Koran By Heart debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The combination of religious scholarship and cute kids makes for intriguing viewing in the HBO documentary Koran by Heart. (The film was directed by Greg Barker, who's made several noteworthy installments of Frontline.) Using a variant on the infinitely repeatable competitive-event documentary formula exemplified by Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound, Koran by Heart stars some of the ten-year-olds competing in the International Holy Koran Competition in Cairo. (The event is open to any Muslim under the age of 21; the youngest competitors are seven.) The kids have to sit in a huge auditorium waiting their turn, at which point they walk to the front of the room, hoist themselves up into a chair, and recite a verse from the holy book, working from a starting and stopping point given to them by a computer. While doing this, they have the thrill of being stared at by the panel of judges who will grade their performance according to accuracy of memorization, the rules of pronunciation called the "Tajwood", and the ineffable beauty of their delivery. One of the judges, who we get to see in close-up, is a huge, wall-eyed man whose intense gaze suggests that he looks forward to this competition as the annual highlight of his life. If every one of the seven-year-olds made it out of that chair without losing his lunch, I'll take that as confirmation that Allah is powerful indeed.
Not that there aren't some train wrecks. In a contest where, it's made clear early on, a score of 90 doesn't guarantee your making it onto the list of honorable mentions, a boy named Mohamed can only muster a 41.4. Mohamed is from Australia, and listening to his father's shrimp-on-the-barbie accent as he assures the camera that winning isn't everything, I can only imagine that he may have sounded a little funny to the judges for reasons beyond his control. Djanil, an imam's son from Senegal, is seen trying to phone his mother for a little moral support before he has to recite, but can't get a workable connection. This failure of communication turns out to be a bad omen. Djanil misunderstands the computer's instructions and begins to recite the wrong verse, and, because he doesn't speak Arabic, he doesn't understand the judges when they try to set him straight. Understanding only that something is wrong, he plows ahead anyway, reciting to the end of the passage as tears run down his cheeks. Your heart goes out to him. There's a happy ending, thank God: because the judges are so "touched by his perseverance", he snags a special invitation to recite at "one of Cairo's biggest mosques." Next stop: Broadway!
Surprisingly enough, the fact that Djanil doesn't speak Arabic is more the rule than the exception, at least among the young contestants who are this movie's point of focus. Nabiollah, from Tajikistan, is clearly the hot contender of his weight class, but his story raises some interesting, perhaps vexing questions about what the point of memorizing a religious text should be. Nabiollah has studied under a teacher in a remote school that is being shut down by the government, which fears that small, unmonitored religious schools in out-of-the-way places may be fostering Islamic extremism. At his interview at a big, government-sanctioned school, Nabiollah indicates that his "education" has consisted of memorizing the words in the book in the order in which they're written, period: no emphasis has been put on on writing or discussing what the words mean. In a way, he could be who Dr. Salem Abdel-Galil, of Cairo's Minister of Religious Affair, could be talking about when he says that the Koran is "the only book that can be completely memorized," something that he reckons to be "a miracle. Children can memorize it even without understanding the meaning." And certainly it's impossible to think of a way that memorizing a religious text without understanding what it means could ever turn out badly. (Better make sure I'm being clear on this… what's the emoticon for "heavy sarcasm"?)
Basically illiterate but with a sponge memory for the word of Allah, Nabiollah goes before the judges and knocks it out of the park. Kristina Nelson, a musicologist who is described as "the world's top non-Muslim expert" on Koran reading, is seen talking about what the judges are looking for, about the innate musicality and aural beauty of the ideal delivery of the text. Nabiollah achieves the reading of the judges' dreams, and it seems likely that he's helped by the fact that he doesn't really know what he's saying or what it means: what would be a crippling impediment, to put it mildly, in any literary or religious discussion of the text makes it that much easier for him to concentrate purely on the sound he's producing. And the judges are deeply moved: some of them are caught by the camera weeping, and a voice cries out, "We must have him read for the President!" "The voice is beautiful," says a judge who looks and sounds disconcertingly like Redd Foxx. "Blessed by God."
As in some gospel music (and in secular hybrids such as the stage musical The Gospel at Colonus), aesthetic pleasure and religious exaltation seem to get mixed up, so that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins (and no one watching from the sidelines can really say whether one is being confused for the other). Before the competition ends, Nabiollah does indeed get to recite before the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who had not yet been run out of his country on a rail. This isn't any comment on Islam, particularly; secular critics and literary types who sound very much like Kristina Nelson are always claiming to appreciate the Christian Bible for the beauty and richness of its language, without placing special emphasis on the parts whose actual meaning would send chills down their spine if they thought about it for a second.
Nor should the sight of little Nabiollah telling the camera that "God helped me recite well" strike anyone as any more unsettling than any of the athletes you can see on TV on any given weekend, declaring that because they prayed so well, God chose to answer their prayers instead of the prayers offered by the people on the other team and saw to it that those infidels got their asses kicked. (I leave it to each individual to decide for himself just how unsettling that is.) You don't have to restrict the conversation to Islam to think that people who venerate their bible of choice without understanding what it actually says are more likely to grow intolerant, and even violent, towards people who worship a different book. In the meantime, the clearest result of Nabiollah memorizing his Koran and doing so well at the competition is that, when he and his father return to the big school in their nation's capital to see how their application for admission is going, they have to bring a crowbar to pry the headmaster's lips off the kid's ass.
Both the headmaster and Dr. Salem Abdel-Galil use some of their camera time to reassure any westerners who might be watching that they are proponents of moderate Islam, and they themselves are moderate as the day is long. There's no good reason for Koran by Heart to be controversial, though I've already seen some people at HBO's website announcing that they're canceling their subscription over it. Without more information, I cannot say if this is because of some general objection to religious memorization contests or because they think that broadcasting this film will move our country that much closer to a full embrace of Sharia law. Whatever. If the film is "dangerous" or political in any way, it's because it puts a face on Muslims, such as Rifdha, a ten-year-old girl who, along with Nabiollah, is one of the twelve finalists, and who would run off with the audience award if there was one.
Rifdha's headgear reduces her face to wide, dark eyes behind glasses and an ear-to-ear grin, and when she returns to her seat after reciting in the first round and takes her place next to her father, flashing that grin and uncontrollably bouncing with nervous energy while insisting that she didn't think she did very well, you want to reach into the screen and hand her an ice cream cone. When she takes a little break from the competition and does a spastic little dance to celebrate the completion of her first camel ride, you want to buy her another one. In fact, it's probably a good thing that her father is such a hard-ass, or Rifdha would be a diabetic inside of six months. Pops, who is disappointed to see people running around Cairo with trimmed beards and trousers that aren't the religiously correct length—"Pants should be cut above this point, because the part that goes beyond this will be in the hellfire"—is also the only adult around who isn't afraid to say that there ain't nothing moderate about his Islam. I'm not sure what he did in a past life to deserve to be married to Rifda's mother, who has a fetching smile and the look of a wild card about her, and who says she hopes that Rifdha will grow up to do something in science or math, because those seem to be things she likes. Dad, on the other hand, wants her to get a "religious education", and then, become a "housewife", pronto, before she gets a job and becomes a fallen woman. Me, I look forward to the memoir I hope she writes, maybe after five or six husbands and some therapy. In the meantime, every second somebody isn't pointing a camera at this kid, the rest of us are missing something good.