What it means to be a 'Mooz-lum'
Issue 80 May 2011
Worldwide demand for Mooz-lum, the movie, has rocketed after the film gained exceptional reviews across the USA. A wholly viral campaign to promote the film has brought it to the UK this week. Ethar El-Katatney shares her thoughts in this exclusive online review on why the film deserves recognition by the mainstream box office.
I cried while watching a movie today. I never cry in movies. But today I cried because I saw pieces of my soul in a movie. It spoke to me; deeply. It’s a movie that, on some level, I was thirsty for. And I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was.
I went to a nursery called ‘Tom and Jerry’. The first song I learned was ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’. The first cartoon I watched was Barney, the purple dinosaur. I went to middle school and started reading Roald Dahl. I devoured the Sweet Valley Twins series. I had a crush on Johnny Bravo. I went to high school and started watching movies like American Pie, about the trials of high school life: dating, drinking, dancing.
But you see, these things were so far removed from my life. I am a Muslim. I don’t date. Drink. Dance.
The issues I went through in high school were so much more than simply worrying about what that boy thought of me. Instead, I was struggling as the only veiled girl in the entire school. Struggling to come up with an excuse as to why I couldn’t go to a friend’s 13th birthday party where you had to “bring a date.” It was a time where I struggled, hard, to balance between aspects of my identity, which on the surface seemed contradictory.
I knew no one going through a similar struggle—no family members, no friends. And there were no movies or books to at least reassure me that I was not alone. That the times when I felt like ripping off that veil or accepting that locket from a boy I liked were normal—that feeling that way did not make me bad.
Instead, the media I consumed made me feel like an alien—telling me that the lifestyle I read about in books and saw on television was the norm, and that opting out of that lifestyle made me a freak, an oddity. Where were the people like me: in real life, in movies? Enter Mooz-lum, stage right.
Mooz-lum is a movie that traces the life of Tariq, a young, Black Muslim American boy. Raised in an extremely conservative household, he rebels once he goes to college. 9/11 happens and lives change. It’s a movie about faith, identity, tolerance, struggle, coexistence, discrimination, coming of age and so much more.
It’s a movie that every young Muslim will empathise with; a movie that showcases the nuances of struggling to fit in, of the journey we take to find out who we are and how to stay true to ourselves once we do. And it begins with peer pressure. And family.
Peer pressure is hard, no matter what faith you belong to. We all want to fit in. No one wants to be different in high school, let alone different in a way that has such negative connotations—“that’s a Mooz-lum name!” laugh the students in Tariq’s school.
I wanted to be blonde and white. I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted a mum who would cook burgers and fries, acool dad who would drive me to prom. Because that is what ‘normal’ was.
Instead, I got parents I loved deeply, but couldn’t understand how they were so different from me. Where I felt like I was bending over backwards to satisfy them but it was never enough. I always felt like I was failing them. Linkin Park’s ‘Numb’ was the soundtrack of my life. We are a generation that is just so, so different from our parents.
My dad—like Tariq’s—proudly wears a thobe and kufi out in public. I was embarrassed of him as a child. And then ashamed at being embarrassed to have him pick me up from school.
No matter how hard he tries to compromise, it is just never enough because we come from such different backgrounds.
My paternal grandmother never went to high school and she got married at age 15, to a 40-year-old man. My father believes I am a spinster at age 23 and sees that fact that I went on to college and then graduate school, as the biggest compromise. That is the way he is, and that is the way he will stay.
Tariq’s story highlights this beautifully—the struggle we go through to please our parents, and our comprehension that although they may try, they will find it hard to do as Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib advised: "Do not force your children to behave like you, for surely they have been created for a time which is different to your time.”
At the same time, Mooz-lum makes you feel for the parents—they want children like them. Better than them; children who will get the chance to do what they couldn’t. And they want to protect them from the aspects of a culture that they see as against their beliefs.
