent visuals. My favorite is a shot of Yusuf waking up after a night of debauchery to find an uninvited overnight guest carrying out the morning prayer on the bathroom floor while wearing a leather jacket adorned with the Israeli flag (which, in the world of Muslim punk, is apparently the equivalent of wearing a Swastika). Most of all, "The Taqwacores" is worth a look for the light it shines upon the contradictions of living in a world structured upon precarious identities.


Omid Arabian is the film editor of the Levantine Review.