If there was ever an example of life imitating art The Taqwacores is it. Muslim convert Michael Muhammed Knight created it initially as a zine which he photocopied and distributed himself before it was published in 2004 by Hakim Bey’s radical Autonomedia. The novel depicts an imagined American Islamic punk scene which takes its name from ‘taqwa,’ an Arabic word meaning ‘consciousness of the divine’. Not only did the book gain a cult following, it directly inspired bands such as The Kominas and Al-Thawra, spawning a real life Taqwacore movement.
Now Eyad Zahra has brought Knight’s vision to the big screen. His feature, like the novel, tells the story of Yusef (Bobby Naderi), an American-Pakistani Engineering student who moves into a new house in Buffalo and in so doing inadvertently becomes part of a world unlike anything he has previously known. Covered in anarchist flags, graffiti and vomit, the house is a refuge for young Muslims who don’t quite fit in. These include Rabeya (Noureen Dewulf) a burka sporting riot grrrl who crosses out the sections of the Quran that she doesn’t need any more; pink mohican-ed Jehanghir (Dominic Rains) who plays the call to prayer on his electric guitar and dreams of being Johnny Cash; a semi-nude skinhead called Amazing Ayyub (Volkan Erayaman), weed smoking skater Fasiq (Ian Tran) and earnest beefcake Umar (Nav Mann).
With its irreverent script, stylised cinematography and banging soundtrack, the Taqwacores succeeds in creating a vivid atmosphere. It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with identity in terms of, as Jehanghir calls it, a ‘mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures’. And yet there’s something far too lightweight about the Taqwacores. The characters lack nuance and too often the plot feels laboured and predictable. This isn’t the only film to have been based on the novel. In Omar Majeed’s 2009 documentary, Taqwacores: the Birth of Punk Islam,Knight joinsthe Kominas on tour as they bring Taqwacore to the streets of Pakistan. I know which film I’d rather be watching.