The Taqwacores – Film Review

by Bushra on March 22, 2011

“Is everyone here Muslim?” Yusef asks.

“From a certain point of view,” Umar replies.

So begins the movie The Taqwacores. A sophomore in college in Buffalo, New York, Yusef moves out of the dorms to live with Muslim roommates. His search for a new place to stay leads him to this one particular house where Umar, a burly guy with tattoos of “X”s on his hands, answers the door. Eventually, Yusef meets the rest of the rather diverse group of Muslims he now lives with – red-mohawked Jehangir, fully burqa’d Rabeya (you can’t even see her eyes), the seemingly always shirtless Ayyub, and Fasiq, a stoner. Yusef realizes rather quickly that his way of life is much different than that of his new housemates as they have all reconciled their practice of Islam with their punk way of life. As a result, Yusef ends up broadening his own definition of religion which at times, has him questioning his own practices.

The Taqwacores is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Michael Muhammand Knight. “Taqwacore” is the name given by Knight to reflect the Muslim punk rock scene. I’m going to go ahead and admit it – I’m not into punk. I don’t know anything about it and when I’ve tried to listen to it, I quickly come to the conclusion that it’s not my thing. Also, unlike most of the characters in this movie, I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs (coffee is NOT a drug!), have tattoos, or curse.

But I like good movies. And The Taqwacores? Good movie.

The movie is unexpectedly funny at times, awkward at others (intentionally I believe) and has some great dialogue and acting. As Yusef, Bobby Naderi plays the out-of-his-element Muslim well while Dominic Rains stole the show as Jehangir. While I did feel that a couple of scenes were controversial for controversy-sake, this movie is important for one simple reason – The Taqwacores is going to inspire conversations. What does it mean to be Muslim (or if you’re not Muslim, religious)? Can you really ever have the right to judge someone else because maybe their lifestyle doesn’t conform to what you know? And also, if you are the subject of being judged does that give you the right to do the same to others?

Case in point – As Jehangir organized a Taqwacores concert, he invited a band whose viewpoints differed from those of his and most of his housemates. He explained to Yusef that he still felt the need to invite them because if were to exclude this group, how would that make him different from all of those other people who exclude him for who he is?

Major caveat – this movie is not for everyone. The Taqwacores can be (more than) a bit crude and ever so slightly blasphemous. Ultimately, I’m glad I watched the film though. If a movie sparks an intense debate with a friend after you watch it, then you know you have come upon something that made you think. That’s never a bad thing.

The Taqwacores is directed by Eyad Zahra and stars Bobby Naderi, Dominic Rains, and Noureen DeWulf and will be out on DVD on April 5th.

{ 1 comment }

Note: I did the following interview for Illume Magazine. It’ll be posted there on Sunday.

I recently interviewed writer/director Qasim “Q” Basir about his movie Mooz-lum, a film about a Muslim-American trying to come to terms with himself and his faith. Mooz-lum has had a limited release in the United States has recieved generally positive reviews.

First of all, congratulations on the movie. Were you expecting the positive response that the movie has been receiving?

I didn’t really know what to expect. Honestly, I [didn't have] too many expectations because things are going to happen like they are supposed to so I really didn’t know what to expect. I hoped to have a positive reaction.

I noticed that everyone in the theater with me were really into the movie. Hopefully it will do well!

Yeah, I hope so. We’re really trying to see at this point if it it’s going to crossover into different audiences. That’s what we’re hoping. We made the film for two particular reasons. One was to create a voice, a more accurate voice for Muslims in America and another was to create some enlightenment for people who do not know much the story. I always hope that it crosses over.

Have you tried to market to an international audience? What kind of response are you hoping to get from them? Do you think they can relate to Mooz-lum like Western Muslims have?

