Monday, August 01, 2011

HBO's Koran By Heart: Can't contest this documentary's greatness

This week's installment in HBO Documentary Films' summer series, Koran By Heart, is being promoted mainly as a film about the International Holy Koran Competition where young Muslims from around the world descend on Cairo to compete in a spelling bee-like competition testing their skills at reciting the Koran, both in terms of memorization and presentation. While that is the major focus of director Greg Barker's film, Koran By Heart tackles so much more than the competition and contains a richness and universality that makes the documentary a film that should be required viewing for everyone.

The documentary covers the 2010 competition which, as the contest always has, occurs during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, which begins today and commemorates the month when the first verses of the Koran were said to have been revealed to Mohammed. Because of the Arab Spring, particularly with Hosni Mubarak's ouster in Egypt, it wasn't clear if there would be an International Holy Koran Competition this year, especially in Cairo. Google news searches could find similar contests being held in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but no mention of the large contest or, of the documentary's most fascinating figure, Dr. Salem Abdel-Galil, deputy minister of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Egypt, who coordinates the contest. I could find no news stories indicating if this self-proclaimed moderate Muslim warning against extremism and fundamentalists still holds his post, but found that he does have a public figure page on Facebook.

Dr. Salem does take on a monumental task in arranging the event. He lets his staff handle the logistics, which would be overwhelming alone, making certain that 110 competitors from 70 different countries all make it to Cairo for the event. They range in age from their early 20s to as young as 7 and some, even the young ones, come without adult chaperones. The reciters, as they are called, all are Muslims, but all hail from different parts of the world and have learned to memorize the Koran in Arabic even though many do not speak Arabic and don't understand the content of what they are saying. While Salem's staff takes care of the administrative side, he concerns himself with what he calls "the creative" side, namely orchestrating how the contest runs. He chooses the questions and decides the criteria for judging the reciters. "The Koran is the only book that can be completely memorized. It's a miracle children can memorize it even without understanding its meaning," Dr. Salem says. I hate to differ with him, but being raised in the Bible Belt, I've known a lot of people who can recite Bible verses to you and if you try, anything can be memorized. Dr. Salem also has other duties with his job unrelated to the annual contest. He oversees 100,000 mosques and also is a well-known media personality in Egypt, hosting his own weekly TV show, The Final Word, where he preaches his message of moderate Islam and being true to the Koran, saying extremism and terrorism goes against Mohammed's teachings. As he says when we first meet him in the film:

"The irresponsible actions you see in some Muslims are because they are estranged from the Koran or don't understand the Koran. So stealing, sex outside of marriage, intoxication, injustice, aggression and terrorism — these are not allowed"

With 110 competitors, that would be a daunting task for filmmakers as well so director Greg Barker chooses to focus on three 10-year-olds from different parts of the globe:

  • Nabiollah, who lives in rural Tajikistan and attends a Madrassa where the only education he receives concerns the Koran.
  • Rifdha, a very smart girl from the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean who excels in all subjects, especially math and science, and is one of only 10 girls in the contest, though her parents have very different visions for her future.
  • Djamil, who is coming to Cairo by himself from his home in Senegal in West Africa, and has been told by his teacher that he won't just be representing Senegal but the entire continent as well.

  • Djamil feels an extra burden on his shoulders since his father is a respected imam in Senegal, though the boy has risen to be the country's top reciter without being able to speak a word of Arabic. He tells the filmmakers that his parents told him to learn the Koran before anything else and that every Muslim should do the same. Besides, Djamil adds, he "likes the way the letters look." Djamil's teacher sounds a message similar to that of Dr. Salem's as he prepares to send his star pupil off to Cairo by himself. "Now as you go to Egypt, the world is a mess. People are bombing and killing each other, but if all people understood Koran, there would be peace on Earth," the teacher tells the 10-year-old. "So by not using the Koran as God intended, what is the result? All these problems in the world and what is the solution? Return to the Koran. Learn it. Apply it." It still seems odd to be sending a 10-year-old child off on his own to another country, especially one where he doesn't speak the language. Later, once Djamil has arrived in Cairo, there's a scene where he's trying to speak with his mother on a cell phone, but the connection proves so terrible that neither can hear the other. It shows the family in Senegal saying they must have faith that Djamil will be OK.

