Mixed Feelings at the Arab-American Film Festival

[CC Flickr user Aza Raskin]

When my belly dancing teacher asked if I wanted to be a clean-up volunteer at the Arab Film Festival, in exchange for a little pocket cash and a glossy all-access pass, I immediately said yes. I’ve loved Middle Eastern culture – its rich food, contagious rhythms, and ancient history – since I was small. Now that I’ve returned from eight months of living in Israel, I try to get my Middle Eastern fix whenever I can. I blast Idan Yaniv in my car, mix hummus with nearly everything, and tell my manager to rega under my breath. A riff of Arabic pop in a market or a jar of date honey are enough to make my heart quicken.

It’s the opening night of the film festival and people are filing out of the reception hall. I begin tearing off table cloths and consolidating large plastic platters brimming with Baklava. A man walks up to me with a camera dangling around his neck. He’s been taking candid shots of people all night.  I ask if he’s a freelance photographer and he confirms, mostly for weddings. Our conversation moves to his Pakistani heritage and then Egypt where he lived for a year “looking for a wife.”

            “Really?” I ask. I’ve heard this before, going back to the source—be it Egypt, Israel, or India—to find your life partner.

            “No, no,” he laughs. “Well kind of.”

This guy’s probably an aspiring traditionalist and even though we’re currently in San Francisco, the bull’s-eye of the nation’s concentric circles of liberals and progressives, I’m hesitant to say what I’ve been doing with the last year of my life. Would he want to hear about Jerusalem or the post-college Jewish arts program I participated in? Before I’ve decided whether or not to share, he excuses himself to go watch the movie and I continue cleaning.

There are 40 short and full-length feature films being presented this year. One of the highlights is “Death for Sale,” by Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaidi. Leave preconceptions at the door, along with your fairytale images of snake charmers and camel caravans. Modern Morocco has alcoholism, drugs, sex, suicide, and adultery just like the rest of the world.  Three small town thieves are caught in a hopeless cycle of poverty and violence.  The players are Malik, the sensitive dreamer in love with a prostitute named Dounia; Allal the cynical, pragmatic drug dealer; and Soufiane, the newbie fundamentalist Muslim.

Bensaidi’s camerawork is anything but modest, showing a prolonged close-up of Dounia’s nipple in one of the first scenes and prostitutes giving oral in a car. While watching, I notice the semi-religious audience fidget and laugh nervously. Their discomfort reminds me of a kid watching a sex scene sitting next to their parents.

Dounia, which means world in Arabic, is a femme fatale who wedges herself between the trio. Despite the fact that they’re drifting apart, the friends decide to do one last heist together to escape their intractable situation. Things don’t go according to plan and soon the police arrive, leading to the most powerful final scene. Suddenly abandoned, Malik slowly walks toward the camera as policemen with M16s and shield guards search for him. The camera lifts over Malik’s head and circles around him until we get a shot from behind but upside-down, walking into the top right-hand corner of the frame. He moves towards a landscape of snowy mountains, slowly climbs up on a ledge, and looks back and forth. He has awakened to a world literally turned upside-down. I’m sure the police will silently catch him, he will raise his arms and effectively become a hanged man from the top of the screen.  Instead, he’s left suspended in limbo torn between his memory of a dream and reality.

The most disappointing film was “Beirut, My Heart” by Sabah Heider about a woman lamenting over her long lost love: Lebanon. The soap-operatic short was filled with excruciatingly long scenes of a lovesick woman smoking a cigarette, repetitive voice-over narration, and grainy shots of Beirut all set to melodramatic music. I wonder why the film was even selected. Credits run. Silence. Then the screen reads: Free Palestine. The audience hoots and breaks out clapping. Now I’m the one shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Upon leaving the theater, a survey is shoved into my hand. It asks for basic personal information and comments. At the bottom of the page it asks my race. I check the “white” box and pause. I think to write in Jewish, but don’t.

Maybe they would have welcomed me if they knew I was Jewish, or stared, or done nothing at all. I didn’t initiate the dialogue. I wanted to be an appreciated guest. For the first time, I felt a contradiction within myself. As an artist I reserve the right to appreciate other cultures, but I’m finding it harder and harder to live in a beautiful dream. At the end of the day, people expect you to take sides.

Some people see empathy as weak-willed, or worse, traitorous. In Israel, I met a recent oleh and IDF enlister who genuinely thought that Jewish and Arab-American student unions should take their conflict to the streets Gangs of New York style. It has always unnerved me how quickly people give up their words and silence others in the process. The way I see, if where you were born on the planet is random, then so is your staunch nationalism. This belief has made me weary of categories and fixed identities for a long time.

I’m not sure it was guilt I felt that night. I think it was the end of being a dreamer-outsider and the beginning of being in the center of things. How long can you really teeter on the fence in limbo, looking back and forth at this topsy-turvy world until someone questions you point blank what you believe in, you lose your balance, and fall.  It’s important to speak your mind in the world at the risk of being pinned as this or that. People derive strength from their identities. Ironically, only by joining the explosive center can people hear your voice.

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