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Koran by Heart | Review

Brilliant Youngsters Play Prestigious Memory Games In Cairo

Every year during the month of Ramadan, Egypt’s capital, Cairo, plays host to the International Holy Koran Competition. The contest is held to find the best Koran reciters in the world based on memorization, pronunciation, and intonation, better known in the competition as the rules of tajweed. Students from around the globe between the ages of 7 and 20 are selected to compete, many of which miraculously memorize the entire 600 page tomb without even knowing the Arabic language. During last year’s competition season, director Greg Barker followed the young 2nd and 3rd place winners as they left their rural villages for the first time to showcase their incredible photographic memories, and angelic voices. Koran By Heart looks on at these young pupils with a fascinated eye, while subtly examining the education and gender beliefs of the fundamentalist Muslim world.

The film follows 10 year old Nabiollah, a boy who’s education has almost solely been devoted to the memorization of the Koran. He is almost completely illiterate in his own language of Tajik. After his school is shut down as a governmental attempt to prohibit the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, his father tries to enroll him in a boarding school where he is nearly rejected due to his poor practical education. Also starring in the film is Rifdha, a brilliant 10 year old girl from the island country of Maldives. She is one of only ten girls competing in the competition. Her intelligence is instantly evident, but her pessimistic fundamentalist father seems disappointed, and though she has a potentially very bright future ahead of her, he believes that she must become a well educated housewife. The two children are bright eyed, naïve, and unrelentingly cute, making it easy to root for their competitive success. Other less successful, but equally jaundiced contenders are introduced to flesh out the cast.

With interjections by a western Koran reciting expert, as well as one of the moderators of the nationally televised event, we are given a look at how the competition is judged. They also shed light on the role that Koran reciting plays in Muslim culture. From an outsiders perspective the entire affair seems like a publicity event to spread the word of the holy Islamic scriptures, but the moderator firmly states that the competition is held by moderates, even going so far as to allow women to partake in the event. The film doesn’t make social commentary its main objective, but with a subject that focuses on the spouting of a religious text, the culture’s flaws unavoidably start to rear their head. Frontline contributor and Sergio doc helmer handles these issues carefully, without passing judgment, but leaves the audience questioning the morals of traditional Muslim beliefs.

In a Western world where Islam is often an unfair trigger of fear, Koran By Heart is a refreshingly unbiased look at Muslim youth that gives insight into the development of religious fundamentalism. While touching on a variety of serious social issues, Barker’s doc manages to feel fairly light thanks to its leading enthusiastic and appreciative youngsters, and Philip Sheppard’s upbeat, worldly soundtrack. HBO’s newest addition to its docu lineup is a contemplative, and often beautiful film that is definitely worth a watch.

HBO premiere date: August 1st, 2011.


Rating 3 stars

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