My dad forbade me to go to prom. I’ve never been to a concert. I’m home before 10pm every night. My dad wants me to read Arabic fluently. He wants me to learn the Qur’an by heart. He wants my brother to pray in the mosque; grow a beard, dress ‘Muslim.’ He wants us to be good Muslims in the way he understands good Muslims must be. And I cannot fault him for that. And as I grow older, the more I am able to appreciate how hard it was for him to compromise and the more I understand that being tough can sometimes be the hardest thing to do.
But how to make parents understand that culture and faith are not the same. And how will we raise our own children? Where will we put the limits? How to raise them in a way that they choose to be Muslims? Choose to abide by the rules because they want to? Where do we relax the rules? When do we let them choose? Do we send them to the schools where they struggle so much? Or to Muslim schools that come with their own kind of problems?
Tariq’s father sends him to a madrasah—a Muslim school where the children dress in thobes and kufis, eat on the floor from one big bowl, and basically live a life that is different from the world outside its walls.
I went to a school like that in Yemen. But I went by choice as an adult, to see what life ‘away’ from the ‘world’ is like, where in no way am I odd or strange. I do not believe that Muslim schools, run by people from our parents’ generation, are the solution. If they’re not run properly, they run the risk of alienating the children. And to be run properly, they need people like me and like Tariq, to run them; who understand what it is like to grow up between cultures and with multiple identities.
But I digress. The question Mooz-lum raises is how should one create a vibrant American Muslim culture? One that is wholly American and wholly Muslim at the same time, rather than neither nor? How do we become secure in who we are and what we believe in order to be able to develop this culture? How do we find our place in this world? Where we are proud of our roots and history, proud of our faith, and yet truly citizens of this world? And these issues aren’t just limited to Americans. We talk about globalisation. But the reality is, we’re talking about Americanisation. The world is becoming Americanised.
I’m sitting at Starbucks in a mall right now, sipping my tall-skinny-vanilla-latte, while listening to Frank Sinatra. I just finished typing an analysis of a Harvard Business School case for my MBA class on my MacBook, I’m sending a bbm from my blackberry, and I’m staring at the Apple store across from me and wondering if I really need an iPad, and whether or not I maxed out my American Express credit card this month.
I’m dressed in Levis jeans, Converse trainers, a GAP sweater, and I just came from Gold’s Gym. I’m meeting friends in an hour to see Tangled at the 3D cinema, where we will buy caramel popcorn and then have lunch at Chilis or TGIF, followed by dessert at Haagen-Dazs. Then we’ll walk around the mall—I want to buy the new Jodi Picoult book from Virgin, that dress I liked from Zara, and the new raspberry body butter from The Body Shop.
But you see, I am not in America. I am not American. I have never even been to America. I was born in Saudi Arabia. The mall I am in is in Cairo, Egypt. I am Egyptian and I have lived in Egypt all my life. And yet—my identity is no longer purely Egyptian.
In the world we live in today, so many Muslims are going through what I am going through, without ever having stepped foot in America. We don’t have to be American to be Americanised. And we don’t have to be Americanised to struggle as Muslims in a world where religion is seen as backward. Where modernity and civilisation seem to be mutually exclusive with faith.
We’re all adrift in confusion; trying to make sense of our identity, and trying to see where we fit. As Muslims, we’re struggling to find the balance. Struggling against the loud voices that tell us our faith is violent; struggling to prove that it is not, struggling against ourselves and against an outside world that seems to be against us. It’s so hard. And sometimes, we slip up. Sometimes, a small little voice tells you: “Dude, your life would be so much easier if you could just go with the flow.” If you didn’t have to announce to the world that you were Muslim, with all the baggage and connotations and responsibility that it entails; if you were just like everyone else.
Tariq decides to be T, to shed the part of him he doesn’t realise is his core. He goes drinking, clubbing, kisses a girl, and decides he doesn’t want any part of ‘it.’ But even when we slip up—the guilt is there. There aren’t enough words to describe the scene where Tariq recites the Qur’an out loud and tears up. Because that’s what it boils down to—if you truly, truly believe, you will not find a joy in this world that is as beautiful as the joy you do when you submit to God.
