“What is the point of voting?” That may be the question many Americans ask themsevles when they think about November 2018 but growing up in Gaza, that question never arose. Voting was a pipe dream. Our last election was 2006. While we studied democracy in school, we knew that it was all theory. Until the occupation ended, we knew we would not have a choice to have a voice, which is what a vote is supposed to mean. When I came to the US in 2015 to participate in the New Story Leadership delegation in Washington, DC I was thrilled to see democracy in action. People took voting seriously.
In 2016 I began my gradudate studies at the NYU Journalism School to focus on news and documentary filmmaking. That same year, I experienced my first USA Presidential election. Voting was something that mattered for Americans. I remember thinking how exciting this was and yet, how removed from my own experience. Then a friend told me about a local election that she thought might be relevant. Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian American Lutheran Pastor was running for a seat on the NY City Council, and he was the first Arab American ever to do so.
I was intrigued. I recognized my own people, speaking my own language, Arabic, but engaging in something totally foreign to me, American democracy. I took my camera and started following the campaign. I filmed fiery debates, the inner circle of advisors and the door to door campaign. I started to understand why voting matters. It did not take long to realize that this would become my major thesis project. With Pastor El-Yateem’s approval, my crew and I shot over 600 hours of cinema verite footage and “Brooklyn, Inshallah” was born.
I thought only Gaza people were denied a vote, and that American democracy empowered everyone. That was the theory. How naive I was? I learned that many Arab and Muslim Americans, and many other immigrants of color and their families, do not vote in American elections. Like Gazans, many think their vote does not count, while others are too afraid of ICE or Islamophobia, or have had no productive experience with democracy. In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, only about 250 Arabs and Muslims out of about 40,000 voted in the last election. I could not believe that then and still find it astounding. My camera followed the candidate. Could he change that?
Born in Bethlehem Palestine, starved and tortured by the IDF as a seminarian, and 20 years serving all the people of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — Jews, Muslims, Christians — Rev. Khader Al Yateem became the face and the voice of my documentary. His story became emblemmatic of this whole community in their crucible moment when they had to decide if their silence would protect them. They rallied around his candidacy with the leadership of local activists who registered and mobilized thousands of American Arab and Muslim voters for the first time.
The key figures to emerge on that leadership team were two women campaign organizers who in this #MeToo age, challenge the orthodoxies of Brooklyn power broking. One is controversial and a nationally known Muslim leader, Linda Sarsour, who was the force behind the 2017 Washington Women’s March and of Khader even running. Sarsour is also the subject of daily death threats from anti-Arab fanatics. The other is a young local community organizer Aber Kawas, whose family were victims of post 9-11 Muslim deportations, and who has a personal stake in the outcome. These two Muslim women, together with a Christian priest, form an unlikely team, working tirelessly to mobilize the Arab American and Muslim communities of Bay Ridge. This story of voter empwerment is also a story of women leadership.
As the film reveals, the odds were stacked against them from the start. But by registering and mobilizing over 3,000 new voters from the American Arab and Muslim communities, they set up the platform for a whole new player in Brooklyn and NYC politics — “Yallah Brooklyn” an alliance of Arab American voters who are playing a decisive role in the 2018 elections. No one will dare ignore them again in a hurry.
My focus now is to raise the funds to finish editing “Brooklyn, Inshallah” and take it on the road in September and October to support voter registration drives, attract volunteers, and create media buzz. As a non-partisan initiative, we want to mobilize all American Arab and Muslim voters, irrespective of whether they are affiliated with any political party or candidate. “Brooklyn, Inshallah” will partner with non-profit organizations in targeted communities to organize screenings/voter registration drives. The format can be as simple as showing the film and using it as a trigger to discussion about what lessons can be learned. As director, I am an experienced speaker and facilitator of group events.
“Brooklyn, Inshallah” is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Fractured Atlas will receive grants for the charitable purposes of funding “Brooklyn, Inshallah”, provide oversight to ensure that grant funds are used in accordance with grant agreements, and provide reports as required by the grantor. Contributions for the charitable purposes of “Brooklyn, Inshallah” must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible. You can give online here.
According to recent research, 42% of those who did not vote in 2016 were from minorities, mainly Black, Asian, Hispanic, women and Arab. Democracy never works if people are silenced. In 2018, more Arab Americans and Muslim Americans – and our allies – are running for office than ever before and they need our support. It is time for our American Arab and Muslim communities to make democracy work for everyone, including us. Please support “Brooklyn, Inshallah.”