Punk rock and Islam are not a common dichotomy, so when I received an invite to attend a screening of the documentary Taqwacor: The Birth of Punk Islam at the East End Film Festival last Thursday, I was very intrigued indeed. I mean its not everyday that you get to have a peek at what makes the Islamo-punk subculture tick.
This 80 minute Canadian-production directed by Omar Majeed is a long overdue look at how the underground Arab street music scene is evolving far from the media spotlight. For too long now, young Muslim men have only been associated with be-speckled chemistry students gone wrong carrying a massive kebab on their shoulders.
Inspired by Michael Muhammed Knight’s 2003 fictional novel “The Taquacores” in which he imagines a community of Muslim radicals such as Mohawked Sufis, riot grrrls in burquas, Indonesian skaters, Sudanese rude boys and gay Muslims, the subculture it has inspired has since become a very real and multi-faceted underground phenomenon.
The Tour Bus
Punk bands such as the all-girl Secret Trial featuring a Pakistani lesbian from Vancouver, Al-Thawra who pound heavy metal beats into Arabic drone, and the Pakistani punkers central to the film’s denouement, Boston’s The Komina’s ('The bastards' in Urdu), have all gained a loyal following in the US.
The movement presents itself as being against Muslim traditionalists in their own communities and against the clichés forced upon them from the outside “we’re giving the finger to both sides,” says one Taqwacore. “Fuck you and fuck you.”
One of the funniest moments in the documentary is when The Kominas thrash out a song about Guantanamo Bay at the largest Muslim gathering in North America, in front of bemused muslim conservatives and young giggling hijabi girls, who appeared to take a shining to the beatles on crack-style band.
The police were called in to remove them from the stage, and in true rock’n’roll fashion, the Pakistani guitarist started smashing his guitar on the pavement whilst ironically chanting “music is ha ram(un-holy)."
The film then travels with the band to Pakistan, where members of the first Taqwacore band, The Kominas, bring punk to the streets of Lahore.
The Komina's Album Cover: Controversial to say the least! it made a Boston Globe critic’s Top 10 list for 2008.
My favourite soundbite of the film is “Saying 'I want to fuck you during Ramadan' is as punk rock as you can get.”
The screening was then followed by a zeitgeist-style panel discussion chaired by UK filmmaker Hammad Khan, attended by none other than the producer of Infidel, an extremely self-assured, eloquent and intelligent lady who reiterated the role of humour in building cultural bridges and combat people's perception of young western Muslims.
Interestingly, whilst the panel discussion centred around how film and music can be used as means of confronting and dealing with race, faith and identity in a post post-9/11 and 7.7 era, the audience wanted to focus the discussions on the punk rock element of the film, comparing the movement to the 70's and early 80's punk rock scene which was all about rebelling against the mainstream and being anti-establishment. Interestingly, the q&a session from the audience ended up being about who knew about punk rock or defended punk rock the best, which goes to show that the movement is still alive in people's minds all these generations later.