"Does an Arab live here?" Three Post 9/11 Documentaries

Lynne Rogers

Brothers and Others: The Impact of September 11 on Arabs, Muslims and South Asians in America A film by Nicolas Rossier

2002, Arab Film Distribution, 60 minutes

Persons of Interest
Directed by Alison MaClean and Tobias Perse

2003, First Run/Icarus Films, 63 minutes

Everything is Gonna Be Alright A film by Tamer Ezzat

2003, Myth & Semat Productions, 80 minutes Subtitles English/Arabic

Three recent documentaries examine the lives of Arab Americans, Arabs, and Muslims living in America after 9/11. While the first two films focus on the abuse committed under the shield of the Patriot Act, the third film testifies to the love many Arabs feel for New York City.

“Brothers and Others” documents the quiet tragedies of immigrant hopes devastated by 9/11 and the rippling effects of the Patriot Act on Muslims living in America. The interviews with two Pakistani housewives and three Muslim males are supplemented by the commentaries of well-known politicians, intellectuals, and activists. The commentaries capture a wide range of opinions on the Patriot Act from the professed idealism of U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, who sees Americans reaching out to the Muslim community, to U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo, who wants “them” to “stand up and denounce terrorism in the mosques.”

With a wider appreciation of the political context and the concern for civil rights, Noam Chomsky regrets that the fear of terrorism and the escalation of war has fueled anti-Arab prejudice as “a legitimate form of racism,” while James Zogby observes that the majority of persons arrested as a result of the Patriot Act were only guilty of routine visa violations.

Nevertheless, while politicians, activists, and lawyers debate the legitimacy of the Patriot Act, families are being destroyed in spite of their American patriotism. Zahida Parveen, whose husband was arrested, and Uzma Naheed, whose husband and brother were arrested, both understand the need for America to protect itself and initially cooperate with the authorities. However, when the heads of the households are held for more than five months, the resulting financial, social, and psychological damage force the women to return reluctantly to Pakistan.

Ali, an Iranian, is arrested in Montana while on vacation with his fiancée. After five months in prison, including 40 days in a holding cell during which he suffered a stroke and was denied medical attention, and with legal bills in the rante of $30,000, a released Ali awaits his visa hearing and contemplates changing his name to Tony. Gomma Farraq, an Egyptian American shopkeeper, laments the lost vibrancy of his Arab American neighborhood.

Today, fearful wives do not dare to venture outside their homes while the men seek to avoid attention quietly traveling to work and home. Imran Ali, a young, preppie computer engineer, recounts his bewildered intimidation at being questioned by the FBI after they received an anonymous tip. Although cleared of suspicion, Imran was subsequently laid off from work. Disappointment in the American ideals of freedom and equality unites the individuals portrayed in both “Brothers and Others” and “Persons of Interest.”

“Persons of Interest,” produced by Lawrence Konner, won awards at the 2004 Sundance Film festival, Human Rights Watch, the Berlin International, Rotterdam International, and Amnesty International Film Festivals as well as the Amnesty International Humanitarian Award. This artistic documentary includes 10 interviews with detainees or their family members. Shot during Ramadan, the participants appear in their “mosque” clothes with their families and rambunctious children. They clutch onto family photographs, creating an alternative domestic narrative to that of illegal immigration.

"Each of these three videos offers the valuable contribution of human faces to the discussion of racial profiling and documents the price of the Patriot Act."

While the interviewees bashfully or tearfully face the camera, they recount their personal stories. The bare set of a wooden bench and small window creates a hygienic cell allowing the audience to easily imagine these detainees in solitary confinement. After being handcuffed, many spent over a month in solitary confinement and some were kept for over a year. Ironically, the film includes three Palestinians who left the Israeli occupation to find work and freedom in the United States only to be incarcerated on a visa violation or an anonymous tip.

Shokeria, an Afghani-American from Albany, New York, remembers her father locking the door to their family home in Afghanistan, leaving it to the Russian occupiers. Now after her husband has been secretly deported to Jordan, she wonders if she will have to do the same. An American woman married to a Pakistani-American Ph.D. in criminal justice tearfully describes her family’s ostracism by friends and family members frightened at the mere mention of the “terrorist” word. A Latino woman married to an Algerian describes visiting her husband three months after his arrest. Shocked to see his unkempt “crazed” eyes and his frail body incapable of holding himself up, she is struck speechless. Their stories recount both the legal and illegal attempts to stay in a “free” country where most have joined other family members.

These international families paint a new American nuclear family being ripped apart by the very politicians proclaiming to protect the family. The closing portrait of the group breaking fast is reminiscent of a church supper of those who came here for religious freedom. The film concludes with a follow-up on the participants, those who have been re-arrested, those whose families have separated, and those who have left for another country or have been deported. In conclusion, the film cites the Human Rights Watch condemnation of the present situation under the Patriot Act, reinforcing these poignant stories of failed American dreams.

In a welcome contrast to the foreboding pessimism of the previous documentaries, “Everything is Going to Be Alright,” a title taken from the Bob Marley song, balances the joys and complications of being an Arab in New York City. The Egyptian filmmaker, Tamer Ezzat, visiting New York City to study directing and special effects, was only a few blocks away when terrorists hit the World Trade Center. Distracted from his original film idea, Ezzat decides instead to interview four of his Egyptian friends who were living in New York at the time. The result, a fond and thoughtful postcard sent back to America from home in Cairo, re-examines the familiar complaints about American media, yet includes a newsreel clip that concretely supports each accusation.

This innovative film shares with Americans the genuine love and appreciation for New York City felt by so many Middle Easterners. Ezzat begins his quest in Times Square to catch the city’s rhythm. Rather then reiterate the tired East/West split, the film highlights the similar urban life energy found in Cairo and New York City. Dalia Bassiouny, an anchorwoman, professor, and theater student, notes the rags to riches panorama in both cities while Usama Abdel Azziz, formerly of Fox News, pinpoints that the “great thing about New York” is “all the people live together.”

In a painful reflection on life in the city after the tragedy, Hossam Fahr, writer and interpreter, worries about his young son becoming a “self-hating Arab.” The articulate Khaled Fahmy, a New York University professor, elaborates on the issues and draws a comparison between the United States and imperial-age Great Britain.

These four interviews are interspersed with quick exchanges with two friendly hot dog vendors, who reflect the warmth and Egyptian readiness to smile transplanted to the streets of New York. While the film could have used a little more editing, the film’s framework, one Arab speaking to another in their native tongue in their homes in a foreign country, gives the American audience an insider’s glimpse into professional Arabs living in the United States in today’s political climate. In a fairly intimate atmosphere, “Everything is Gonna is Be Alright” voices their frustration and concerns as well as their admiration.

The film’s closing shots of the streets of Cairo highlight the vibrant vitality of the Egyptian city, and reinforce the beauty of both cities. Each of these three videos offers the valuable contribution of human faces to the discussion of racial profiling and documents the price of the Patriot Act. All three demonstrate the pain and hopes shared by Arabs, Muslims, and Americans after 9/11. 

This essay appears in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 48 (Summer 2004) 
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid

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