Based on what we’ve seen, they might relate to it in a different way. They definitely relate to it on a very human level. We were at a film festival in Egypt and I did just come back from Toronto and we had a great response. There were certain parts of the film where people reacted to here that they did not react to over there. In general, people are really able to relate the humanity of the movie. It’s more so about the relationships, the times of happiness and sadness that people are able to connect to.

Has making this movie changed you at all?

Yes, it has actually. I’m always trying to grow and learn more about myself and life and sometimes you hit these roadblocks in your development for whatever reason and for me it was something I hadn’t dealt with in my life. By writing it and shooting it, I was able to really deal with those things and continue with my development. It was sort of therapeutic in a sense. The film is about this guy who is going through this journey towards self discovery. I think that’s something that we all go through. For me to be able to write that and shoot that, I went through that myself.

Who do you think has inspired you as a writer/filmmaker?

I inspired by those who paved the way for me to be here. I would not be here if it weren’t for people like Spike Lee and John Singleton. The different people who went full steam with this whole the black independent film thing. That kind of stuff inspires me. I think I would be remiss if I did not mention them individually and give them credit for creating this business for us.

As a Muslim american filmmaker writer, do you have any advice for Muslims in the West who are trying to break into this industry?

I just would say to keep yourself intact. They are going to pull you in a lot of ways and a lot of people say a lot of things: “You got to do whatever you got to do to make it.” Well, that’s true in a sense but that’s not true when it comes to compromising yourself and who you are and what you believe in. If what you believe in is real enough, legitimate enough, then you can make it in this business. It’s not going to be easy. This is one of the hardest industries in the world to make it in and that’s primarily because there are absolutely no guarantees and no real timelines of when you are going to make it. If you go to law school, you can pretty much guarantee yourself if you are on track of when you are going to graduate, get your juris doctorate in three years, and you’re going to take the bar on this date and if you don’t pass, you can take it again. But with this, there’s none of that. I want to shoot my movie next year but you might not get the budget for it in a decade so are you still going to be with it? That’s where the legitimacy comes in with what your doing and the faith in what your doing. And if it’s real enough, if you believe it enough, then it’s possible.

You had mentioned law school and I read that you had actually considered law school until you got into a car accident. Do you think your life had been different had you not been in that accident?

I know it would have been. I mean… I don’t know, I can’t really say that actually. I don’t know what would have happened if I had not been in that accident. I do know that the significance of that accident on my life was changed by it. It gave me this attitude and it allowed me to really buy in to the belief of not worrying about the smaller things because you lived through something like that. You start to look as life as a gift and that’s how i look at my life now. A gift. Every day, I’m here, I’m healthy, and doing something I love. Even when I was broke and starving I was still healthy. I have faith, and I have God, that’s the stuff that matters. I might have been hungry at times or might have been broke but I knew it was going to be okay. and I knew that I was doing what I was supposed to do here.

Is there something you want to say regarding Mooz-lum?

I want people to know the position we are with these theaters and how vital it is that people go out and support this movie and that we spread the word so it can cross over with other communities and theaters. If it doesn’t perform, they will take it out of theaters. This week, they’re taking us out of some theaters because it didn’t perform. I know for a fact that these places had people that could potentially be interested in watching this film. It would be great if we can get that kind of support from people.

Click here to visit Qasim Basir’s website. You can also read his articles on Huffington Post here.

{ 0 comments }

Pakistani American Playhouse Breaks New Ground

by Irfan on February 27, 2011

BY IRFAN RYDHAN for ILLUME MAGAZINE

Original article on Illume Magazine

Imran S. Javaid and Imran W. Sheikh, two young Pakistani-American Muslims, started “Parwaz Playhouse” – the first major Pakistani Theatre Company in the Fall of 2009. ILLUME caught up with them as they prepare for their latest production – an adaption of Eugene O’Neill’s “Beyond the Horizon”, which will begin performing to audiences on Feb. 25, 2011 in New York City

How did you come up with the idea to start a Pakistani-American Theatre company, and how did you come up with the name “Parwaz Playhouse”?

