‘Koran by Heart’ is an HBO documentary that shows the story of three children on their journey to a Qur’an competition in Egypt.
110 kids are chosen and arrive in Cairo for the world’s oldest Koran reciting contest. ‘Koran by Heart’ (2011) follows two boys from Senegal and Tajikistan, and a girl from the Maldives who go head-to-head with kids nearly twice their age in the pronunciation, recitation and perfected memorization of the Qur’an.
In 2011 E. Nina Rothe conducted an interview with Greg Barker, the documentary’s director, for The Huffington Post:
On August 1st, at 9 PM, Greg Barker’s beautifully poignant film Koran By Heart, will be shown on HBO as part of their Documentary Film Summer Series. Beyond the sensationalistic headlines, the very recent Twitter trending of “#Muslims” and the Western world’s common misconceptions about Islam, lies the reality that nearly 1.5 billion Muslims inhabit this earth. Representing a fifth of the world’s population, the followers of Islam are an irrefutable force to be reckoned with. And the Koran is their Holy Book, driving at once their political, personal and religious choices.
Barker’s thought-provoking documentary sheds light on some of the important facts many of us may never otherwise know (like that all followers of Islam learn the same Arabic version of the Koran, regardless of their native language) while following three amazing ten-year-olds — Rifdha, a girl from the Maldives, Nabiollah, a boy from Tajikistan and Djamil, a boy from Senegal — on their incredible journey navigating through Egypt’s International Holy Koran Competition. A prestigious yearly competition which is held in Cairo and brings together 110 young students from over 70 countries during the month of Ramadan. In the competition, these young men and women are asked to recite random passages from the Koran, from memory, which is a daunting task considering most of the children do not speak Arabic in their home countries and the Koran is made up of 30 Sections, 114 Chapters and 6,236 verses!
I recently caught up with Greg Barker, who patiently and charmingly answered all of my questions over the phone from his native California, where he now lives with his family after nearly two decades spent in the UK. Within his thoughtful answers, I found a man who both admires and respects the Muslim world, but also understands the challenges ahead. His film, Koran by Heart is a must-watch, the tool we all need in these trying times, to help us realize just how similar our seemingly opposite and opposing cultures are.
E. Nina Rothe: What specifically drew you to making Koran by Heart?
Greg Barker: Well, the children and the Koran. The most compelling thing was the window it provided into the challenges and issues facing the next generation of Muslims around the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Muslim world, I’ve been interested in films and was looking for a film that dealt with the challenges facing Islam. Particularly the struggles within Islam between modernity and the more fundamental approach. And then telling the story of some amazing kids just seemed to be the most accessible road and the most compelling way into it and it all kind of grew from that insight. And we were very lucky to find these amazing kids who stole all of our hearts and became the core of the film.
ENR: And stole all of our hearts too!
GB: Yeah, they’re very cool.
ENR: What unites Koran by Heart with your past films Sergio, Ghosts of Rwanda and The Survival of Saddam, which all appear so different in theme and subject matter?
GB: I’ve spent most of my adult life living overseas. I’m an American, I grew up in California but have spent a lot of time overseas, so I’m drawn towards compelling character driven narratives about the wider world that we all live in, and the challenges that we all face, typically from an American perspective. I’m drawn to stories that help general audiences in the States, and in Europe, understand how the rest of the world works and kind of gives us insight into what’s going on within a country or within a faith, as in Koran By Heart. So it’s eclectic and the subjects are very different but that’s what I’m looking for, stories that allow us to inhabit the world of the other, and allow us to see the world through different viewpoints. Whether you agree with them or not, I think it’s always helpful to understand how other people think and where they are coming from and that’s kind of what I try to do with films. Find great stories that are character driven and actually eliminate the complexity, what I call the shade of grey of the world that we live in.
ENR: You filmed the International Holy Koran competition in Cairo during Ramadan 2010. Now Ramadan is fast approaching for the Muslim world. But Egypt is a very different country today, without President Mubarak, who actively oversaw the proceedings of the competition. Do you think the event will happen in Cairo this year?
