DVD Review By David Shasha
We often hear Jews speaking out about their sense of fear and siege in a world that they perceive is anti-Semitic and deeply hostile to them.
We hear far less about the experiences of Palestinians who are trapped in a vicious Israeli occupation as well as the much larger anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that has increased around the world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
In the incisive film Amreeka, first-time director Cherien Dabis, an American-born artist whose Palestinian family relocated to the American Midwest, tells a gripping story about the ways in which Palestinian identity is profoundly complicated. It looks at how freedom from oppression and constriction can be found for Palestinians under the current conditions which are dramatically tilted against them.
The film tells the story of a divorced Palestinian woman named Muna (played beautifully by Nissren Faour) who is diligently concerned with the welfare of her only child, a son named Fadi. She has two university degrees and has worked as a financial manager in a local bank for over 10 years. Fadi is enrolled in private school where he excels as a student, while Muna is forced to confront - as so many Palestinians do - the ubiquitous Israeli checkpoints that are both humiliating at a personal level and frustratingly time-consuming.
Muna works in a pressure-cooker office where tempers are likely to explode at any moment. Her cheerful disposition cannot paper over the tensions of the occupation and the desperation of many Palestinians who are seeking to make ends meet financially. She herself is overwhelmingly despondent over the loss of her husband who left her for a skinnier woman.
But "Amreeka" does not delve into the intimate details of its characters. It presents these human beings as complicated and somewhat opaque figures whose motives and desires are often subsumed in the larger struggle to maintain their dignity and solvency. We only learn later in the film that Muna is Christian and feels herself to be a "minority within a minority." We do not learn anything about her marriage or who her husband is. Even the plot device on which the movie hinges - her winning a special lottery to receive a US Green Card for herself and her son - is not clearly spelled out.
What we do see is the daily grind of Palestinian life under the Israeli occupation; the frequent searches and indignities and misunderstandings with which that occupation is enforced. Out of native Palestinian eyes we witness the frivolous and cruel Israeli soldiers who do not live in the same human world as the Palestinian objects they are controlling. They maintain a bullying posture and casual sadism that informs this dysfunctional relationship as it continually humiliates the Arabs.
Muna's mother is nearly blind and is constantly complaining about one thing or another. She cruelly taunts Muna about her weight and demeans her at every turn. And yet the life of Muna's extended family is presented in a way that will resonate with those of us with Middle Eastern backgrounds. At a family get-together prior to Muna's departure for America, the mother gets up to sing a song and the room immediately brightens up and is charged with an electric energy and special warmth. It is the rebellion of the occupied and their refusal to submit to the persecution they face.
But Muna soon decides that she is going to get out of her prison - the prison of Occupied Palestine and the prison of her bitter personal struggles with family issues - and heads off to the US. Upon arriving in America on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq - a particularly tumultuous and dangerous time for Arab-Americans - she is faced with the post-9/11 airport security apparatus which treats her and her son as if they were terrorists.
In the course of being detained for over three hours at O'Hare Airport, a cookie tin that Muna packed with an envelope containing all the money she had in the world, $2500, has, unbeknownst to her, been confiscated.
She arrives at her sister's home in a modest Illinois suburb filled with both hope and anxiety. Her sunny optimism takes a turn for the worse as she learns that her money is gone and that she will not be able to get a job in banking. Looking through the want ads she perseveres and sends out her resumé only to learn that the advertised job has "already been filled." This is the beginning of a process of anti-Arab racism that in the midst of George W. Bush's call for a "crusade" against the Arab world has gripped American society.
Muna's brother-in-law, a successful doctor named Nabeel, is obsessing over the emerging news from Iraq and is gradually beginning to lose his patients due to the racism. This detail in the film reflects its director Ms. Dabis' own personal experience as she too watched her father lose his patients as anti-Arab sentiment increased in this country to epidemic proportions, especially in the American heartland.
Muna's arrival has exacerbated tensions between her sister Raghda and Nabeel due to the increasingly frustrating failure of his medical practice. They have been receiving anonymous death threats in the mail and are seriously on edge because of the business problems.
Muna now has no money - other than the $200 that her brother gave to Fadi on their departure from Palestine - and no serious job prospects. She finds a minimum-wage job at a local White Castle restaurant selling hamburgers but lies to Raghda, trying to make it appear that she is really working at a bank in the same strip mall as the White Castle.
Muna becomes the prototypical immigrant trying to make her way up the ladder. But her experiences are made that much more difficult by having to withstand the cutting barbs of Americans who see her and her son as Arab terrorists. The taunts will lead to a serious accident that occurs when she tries to confront the racist kids.
Fadi is enrolled at the local high school whose principal, an Ashkenazi Jew named Stan Novatski, seems particularly sympathetic to the family's plight and over the course of the film develops an emotional bond to Muna.
