In pursuit of a deeper familiarity with Islam, Danyal, a young American man studying Arabic at the University of Alexandria in Egypt befriends a group of Muslim men who preach an extreme form of the religion. To follow them, he must decide whether to reject the things he loves, including his gay brother, Omar. But he unexpectedly discovers a greater joy when he meets and falls in love with his Egyptian T.A.
I was working at the University of Maryland as a Language Partner for students in the Arabic program when one afternoon a saw a very unusual character. He didn't seem to belong to that place, or even time. The young man was dressed head-to-toe in what looked to me, an Iraqi, like Taliban clothing. It was as if he had just walked out of Afghanistan and somehow landed in Maryland. The first thought that came into my mind was that the place was about to be blown up. I thought this man must have so much hate inside him for others that it's only a matter of time until he harms those around him. The second thought that came to mind was that if I, an Arab, could so easily pass judgment on the man without knowing him, what must a regular American think of him? Two days later I was informed that I had a new student. To my surprise it was the same man, Danyal. He spoke Arabic fluently. He seemed innocent and kind, yet peculiar. In time we formed a bond of friendship. He spoke of his community and family with love and respect. This seeming dichotomy was not easy for me to understand.
To me the people who have roots in Islam but were not raised in it, who are far from their heritage but become curious about it, they can be more dangerous than someone from the Middle East who grew up with this religion permeating their lives. The people rediscovering their birthright are hungry for a culture to belong to. But there is no clear “Muslim” path for someone to adopt. There is not just one guidebook that lays out the best way to live Islam. There are thousands of interpretations, some of them extreme and violent. Some sections of the Quran speak about jihad, but in a manner that even native Arabic speakers cannot understand on their own—they must go to the tefsir, the meaning of the text. However, each group follows their own tefsir. So whose did Danyal follow?
When I saw Danyal, he didn’t look like me, a regular guy who grew up in a modern society with Islam a daily part of my life. His exterior was that of a fundamentalist. I was therefore both curious and warry about what was going on underneath, what he truly believed. If he could adopt their costume, maybe he also adopted their ideas.
I was born in Baghdad in 1981—the year that the war between Iraq and Iran began. Between 1981 and when I left in 2009, I lived through three consecutive wars. All my life I witnessed people fighting. I became an actor and my theatre company and I created plays that dealt with the political issues of our day. As research for my characters I interviewed many different kinds of people, including people who came from the West to Iraq in order to fight. Meeting Danyal— someone who could just as easily and violently oppose a differing group, but who lives a peaceful life and exudes only love—was the opposite experience. But at the time, he still didn’t have a complete picture of Islam.
Danyal is a reasonable, intelligent person. He is extremely religious, but his family is not. His brother is a gay opera singer, but in spite of their differences, they are close. The love they have makes each of them view the other with kindness and respect. Danyal told me he lived in Saudi Arabia and I wondered how his views hadn’t changed after the experiences he lived through. To me Danyal appeared to be easily manipulated and usable. When he told me he was going to Egypt, I knew he would be entering an environment with many conflicting influences: Salafists, Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood, Shia, Sunni, liberal, conservative… How would he resist listening to the extremist sheikhs he might encounter? How could he maintain his neutrality? Would he continue to love his family unconditionally and not reject them? This is the story I set out to follow, and will now present through a dramatic, insightful, and daring film.
— ODAY SADOON
DIRECTOR / DP
KATE O WAGNER
PRODUCER / ASSISTANT EDITOR
SARAH M SHALABY
LINE PRODUCER (EGYPT)
LINE PRODUCER (US)
M. ATIF ISMAIL