We both were working on the play “The Domestic Crusaders” by Wajahat Ali, when it was running in New York in Sept of 2009. While we were doing the rehearsals, I looked around and realized that we are all enjoying what we are doing and why can’t we keep this going and do more productions that focus on brown people like us. I discussed it with Imran Javaid, who is also a playwright, and he agreed it was a good idea. We also discussed it with Wajahat, who said we should go for it. So while working on the Domestic Crusaders, every night we started planning out how to start a theater company, what type of plays we would do, etc.

In terms of the name, I have always been of fan of Rod Serling’s “Playhouse 90”, so I knew I wanted Playhouse in the name of our theater company. Although we are both Pakistani and wanted to do stories on Pakistan and Pakistani-Americans, we didn’t want to limit ourselves with a name like “Pakistani Playhouse.” My mother suggested the Urdu word “Parwaz” (meaning “a bird’s first flight”), because it was used a lot by Alama Iqbal (famous Pakistani poet) in many of his ghazzals (urdu poetry).

What was the reaction of your family and friends when you started a Theatre Company for Pakistani-Americans?

IWS: There was a mixed reaction, but majority was positive. We received many wishes well in support. Everyone knows that there is a lot of negative images of Pakistanis and Muslims out there, so we feel it is our job to try to get through the negativity and show us as human beings. Theater is the study of the human condition. It’s a visual media and that is a key to be able to show American society who we are. We are giving a voice to our community and people understand that and are supporting us.

Usually there is a negative reaction when someone from our community (Pakistani) goes into a non-traditional field, something outside of medicine, engineering, etc. But if you study most civilizations, you will see that they start off with agriculture and then once they are settled in, they start getting into the arts. When our parents came here to this country, it was an alien landscape for them. They had to sacrifice and basically just work, sleep and take care of the kids. They stayed in traditional and conservative fields just to survive. But now it is up to our generation to go into the arts – acting and also politics and other different fields. We have the luxury to do that now, after our parents sacrificed for us.

Tell us a little about your first production called “Glass”

ISJ: Glass is a 30 minute play I wrote and directed. We performed it at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in November 2009. It takes place in a newsroom in a country very similar to Pakistan. A bombing happens outside and the play is basically about the role of the newspaper during a time of violence and how an editor and star reporter work together to cover the story. A government minister also visits the newsroom and we see the interaction between government and media.

IWS: The play was also selected for the Downtown Urban Theater Festival in April of 2010 and was one of only 3 performances to sell out to the point where people were turned away during the festival’s two week run.

Tell us about your latest production, “Beyond the Horizon” and how you adapted it for Pakistanis

ISJ: We chose to do an adaption of “Beyond the Horizon” because it is considered to be one of the first major American tragedies and we thought it would be great as our first full length play for the first Pakistani-American Theatre company. The original play was written in the 1910’s about a family of Irish descent that lives on a farm. A farmer has two sons – one who wants to leave the farm and see what’s out in the world and the other who wants to stay on the farm. And they are also both in love with the same girl. It’s a 3 act play that shows different time periods in the family’s life and how things don’t go as planned. It’s a tragedy, and won the Pulitzer in 1920.

Our adaption of the story takes place in 1960’s Pakistan. We set the play in a village near Karachi. It also deals with a family that is struggling with how to deal with some members wanting to leave the country and others wanting to stay – basically it is the story of our parent’s generation and how they left Pakistan, leaving many of their family and friends behind. The love story is still there. We stayed pretty close to O’Neill’s original story, though we did end up cutting out four of the ten characters so we could pare it down to about 90 minutes from 2 hours and 45 minutes.

What are some of your goals with this play and ultimately with your theatre company?

IWS: We wanted to show our parent’s experience with this story. Give a window to the public, both Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis, so people can see who we are. Give a voice to our community. One of our goals is to encourage more Pakistanis to enter the arts.

