Quranic verse film a hit in US

Koran By Heart premiered on the HBO channel in the United States on the first day of Ramadan last week amid critical acclaim and after receiving standing ovations at last year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Rifdha Rasheed (centre) of Koran By Heart, was joined by her parents for a visit to the Tribeca Film Festival in April this year in New York City.
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Quranic recitation might seem an unlikely subject to capture the hearts of an American audience but a documentary following three 10-year-old children as they compete in a Cairo competition has managed to do just that.

Koran By Heart premiered on the HBO channel in the United States on the first day of Ramadan last week amid critical acclaim and after receiving standing ovations at last year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Greg Barker, an American-British former war correspondent and the film's director, chose Cairo's annual contest, the oldest in the world, to tell a wider story about the role of Islam in the everyday lives of Muslims around the world.

"I'm really interested in what I saw as the internal discussion of Islam and the role of faith in the Muslim world about whether to embrace fundamentalism or to take a more modern approach," said Mr Barker in a telephone interview with The National from his home in California.

"I was looking to make a film that spoke to that without being too intellectual or remote. The Quran competition was a way of looking at the next generation of Muslims around the world," he said.

Filmed during last year's Cairo contest of the 110 best young students of Quranic memorisation from more than 70 countries, the documentary follows three youngsters and their families in their non-Arabic-speaking countries.

Rifdha Rasheed, from the Maldives, is one of the few girls taking part and is accompanied to Cairo by her father, who wants her to pursue a religious education while her mother wants her to follow her desire to study science.

Djamil Djeng is from rural Senegal and is sent to Cairo unaccompanied by any family or chaperone but is cared for by the contest's organisers. His teacher in Senegal tells him he will represent all of Africa in the competition.

Nabiollah Saidoff is from Tajikistan where his school is shut down as part of a government crackdown on extremism. He cannot read or write in his native language and we see his father helping him apply to a new school so he can widen his education.

Nabiollah becomes a star of the Cairo competition, moving the judges to tears with his pure voice even though he is unschooled in the rules of Tajweed that dictate how the Quran should be properly recited. He was chosen to recite before Hosni Mubarak, who at the time was the Egyptian president.

"A colourful and dramatic saga of human competition, with a fascinating setting and utterly irresistible pint-sized heroes," is how one reviewer for Salon magazine described the film, which was commissioned and paid for by HBO. The audience is left rooting for each of the three children over the course of the 80-minute film even though the classical Arabic is incomprehensible to even the children reciting it let alone most viewers. There are surprise winners and losers.

Mr Barker said he had travelled extensively in the Muslim world, but even he was surprised by just how important the Quran was to Muslims.

"I don't think I quite appreciated how integral the study of the Quran is to many Muslims and how much it plays a role in their daily life," he said. "Not just as a rule book on how to live but as a ritual and a reference."

Mr Barker said the contest's organisers were sceptical about the project. They feared the film would reinforce stereotypes about Islam. There were also challenges to interpret and translate the many languages used in the film, including Dhivehi in the Maldives, Wolof in Senegal, Tajik and Arabic.

Kristina Nelson, an Arabist, musicologist and author of The Art of Reciting the Quran, is also interviewed in the film to provide context and explanation of the ancient art.

Mr Barker, whose previous films include Ghosts of Rwanda said he planned to continue making documentaries that helped to explain the world to Americans and the West.

Koran By Heart is set for worldwide distribution by HBO.