Were you familiar with the International Holy Koran Competition beforehand? What drew you to this subject?
In the course of my work, I've spent a lot of time in Muslim countries. I'm fascinated by this internal debate within Islam, whether to embrace modernity or to take a more fundamentalist approach. Talking about that idea with Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham, we came up with the idea of shooting a Koran recitation competition as an interesting entry point into a complex subject. It works on its own, as a competition film with these amazing kids who the audience falls in love with. But as we get deeper into their stories, we see their families grappling with these very real issues that Muslims and non-Muslims are dealing with all around the world. How should Muslim children be educated?
What led you to these kids?
With a film like this you cast a wide net and talk to a lot of different competitors. For me, the three children who became the main focus had the most compelling stories, and they were so endearing as individuals. They also had uniquely interesting journeys within the competition.
Did their performances in the competition surprise you?
The first time we heard Nabiollah recite at the competition, everyone was completely transfixed. Even to non-Muslim ears, his performance was so emotional, so spiritual and otherworldly, and coming from a 10-year-old boy, really engrossing. It's like seeing an elite athlete at the height of their abilities. That was the moment I knew we really had a film. I wanted to know more. Does he know what he's saying? How did he come from the middle of Tajikistan to this tournament in Cairo? What's going to become of him?
How are the competitors selected?
There's a kid from each country. It's like the Olympics of Koran reciting; each kid feel's they're representing their country. It's a window into the best and brightest of this next generation of Muslim children, who are coming of age during a period of great transformation for the faith, which will have an effect on the rest of the world.
"Muslims believe the Koran is the word of God, and so many think that reading it is akin to reliving the moment of revelation."
Will they continue to compete?
You can only do it once. There are some lesser competitions they'll participate in, but this is the most important one.
Rifdha was one of the few young women seen competing in the film. Is it very unusual for a woman to memorize the Koran?
There are three big international Koran competitions in the world. One is in Dubai, one is in Saudi Arabia, and this one in Cairo. The Cairo competition is the oldest and most prestigious, and it's the only one that allows young women to compete. There is a discussion within Islam about the appropriateness of girls reciting the Koran publically. In private, the art of learning it holds great value across the faith and across the sexes. The organizers of the competition made the decision to include girls consciously, to present a more worldly view.
How is the contest regarded within Islam? Are there any objections to making a contest out of holy text?
None at all. It's highly regarded, even among the conservatives. I can't say there isn't anyone on the extremes, but reading the Koran is a public act. Go anywhere in the world where there are Muslims and you'll hear the Koran recited.
Is reciting the Koran a form of prayer?
Muslims believe the Koran is the word of God, and so many think that reading it is akin to reliving the moment of revelation. It's not a prayer that you're saying to God; it's speaking the word of God. It's a deeply religious act.
Do you know of any analogs in other religions?
They might exist, but it certainly isn't as big a deal. This event takes place on the holiest day of Ramadan. It's covered in the papers, shown on national television, played by cab drivers on the radio. Many mosques will recite one thirtieth of the Koran every night of Ramadan until it's completed. During the holy month, Koranic recitation is everywhere. The contest is a part of that.
You mentioned earlier that the film explores the issue of education in the Muslim world. How do the kids do in school classes that do not involve Koran memorization?
The best example is Rifdha, who gets straight A's in all of her subjects. Things are more complicated for Nabiollah and Djamil, who've gone to schools where they teach mostly Koran. In general, the kids you see in competition are really smart kids, so if they're on an educational course that includes both religious and secular studies, they tend to do well across the board. Education is highly prized within Islam. There are lawyers and diplomats who have memorized the Koran and gone to Harvard.
Were there any Americans in competition?
Not this year. There are Americans who do this, but they're generally not at that top level.
You filmed in Cairo during Ramadan in 2010. Were you surprised by the uprising and overthrow of the Egyptian government earlier this year?
I've been going to Cairo for a number of years, and you could feel that the country was on the cusp, clearly fed up with the current regime, particularly the notion that Mubarak would try to hand off control to his son. I knew a lot of people in different activist and youth groups, and you could tell that something was brewing. But certainly nobody envisioned the absolute collapse of that regime, not even the Egyptians themselves.
Will they still have the event this year?
My sense is that there won't be an event this year, mostly because the Egyptian government, which is a co-sponsor of the event, will be busy with other things. Last year, the government was very concerned with the logistics and safety of bringing 120 kids to Cairo from around the world, and this year they just don't want to take any chances. They'll probably pick it back up next year. But the act of reciting the Koran transcends politics.
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