When Koran by Heart was filmed, Hosni Mubarak was still president of Egypt. As such, he served as the ultimate audience for the winner of the International Holy Koran Competition, held annually in Cairo. The contest has a hundred children and teenagers reciting the Koran from memory: those who do it most impressively—that is, according to a set of traditional rules—are selected to recite before the president on national TV on the holiest night of Ramadan, a public event bestowing ceremonial prestige on the contest winners.
In 2010, when Greg Barker (who also made the documentary Sergio) recorded the experiences of several contestants—including the 10-year-olds Nabiollah, from Tajikistan, Rifdha from Maldives, and Djamil, from Senegal—appearing for Mubarak was still an honor: “Presidents don’t come for small things,” observes Nabiollah. Now, however, that the former leader is scheduled to make his own appearance, in a courtroom, as he is charged with 3 August offenses that include conspiring to kill protesters during the uprising that led to his overthrow in February.
The change in fortunes—for Mubarak and Egypt more broadly—seems abrupt. But Koran by Heart, premiering on HBO 1 August, hints at cultural and political instabilities, if not in Egypt per se, then in the complex relations between Islam and various states. The young competitors come from “around the world, including many from non-Arab countries who memorize the Koran without an understanding of Arabic.” Surely, memorizing the Koran—some 600 pages—is an admirable accomplishment, by any measure. That said, it’s striking that so many contestants have no understanding of what they’ve learned. And such various levels of understanding can have various effects. One indication comes in a brief scene featuring Mehdi, the father of 10-year-old Mohamed from Australia. “We’re not here to win,” he assures his son after he’s earned a low score. “We’ll never compete against Muslims, yeah?”
If this sentiment suggests one sort of tension in the competition’s assumptions and structure, others come up within that very category, “Muslims.” Dr. Salem Abdel-Galil, of Cairo’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, is in charge of organizing the competition. As he describes it, there are two facets to this. He leaves administration to his staff, who arrange for contestants’ travel, while he attends more closely to the “creative” side, namely, “choosing the questions and orchestrating everything.” If the questions don’t technically test understanding of the text, they do set up ways to measure differences, say, familiarity with the Rules of Tajweed, concerning “rhythm, the pronunciation of different syllables, whether your voice comes from your chest or from your throat,” as described Kristina Nelson, captioned here as the “world’s top non-Muslim expert on Koran reciting.”
However such distinctions might be ascertained by individual judges, Salem sees the competition more broadly as a way to make his moderate Islam more visible. “Those who promote extremism have satellite TVs,” he says, “They get a lot of money and they present themselves as the official voice of Islam, so their voice is louder than ours and we’re the moderates. This is very dangerous.” He combats this imbalance by being a “media personality” as well as overseeing the competition. As host of the TV show, “The Final Word,” Salem means to affect Islam’s reputation in the larger world. Extremists “are estranged from the Koran,” he says, “Or they don’t understand the Koran.”
Presumably, this lack of understanding is of a different order than that of the young reciters. As Koran by Heart shows, the kids have their own stakes in the contest, some pressed by their families or communities, others seemingly driven by other, internal sorts of forces. Djamil, who does not understand Arabic, comes from an impoverished village. “My parents told me to learn the Koran before anything else,” he says, as you see him walking with his father along the water on a beach. “Every Muslim should know the Koran. I like the way the letters look, the way it’s written, and the way my teacher teaches it.” His teacher tells him he’s representing all of Senegal and all of Africa, but, “You mustn’t be scared.”
Rifdha confesses her nervousness right away: “It seemed to me that I had butterflies in my stomach,” during her early competitions, she says. Her father explains that while he didn’t follow Islam for 30 years, now has a deep investment. He wants to move his daughter off the island, to Yemen, so that she might have proper schooling in the Koran. Rifdha’s mother Shimla, on the other hand, wants her to study what she likes, with an eye toward a career. The girl’s interested in science, she says, and wants to be a “night explorer.” “How does one become a night explorer?” asks her mother as they cut vegetables into a bowl. “You study it,” asserts Rifdha. “We won’t decide her,” says Shimla. “She must decide.”
Nabiollah presents another case, a brilliant reciter who doesn’t know what he’s saying. Indeed, the image he presents while reciting is evocative: he closes his eyes and begins to rock, as if transported. For the boy, it’s a means to perform. “If I open my eyes, I get distracted,” he says. Instead, he imagines the “turning pages,” that he’s memorized. While it’s too much to call this strategy a metaphor, the film does show Nabiollah and his father as they go to an interview at a school in Dushanbe, Tajikstan’s capital. His school back home has been shut down, the film explains, “part of a crackdown against Islamic extremism.” At the other, larger school, he will must learn to read and write—which he cannot begin to do now. “So mostly you memorized,” says the principal. “What about the meaning?”
The interview takes place before the competition, and he’s invited to come back afterwards, when the principal can have a better sense of his value. No one says this in Koran by Heart. But it’s clear that an illiterate child who is called to appear before the president means something different than an illiterate child who is not.