Imagine a Muslim prayer service being conducted by a punk rocker in a Mohawk. That's just one scene in a locally-produced movie shown this past weekend at the Cleveland International Film Festival. It's a story about young Muslims trying to find their identity in post-9/11 America. ideastream®'s David C. Barnett has more.
SOUND: Walking up old house steps…UP & UNDER
Eyad Zahra has returned home. Or, more precisely, he's returned to a trashed-out west side Cleveland apartment building that served as home for the characters in a new film. He shot it here, two years ago. In fact, the story opens in this very hallway, as a college student, named Yusef, is taken on a tour by the landlord. Practically every inch of wall space is covered with spray-painted images and statements --- some political, some sarcastic, some obscene. In the film, Yusef has been looking for an all-Muslim house off-campus, where he can live and practice his faith. But, he's not sure about this place.
FILM CLIP: "So, is everyone here Muslim?"
"Yes, from a certain point of view."
"Well, I didn't expect the house to look like this"
Based on a novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, the film is called, "The Taqwacores", a name which mashes two ideas together "Taqwa" --- the Islamic concept of piety --- with a "hardcore" punk rock attitude. Obedience vs. Anarchy. Eyad Zahra says his parents are starting to feel the heat from advanced publicity about his film.
EYAD ZAHRA: Certain family friends have called them up and said, "What's going on here? What's wrong with Eyad? Has he lost his mind?"
The movie is about a group of young Muslims, who feel alienated from a post-9/11 American culture that sees Islam as a spawning ground for terrorists.
FILM CLIP: These Moslems, they don't respect freedom, they don't respect capitalism, and they don't respect our way of life.
At the same time, these young people feel estranged from their own conservative religious upbringing. During the course of the film, the characters violate many accepted rules of their faith --- they drink copious amounts of beer…a woman leads a prayer service in one scene… and in another, she crosses out a passage in her Koran that she disagrees with.
Isam Zaiem hasn't seen the film yet, but he's heard the buzz about it, and such scenes make him uncomfortable.
ISAM ZAIEM: For Muslims, the Koran is the true word of God. And to challenge God's words by crossing them off, borders on blasphemy as far as I'm concerned.
Zaiem is President of the Ohio chapter of the Council of American - Islamic Relations. He's also a friend of Eyad Zahra's family, and says he understands the youthful urge to rebel.
ISAM ZAIEM: I have a lot of respect for him and his family and I think Eyad is a good person. It's just that sometimes when you're young, you may do things that, later on in life, you say "I wish I didn't do it".
But, the movie's band of Muslim rebels aren't out to trash their religion. One striking moment during the film involves a visit to the Grand Mosque in Parma. Yusef and his house mates tone down their punk demeanor for this quiet and reverent scene, which Eyad Zahra says is central to the film
EYAD ZAHRA: I grew-up in that mosque. To me, it was important that we shoot there, because it showed that, yes, they are Muslim --- they are flawed. Everywhere else in the film, they made mistakes, but here in this mosque shows the core of what they were trying to be and who they are.
At one point, a mohawked guitarist speaks to his frustration… and to his faith.
FILM CLIP: Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.
RAMI MIKATI: I really like that.
Rami Mikati is a graduate student in Biology at Kent State University. He says he doesn't feel bound by what some define as the rules and regulations of Islam.
RAMI MIKATI: When you have all these rules, you might forget what the essence is about. And, to me, the essence of being a good Muslim is --- are you a good person? Which is pretty much the essence to any religion, because if you strip down religions to their bare concepts, it's: be a good person. Be a good human being.
MUSIC: "Sharia Law in the USA" by the Kominas UP & UNDER
The soundtrack of "The Taqwacores" pulses with the music of several Muslim punk rock bands. Like Eyad Zahra, these musicians were inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight's book.
EYAD ZAHRA: People don't believe it --- Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They can't imagine a punk Muslim scene forming, but it's true --- there are bands playing this music and people around them identifying with it and with the spirit of the novel. And it's growing.
Zahra hopes his film will provoke more discussion about what it means to be a Muslim. He says there's a hunger for that conversation.
MUSIC: UP AND OUT