GB: The short answer is we can’t get a clear answer as to whether or not the event is happening this year or not. My instinct is that they will probably postpone it for a year because they were incredibly conscientious about safety issues. You know, bringing these young children from around the world to Cairo, the organizers, particularly the Egyptian military, were responsible for their safety and were very careful that wherever they went they were chaperoned, that there were no problems and so my feeling is they are just going to wait a year. But the competition itself will endure and it’s beyond Mubarak’s regime. It’s overseen jointly by the Al-Azhar University and the Ministry of Religious Affairs — which has a different name in Arabic. Whoever the next president, the leader of Egypt is, that person will be presiding at the closing ceremony next year. The competition is something that has a deep tradition within Egyptian culture and society and it’s not going to go away.
ENR: Did you get a sense of what was to come when you were filming in Egypt, in the early fall of 2010?
GB: It was amazing, I’d been going back and forward to Egypt for some time and we could certainly feel the building of frustration towards the regime and particularly the prospect of Mubarak handing over power to his son, which was the most controversial issue. I’d been thinking of a film about precisely that but nobody imagined that it would happen as quickly as it did. It was extraordinary, I’m sure a lot of the people who, because of the film, became our friends go caught up in it. I mean, you could just feel the stagnation. It does relate to the Koran competition in some way, Egypt has been traditionally the leader of the Arab world for so long and that included Koranic recitation. Egypt for centuries was the home of it, and in the last 20/30 years, that leadership has been challenged by Saudi Arabia and by Wahhabism. The Saudis have a very different approach to reciting the Koran, much less melodic and much more stern, so fitting to that approach. And because of the Saudi influence and Saudi money a lot of Madrassas around the world — I mean that in the most general meaning of the word as “religious schools” — teach the more Saudi approach. So I think what we saw was not only frustration towards the Mubarak regime but the sense that Egypt — actually the Egyptians who are very proud people — really wanted to regain their status as leaders. They did that, by showing that they would stand up for themselves. And I think we see that even in terms of the Koran recitation itself..
ENR: Did you always have the three main children in mind for the film or did they emerge during filming?
GB: They emerged. We cast a wide net and filmed with a lot more children. Whenever you make a documentary it’s a journey. You never quite know how it’s going to turn out and that’s part of the magic of it but those kids had the strongest, most compelling stories. Particularly in the case of the girl from the Maldives, that was a story that had a wider resonance, wider than just within the faith itself. All of them were very compelling figures. So we followed the kids whose stories emerged as we were filming it and then narrowed it to which ones were the real stand outs.
ENR: You mentioned Wahhabism before, would you say elements of it exist within the competition?
GB: Yeah, because there are people from across the spectrum of Islam in that competition, so definitely there are some elements. Within Egypt, I would not say it’s Wahhabi. There are three big Koran competitions in the world: Cairo, Dubai, which is the richest for obvious reasons, and one in Saudi Arabia. Of those, the only one that allows women to compete is Cairo. So it’s got much more of an open view just towards the faith in general but that doesn’t mean that all the contestants share that. But within the organization it’s a very different way of doing things. That’s what Salem [Dr. Salem Abdel-Galil, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Religion in Egypt] talks about in the film. It’s all about a modern approach to Islam and it being a religion of peace. Actually what he talks about in the interview, which we just couldn’t fit in the film — the TV show that he has — he’s one of the founders of that TV network and the reason they began it was to counteract the influence of Wahhabi satellite channels that were gaining a lot of traction across the region and they wanted to have a more moderate point of view. It’s often the moderates who have been more reluctant to speak out because of the Saudi influence, the money and they don’t want to get characterized as being “un-Islamic.” But I think you are seeing more of that, even within the Muslim Brotherhood, you see the younger generation is splitting with the older generation in Egypt and demanding a more worldly approach while still rooted in the faith. They see much more of a nuance and less strict fundamentalist viewpoint.
