FILM REVIEW: American East
By Ray Hanania
— a powerful portrayal of Arab Americans after Sept. 11
All Mustafa an Egyptian American Muslim widower ever wanted to do was live the “American Dream.” And, maybe pay off some family debts, turn his small New Jersey falafel shop into a fancy restaurant, raise his two motherless children as good Muslims and Americans, insure his sister married in a proper and arranged Muslim marriage to his first cousin, and possibly, if there is time, even find a wife himself.But Mustafa’s American Dreams, like the American Dreams of many Arabs living in America after Sept. 11, 2001, don’t come easy, and his story, really the story of the Arab American experience today, makes for a compelling drama and one of the best movies about Arab American life I have seen.
Maybe that’s why “American East,” a film made by two professional Arab American actors and producers, was never released into the American movie theaters. Not one major theater would pick the film up and play it to an American audience so lacking in any knowledge about Arab Americans in the post-Sept. 11th world.
The story of the movie itself, written and produced by Hesham Issawi and Sayed Badreya, who plays the film’s main actor, Mustafa, is a part of this American tragedy, which might have been better titled “Shattered American Dreams.”
Yet despite the bias, the bigotry, the absence of major mainstream media coverage and support, and the rejection of the film by a Hollywood industry that is built on hatred of Arab Americans, Issawi and Badreya have produced one hell of a great film that in a dramatic and award winning way tells the inside story of how Arab Americans have been abused and mistreated in this country through the eyes of one man and the people around him.
Though “American East” will not be released in theaters, it will be released in DVD format beginning January 20.
Running through the film is Mustafa’s (Badreya) first dream, to open a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles with his friend Sam (Tony Shalhoub), who is Jewish and Egyptian. They both encounter resistance from skeptical locals and families and friends that expose common misunderstandings about Arabs and Islamic cultures as they explore building a business together.
But it gets far more complicated than that.
Mustafa must soon decide if he will take the easy road and succumb to societal pressures or rise above the prejudices and live the American Dream.
There have been several post-9/11 films like “Babel,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Syriana,” but all of them have been about the bigger political context, offering a tepid glimpse into the reality of today’s world. “American East” digs much deeper and there are no sacred cows on any side.
This film, though, is powerful. Poignant. And brings everything together in a way the mainstream American audience could better understand the problems that exist around us and that complicate not help the “war on terrorism.”
Mustafa’s life is one of a string of tragedy and problems all related to Sept. 11 and American public fears. He’s done absolutely nothing wrong, but everything he does now looks suspicious. He’s arrested by the FBI and they question him about his friendships and money he donates to help his family back home.
His business, Habibi’s Café, is about to close and is damaged. His business investments are about to fall through. The Arab-Israeli conflict rages in debate among his friends. His family life is collapsing and he worries about whether his children will be able to survive in this society.
Yet, despite all the tragedy that falls upon Mustafa and his family, he manages to say what every Arab American says at the height of their own tragic experiences in this country, “I still believe in this country.”
The film has been compared to Spike Lee’s popular movie “Do the Right Thing.” Like Lee’s film, “American East” tells the story of discrimination and challenge facing African Americans in this country from an African American viewpoint, but also reflecting the reality of Black-White relations.
“American East” exposes the prejudice that exists on all sides, including in the Arab American community. It has a decent reflection of the diversity of the Arab American community itself, although the main focus is about issues facing Muslims and Christian Arabs, who are the majority in the Arab American community, are really a side show in the film. It’s an oversight we experience everyday in Arab American life and that needs to be changed, someday. But until then, this amalgam of Arab American storylines comes together to give the audience a powerful ending.
“American East” touches on many aspects of Arab American life, from the challenges that even face Arab American actors in Hollywood who can either play terrorists in films or not play anyone at all. It explores the reality of a family that lives in the West and embraces Western culture but that still believes it is okay to marry off young single women to older men they have never met and only meet weeks before a marriage ceremony is held.
The film also explores how young Arab American children face the challenges of being singled out because of their race and religion? “Dad, why am I a Muslim? Why is my name Muhammad? Why don’t we celebrate Christmas?” all questions many Arab Muslim children eventually ask their parents.
It’s the same experience that Jewish American children go through, though, and that is one aspect of the film that is very powerful. It shows that the Arab American experience in America today although unique, is also a reflection of the very same experiences that every ethnic and racial immigrant group has faced in settling in this country.
Except for Arab Americans, though, who have been in America from the beginning, their Twilight Zone has been endlessly drawn out and not resolved because of the never ending Arab-Israeli conflict and the suffering of the Palestinian Arab people.
The film is also somewhat experimental, including a cartoon montage depicting a brief history of Islam that Issawi credits to the style of Michael Moore’s 2002 Documentary, “Bowling for Columbine.”
And the film also has its critics in the Arab and Muslim community, too, extremists who want all or nothing, and usually end up with nothing every time. A great track record of failure which they proudly hail as success.
The aspect of the film that has upset many Arabs and Muslims is the relationship Issawi crafts between Mustafa and Sam, the Jewish Egyptian businessman who is his longtime friend and now a partner in a business venture that becomes strained by the government questioning, arrests and harassment.
In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, one of the few in the mainstream media, by the way, Issawi touched on the problems he faced.
“Escaping stereotypes and the seething history and politics of the Middle East, especially regarding relations between Jews and Arabs, can get artists into trouble. Issawi’s portrayal of the friendship between Mustafa and Sam, who convinces his Jewish family to partner with Mustafa in a restaurant, angered critics at the Egyptian film festival. Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, but it is a political pact, not a cultural or artistic one. Films, music and books dealing with “normalization” are often vilified.
“ ‘It was hell,’ Issawi said of the news conference following the screening of ‘American East.’ ‘I was getting attacked by everybody. “How dare you try to make normalization with Israel.” And this was coming from journalists and critics. It was unbelievable. There was hypocrisy to it. I mean, don’t we Egyptians have a peace treaty with Israel?’’ ”
How dare you indeed, Mr. Issawi, make a great movie that tells the truth to everyone, even if everyone doesn’t want to hear the truth at all? That’s the essence of a great film and “American East” is in fact one of the great films that you must see to enjoy, to learn and to understand.