Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Arabs

Black Filmmakers have it Made – Compared to Us!

First Day of Filmming

First day of filming The Great American Family, a documentary which is currently in post-production.

Most people know me as an author and journalist, but I’m also a filmmaker, one who has to almost work underground, using my own flashlight, like a miner. It’s difficult enough being a women filmmaker let alone one with Middle Eastern background. So when Chris Rock talked at the Oscars about the lack of blacks in Hollywood (in films, receiving awards, etc.) I thought, “They Have it Made – Compared to us!”

Over ten years ago I was at the Surrey Writer’s Conference in Vancouver and I met with three producers, one who’d produced Father of the Bride II, one who produced Pay it Forward, and the third, I forgot what he produced. Anyhow, I pitched to them and their reactions to my stories were quite unique. Even though the U.S. had been politically involved with Iraq for decades, even though my stories were of modern day Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans, these producers didn’t see how they could possibly adapt them into film.

“It would be difficult to cast an Arabic movie,” one said. “Who would we cast for the leading role? Tom Hanks?”

As if Tom Hanks is the only actor in Hollywood! It was not a problem to cast him in The Terminal, a sweet and delicate comedy, similar to my type of work – where Tom plays a man from the fictional country of Krakozhia who is stuck at John F. Kennedy International Airport.  It was possible to cast Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta as women (Tootsie and Hairspray), but it is impossible to get a good actor to play a normal Arab?

Plus, the roles of “bad” Arabs have been easily played by other western actors, starting with Rudolph Valentino. In the 1920’s he starred in The Sheik and Son of the Sheik, two films which set the stage for the exploration and negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films. They both represented Arab characters as thieves, murderers, and brutes.

Jack Shaheen, in his book Reel Bad Arabs, surveyed more than 900 film appearances of Arab characters. Of those, only a dozen were positive and 50 were balanced. Shaheen writes that “Arab stereotypes are deeply ingrained in American cinema. From 1896 until today, filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy #1 – brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural “others” bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners

I didn’t make such remarks to that particular producer, who smiled at me as though I was a naive little girl. In the middle of our conversation, he had actually winked to his colleague, as if to say, “Isn’t she a darling creature to have such profound visions?”

I walked away, uninfluenced by their discouragement, but over the years, I saw how negative images keep certain communities in the dark and without a voice. When I watched the Oscars the other day and listened to the emphasis on the lack of black peoples receiving roles and awards, I thought, they have it made – compared to filmmakers of Middle Eastern and Arab backgrounds. For us, we can’t even get our stories in the industry let alone be given roles and win awards.

Stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims are often manifested in a society’s media, literature, theater and other creative expressions, and often have real repercussions for people in daily interactions and in current events. Though not legally prohibited, stereotyping could put innocent people in danger.

I’m glad that black people are at least bringing this subject to light, because for humans to survive, diversity must have a home. With millions of Middle Easterners living in the US, making them the fastest growing group of immigrants, and with so many social, political and religious issues regarding that region – Iraq in particular – happening on a daily basis, it is becoming absolutely essential for Hollywood to provide film audiences everywhere true stories of the lifestyle and culture of the modern Middle Easterner. In this way, cultures will develop a better understanding of each other, and thus, the world will be pushed into another, a more diverse reality.






A Perfect Example of Diversity in a Little Town in Jordan

Once upon a time, it was not uncommon for Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together in peace and harmony. These days, such togetherness is rare – but maybe not. Maybe we don’t look for it long or hard enough to find it.

Evidently the filmmakers of “At the Intersection of Faith and Culture” knew where to look. This is part of a short documentary video series that reveals Arab communities where love is what drives peoples’ relationships. For instance, in the small town of Al Huson, Jordan, where there are 7 churches and 6 mosques, lives two lifelong friends of different religions who brought their town together by forming a cultural museum.

“I am a Christian and he is a Muslim, but you can’t tell the difference,” Mazin, who teaches at a university, says of his friend Samih, a local expert in tradition and culture. “By the end of the day, we make one person.”

“Traditionally, when a Muslim bride left her house, one of our Christian brothers would give her hand away, and vice versa,” said Samih. “We are following in our parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps.”

“Our message of love unites us,” said Mazin. “Honestly, we can’t live without each other.”

He is absolutely correct. We cannot live without each other.

Different Religions

A Romantic Way of Breaking a Wishbone

Ayad and Ahlam

I paid my cousin a visit yesterday to discuss a family drama that we’re trying to resolve. Because the drama is Arab style – you know, where people can get louder and louder and louder and then hardly anyone is hearing anyone else – it needed one’s full presence and concentration, along with tea and food to make it all the more spicy, not that it needed any spices.

I brought a pizza for the kids’ lunch and told my cousin, “I can’t stay more than an hour!” Three hours later, my daughter came up to me and said, “Mom, when are we going home?”

“Not before we eat!” I said, smelling the aroma of turkey, roasted almonds and raisins, saffron rice, and having gotten a peek at the pumpkin pie in the kitchen.

Although I’d already enjoyed two thanksgiving dinners earlier in the week, I couldn’t resist yet another one. Plus my cousin insisted which made it easier to pull my sleeves up and dig in.

The most amusing part of the evening (aside from the drama, which has now really become routine) was when my cousin and her husband tried to break the turkey wishbone. Although her husband cheated, using his teeth to break the bone, she won. She was proud of herself, and rightfully so. We all had a good laugh and during dinner, I noticed the couple was on more romantic terms. Well, more specifically, my cousin paid him an unexpected compliment and he was flattered!

The tradition of breaking the wishbone comes from Europe, and is thousands of years older. As far as historians and archaeologists can tell, this custom can be traced as far back as the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization. It was brought to North America by the English who got it from the Romans. But it was spread to other parts of the world as my family and I engaged in the breaking of the wishbone even in Iraq.