    Above and beyond the fascinating material itself in Koran By Heart, is the way that director Barker approaches it. At times, it's as if you're watching a feature film instead of a documentary. His direction can be quite stylish, the contest itself automatically creates suspense, he tosses in extra details for both color and, sometimes, laughs as in one instance where some visiting judges are congregating in a lobby and one says to the others, "At my hotel, the call to prayer is done Saudi-style morning, noon and night. Are we in Egypt or what?" which makes the others laugh. There also is something intrinsically funny when we briefly meet Australian Muslims speaking with full-on Aussie accents. Barker's most intriguing touch though is how he layers more information about the people and places we've seen by leaping both backward and forward in time to reveal more. For example, we don't learn until much later in the film that before Nabiollah, the boy from Tajikistan, left for Cairo, the secular government of Tajikistan had closed his Madrassa, trying to clamp down on any rise in extremism. His father took him to a secular school to see if he could be admitted there and we learn that Nabiollah is functionally illiterate. Since the Madrassa only taught the Koran, the 10-year-old can't even read or write in his native language of Tajik, let alone Arabic.

    The competition itself makes marathon poker players look like wimps since they get breaks and can eat and drink at the table. The International Holy Koran Competition has qualifying rounds first that last three days and nights — during Ramadan, which means everyone fasts during the day, though they break for the traditional sunset meal. The night session begins at 9:30 p.m. and lasts until 3 a.m. Rifdha actually falls asleep on her father's shoulder waiting for her name to be called. Her father, who will turn out to be the most extreme person depicted in the documentary, never stops being negative and even after Rifdha shakes herself awake and recites, when she returns to her seat, he immediately tells her that she won't make it to the next round so while Rifdha might be happy when she learns she's received 97%, the highest score of the competition so far, her father just looks pissed. How the contest works is that a reciter selects a symbol on a computer screen which randomly selects a question, beginning a passage from the Koran and telling the contestant where he or she should end. It's like Songburst, except they give you the ending. If a reciter makes a mistake and corrects him or herself, they lose half a point. If a judge has to correct them, they lose a whole point. If they make three mistakes, they forfeit the question. The judges enter scores on their computers, which calculate. 100% is the highest score. They are judged on pronunciation, memorization and "The Rules of Tajwid."

    This isn't just dry recitation, there's a musical quality to it. Kristina Nelson, considered the top non-Muslim expert on the contest and author of The Art of Reciting the Qur'an, was attracted by this lyrical aspect. She, as well as the judges are extremely impressed by how good Nabiollah is; he even moves some judges to tears and they make a point of hugging and kissing him when he's finished his performance. Though it's just the beauty of his voice — strictly speaking he doesn't follow the Rules of Tajwid to the letter, but the boy had never heard of them until he came to Cairo. He closes his eyes tightly when he recites to avoid distractions and so he can visualize the text before him. Even though Nabiollah and other non-Arabic reciters don't know what they are saying, Dr. Salem says that the level of Heaven that Muslims reach depend on how much of the Koran they have memorized. According to Nelson, the full text of the Koran runs about 600 pages with 114 chapters ranging from three verses to 286 verses long.

    While Nabiollah gets by fine without knowing Arabic, it ends up being Djamil's downfall, who unfortunately gets a Koran verse that starts like multiple verses in the book. The judges try to get the young Senegalese boy on the right track, but he of course doesn't understand a word that they are saying, though he keeps trying, through tears, he keeps trying. The judges finally have to stop Djamil who only scores 22%. Because everyone felt so bad for Djamil but admired his perseverance in trying to continue, they arrange for him to recite at one of Cairo's most prestigious mosques. When he goes home to Senegal, he admits things did not go well, but he's able to say so with a smile on his face. After the initial three days of qualifying, 12 of the 110 move on to the finals which are held on national TV before the country's president, still Hosni Mubarak then, and both Nabiollah and Rifdah make the final 12. I won't spoil how they finish for you. With a few days off, they get to sightsee, something else that alienates Rifdah's father who talks more about moving the family away from the Maldives when they get back and how Egyptians aren't very good Muslims.

