Film Follows Arab Immigrants in the Wake of 9/11

Pamela Nice

Caught In The Crossfire: Arab Americans In Wartime
Produced and Directed by David Van Taylor and Brad Lichtenstein
First Run/ Icarus Films, 2002, 54 Minutes

When Larme Price confessed to four murders in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn in early April, he said his motive was to kill Middle Easterners in retribution for September 11. Hate crimes against Arab Americans and Muslims have risen exponentially since 9-11 (as documented in the FBI’s annual report last November), just as government surveillance and litigation against them have increased. In such a context, “Caught in the Crossfire” invites us to see Arab and Muslim immigrants in the U.S. as individuals, not as a fifth column of Al Qaeda sympathizers poised to strike at patriotic Americans.

For six months, starting shortly after September 11, filmmakers Taylor and Lichtenstein followed three Arab immigrants so that Americans, like the filmmakers themselves, would know more about the lives of this beleaguered community. In this understated documentary, these three interwoven stories reveal the courage and vulnerabilities particular to Arabs caught in America’s War on Terror.

Ahmed Nasser emigrated from Yemen in 1986 and is now a New York City police officer. He happened to be stationed at Ground Zero after 9-11, and still confronts depression when he thinks of sifting through the personal effects at the site. We follow him as he talks to neighborhood store managers, as he prays at work, and as he interacts with his American wife and two young boys at home.

He proudly takes on the role of advocate and protector of the local Muslim community. When American youths terrorize the students at a neighborhood Muslim school, the principal calls 911, but no one responds for 30 minutes. So he calls Nasser, who provides a plainclothes escort for the students between the school and the subway.

He is also a founding member of the American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers organization, which hopes to gain the confidence of local Muslims.

Yes, he says, I’m Arab. “But I’m also American. I know I’m American. I don’t care what people say to me.” His wife, who wears hijab, feels differently. She feels harassment on the street and fears for her children.

Raghida Dergham is an Al Hayat reporter who is frequently interviewed as an expert on Arab affairs. She came from Lebanon at the age of 17 to pursue a career in journalism. She thought that America would offer her a degree of freedom she wouldn’t have been able to find in her home country, especially as a woman reporter. A highly successful professional, fluent in both Arabic and English, we see her fielding tough questions to both British foreign secretary Jack Straw and the Arab League’s Secretary General Amr Mousa.

But she is caught between her two cultures: both Lebanese and Americans accuse her of bias. In fact, she is charged with treason in a Lebanese court and her Lebanese passport confiscated because she “debated an Israeli in an open forum.” The case is dropped for lack of evidence, but she must go through the bureaucratic red tape and expense of having a new passport issued.

She accepts her role as a cultural translator between Americans and the Arab world, even though it is fraught with attacks and misunderstandings. As she says, “I try my best to bring in the other’s point of view and see if they can recognize each other’s pain. Once they start to respect the other’s pain, then there’s hope. I hope, anyway.”

Lutheran pastor Khader el-Yateem came from Palestine in 1992. But unlike Nasser and Dergham, it was not his choice. He was assigned by his bishop. As pastor of Salam Arabic Lutheran Church, he has served both Muslim and Christian Arabs in his community since September 11. He works from 9 a.m. to midnight nearly every day; his wife holds down two full-time jobs. They are the major support of 7-8 families back in Palestine. “And the bishop wants me to take a vacation,” he muses wryly.

He is perhaps the most “caught” of the Arab Americans in this film because he is Palestinian. His church assigned him to live in a country that he feels supports the occupation of his homeland. He comes home from work exhausted, only to hear, “…the blood of Palestinians is flowing in the streets,” on Al Jazeera as he walks though the door. He watches the television in alarm, along with his visiting parents, as their home town of Beit Jala is shown being bombarded by the IDF. His mother cries. He recounts how the Israelis arrested him when he was a theology student, and tortured and interrogated him for 55 days.

He wants his parents to stay with him in America, so that his father might make more money to send to the family in Palestine. But his parents want to return to their home, and he tries to accept their decision. “God calls me to be here,” he says. “It’s like being a prophet to people in exile, to remind them who they are, their faith. I never expected that the work of a prophet would be this demanding, or this complicated. The requirements are sometimes overwhelming.”

This documentary is meant for a mainstream (non-Arab) American audience, and hopefully will be broadcast on national television. It is not an academic film, unearthing new research, nor an expose´, but a human interest story that bursts the stereotype of the dangerous Arab in our midst. It should have special showings in the community centers of Brooklyn Heights.


This essay appears in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)
Copyright (c) 2003 by Al Jadid 

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