And that is what makes the struggle worth it—to find the place where you are comfortable in your dual identities, part of the world and not isolated, yet not schizophrenic, torn apart.
So, that was how Mooz-lum impacted me on one level. And partially, why movies like it are necessary—for Muslim youth who need to know that they’re not alone. But the movie is so much more that.
In American society today, artistic expression and more specifically, movies, are the way to impact people. Once upon a time, it was poetry. Then, it was books. Now, it is movies. As Ingmar Bergman, the famous Swedish director and producer, said, “Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” When I left college I became a journalist. My job is media. I live in it. And I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say that Muslims in western media are grossly misrepresented, that misconceptions are circulated, and that we have been reduced from rich, complex individuals into one-dimensional representations and a monolithic entity. In 2001, Jack Shaheen analyaed the way Arabs (might as well be synonymous with Muslims) were portrayed in over 900 movies for his book, Reel Bad Arabs. He found that only a dozen portrayals were positive and fifty balanced.
The reality is that media shapes perceptions. And the western media of the world today has disfigured the image of Islam, ingrained misconceptions and stereotypes, and consequently, promoted intolerance, racism, hatred, and violence. According to Media Tenor, a research firm that monitors and analyses media coverage of key issues, “The tone of statements in US television news in 2009 about Islam (40%) was twice as likely to be negative than the statements made about Christianity (20%). Two-thirds of the television coverage about Islam associates Muslims with extremism.”
A Gallup study on religious perceptions in America released earlier this year showed that the more ignorant Americans were about Islam, the less prejudiced they were towards it. Why? Because they were ignorant—they were not exposed to as much media. If they had, they would have been more prejudiced, since the media image of Islam is violent and horrible and oppressive.
And this disfiguration of the faith has gone virtually unchallenged in the public mind simply because Muslims in the west have not yet attained a high enough level of comfort in their identities to express their spirituality through the arts, whether that be music, plays, books or movies.
But this is changing. Muslims are starting to speak up for themselves. The New York Times recently ran an article on Muslim artists who are bridging American and Islamic traditions with their art.
And that’s why a movie like Mooz-lum is groundbreaking. It isn't a one-dimensional representation. It doesn't portray Muslims as angels or demons. It portrays the humanity: we love, we hate, we do good, we do bad. And yes, there are people out there who give Islam a bad name: who beat children, who preach violence. And there are those who do good: who call for mercy, for co-existence, who are great human beings doing great things for the world. Nothing is as black or white as it seems, and the actors do a beautiful job of portraying the complexities of the characters writer and director Qasim Bashir brought to life.
Mooz-lum goes deep beyond the clichés and the headlines, straight to the heart. It isn't the best movie you'll ever see. But it's a damn good one, and it is groundbreaking. Because the only way for us to start tackling the stereotypes is in the same way they are perpetuated: movies.
For non-Muslims, the movie is perhaps more important: a chance for them to hear Muslims speaking about what it is like to be Muslim, to see the nuances it would be impossible to get across in a conversation or two. And of course, to see how 9/11 impacted Muslims. In 2003, the FBI created an Arab-American advisory committee after hate crimes against people perceived to be Arab or Muslim increased by 1,700%.
I believe that working in media, creating movies and songs and books that reflect ‘us’ is just as important as everything else Muslims have to do in the world today—reinterpret scripture, properly teach Islam to children, condemn violence, etc. But it’s a heavy burden, and not one many of us choose to bear—especially those of us who are successful, articulate, cosmopolitan and secure in who they are, and therefore the most qualified to stand up and say “Yes, I’m a Muslim. This is why. This is my community. These are my struggles. No, I am not x, or y, or z.”
It could potentially harm your career. It’ll put you in the spotlight. You will be judged as a “Mooz-lum,” and not as a lawyer, a doctor, an anchor, a teacher. But it is our responsibility as Muslims. Actually, it is our responsibility as citizens and human beings to speak up for a beleaguered faith, which lacks the political and cultural power to fight back.
I’m speaking up.