Oct 13th 2009

Amreeka

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

The immigrant experience in America is a topic rich in meaning. For me, it is personal, since my understanding has been informed both by my family's story and my work of several decades.

Because America has a complex and conflicted relationship with immigrants, being both inclusive and generous, while at the same time wary and unwelcoming of newcomers, the experiences of this country's diverse ethnic communities has been the subject of great art. The Irish, Italians, Jewish and Latino experience has long been conveyed in film and literature, defining, for other Americans, not only the story of these communities, but, revealing, as well, aspects of the American character.

Until now, the Arab American experience has been less told and is, therefore, less familiar. That is, until now.

The remarkable film, Amreeka, the first feature length work of a young Palestinian-Jordanian American writer/director, Cherien Dabis, marks not only her debut, but an introduction to the Arab immigrant experience in post 9-11 America.

I don't often review films, but after seeing Amreeka, and interviewing Dabis on my weekly television program "Viewpoint" (airing on Abu Dhabi TV and Link TV in the US), I am compelled to write.

Amreeka tells the story of Muna, a divorced Palestinian woman from Bethlehem. As the film opens, we follow Muna home from work, through oppressive and abusive checkpoints, past the wall and suffocating settlements. Muna is not only tired of all this, she is fearful for the future and safety of her teenage son, Fadi.

News that she has secured an immigrant visa to the US, gives Muna the opportunity, she has craved, for a better life. Their departure from home and family is wrenching, but Muna and Fadi are hopeful as they embark on the voyage that is to begin their new life.

Muna's dreams, however, will not be so easily fulfilled. Her experience with US Immigration and Customs, marked by ignorance and bureaucratic hostility, resembles, in some ways, the treatment at the checkpoints. She weathers all of this and exits the Chicago airport, where she is embraced by her sister's family, who preceded her to America more than a decade earlier.

As luck would have it, Muna has come to the US at the start of the Iraq War. Anti-Arab sentiment is raging in some quarters. Her brother-in-law, a doctor, has lost patients due to backlash, and her sister is quickly losing patience with the hatred and fear that mars their lives.

Though educated and with experience in banking, Muna is unable to find work in her field, but knowing that she must become independent, continues to search for employment, finally finding a job at a local fast food restaurant.

Tensions build as Muna, ashamed, tries to hide her place of work from her son and sister; as Fadi deals with bullying bigots at school; and as her sister's family begins to unravel in response to the pressures of the war, and the enormous hardships resulting from anti-Arab bias. Through it all, Muna not only survives, but remains hopeful and thankful for each kind gesture from strangers and new-found friends who come to her assistance in ways small and not so small.

Dabis handles her characters lovingly, making each one real and engaging-and through them a love story, of sorts, emerges. Like most children of immigrants, Dabis grew up in two worlds, loving both the life of her family and her heritage, and the life they found in America. These two worlds are estranged, at times, but they define Dabis. And she draws on both to tell her story. Her film is, in a real sense, an effort to reconcile them.

Through Dabis' art, Americans will learn not only about the Palestinian experience under occupation, but will come to see their own country, through Muna's eyes, as a generous land, full of promise, but a land that is flawed as well.

Amreeka is currently showing in over 30 cities and will be opening in 10 more this month. It has been praised by critics, with the New York Times calling it "one of the most accomplished recent films" about the immigrant experience.

Amreeka will soon be opening across the Middle East. I urge you to see it. You will learn and you will love the experience.

That it has been praised by the critics and awarded at festivals, itself, tells a story. My hope is that this wonderful film inspires more young Arab American artists to tell our story so that through art, our experience will be better known and Americans will see what is to be loved about this country, but what also must change, to make it better.

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