ENR: Was the film difficult to edit, did you have lots of footage?
GB: It was very challenging. Documentaries are made in the cutting room. Unlike narrative films where you’ve got to have a great script before you start shooting, in documentaries you’ve got to have a great idea and great subjects but you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. We had a built-in structure for the competition, at the very least we knew we had a beginning, middle and end of the competition, people were going to win, people were going to not win, and so that was the bones of the structure. Then the tricky part in storytelling terms was figuring out when to break away from that, without losing momentum and when to go into the children’s back stories without losing the focus of the film. Those kinds of things are like jigsaw puzzles, so frankly speaking, documentaries won’t work in the cutting room until suddenly, they work.
GB: I think the biggest challenge was overcoming the skepticism from everyone involved, over what our intentions were. I mean from Dr. Salem and the other organizers, straight through to the parents of the contestants. People kept wondering why is this American team — and I mean, there were Muslim Americans on our team but we were still an American team — why are these people making this film about the Koran and what are they trying to do. They were wondering, did we have some ulterior motive, were we going to show Islam in a bad light, why would HBO be doing this… These were constant questions, which we had to overcome. I explained why we were making the film, which I felt very strongly about, that I really wanted to put a human face on Islam, and help a Western audience — particularly an American audience — understand the faith in a more nuanced way. That was a big issue, we obviously overcame it, because we were able to make the film, but people had very serious legitimate questions and if we hadn’t been able to overcome that, we would not have had a film.
ENR: What is your most valued accomplishment when you watch the film today?
GB: On a personal level, we premiered the film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and I’d never quite been in a position like I was for the first screening. I knew the film worked but I had no idea how it would play with an audience. Honestly, I had no idea, because it’s such an unusual subject. With Sergio, which is a very dramatic, compelling film, I knew it was going to work. We thought it was great, we knew it would play really well with an audience. With this one I just didn’t know. It’s such an unusual subject and it’s such a different world… So the most gratifying thing was to see how it played with an audience, to see that people bought into it and were drawn to the characters and drawn to the event and actually by the end of the competition, an audience kind of knows who’s good and who’s bad in terms of whose Koranic recitation they preferred more than others, they are rooting for the kids and they get an insight into these kids’ worlds and totally go along for the ride. And that was just so gratifying to see, that the film actually played for a general American audience. Whatever you think about all the controversies surrounding Islam, which are very real and I’ve spent a lot of time immersing myself in those, the film works on a different level. The film works as just a competition film, with amazing kids who have incredible stories and win your heart. It becomes a very human story and it takes you into a world that you thought you could never know anything about, least of all begin to understand.
ENR: What draws Greg Barker to the Arab World? You keep going back there through your work…
GB: I remember traveling through Egypt when I was 25/26, and hearing the call to prayer for the first time. I was in a small town, in a very very cheap hotel, being woken up at 4.15 or 4.30 by the call to prayer from this squeaky speaker right outside my hotel window and thinking WOW, what is THAT? And then just getting sucked in, I found it very alluring and fascinating. I actually really enjoy traveling through the Arab world, I enjoy the people, I enjoy the food, I enjoy the culture and the music and the faith. I find all of that really interesting, even though I’m not a Muslim and I never thought of converting at all. But it’s not that, I find it interesting, I am fascinated by people of faith and how that shapes their world view. And of course that’s at the bottom of all the political turmoils, the impact that religion has had… I find other parts of the world very interesting too: small towns in Russia, China, so it’s not like I’m solely focused on the Middle East, but I find myself just going back for the stories and the culture. I think that we have to understand. I spent most of my adult life living overseas, in London for almost 18 years and just recently moved back to the States, to California. I was really struck at the misperceptions that people have about Islam and that’s not to say that the controversies we are all aware of aren’t real, they really are and very important, but I think it’s a faith full of contradictions and nuances and the more we understand that, the better. Because, Islam affects America. There are many Muslims in America who are citizens like anybody else and also, if we are involved in that part of the world politically and militarily we’ve got to understand.