“This film is meant to spark a lot of different ideas and create a lot of different discussions,” says Eyad Zahra, the director of The Taqwacores, a film that asks more questions than most. Eyad is in town with Dominic Rains, who plays the film’s star, a magnetic, Mohawk-sporting Koran-quoting Muslim punk called Jehangir.
The Taquacores tells the story of a rather square and naive Pakistani Muslim engineering student who moves into an unusual Islamic centre in Buffalo, New York State. The inhabitants are representatives of a lesser known youth sub-culture: Muslim punks. Not only is the place plastered in graffiti and all the house mates are kitted out in torn denim and leather, but they have in-depth discussions about all their actions in light of Koranic instruction. It is a film of ideas.
The Taqwacores was originally a novel written in zine format by American Muslim convert Michael Muhammed Knight. After reading the book, Ehad, whose parents moved to the US from Syria, felt as if it was written for him, “I wanted to get those ideas out there.” But, he says, what made The Taqwacores punk wasn’t just “having these characters bang drums and play guitars. It was more about the discussions they had.” This is theology with a healthy dose of never mind the dogma.
Handsome and thoughtful, Dominic Rains was born Amin Nazemzadeh in Tehran in 1982. In the mid-eighties his family fled to London to escape the horrific war with Iraq. Although they later moved to the US after five years, Dominic feels his time in the UK had a formative effect on his character – it also left him with a nifty English accent which he demonstrates a few times in the film. He feels that the key to the Taqwacores’ understanding of Islam is the importance given to individual understanding. “Interpretation has to brew into something that becomes either solely ours or we start living someone else’s idea. The beauty of this film is to somehow break down the walls and, just for a moment in time, allows Islam and punk to be the individual’s… and not something that’s controlled.”
The film contains quite a lot of discussion about what is Islamic and what is not. Jehangir, Dominic’s character, at one point explains that drinking tea is considered makruh, that is it is frowned upon, but not actually haram or sinful. “We tried to stay true to the novel” says Eyad, “but it’s important to have that vernacular amongst these characters, because they are still Muslim, and if you strip that away they’re just caricatures of Muslims.” Eyad also makes the point that rather than spoon feeding the trickier points to the audience this approach properly respects their intelligence, before adding, “we get away with it because it is a punk film… and the end the audience can Google it.”
The book contains even fuller discussions about doctrine, chapter and verse than appear in the movie, but the UK edition was edited to remove controversial elements. “The book has been out for a while and it gets reactions and gets people talking,” says Eyad, “I think that is a reflection of how understanding and diverse the Muslim community is.” Although the media often bring up the fear of strong reactions from certain sections of the Muslim community, for Eyad, anger towards Terry Jones and his Koran burning, among other examples, is rooted in a reaction to hate-filled and insincere provocation. “Obviously [Muslim] people do get a little perturbed by what they see or hear about this film,” he goes on “but ultimately I feel that people understand where it is coming from so although they might not like it, they still give it some respect.”