In Kartemquin's American Arab, Iraqi-born Director Usama Alshaibi takes a provocative look at the contradictions of Arab identity in post 9/11 America, weaving his own life’s journey and “coming-of-Arab” experiences into the life stories of several diverse characters. Exploring the values, passions, and hopes of his fellow Arab-Americans, Usama tries to make peace with his conflicted chosen homeland.
In a cemetery near Chicago, Usama’s mother Maha repeats passages from the Qur’an over her son Samer's grave: “God is great,” she chants in English and Arabic. "Cleanse his soul, protect him." Samer died of a drug overdose after years of addiction.
Over a montage of happy family photos, Usama Alshaibi talks about Samer, who was born in America, in contrast to the older Alshaibi siblings who were all born in Iraq and would have to wait years to become citizens. Maha ponders if it would have been better if Samer had stayed in Iraq and died fighting in war. She just didn’t want her son to suffer so much through his addiction. Back in the cemetery, Usama and his youngest brother Wisam both kiss their deceased brother’s tombstone, a dramatic drum beat is heard and we conclude with a studio portrait of the entire family: mom and dad, surrounded by five healthy children.
“Our parents brought us here to America for a better life,” Usama recalls. “I wonder, was it all worth it?”
Politics changed perceptions. When images of suspected ‘terrorists’ were displayed in the media in the years after 9/11, Arabs like Alshaibi did not immediately see villains. They saw their uncles, their fathers, their brothers. They saw themselves. It often felt in both cases like the majority of Americans just saw a threat.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was regularly cast as ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim,’ in order to intimidate some American citizens into mistrusting him. When a nervous woman during a rally asked about Obama being an Arab, John McCain bluntly replied: "No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen.” Could an Arab no longer be a decent person? A citizen?
What does it mean to be an Arab living in America today?
Through the film, we meet American-born Amal Abusumayah, who wears a headscarf and tells us how she was the victim of a hate crime shortly after the 2009 Ft. Hood shootings. We will also meet the Jassar family, Iraqi refugees who have lived on the north side of Chicago for less than a year after escaping violence in Iraq. Finally, Alshaibi introduces us to Marwan Kamel, a punk musician in his 20s who is forming a new, untraditional Arab-American identity without conflict. As Marwan says, “Just allow me to be complicated.”
Usama's own personal American story propels the narrative. He recounts how his adult years were shaped by an altered perception of his identity. Suspicion and even violence replaced the fascination over his cultural heritage others had shown him as a child, when relations between the US and Iraq were amicable.
Arab-Americans are not one monolithic group, but rather a diverse and complex array of many voices and cultures. This film weaves sadness and humor, anger and satire, provocation and understanding, embracing the multifaceted Arab American experience of post 9/11 America. By shedding light and giving clarity to a recent and difficult time for Arabs living in the US, American Arab shows how the struggles over identity within this documentary are universal.