Losing My Religion

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie. A longer version of this article appears on altmuslimah.

I finally got around to watching AmericanEast this weekend. Full disclosure: I had originally read Tariq Nelson’s review, which was a pretty good rundown.

AmericanEast is an attempt at mainstreaming American Muslims and attempts to portray the struggles Muslims face in the United States. In my opinion, they overdid it and never established a coherent plot. And on top of that, I found that the characters had no depth and some were cartoonish caricatures.

The movie centers on Mustafa, an Egyptian immigrant who owns a café in a heavily Middle Eastern part of Los Angeles. His life, and the lives of several close to him, is one problem or tragedy after another: at one point during the movie, I asked myself whether anything good was ever going to happen to anyone.

Mustafa has a sister, Salwah. Tariq outlines her character:

Salwah Marzouke, Mustafa’s sister, was a nurse that styled hair in the back of her brother’s restaurant and was arranged to marry her cousin Sabir. However she did not like him and they did not get married. But the cousin was never informed (at least not on camera) and the story was dropped. Salwah was also interested in a doctor at her hospital who was not Muslim.

The movie stresses over and over that marrying Salwah off is Mustafa’s duty (or so he believes). Sabir comes from Egypt to marry Salwah and take him back home with her, although she is less than excited (that’s an understatement) about this arrangement. Even though she often fights with her brother, she gives off major submissive, dutiful vibes that plague many female Muslim characters in the form of wide-eyed, helpless stares contrasted with humbly averted eyes and lowered chin.

She is attracted to a white, non-Muslim doctor who works with her at the hospital, and after the arranged marriage “thing” magically goes away, she agrees to let him cook Japanese food for her at his house. They start getting hot and heavy, but Salwah asks him to stop suddenly. She nervously apologizes, stammering that she thought she could “do this” but she can’t, and gives him the whole “it’s not you, it’s me, you wouldn’t understand” before rushing out.

Because Salwah’s character isn’t developed enough for us to know what she’s thinking (did she realize that she’s just not that into him? Did she decide that he was going too fast for her, and maybe she’d like to begin again under different circumstances? Did she think that maybe she should give Sabir a chance? Or maybe she realized she was on her period?), the viewer must fall back on the dutiful vibes and assume that she’s backing out of sex or maybe a relationship with this doctor out of an obligation to culture or religion or tradition, despite the fact that one of her friends stated that Salwah is “no Virgin Mary” earlier in the movie.

Salwah’s inclusion in the movie symbolizes The Great (and imaginary) Conflict between America and the “Muslim World” or a clash between tradition and modernity. The movie sets up these false dichotomies through Salwah, having her arranged marriage illustrate tradition (which is often synonymous with religion) and her career and brief date illustrate “modernity.” The burden of “marrying her off” is a traditional one her brother feels he must carry, although she is not interested in being such a burden. In fact, because Salwah has two jobs and supports Mustafa and his rapidly failing café, it is he who is the burden.

Mustafa also has a daughter. Tariq explains her role in the movie:

Leila Marzouke, was Mustafa’s dope smoking/dawah giving daughter. She had a scene that was like an infomercial in which she is talking about Islam and Middle Eastern history with her friend while smoking marijuana. That seemed to be her only purpose in the movie. Came off as very forced and as if the movie was preaching to the audience.

I definitely agree with Tariq’s analysis of her character, and have serious issues with the cartoony “history/philosophy” lesson about Islam and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, having all the Arabs in the movie be portrayed as brown dudes with turbans and huge noses was incredibly off-putting.

Second, condensing an entire region’s millennia of history into a cartoon is mistake enough, but so is leaving out everyone but American, Israeli and Arab players, as if Kurdish Saladin was the only non-Arab/non-Israeli/non-American to make a significant difference in the area’s politics. Whatev.

What irked me the most, however, was when the Crusades were over, and supposedly everyone was cool. The cartoon showed Christian and Muslim man alike at a huge party, complete with camels and I Dream of Jeannie-inspired women ornaments. Camels and bellydancers. Really? Perhaps here’s where I should remind you that this movie is intended to break down stereotypes. I guess that doesn’t extend to racial or sexist ones.

But, as Tariq says, this is the largest reason for Leila’s inclusion in the movie. The other main reason is to get ordered around by her father (“Leila, see what the customer wants”) or serve as a catalyst for escalating troubles for her father (like when she irritates a consistently rude café regular, who then yells at her father).

In fact, women in general seem to be nothing more than props or catalysts in this movie. Murad, an anti-Jewish café regular, uses women to establish a connection with Jewish Sam as they smoke a hookah pipe: “The best sex I ever had was with a Jewish girl and a Muslim girl at the same time. You know how people fight over Jerusalem? That’s how they fought over my dick.”

Classy. And it also helps break down the stereotype that Arabs and Muslims are sexist pigs who have little regard for women. Oh, wait…

Despite the fact that this movie really did bother me long after I saw it, the aim of Hesham Izzawy, the director, was a noble one. The movie, however exaggerated and exclusive of women, does highlight issues and problems that Middle Eastern Americans and Muslim Americans often face in a country whose mainstream gives us “War on Terror” products like 24 and Obsession, which vilify Muslims and Middle Eastern people through flat characterizations of “angry bearded terrorist #1” or “captive veiled woman #5”.

The movie does so while addressing uniquely American issues. Fikri, a café regular, states that all this hatred toward Muslims and Middle Eastern people is because of our newness: “This happened to the Italians, the Irish, the Jewish when they were new here. Now we’re the new ones.” A definitely interesting and relevant historic observation that hints at a brighter future.

Ray Hanania might be a little more rosy on his assessment of the movie and it’s impact than I (the film wasn’t picked up by theaters), but I believe that this movie, written and directed by Arabs and Muslims, and featuring a large Middle Eastern American cast, is part of a larger media movement by Middle Eastern Americans and Muslims designed to mainstream themselves into America’s culture. Television shows, movies, books, and comedy tours featuring Middle Eastern Americans and Muslim Americans are actively working to get their voices heard and represented. Though the waves of immigrants from Ireland and Italy had to wait for generations to be accepted into the mainstream, Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans like Izzawy are refusing to play the same waiting game.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.