Spotlight: Justin Mashouf

By Madeeha Ansari

Artist. Dancer. Documentarian. Visionary.

When I heard that an Irani-American documentary-maker was giving break-dance lessons at Kuch Khaas in Islamabad, my mind tried hard to draw the neat boundaries of a category around him. He would be confused, I thought. A second generation not-quite-Muslim, who was here to demonstrate a rudimentary kind of empathy with people he could never really understand.

Instead, Justin Mashouf turned out to be cheerfully, refreshingly defiant of stereotypes and easy categorization. We all struggle with questions of identity and he is no exception, but the difference is that it seems he has come to accept all aspects of himself: Irani, American and really quite Muslim. It is enough for him to be able to fit quite comfortably into an environment that must have been quite alien to him.

“The hugging rituals here are very awkward for me,” he smiled after bidding a b-boying student goodbye. “I never know if it’s the right hand going forward.”

When I met him, Justin had been in Pakistan for three weeks, making a short documentary about the SABAH home for orphan girls in Rawalpindi. It was a very different venture from his previous film, “Warring Factions”, which was a documentary about Iran, America, Justin and b-boying. Trying to piece together a sensible picture of this individual, I thought it would be wise to ask him a little bit about himself.

“I was born in the US and only visited Iran twice. The first time was in 2006 with my dad and the second was in 2007. However, I grew up a lot around Iranian culture because of family. Iran was familiar and like a home, just one I’d never been to before.

“In Iran, there’s a big scene of people into b-boying. I had been in touch with an Iranian breakdancer in late 2006. It was one of those guided fateful accounts. I was on the internet on a Korean website and found a clip called ‘B-boy Hussain battle in Iran’.”

That was the inspiration for “Warring Factions”, his first major freelance venture. On his way back, Justin was detained by US Homeland Security, who confiscated the video footage. After a lengthy process of retrieval, the film was made and released online. To date it has had over 10,000 downloads, from “very strange places, including Russia and China”.

“My next film is about Muslim Americans in the prison system. This is an independent project…, I’m still looking for funding. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the USA. It spreads very quickly in the prison system, particularly in the African American community. A lot of people do a lot of research and reading in prison… and Islam becomes a way to unite people, giving them spiritual grounding. For a lot of them who have lived a life of crime, it becomes a way to turn their lives around. In a way it’s like a very good 12-step programme.”

Seeing my polite smile, he laughed and clarified.

“The twelve steps to recovery from drug addiction.”

Post-modern comparison between religion and rehab;. I was beginning to like him more and more.

Incidentally, this was the day Kuch Khaas was hosting a charity concert by the socialist band Laal, who set revolutionary verses of Urdu poetry to rock music. It was clear that the theme for the evening was going to be an interesting fusion of East and West.  As Laal covered “Another One Bites the Dust” outside, the conversation turned to Pakistan.

“The disparities inside Pakistan are the most noticeable landmarks,” he observed. “Disparities between the poor and the rich, between the educated and the non-educated; It’s very sad to see the multiple extremes, because extremism breeds where there is disparity.”

“(Balance is important), whether it’s for the Taliban or the youth who are partying too hard. (In that sense) gatherings like this are crucial. It’s really important to have an environment for dialogue where people can come and express themselves – like this band here. I really dig anything that’s fusing cultures – Irani, American, East, West. People need to be comfortable with what they are. Allah made us all of different colours and tribes. We’re not all cast in the same mould so we have the space to explore ourselves, see where we fall.”

Finally, we started talking about his work in Pakistan and his voice conveyed the excitement of sharing things that have been newly learnt. This was a project for LA-based producer Tariq Jalil, who was intrigued by the idea of a model orphanage in Pakistan in the form of the SABAH home.

“The orphanage is incredible in its uniqueness. From the pictures I’ve seen of other orphanages, none can compare. It’s an almost upper-class upbringing, very clean. The girls go to a private school and have private tutors coming in. The pictures of the others are really terrible.

“A lot of people in the West will be comforted that places like this exist. It’s not like a madrassa – the kids are taught tolerance and peace right from the beginning. There are pictures of the Kaaba and Masjid-e-Nabvi, and right next to them there are pictures of a Hindu temple, a synagogue and a Japanese Shinto temple.

“The founder, Mr. Aslam, is a very unique person. He came back after living in the US and has been running this orphanage for the last three years. He’s seventy four and is doing a great job for these 27 girls…It’s because it’s small that they can offer so much, but they can do it for 60. It’s a wonderful vision and a model for other institutions.”

Seeing how comfortable he seemed with his environment, I asked if he wanted to visit again.

“If I’m ever able to leave! Yeah, I hope to come back. I want to see more places, I want to see Lahore. Because of the security situation I’ve been discouraged from travelling too much this time around.

“I hope things get better here. But I think there’s hope in people who are listening to others and the people in between, the moderates. I think the hope is in the young people.”

As we bid goodbye, I found myself thinking he was right. If there is hope for the defeat of stereotypes, then it is certainly in young people – not unlike him.