The Taqwa Bus

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Six years ago, Mike Knight had just about had enough. A white American from Buffalo, New York, he had made a certain late-twentieth-century pilgrim’s progress. He’d converted to Islam after listening to Public Enemy and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, gone off to Pakistan at the age of seventeen to study the Qur’an, and barely avoided a trip to Chechnya to make jihad. On returning to the States, he went to college, rediscovered punk rock, and fell out with his adopted faith.

In 2002, he wrote a novel, The Taqwacores, in which Buffalo is home to an unlikely cavalcade of countercultural Muslim punks, or taqwacores (“seeker” or “God fearer” in Arabic, plus the -core in “hardcore”). At the taqwacore safe house, the straight-edge Sunni kid with Qur’anic verses tattooed on his arms butts heads with a permanently besotted Mohawk-wearing Sufi, and the house enforcer is a radical feminist in a burqa covered with hand-sewn band patches. There seem to be shows every other night, featuring Muslim bands engaged in all manner of blasphemy (and some pieties). It is, from nearly every angle, a total mess. From one angle, though, the taqwacore scene is heaven on earth.

The Taqwacores was, you might say, a fantasy novel, in which Michael Muhammad Knight imagined the kind of mixed-up Muslim-American world that he’d like to belong to. It was a love letter and an indictment and a suicide note all at once, the work of a sometimes-mournful ex-Muslim. Then a funny thing happened. In San Antonio, a sixteen-year-old Sufi kid called himself Vote Hezbollah and set “Muhammad Is a Punk Rocker,” a poem from the novel, to music. Outside Boston, a group calling itself the Kominas (the Bastards, in Punjabi) posted a song called “Rumi Was a Homo” to its MySpace page. In Vancouver, an all-girl punk group called themselves Secret Trial Five, after five Muslim men held in a Canadian prison for years based on secret evidence. Each of the bands reached out to Knight — not difficult, actually, since he’d put his cellphone number in the book — and told him they were taqwacores. You could say they made a believer out of him.

Last summer, when Shahjehan Khan, guitarist for the Kominas, put together the first-ever taqwacore package tour (five bands, two weeks, Boston to Chicago), Knight jumped at the chance to live his improbable dream. He bought a perfect yellow school bus from rural Amish country in upstate New York ($2,000, eBay), replaced the last few seat rows with couches, painted the outside John Deere green, and wrote “TAQWA” in white block letters above the windshield. The international taqwacore conspiracy then descended on Boston for the start of the tour, meeting up at the home of Kominas lead singer Basim to turn the bus into a spectacle. Omar Waqar (formerly of Diacritical, now of Sarmust, but performing solo on the tour) stenciled small red camels down the sides and spray-painted a portrait of Rumi onto one of the back windows. On the other he painted a woman in niqab with an “A” for “anarchy” on her forehead and scrawled “I Am the Truth” alongside. Marwan Kamel of Chicago’s Al-Thawra (the Revolution) started painting the word “TAQWACORE” in fourcolor graffiti on the roof, but ran out of paint at the “W.”

After every gig, fans were invited onboard to tag the bus. By the end, words and images covered every inch of the interior, and you could read anarchist slogans in nine different languages. Of all the symbols and messages, the “Praise Allah” bumper stickers provoked the biggest reaction. “Some guy, I think in Detroit, went to the trouble of writing ‘Fuck Allah’ and holding it up to his windscreen,” said Khan. But most feedback was more benign. “You couldn’t help but smile at that thing. At certain times it looked like an animal.” Often Khan would sit on top of the beast and look at the sky. “The bus was the physical representation of the feeling I had when I first read The Taqwacores — not being able to believe that it was happening.”

Knight, too, grew ever more attached to the bus, its contents, and its mission. He never let anyone else drive it, and he always wanted to sleep in it, among the fireworks and empty tuna cans that collected along the way. Fueled by gallons of Mountain Dew, he drove and drove across the country, taking the bands on educational field trips. Since The Taqwacores, Knight has published two books of nonfiction: Blue-Eyed Devil (2007), a swashbuckling Greyhound-driven pilgrimage to the mostly unmarked holy places of American, and especially African-American, Islam; and The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop, and the Gods of New York (2007), in which Knight set out to document the history of Father Allah’s heroically misunderstood Nation of Islam splinter group, before all of its original members died out. No surprise, then, that the bus stopped off in Harlem to build with Knight’s friends and informants. But then, not really a surprise that they also met with straitlaced Sunnis in Toledo, Ohio, either, or that they performed the Dances of Universal Peace, created by San Francisco hippie leader Samuel Lewis, in Baltimore. Knight even drove the bands to Buffalo, where it all began. “We didn’t want to stay, because it sucked,” admitted Kamel.

Back on the road, Knight would tell the bands tales of Muslim America. “From behind the wheel, dropping all this knowledge on us, like the Sufi saint of taqwacore or something,” Kamel said. And while Knight showed them the landmarks of his own private cultural landscape, he listened to their drums, guitars, and sitars as they sang chaotic punk-rock qawwalis and songs about one another: “Mike Knight Is CIA”; “Shahjehan Is a Babagadouche.”

After the final show, Knight drove straight from Chicago back to Boston. His role as “the Neal Cassady of the thing” was coming to an end, and the bus was falling apart. The door kept jamming and the tires were bald; the turn signal came off in his hand. He and the tour’s survivors — the Kominas and Waqar — talked about destroying it. No one would be allowed to mope around in it in his backyard; they needed to destroy it to save it. In a junkyard in Waltham, Massachusetts, they attacked it with crowbars and hammers before turning it over to a forklift. Afterward they walked around the painted wreckage with shards of glass in their hair.

Each of them took a relic. Waqar took the gas cap with a dollar sign on it and the “I <3 Allah” bumper stickers. Khan has the dented stop sign on a shelf above his dresser. Knight wishes he still had the bus. “But it’s something now that can never be ruined. We said at the time that the whole thing would be better to remember than to live.”