Saturday, May 30, 2009

New Muslim Cool (Specific Pictures/PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

New Muslim Cool, directed by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor — who seems to have made a career out of documentaries about American Muslims, judging from her list of previous credits (Ramadan Primetime, Special Circumstances, Paulina, Home Front and Immigration Calculations) — deals with the story of Hamza (née Jason) Pérez, a former drug dealer and gang member in Boston who at age 21 converted to Islam, gave up dealing and ganging, and moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a career as a drug and alcohol counselor to inmates at the Allegheny County Jail and rap performer with his brother, Sulieman (also a convert to Islam) as part of a duo called M-Team (“M” being short for moujahedin, the literal name of people who engage in jihad — the term “jihadi” is a Western neologism that isn’t recognized by Muslims).

It was a fascinating movie but also a disappointment in one major respect: Hamza’s history was presented merely as backstory — we didn’t get any sense of his past beyond the mere recitation of his former drug and gang involvements, nor did we hear why the street missionary who started him on the path to Islam made such an impression on him that he literally turned his life around and became a very different sort of person, not just a believer in a religion far different from the Roman Catholicism of his family but an activist in Pittsburgh’s Muslim community. I had hoped that the film would include something along the lines of Malcolm X’s account of his soul-searching in his autobiography — as well as a greater sense of what Hamza had been in his pre-Muslim days and how great the change in his character had been.

What the film did do is present Hamza and his family (he’s just broken up with his first wife when the film begins, and during it he meets an African-American Muslim woman through the Internet, they date and eventually marry, and at the end he’s doing a Muslim version of Yours, Mine and Ours: raising his children by his previous wife, hers by her previous husband, and a newborn who’s the first of their children) in a disarmingly normal context. They live simply, modestly, worry about the bills; they respond to each other much the way anyone else does (there’s a marvelous scene filmed shortly before Hamza’s wedding in which his wife-to-be says how much she’s looking forward to the ceremony — and he says the part he’s looking forward to is the wedding night, which provokes a grin from her that suggests she’s going to enjoy that part of the relationship as much as he will: so much for the ridiculous stereotype that Muslim women hate sex!), and they behave so much like anyone else that if Taylor’s intent was to tell her audience, “You see, Muslims aren’t any different from anyone else,” she has succeeded quite well.

The other thing the film does is show that, for all the normality of these nice young people living simple, decent lives, there’s still so much hatred of Muslims in the U.S. and so much anti-Muslim profiling that every American Muslim, whether born into the religion or a convert; whether Black, Latino, Asian or White; is all too aware almost every day that they live here on the margins, at best grudgingly accepted and at worst demonized by a vicious stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists. In one sequence from the film, a green box appears on a telephone pole across the street from the mosque (a converted row house) at which Hamza worships and in which he’s active (much like a volunteer with any other church). Hamza and the imam of his mosque (the term “imam,” like so much else in Islam, has acquired a sinister reputation even though it simply means a religious leader, the equivalent of “priest” or “pastor” in Christianity and “rabbi” in Judaism) figure out that the mysterious box is a camera, installed by the FBI to keep an eye on their mosque — and Hamza grimly points out that the camera isn’t pointing to a well-known corner at which drug dealers ply their trade just a block away, but is aimed dead on at their mosque.

Shortly after the camera is installed, the mosque is raided by gun-toting FBI agents who break down doors, smash things, terrorize the worshipers (they picked Friday afternoon, the time of worship in Islam, to stage their raid — the equivalent of raiding a Christian church on Sunday morning) and then leave without having arrested anybody, and without ever telling anybody what they were looking for, whether they found it or anything else on the case. (Hamza later learns that under the USA PATRIOT Act the feds have the right to raid anybody, at any time, and never have to let the victims know why they raided or whether they’re in any legal jeopardy from whatever it was they found.) Later Hamza’s clearance to go into the Allegheny County Jail to lead groups with prisoners is suddenly withdrawn — as are the clearances of the four other Muslims who were doing that work — and he visits the local ACLU office; he eventually learns that this had no connection to the FBI raid on his mosque a year earlier but instead was a red-flag based on some inflammatory statements he made in an interview years earlier to a music magazine about his work as a rapper.

New Muslim Cool is less than the movie it could have been, but it’s still a fascinating film, well worth seeing for what it is — and Hamza himself is an engaging figure, determined to be optimistic and upbeat about his life despite the curveballs the authorities keep throwing at him. Indeed, he seems to have got mellower as the events of the film took place, as evidenced by the two extended samples of his music we get; the earlier one is incendiary, angry words shouted over the staccato beat familiar from the Black gangsta rappers; while the piece he’s shown recording towards the end is far mellower, more introspective and accompanied by a much softer, more gentle music track (and Hamza and Sulieman even do a bit of singing, as well as rapping, on this one!).