    The director frequently cuts back to the Maldives where we see Rifdah's mother brag about her and we've seen how different the place is. When we first meet Rifdah, she's speaking English and we meet another man in the Maldives who explains how it's always been a secular Muslim country, where women were allowed to work and go about uncovered but that a fundamentalism started to reassert itself in the 1980s. While Koran By Heart doesn't raise the issue, I find it interesting that the extremist Muslims wanting a return to fundamentalism started to occur first in Iran in the late 1970s and elsewhere in the 1980s — the same time fundamentalist Christian groups such as The Moral Majority starting asserting themselves politically in the U.S. and rabid activist groups such as Operation Rescue started protested abortion in less-than-peaceful ways. Another quote that Dr. Salem says in the film really brought home that connection to me:

    "The fundamentalist movement is not good for society. They want Islam to turn back the clock on society. Not long ago, they wanted to ban television…Unfortunately those who promote extremism have satellite TV channels with huge audiences and they get a lot of money and they present themselves as 'the voice of Islam' So their voice is louder than ours and we're the moderates. This is very dangerous."

    Just substitute Christianity for Islam and think of the late Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. They might not have a body count that comes close to equaling Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida, but it does seem as if they've followed the same timeline, only one group of religious fanatics chose force while the other has chosen political infiltration.

    While I won't give away how Nabiollah and Rifdah finish, that to me is what makes this great documentary end on a sad note. We see Rifdah's mother say she'd like her to go into math or science, but it will ultimately be up to her, but her father has different ideas, insisting that though he plans to move the family to Yemen for better religious education and that Rifdah will be educated, ultimately, she will be a housewife.

    Koran By Heart is one of the best documentaries HBO has offered this summer. It debuts at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific and 8 p.m. Central tonight on HBO. 

    (Cross-posted at Edward Copeland on Film.)

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    • Nice post Edward ... Now, we probably have to worry when the Right Wing Freak Show starts the meme that this Koran contest is going to displace the good, ol American Spelling Bee ...


      By Blogger 13909 Antiques, at 1:30 PM  

    • "Just substitute Christianity for Islam and think of the late Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. They might not have a body count that comes close to equaling Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida, but it does seem as if they've followed the same timeline, only one group of religious fanatics chose force while the other has chosen political infiltration."

      Where'd you get the idea that the body count is higher on one side? Didn't the 'most' Christian president (W) of the past few decades with enormous support from evangelicals invade Iraq and lay waste to the country killing tens of thousands? Just because it's dressed up a bit doesn't mean it's much different.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:00 PM  

    • I was referring more to deaths on their own soil, Christian extremists haven't killed as many "infidels" on American soil as Muslim extremists have killed other Muslims. Even if you did count those killed in the wars, Muslim extremists would still have a higher body count when you pull in all of their own people they've slaughtered around the globe.

      By Blogger Edward Copeland, at 10:19 PM  

    • Did you compare alqaida to pat robertson and jerry falwell? Are you kidding me? That sort of comparison is why so many people distrust Islam. I'm canceling my unk subscription if they keep playing this movie over and over simply to appease a very small minority who actually watches this. Wonder if you'll post this?

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:51 PM  

    • If you read closely, I said the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and extremism (let's say around the time of the Iranian Revolution in the late 70s mirrored the same time that there was a resurgence in Christian fundamentalism and extremism in the U.S. but I also clearly pointed out that with the exception of the true fanatics such as those who killed abortion providers, Christian extremists such as Falwell as Robertson sought to fight by influencing politics while Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida did it by force. Religious extremism still is wrong no matter what the religion is and whether or not they are doing actual killing.

      By Blogger Edward Copeland, at 9:02 PM  

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