The Etruscans were really into their chicken, and believed that the bird could predict the future. I predict my cousin and her husband will be together for life, as long as they continue to be playful at heart.

Five year old arrested in Israel

I was eating dinner when a story on Al Arabia channel caught my attention. An Israeli soldier decided to arrest a five year old for throwing rocks. The little boy was sobbing and frightened as he tried to pull away from the soldier who forced him away from his playmates and into a military vehicle. It didn’t matter that the camera was rolling. The arrest had to be made.

I instantly remembered a youtube video I watched not long ago. An Israeli woman wrote a letter to Obama, pleading for him to take away the pains in her stomach that were caused by the injustices done towards the Palestinians. She was a mother, and so her heart went out to all of life, given she was a bearer of life. I wondered if she’d heard about the arrest of this five year old, and if so, how much pain that caused her stomach. I wondered if this little boy would be from this point on too frightened to stand up for anything (otherwise, oppressed) or if he would turn out to want revenge (otherwise, a terrorist).

And we wonder how tyrants and terrorists are made. I mean, imagine how different things would turn out if that soldier went and bought the little boy an ice cream and explained to him that he was not there to harm him or his family, but to protect his own people, that throwing rocks was not going to change anything to the better. Or are my ideas too uncivilized for that type of solution? Or is it that difficult to maneuver a 5 year old to behave differently?

Palestinian Child

Flipping a Pot of Stuffed Grape Leaves – The Chaotic Way

My brother-in-law arrived from Jordan a few days ago and we had a gathering for him last night. Although the gathering was nice, it was also quite chaotic. After all, it was an Arab/Middle Eastern family so we’re talking sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and more aunts and uncles.

There were more people than my house can hold and it was too chilly to sit on the patio. My husband was passing out jackets to the men (after checking no money was in any of the pockets) but after staying outside for an hour or so, they walked back in and took up whatever little air was left inside.

The most fun part was when all the women tried to help in the kitchen. I was trying to get to the sink but when I saw the little crowd clustered there, I thought, better get the camera instead.
Turns out the fuss was over the huge and heavy pot of stuffed grape leaves, which my husband’s nephew successfully flipped over. The Iraqi version of stuffed grapes is different than other regions in the Middle East. The dish is called dolma and in it is included stuffed green peppers, cabbage, zucchini, eggplants, onions, or whatever else one’s heart contends. Some even stuff potatoes and carrots, if they’re large enough.

The good part is – at least I did not have a lazy group of people at my house, in which case I would have ended up staying up until 5am cleaning instead of when I actually slept at 1:30am.


No-Touch Torture

I attended a presentation today pertaining to a landmark lawsuit case against CACI, a private U.S. contractor which systematically tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. The lawsuit was filed by four Iraqis who say they suffered abusive and degrading treatment at the Abu Ghraib prison. The men were all released – one after four years – without ever being charged. These men were professionals, like a math teacher, a live stock trader, a construction worker and a journalist.

The military was largely protected from the suit, but not so with CACI. Earlier in the year, a $5-million settlement involving 71 detainees were reported. In March, Arlington-based CACI wanted a federal judge to toss out the case because they said CACI employees never even came in contact with the plaintiffs, much less abused them. The judge didn’t buy that, so someone – no one knows who – came up with a brilliant idea. Stop the Iraqi men suing CACI from coming to the United States.

Three of the four men (one is already in the United States) had their boarding passes on hand when they were pulled out of the line boarding the plane. Their passports were taken away from them and they have not been able to travel to the U.S. since. Whether or not they will be able to attend the trial determined to be in June is still to be seen. CACI has argued against a video deposition and request that their cases be dismissed because of their inability to come.

There are over 3,000 additional photos of the Abu Ghraib torture which Congress will not release because they are so graphic and for fear of what will happen to US soldiers overseas. Some of these photos include a father and son lying naked on top of each other and various rapes of detainees, including young boys.

The point is this – the selfish, careless and heartless decisions of our leaders will continue to haunt us for decades to come, whether we like it or not. It’s not as evident in American television. Just subscribe to Al Jazeera and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Great Belly Dancing Man

Many feel that dancing is a healthy form of getting rid of stress.  Today, belly dancing has been adopted by nations all over the world, and is seen as more of an art form than as entertainment. According to an article written by Farhad Peikar, in China belly dancing has become a favorite among the youth, and not just for girls. Boys are equally receptive of the new dance and have joined studios in major cities.

I think the guy in this video would be a great candidate for teaching belly dancing.

Partying Arab Style

Dancing the Depka

In celebration of finishing the first-draft of my book and as a belated Valentine’s Day outing, I wanted to go to Lazeez, a Middle Eastern nightclub. My sister’s husband operates Lazeez, which is in Livonia. It’s a chic table-seating nightclub with a live band, great food and the wonderful smell of nerguila (water pipes).

We were a large group of siblings and their spouses, but no one knew about me finishing the first draft of my book. I didn’t want to talk or think about books last night. I just wanted to have fun. And it was fun. We enjoyed heart-felt music, we laughed, we danced, and we got home later than we’re accustomed to.

Middle Eastern music influenced (and has been influenced by) the music of Greece and India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, Southern Italy, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as in Byzantine music and Chalga. As for dancing, there’s a growing body of evidence that the thousands year old belly dance moves date back to Neolithic times and the Goddess-based cultures that existed then.

There’s also the depka, a line dance that forms from right to left. The leader of the dabke heads the line, alternating between facing the audience and the other dancers.

Yes, it was a very fun Saturday night, except the party when on the way home someone vomited in the car, my car.