(Un) hyphenated Complexities?

By 
Angele Ellis

American Arab
Directed by Usama Alshaibi
Cinema Guild, Kartemquin Films, 2013

In Usama Alshaibi’s autobiographical documentary, the director recalls watching the popular comedy/adventure “Back to The Future” (1985) in a movie theater in Iowa City. He recounts how the appearance, out of nowhere, of a gang of “Libyans” determined to kill Doc, the movie’s loveable mentor, forced him to confront his own divided and complicated identity. The event abruptly dislocated Alshaibi from his role as an American teenager (something he longed to be) into the Other – the caricatured, malevolent, and despised Arab.

Watching “Back to the Future” in movie theaters in Pittsburgh and Houston, this reviewer and her brother experienced similar reactions, coming to regard such moments as flash points for those both American and Arab, in whatever ways individuals choose to define themselves. As Alshaibi demonstrates in this personal film, these flash points have become more numerous, troubling, and dangerous for American Arabs/Arab Americans in the 14 years since 9/11.

The son of an Iraqi Muslim father and a Palestinian mother, Alshaibi immigrated to the United States as a child in the mid-1970s. Though he did not become a U.S. citizen until 2002, he is in many ways American – a lover of punk and metal music, a director of music videos, and the husband of a white Midwesterner. In his youth, he found solidarity with a group of American experimental filmmakers, musicians, and artists, and identifies himself as an atheist, who nonetheless feels respect for the “Mother Mosque” in Iowa City and its thoughtful imam.

When his mother encourages him to change his name from Usama as part of his new citizenship, Alshaibi – who can be quite humorous – says, “At least now people know how to pronounce it.” In response to being called a “camel jockey,” he juxtaposes the slur with a photo of him riding a camel in Iraq and remarks, “That sounds like it could be fun!” Alshaibi took the shot from his film “Nice Bombs” (2006), the story of his reunion with his family, including his father, who had returned to Iraq after he and Alshaibi’s mother divorced.

In “American Arab,” Alshaibi leads the viewer down a number of narrative paths, both joyful and sorrowful. The film begins with an emotional family visit to the grave of the director’s younger brother, Samer, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 28. His mother tearfully asserts that this would not have happened in Iraq, and that it would have been less painful to lose her son in a war. Later in the film, Alshaibi connects with a family of recent Iraqi immigrants, particularly the young Wed, who bravely recounts the “bad things” about her life in a war zone – and then he admits that one of the most terrifying moments of his own life occurred when a bomb came close to destroying his grammar school shortly before his family left Iraq.

“American Arab” also incorporates and juxtaposes the stories of Amal Abusumayah and Marwan Kamel. In 2009, Abusumayah, an observant young American-born Muslim, not only confronted but sued a woman who ripped off her hijab in a suburban Chicago grocery store. A different kind of rebel – Kamel, an Iraqi-Polish punk musician associated with “taqwacore,” attempts to infuse both the Muslim/Arab identity and a musical genre with fresh meaning.

The film’s unexpected climax and denouement occur after Alshaibi and his wife, Kirstie, leave Chicago to settle in a seemingly idyllic small Iowa town, intent on having a child after Kirstie has suffered a miscarriage. The final scenes of “American Arab” encompass chilling violence, anguished self-examination, redemption, and renewed hope.

This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015

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