As Syrians go West, they are met with the anxiety of many who may have only met them before through negative media portrayal.
The first wave of Arab and Muslim immigration to the U.S. and Europe was via slavery. The first recorded Arabic speaker to come to North America was called Zammouri, which in Arabic means someone from Al-Zammour, Morocco. Zammouri arrived in America in the 1500s, and he came as a slave to the Spanish.
Despite centuries in the U.S., Arabs and Muslims are outsiders in most of our cultural landscape, including film and TV. American media is loaded with ‘star attachments,’ known celebrity actors which make investments more secure in the eyes of film financiers. There are very few ‘star’ Arab and Muslim American actors. That is indicative of the problem point blank. Arab and Muslim Americans don’t have the representation for Arab or Muslim centered work to be readily viable.
The fear of Arab refugees has been heightened over the part to the past fifteen years of ominous media representations. There has been both a fascination and disgust for Arabs and Muslims in the mainstream media since 9/11. In the U.S., they have been characterized as the pernicious threat in television programs and as villains in feature films. This scapegoating by the media is parallel to legal action taken against the community.
Since the attack on the World Trade Center, there has been an American focus on taking and disempowering Arab/Muslim lives for the safety of the U.S. In addition to wars abroad, domestically the U.S. ban on “Providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations” expanded in the Patriot Act, sought to indict anyone associated with terrorists. This has led to the arrests and detention of Arab and Muslim Americans who have not killed or caused any Americans harm. One of the most tragic cases is that of graduate student, Pakistani-American Syed Fahad Hashmi. The young man housed an acquaintance donating socks and ponchos to Al Qaeda. While Hashmi had never interacted with Al Qaeda, his house guest had, and this has led to Hashmi’s years of imprisonment. Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, in addition to those in Canada and Europe, have become subject to such harassment and arrests.
I am a filmmaker of Syrian descent. It’s my project as a filmmaker to intervene with complex, positive, alternative images, especially of women, and from the beginning, I have found the discrimination against Arab and Muslim subjects to be crippling to the making of the work. I entered film school in September 2001. After my first year of film school, I decided to go to Palestine/Israel to make a documentary. I received a letter from the administration that while I would be traveling through Palestine Territories to make the film, I must “withdraw” from the University because of the “exceptional danger.” I sought the power to create empathy and mutual understanding, by making Arab cinema. In order to do so, I had to leave the protection of my university.
Over time, Arab cinema has developed from narrative films seeking to define national identity, such as “The Battle of Algiers” to a concern for our individual identities, including our physical domain, such as “Wadjda.” This is in correlation with the current fetishization of the body of the Arab: with the media focus on child Syrian brides, ISIS’ rape survivors, and most recently the corpse of the dearly departed Aylan Kurdi.
Today’s events in Syria and the refugee crisis invoke the importance of films led by Arab and Muslim people, playing to American and European audiences. More Arab and Muslim led work screening in the West will be a sign of our integration. As we enter the media, in a humanized way, in our own truths, so we are equalized in society. Arab and Muslim-centered films present people from walks of life viewers might not be familiar with, in our own words via our own ideas. These films are a necessity to the civil rights movement, for Arab and Muslim Americans. Even as an American society, if we do this with Arab and Muslim Americans, we do it before the rest of the world. Arab and Muslim American led films can help European and American people and governments to be welcoming and generous to Syrian immigrants.
At this time, I am making an expansion of my short film that was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival, “Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf.” That short, in 2006, was one of the first pieces of Arab American-led narrative work. Even though the short premiered with much support surrounding it, the climate was so hostile to Arab and Muslim Americans, that I felt it was not time to release an Arab American centered feature film. Instead, I dove into making my first feature “Habibi,” set in the Gaza Strip. As time has gone by, nearly ten years since that short screened at Sundance, I am faced with my responsibility as a maker to present an Arab American feature film–if anything because the climate has not improved, only changed. I am crowdfunding this feature, and relying on grants. That’s how we made “Habibi” and that’s how we make “Marjoun.” When there’s no opportunity, we turn to our community to create one for ourselves.
Our screens are a reflection of our society. We need an honoring of Syrian and Palestinian life as equal as our own as Americans and Europeans. Supporting media by Arabs and Muslims about Arabs and Muslims is one way that we can instigate the process of healing and hope.
If you would like to be a part of our journey with “Marjoun,” please see the link below.
Visit the ‘Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf’ campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.