Lighthouse Mosque hosts screening of “The Honest Struggle” documentary
on October 4, 2019
On a stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard in Oakland where barred windows are quickly going out of fashion and a third-wave coffee shop, a beer garden, and a record store housed in a shipping container have set up shop, a formerly incarcerated African-American Muslim man in his late fifties and a young fair-skinned Muslim-American documentarian walk into a mosque.
Justin Mashouf, the documentarian, and Darrel “Sadiq” Davis had arrived at the Lighthouse Mosque a few hours before the screening of their film, The Honest Struggle. The film, released in April, chronicles Davis’ exit from prison in 2013, and his struggles to redefine himself as a Muslim in the chronically dangerous streets of Chicago’s South Side. Having been found guilty of murder, aggravated battery, and armed violence, Davis served three non-consecutive prison sentences totaling 24 years. He attempts to use his faith, or deen as he calls it, to keep the influence of former gang associates and the temptations of easy money from resurrecting his old self.
Davis arrived ready to relay his message: A silver pendent inscribed with the word Allah in Arabic script dangled from his neck. He wore a solid black skullcap; his blue blazer and denim jeans suggested California business casual. Mashouf’s presence was bright and earnest, his keen blue eyes taking in the surroundings.
Taking ample time to chat in the Lighthouse Mosque’s dimly lit prayer room before the show began, the two spoke about how they came together to make the documentary. As he began searching for a subject for his film, Mashouf said he had been in contact with Green Reentry, a program run by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) which provides transitional housing and sustainable construction training for formerly incarcerated people in Chicago. The organization arranged for him to film Davis, even though the two of them had not yet met. “They told me that somebody was going to have some cameras at the train station when I was released from prison,” Davis recalled.
Mashouf said that part of his mission with the film, and his personal introduction and attachment to Islam, came through Malcolm X. Having joined the Nation of Islam, a black racial separatist organization, while in prison, Malcolm X became disillusioned with the group’s ideology of racial separation after making the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he worshipped with people from every spectrum of humanity. “Malcolm X was this person who was put through the ringer of society, and he dedicated his life to reforming society after coming home from prison,” Mashouf said. “Malcolm is like our American icon.”
Mashouf said that he saw similar elements in Davis’ own story of cycling through America’s prison system, and of trying to do good and stay true to the teachings of his faith. “You have to go through some stuff in order to do some stuff,” Davis agreed.
Outside, sharp sunlight filtered through the mosque’s canopied southwest-facing side. Mashouf and Davis said they had chosen the Lighthouse Mosque, with its copses of palm trees in front of its simple, single-story beige façade, because it is launching a reentry program similar to IMAN.
Called Al Ouda (The Return), the goal is to run five houses providing housing for ex-offenders referred by the Alameda County Probation Department, according to Sundiata Al Rashid, one of the program’s organizers. Each house run by Al Ouda, he said, will not only provide transitional accommodation, but support with social services like help accessing Medi-Cal and assistance from on-site case managers. “It’ll be an interim place,” Al Rashid added, “so the stay will be between 6 months and a year, and after that hopefully they’ll be able to go somewhere more permanent.”
A fundraising campaign for the program in late September at HUB925 in Pleasanton raised around $90,000, according to Al Rashid.
Mashouf said along with screening his film at schools, festivals and universities, he wanted a direct line of communication with the Bay Area Muslim community through the mosque. “This is so powerful, this work. A mosque that is having a reentry facility and giving these people those skills and that opportunity that they need to lead us. That’s a big piece of what I’m doing,” Mashouf said.
As Mashouf and Davis took a break, regular worshippers and screening attendees made their way into the mosque. Men and women in traditional clothing, along with others in stained worker’s uniforms and street clothes, exchanged greetings of “Salaam Alaykum” and polite inquiries into family and career. Mashouf and Davis made their rounds, introducing themselves to the pan-ethnic congregation, which includes African-Americans, Yemenis, Egyptians, other Arabs, and a handful of white American converts.
The screening was slightly delayed by the exactly 4:21 pm ‘Asr afternoon prayers. By the start of the screening, Davis had draped a keffiyeh scarf over his blazer and stood in the back, as attendees positioned themselves on the mosque’s carpeted floor. Mashouf and Davis briefly introduced themselves to the audience, but Mashouf said that he wanted the film to do most of the talking.
In the film, Mashouf documents Davis’ visit to his older brother Petey and other members of the family in a spacious suburban home outside of Chicago. There, Petey, boasting of Davis’ propensity for music at a young age, explains how a few wrong turns turned the talented youth into another South Side statistic: a juvenile offender. “I wasn’t getting supported in the music, so the only thing left was the mob,” Davis confirms.
Davis said that while in prison, Islam provided a way to hold himself accountable for his actions, to quiet his demons, and to ultimately restore his humanity. “I’ve learned that even after death, you’re going to be held accountable,” he says.
Over several months, Mashouf continues following Davis through the city as he reconnects with other African-American Muslims, old flames, and others who help him stay disciplined. Yet his difficulty in building a sustainable life outside the prison system is compounded by the dubious offers of help from people from his previous life, and by being constantly turned down for legitimate jobs because of his criminal record. Davis, in spite of the unshakable pillars of his faith, is always afraid of having one foot back in the prison cell.
After the screening, Mashouf and Davis spoke to the congregation. Davis said that years of being subjected to the gang life had fed him a lie about how black men should live. “You had to get shot. You had to get stabbed. You had to spend over 25 years of your life in prison,” he said. “The same negative influence you have over the community, now you return back to that to try to right that based on your own conduct and behavior. It’s going to speak for itself.”
Faisal Hamid, the director of admissions at Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts institute in Berkeley, was in attendance for the screening. “I think the film highlighted an organization which Brother Sadiq benefitted from,” he said. Hamid added that he was moved to help similar organizations and do his part. “I want to make sure that similar brothers and sisters get support when they reenter our communities,” he said.
“What this movie was about was not a one-off case. It’s a very common phenomenon,” said Yousef Masoud, a young documentary fan with dark, shoulder-length hair who was standing outside the mosque and reflecting on the film. Masoud said that the film helped him understand the work of reentry institutions within the Muslim community and how they benefit people like Davis. “Al-ḥamdu lil-lāh [praise God],” he said. “It’s a success case.”
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