‘New Muslim Cool’

By Ginia Bellafante
The New York Times
June 23, 2009

Islam, Hope and Charity Inspire Dealer Turned Rapper

“New Muslim Cool,” a film by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, is not a documentary about Muslim style, Muslim clubs or Muslim power cliques rising out of New York or Los Angeles as an emerging entertainment force. Aesthetically, the film, to be shown Tuesday as part of the “P.O.V.” series on PBS, has no investment in cool at all. Shot primarily in grim quarters of Pittsburgh, it chronicles the life of a young religious convert to quietly explore the porousness of cultural identity and the immense challenges presented to a man dramatically trying to reinvent himself in the face, essentially, of sanctioned prejudices.

Born to a Puerto Rican Roman Catholic family, Jason Pérez grew up fearing that he would be dead or imprisoned by the time he was 21. The concern was hardly irrational — he was a drug dealer. But then at 20, he found peace and answers in Islam, changing his first name to Hamza and dedicating himself to spirituality, music (Muslim-inspired hip-hop) and good works. The interviews he gave around some of his rap music, though, later come back to haunt him.

Divorced, he longs for the stability of married life because, as he explains, “in Islam we don’t have boyfriend and girlfriend.” Eventually, through an online Muslim social network, he meets Rafiah in Pittsburgh (“I liked the process,” she says of Internet dating, because it “eliminated anything, it eliminated any lust or attraction, where you get distracted and you don’t ask them important questions”) and starts a religious community to convert troubled young people to Islam. Things go well until the F.B.I. raids his mosque.

“New Muslim Cool” possesses a kind of beauty that sneaks up on you: it is in Hamza’s humility, in the dignity with which he confronts so much of his misfortune, in his commitment to rehabilitating drug dealers because, in his mind, no one else will. Some of the most moving moments in the film take place during Hamza’s prison lectures. He is brought in to give faith-based talks at a Pittsburgh jail, but again, misperceptions about his past wind up scuttling his noble agenda.

Hamza approaches every human encounter as an opportunity to get closer to God; the film is an opportunity to access a closer view of human decency.


New Muslim Cool

On most PBS stations on Tuesday night (check local listings).

Directed and produced by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor; Kauthar Umar and Hana Siddiqi, co-producers; David Sarasti, Jon Shenk and Mark Knobil, cinematographers; Kenji Yamamoto, editor. Produced by Specific Pictures in association with Latino Public Broadcasting and the Center for Asian American Media.

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