As a Muslim-American growing up in Cleveland, Eyad Zahra experienced the struggle of fitting into American culture.
Driving home from an Islamic conference in Detroit with his father, two pick-up trucks cordoned the Zahra family car on the highway, then pelted it with beer cans.
As an American Muslim studying film at Florida State University, Zahra learned about the struggles of fitting into Islamic culture.
Active in the university’s Muslim student group at the time, a co-ed told him flatly that film “was not a Muslim profession.”
Years later, while working as a freelance film producer in Los Angeles, Zahra read about The Taqwacores, an underground novel by Muslim convert Michael Muhammad
The 254-page book tells the fictional story of Yusef Ali, a Pakistani engineering student in Buffalo, New York, whose life and religion get a complete overhaul and new lease on life when he moves off-campus. There, he lives with a group of renegade feminists, stoners and punk-rock Muslims with a taste for partying in the tradition of old-time Sufi mystics.
The book title itself — a fusion of the Arabic word “taqwa,” or love and understanding of God, followed by the suffix common to popular music genres — was enough to take Zahra’s breath away.
“Everything sort of stopped for a minute,” Zahra said. “Almost immediately I got hold of a copy and read it in a couple of sittings. It said out loud so many things I had thought myself about being an American Muslim.”
Zahra stopped every other project he was working on to meet Knight. He sent the writer a copy of his first film, “Stringed Instruments.” Not long after the two met in person at New York City’s Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in New York City, Zahra cut to the chase. He wanted to turn Knight’s book into a movie.
Filmed on a shoe-string budget in Cleveland, where many of the film’s acting cast slept in the basement of the Zahra
family home, “The Taqwacores” is one of several films screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival dealing directly with, or tilting around, Islamic themes.
“Kick in Iran,” “Fix ME,” “The Oath,” “Son of Babylon” and “Women Without Men” take on geopolitical issues of the Middle East. More personal is “Bilal’s Stand, ” which explores the life of a black Muslim teen torn between the family business and upward mobility.
By virtue of its surface and subject matter, it’s safe to say that “The Taqwacores” is the most raucous of the group. At the very least, it’s the only film of its kind, a modern and Islamic bildungsroman of an uptight young man confronted by peers who identify as Muslim, but in ways he’s never known or considered.
Riffing on the Sufi imagery of drunkenness and romantic sexual love of Persian poet Rumi, young punkers help Yusef find his own tools for the creation of a new, individualistic Islam at home in both tradition and the secular world.
Zahra’s film adaptation depicts the confusion and struggles of youth, while telling a parallel story about the challenge of creating breathing room for a distinctly American brand of Islam. In the process, the film makes mince of post-9/11 conceptions about the religion, and even bends the curve on how most Muslims see themselves.
“Whatever the media picks up and calls ‘Muslim’ is beyond our control,” Zahrid said. “All we can do is tell our own stories. This is a movie that shows what normal young, American Muslims deal with. Events in Yemen or other places don’t define us as American Muslims. At the same time, Muslims try to make themselves out as perfect creatures, when the reality is that we’re very diverse.”
Speaking from Harvard University where he’s currently studying for a master’s degree in Islamic studies, Knight said the film adaptation of his book couldn’t have turned out better. A convert from his family’s Roman Catholic faith at age 16, Knight, now 32, experienced a crisis of faith after spending two years at a religious school in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Disillusioned by Islam’s fundamentalist tendencies, and convinced that all religion was flawed to an extent by teachings that strayed from their founding figures, he nevertheless felt he could not surrender his Muslim identity. The do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock, he said, became a sort of mosque without a stern imam.
“I remember going to Sufi shrines in Lahore where, every Thursday night, they bring out their drums, they bring out their weed [hash], and bang on drums and sing to Ali — and that’s Islam,” Knight said. “I’m not trying to show non-Muslims how diverse Islam is. I don’t think most Muslims know how diverse Islam is. It’s full of characters who rebelled against the orthodoxy and were sometimes killed for it. It’s a rich, rich tradition.”