by MARK JENKINS
Bobby Naderi (left) plays an engineering student who moves into an all-Muslim house in New York and unexpectedly gets drawn into the punk lifestyle of — and tensions among — housemates including guitarist Jehangir (Dominic Rains).
- Director: Eyad Zahra
- Genre: Comic Drama
- Running Time: 84 minutes
Not rated: Profanity, sexual situations, partial nudity, drug use.
With: Bobby Naderi, Noureen DeWulf, Dominic Rains
In English, with some Arabic.
Taqwacore — the Islamic punk-rock scene willed into being by Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 cult novel of the same name — isn’t a single subculture. It’s a dozen or more, including radical and traditional, straight and gay, hedonistic and abstemious. The Taqwacores, Eyad Zahra’s feature-film adaptation of the book, vigorously captures that diversity, and while there’s not much of a story, there is a whole lot of stuff going in a whole bunch of different directions.
Knight, who co-wrote the film, is a white American who converted to Islam as a teen, in part to escape an abusive father. He invented the idea of “taqwacore,” which combines the Arabic term for “God consciousness” with the latter part of “hard-core.” When his novel was published, there was no such thing, but subsequently taqwacore has blossomed, mostly in the U.S. It has attracted a few of the faithful, as well as some who are skeptical of the religion in which they were raised.
The movie begins with the arrival of the audience’s surrogate, Yusef (Bobby Naderi). He’s a Pakistani-American engineering student whose parents are happy to hear he’s found an all-Muslim group house. But none of the current inhabitants of the heavily graffitied building is anything like the upright, unquestioning newcomer: His housemates include perennially shirtless skateboarder Ayyub (Volkan Eryaman), red-mohawked guitarist Jehangir (Dominic Rains), heavily made-up gay “Khalifornian” Muzzamil (Tony Yalda) and Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), an outspoken feminist who has chosen to wear a burqa.
With beer in the fridge and a porn mag in the living room, conflict is inevitable. Caught having sex during a wild party, Ayyub is evicted by iron-pumping moralist Umar (Nav Mann). Spiky-headed Indonesian stoner Fasiq (Ian Tran) sermonizes on the Allah-given virtues of pot at Friday night prayers. Yusef himself, meanwhile, is attracted to Lynn (Anne Leighton), a sexy semi-convert who is disgusted to learn that he’s saving himself for marriage. These in-house tensions are punctuated by right-wing TV and radio rants against Islam.
The movie’s defining event isn’t a dramatic scene, but a capstone concert organized by Jehangir and depicted in a rush of shattered black-and-white images. While the bands who perform at the house seem to be fictional, some of the film’s music is by such genuine taqwacore groups as the Kominas.
Because the music is less distinctive than its sentiments, that final burst of bash-and-bawl punk is something of a letdown — but then the director, disguising clunky dialogue and low-budget production values with quick cuts and heavy shadows, isn’t concerned with traditional story structure. Unapologetically episodic, the movie is designed to awe and shock — with band names like “Boxcutter Surprise,” for instance — and to plunge viewers into a world whose fury is half exotic and half typical of any group of unruly adolescents.
Ideally, The Taqwacores should be seen with Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, a new documentary that provides a better sense of the scene’s aims and motivations. Zahra’s jumpy feature film captures much of taqwacore’s energy, but less of its meaning.