ISJ: There are a lot of talented people in our community and we want to create a forum to allow all that talent to flourish. There are set designers, costume designers, actors, etc. Art is a great unifier which can bring all these talented people together. We also want to make bridges to other communities.

IWS: But, at the end of the day, we’re out to produce good and entertaining theatre. Our ultimate goal is to have an actual brick and mortar building. But we know that is way down the road. Right now we are honored to put our play on at Theater for the New City in New York. They liked our work and they have supported many famous playwrights and actors over the years, so we are very honored to be able to work there.

{ 0 comments }

Review: MOOZ-lum

by Bushra on February 14, 2011

by Bushra Burney

In MOOZ-lum, writer/director Qasim “Q” Basir makes his feature film debut with a story about a Muslim-American named Tariq entering college. Tariq sees college as a place to reinvent himself as “T” after living a strict religious household with his father. He pushes him mom and sister away and stays distant from his Muslim roommate to ensure that a few lingering, unpleasant (to put it mildly) memories from a previous life at a madrasa do not surface. Yet with the onset of 9/11, Tariq has to figure out who he is and what he’s willing to stand up for.

MOOZ-lum truly is an amazing film. This movie could have easily been a preachy, heart-warming film about how good Muslims are but instead, Mr. Basir created a film that humanizes Muslims without it becoming an after school special on tolerance. Tariq’s crisis in faith is not an occurrence isolated to Muslims and therefore this isn’t a movie just for Muslims. I encourage everyone, despite which religion one belongs to (or doesn’t belong to), to watch MOOZ-lum because it’s an entertaining movie regardless, with a well told story and interesting characters. Even though there’s nary a car chase scene in sight, you will be on the edge of your seat at some moments in this movie. Don’t roll your eyes at that cliched statement – during one particular tense scene, I noticed that the girl sitting a few seats away from me was quite literally sitting at the edge of her seat, leaning forward, enthralled. It’s been a long time since something like that happened in the movies (maybe during Inception, I’ll grant you that;).

Many people have been clamoring for these narratives the United States, with even Katie Couric suggesting that a Muslim version of “The Cosby Show” may help with the image of Muslims in America. Qasim Basir succeeds in adding to the Muslim-American narrative with MOOZ-lum, a great movie that can be appreciated by anyone.

MOOZ-lum opened in select cities on February 11th. It’s produced by Peace Films and stars Evan Ross, Nia Long, Roger Guenveur Smith, Summer Bishil, and Dorian Missick.

{ 0 comments }

In a follow up to the award-winning documentary Afghan Star, which followed four finalists to Afghanistan’s answer to American Idol, Director Havana Marking returns with Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star, airing tonight on HBO2 at 8pm.

Ms. Marking follows up with one of the female finalists in her film, Setara Hussainzada. In her final singing performance moments on the TV show Afghan Star, after Setara found out she didn’t garner enough votes to continue, she danced on the stage with her scarf slipping off her head. Controversy ensued, resulting in many people, including clergy from her province making statements condemning her actions.

The film starts off with Setara’s attempts at becoming a singer and leaving Afghanistan to pursue a music career. However, after finding out that she’s pregnant, she returns back to Kabul to be with her husband. Ms. Marking films Setara as she comes to the grips with the reality that she may not sing for a while as she prepares for the life of a mother while still dealing with the consequences of her actions on stage as shown in Afghan Star.

This follow up documentary has a different feel from Afghan Star but is no less powerful.

Afghan Star was more hopeful – the country was embracing the arts and people finally got a say, even if it was a for a music show and the vote they gave was with a text. It depicted unity as people were supporting finalists who were not necessarily from their region.

Silencing the Song strikes a different chord. Although this documentary is more tragic than its predecessor, the viewer is given the rare opportunity to find out what happened to the person who didn’t win, the one who said they would still make a name for themselves despite the loss. That fact in and of itself makes this documentary significant. I highly recommend watching this documentary if you can.

Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star airs tonight on HBO2 at 8pm. It is preceded by an airing of Afghan Star, which should be viewed as well as it is an excellent documentary. The DVD for Afghan Star goes on sale on March 30.

{ 0 comments }

The Burgeoning Arts Scene Among Muslims

by Bushra on December 17, 2010

The New York Times had an article today about Muslim Americans making their mark in the U.S. with art. The article, titled Muslim American Artists Strive to Bridge a Chasm showcases several Muslim Americans here in the Bay Area in California and their use of art, literature, and poetry to help define the Muslim identity.

Thalia Gigerenzer of the New York Times writes:

At a time when Islam has been heavily politicized, many Muslim artists say they hope the arts can expand understanding of their faith among non-Muslims as well as bridge American and Islamic traditions.

“We’re at a point where Islam is really being defined in this country, and it’s going to be through the arts,” said Javed Ali, founder of Illume, a Muslim online news, arts and culture magazine based in Newark that serves as one of the central nodes of the Bay Area Muslim American network.

Read the whole article here.

Links to the people/organizations discussed in the article:
Illume Magazine
Islamic Cultural Center of North America (ICCNC)
Barakah Life
Remarkable Current
Zaytuna College
Domestic Crusaders

{ 0 comments }

Event: Domestic Crusaders Book Launch

by Bushra on December 4, 2010

Domestic Crusaders, a two-act play play about a Pakistani Muslim-American family has now been published by San Francisco based McSweeney’s. Playwright Wajahat Ali and McSweeney’s are hosting a book launch this Thursday, December 9th at UC Berkeley from 6-9pm.

From the Facebook event page:

The book event will include:

- A performance by hip hop artist/poet Baraka Blue
- A reading by poet and photographer Najva Sol
- A traditional Urdu poem performed by Umair and Emmad Khan
- A panel and Q + A with Ishmael Reed and Wajahat Ali
- A reading from the play
- A book signing
- light refreshments

Check out the event page on UC Berkeley’s website and the Facebook event page for more information.

{ 0 comments }

The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco is hosting an event on Monday, November 29th titled Bridging the Middle East and America Through Culture featuring Reza Aslan.

From the website:

American headlines about the Middle East often focus on terrorism, suicide bombings and escalating tensions. The mainstream media can create a massive American cultural blindspot around the literature, history and stories of the Middle East. A political commentator, New York Times best-selling author and an analyst on CBS News, Aslan is considered by some to be an American window to Islam. He is now looking to bridge the gap and share the best of the Middle East’s literary leaders. Join the acclaimed author and contributing editor to The Daily Beast as he brings you the cultural luminaries from Iran, Pakistan, Morocco and Turkey and beyond.

Reza Aslan will be joined by author Zoe Ferraris, playwright Wajahat Ali, and photographer/poet Najva Sol.

The event begins at 6:00pm in San Francisco. Click here for tickets.

{ 0 comments }

Book Review – Unimagined

by Bushra on November 19, 2010

UK publishing firm Legend Press is about to publish a new, revised limited edition of the book Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West, a book I reviewed a few years ago. The following is that review from 2007.

In Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West, Imran Ahmad narrates life growing up Pakistani and Muslim in England. Born in Karachi, he migrated to England with his family as a very young boy. Ahmad did his best to fit in a land dominated by those with a different religion and color of skin who were wary of the influx of immigrants living in their land. He weaves a heart-wrenching tale in which his struggles to overcome prejudices will surely leave you in tears.

Well, actually, not really.

Ahmad tells the tale of his life with an ever present humor which is evident from the start, beginning with mention of his entry in the “Bonnie Baby” contest in Karachi. He ended up losing to a boy who was the judges son, a sure sign of nepotism. It was that incident, Ahmad wrote, that began his lifelong struggle against corruption. In the recollection of his life, Ahmad weaves in humor so we may laugh, or at least smile, at all the good or bad that happens in his life.