In spite of the principal's sincere concern, the students in Fadi's class taunt him and belittle his Arab identity. This will eventually lead to a bitter confrontation between Fadi and one of the White students who has caused his mother's accident at the White Castle. The confrontation will land Fadi in jail after he assaults the boy in revenge.
His cousin Salma is also in the class and she ushers him into a rebellious sub-culture where she and her African-American boyfriend stand up against the Caucasians. Salma represents a new stoner generation of American misanthropes; she feels alienated from White culture and urges Fadi to take on the sartorial and linguistic trappings of the Hip-Hop culture which is identified as a subversion of community norms. It allows alienated young people a way out of the racism and xenophobia that they are facing from the White bullies.
The film here sets up an ironic typology between the Israeli soldiers who routinely harass Palestinian youth and the American high school toughs who make the lives of the Arab immigrants miserable.
To further complicate this irony is the divide that this alienated Hip-Hop rebelliousness, with its use of drugs, profanity, and disrespect for elders and their authority, creates in the conservative home of Nabeel and Raghda. It subverts the decent life they are trying to build for their children under some extremely trying circumstances.
Having left Palestine, the site of one bitter conflict, they are now forced to confront yet another bitter conflict in the American Midwest; the very place they came to escape such conflicts.
These Palestinians have left one nightmare, only to find another nightmare in the place they thought would provide them refuge.
"Amreeka" is anchored by a brilliant performance by Nissren Faour as Muna. We feel her pain as we are buoyed by her optimism. Rather than settle for brittle socio-political polemics, Ms. Dabis uses compassion and empathy as a means to bring us closer to Muna's world. As she struggles to make sense of the cruelty and violence that surrounds her, both on the West Bank and in Illinois, she remains a strong and charismatic personality. Her earthy attractiveness makes her both alluring and substantial.
Her issues with weight and the failure of her marriage are placed in the larger context of her determination to be free of her multiple prisons and to confidently assert her innate human dignity.
As she cries bitter tears over the crushing disappointment engendered by the harsh reality she is forced to confront, we are there with her every step of the way.
As she struggles with the immigrant experience, we are given a much-needed lesson on what life has been like for Arab-Americans since 9/11.
This is the paradox for those who have left the chaos of the Middle East seeking to find an America that would give them the freedom and breathing room that was refused them in their lands of birth.
While standing at the immigration counter at O'Hare Muna is asked by the official: "Occupation?" She responds that, yes, she comes from Occupied Palestine. It is a cruel irony that is sadly lost on the American agent. Yet there is still in her mind the image of an egalitarian America that is fair, just, and honest; a place where all men are created equal and where your personal origins are not important.
But she quickly learns that being an Arab has marked her as an enemy of American society. She is denied the opportunity to work in her profession just as she is forced to see her beloved son bullied and persecuted by the local kids who see him as a terrorist.
What is critical to realize is that Muna is not a Muslim, but an Arab Christian. So much of what passes for Liberal discourse on the subject of the Middle East is centered around religious identity, when in fact the main issue at stake is not religion but culture. It is being an Arab that is the problem, as non-Muslim Arabs are vilified just as much as Muslims for the actions of the Islamist extremists.
All Arabs in America have been seen as a fifth column and "Amreeka" presents us with their deeply unpleasant experiences in a way that allows us to better understand the socio-cultural issues that are at stake. There is no way for Muna to simply discard her Arab identity in favor of some amorphous Christian identity; being Arab is a critical part of who she is as it makes up the cultural DNA of her innermost humanity.
"Amreeka" shows us the pressures on an Arab-American family in a fresh and startling manner. It restores to this community its dignity and integrity at a time when it has been under siege.
When Fadi is arrested and brought to jail, Muna is frantic and calls up the Jewish principal of his school; the same man who has shown understanding and compassion to Muna on previous occasions. After the principal secures Fadi's release, the entire family decides to drive to Chicago to have dinner at an Arab restaurant. As in the bitter conclusion of the French film "The Secret of the Grain," it is the locus of an Arab restaurant which allows the protagonists to forget the world of cruel racism and bullying that they face on a regular basis, and return to an oasis of security and comfort where they can experience the sights, smells, and tastes of their native world.
Having brought the Jewish principal with them to the restaurant, the final images of the film are redolent with the cultural elements of Arab civilization and its truly expansive and welcoming character. The warmth, beauty, and love that are missing from the prison-like structures that we see in the other parts of the movie, in Palestine and in the American Midwest, have been transcended in the humble environment of a local Arab eatery in a Diaspora whose contours remain forbiddingly dangerous for a community that has lost any real sense of permanence and security.
David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events. His articles have been published in Tikkun magazine, The American Muslim, the Christian Progressive, the Levantine Review and other publications. Click here to sign up for the newsletter.