At the bottom of every page, Ahmad includes the time period and his age so the reader can know exactly how old the author was at any particular point in the book. The reader follows Ahmad along while he learns about Islam, his experience in the different schools he’s been to, his struggles with women, and encounters with Evangelical Christians.

Those who were ‘born Muslim’ to immigrants in a place like American or England may find something in common with Ahmad, as he didn’t even know about the fundamentals of Islam until he was put in Islamic school. There, he learned the ‘why’ of all the things that he was doing or supposed to be doing. Before that, he was oblivious of the facts of Islam. Ahmad then shares his knowledge of Islam in a few of his sub chapters, obviously meant for readers who have little or no knowledge of the subject to aid in their understanding of what Ahmad believes in. Unfortunately, at times Ahmad passes on something he learned in Islamic School that isn’t quite right, such as the belief that Satan, Iblis to Muslims, was a fallen angel while Satan is actually a jinn.

Generally, I really liked the book. However, I took offense at one part as a Muslim. Close to the end, Imran Ahmad stated that he was lucky to have grown up the way he had, by parents who were not ignorant or fundamentalists. He then followed the line by stating that his dad was always clean shaven and that his mom never wore the hijab. Those two sentences one after the other suggests that Ahmad equates a bearded man and a woman wearing hijab as ignorant. Whether or not Ahmad thinks a beard or hijab are necessary, he shouldn’t pass judgment on those who choose to adopt them.

I do think Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West is worth reading since it’s funny and entertaining. It was also incredibly ‘readable.’ I wanted to keep on reading it and find out what was going to happen next. Do keep in mind that these are memoirs and not a religious book. With that in mind, Unimagined is a good read.


…..

Check out the comments from the original post in which the author responded to a couple of things in my review.

{ 0 comments }

Book Review – The Butterfly Mosque

by Bushra on July 19, 2010

by Bushra Burney

Meet G. Willow Wilson. She’s an American. She lived in Egypt for a while. She converted to Islam. She fell in love with a local. She wrote a book about all of this called The Butterfly Mosque. You should read it.

After graduating from college in the summer of 2003, Wilson leaves for Cairo to work as a teacher in an English-language school. Thanks to a series of events beforehand, Wilson, who had been brought up as an atheist, knew one thing: that if she boarded that plane to Cairo, she would become a Muslim. Keeping that bit of information from her family and friends, she starts her life in Cairo as a closet Muslim and that’s when she meets Omar, who she soon marries.

With The Butterfly Mosque, the author really has something great on her hands. She strikes a balance with all three of the stories she tells – the travel memoir, her discovery and path to Islam, finding love with someone halfway across the world, and presents a narrative that is never preachy nor self indulgent while offering a unique insight into life abroad.

This book isn’t just about Wilson though, it’s also about all the people with whom she interacts. She gives Egyptians, and with her trip to Iran, Persians, an identity that sometimes gets lost among all that we hear about the Middle East here in the United States. This reminds me of something my Arabic teacher once said – as an Egyptian who had moved to the U.S. a few years ago, he had not even considered himself Arab until he came here and was instantly classified as such.

I have to admit, I’m already fan of Wilson’s. I liked her graphic novel Cairo and her comic Air is one of only two monthly comic book titles I read. Yet, this book isn’t just limited to fans of her comic books. The author succeeds in writing a book that can be appreciated by many audiences. One can read The Butterfly Mosque to get a glimpse into the life of an American living in another country while someone else may be curious about the issues Wilson discusses that inevitably result from a cross cultural relationship and from her odyssey into Islam.

In the end, The Butterfly Mosque isn’t just another memoir. G. Willow Wilson’s voice differentiates it from so many other books. Her affable manner in conjunction with her sense of humor and resolve has the ability to really connect with the reader. Simply put, I really liked this book and can’t recommend it enough.

The Butterfly Mosque is published by Atlantic Monthly Press and was released June 1st. Read it! I command you…

{ 0 comments }