“We” are nuanced people, too!

Islam is not a race, yet Islamophobia partakes of racist characteristics.  Most Muslims do not “choose” Islam in the way that they choose to become doctors or lawyers, nor even in the way that they choose to become fans of Coldplay or Radiohead.  Most Muslims, like people of any faith, are born into their religion.  They then evolve their own relationship with it, their own, individual, view of life, their own micro-religion, so to speak.

Variations among believers:

There are more than a billion variations of lived belief among people who define themselves as Muslim – one for each human being, just as there are among those who describe themselves as Christian, or Buddhist, or Hindu. Islamophobia represents a refusal to acknowledge these variations, to acknowledge individual humanities, a desire to paint members of a perceived group with the same brush. In that sense, it is indeed like racism. It simultaneously credits Muslims with too much and too little agency: too much agency in choosing their religion, and too little in choosing what to make of it.

Lived religion is a very different thing from strict textual analysis. Very few people of any faith live their lives as literalist interpretations of scripture. Many people have little or no knowledge of scripture at all. Many others who have more knowledge choose to interpret what they know in ways that are convenient, or that fit their own moral sense of what is good. Still others view their religion as a kind of self-accepted ethnicity, but live lives utterly divorced from any sense of faith.

On women and Islam:

I have female relatives my age who cover their heads, others who wear mini-skirts, some who are university professors or run businesses, others who choose rarely to leave their homes. I suspect if you were to ask them their religion, all would say “Islam”. But if you were to use that term to define their politics, careers, or social values, you would struggle to come up with a coherent, unified view.

Stereoptypes of Muslim men:

In my early 20s, I remember being seated next to a pretty Frenchwoman at a friend’s birthday dinner in Manila. Shortly after we were introduced, and seemingly unconnected with any pre-existing strand of conversation, she proclaimed to the table: “I’d never marry a Muslim man.” “It’s a little soon for us to be discussing marriage,” I joked. But I was annoyed. (Perhaps even disappointed, it occurs to me now, since I still recall the incident almost two decades later.) In the cosmopolitan bit of pre-9/11 America where I then lived, local norms of politeness meant that I’d never before heard such a remark, however widely held the woman’s sentiments might have been.

-Mohsin Hamid, writer (from a recent Guardian op ed piece)p017j094

2015 New African Film Festival – Triangle: Coming to America

This film (released in Ethiopia in 2012) was the centerpiece of the festival; the theater was almost full when I went to see it on a Saturday night.  The audience included viewers of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, particularly in their 20s and 30s.  My friend had seen it the previously and raved about it.  Writer/director Theodros Teshome (who held an after-show Q&A w/ two of the lead actors) was inspired to write this film after hearing the story of a fellow Ethiopian man’s dangerous/illegal journey to the U.S.  Teshome then performed some research, and discovered hundreds of similar stories of immigration.  He quickly realized that this story had to be told. 

Kaleab (Solomon Bogale, dubbed “the Denzel Washington of Ethiopia”) is part of a small group of Ethiopians being led through the desert by an Arab guide (who is dressed traditionally in a white jilbab and turban).  The Arab carries a rifle for protection, but he also uses it to threaten the group.  We learn that Kaleab’s good friend, Jemal, and his young wife are leaving b/c they eloped against her parents wishes.  Jemal provides some well-needed humor, but he can also fight (though short and wiry). 

Along the way, this group merges with a small band of Eritreans, which includes a young woman named Winta (Mahder Assefa).  Unlike some of the others, Winta doesn’t have a relative or friend traveling w/ her, so Kaleab watches out for her.  Jemal and his wife urge Kaleab to speak to Winta, though he is shy/reluctant.  There’s more than love in the air- they must deal w/ a sand storm, then another storm at sea (on the way to Italy).  One man (who used to be a soldier/lived overseas) is heartbroken when he loses his lovely young wife to pneumonia after landing in Italy. He wails and says he doesn’t have the desire to go on, leaving her body buried in a strange land.  The others, particularly Jemal, convince him to forge ahead.   

On the journey, Kaleab helps Winta, then she returns the favor (in a big way) when they reach Mexico.  Shared hardship, respect, and kindness between them grows into love.  I think this theme of the story helped the viewers deal w/ the hardships- a bit of hope, silver lining, and such.  I was surprised that such a serious tale could be told w/ bits of (real-world) humor.  The audience enjoyed the film a LOT- I could tell from reactions during and comments afterward.  

In the Q&A session, Teshome said that there will be a part two of this story, which will be about these characters’ lives in America. He explained that it’s very difficult to make a film in Ethiopia, though there is a wealth of acting talent and a great interest in movies from the general public.  The special effects had to be created in LA, which took up most of the (VERY modest, even for an indie film) $650,000 budget.  The cast and crew spent four days shooting in the desert.  It takes a good chunk of money to get theaters to screen films, but after two shows at AFI, more were added at the Columbia Heights Educational Center.  One woman said that she came all the way from Ohio to attend this festival-WOW!            

Empire: Season 1

Thank you, cable!  Success of your sophisticated, smart (yet FUN), ensemble shows is making network TV better… a LOT better!  Also, I have to give respect to Shonda Rimes (esp. on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder).  Yes, I still watch Scandal, but who DOESN’T love Viola Davis!?  Not unlike HTGAWM, FOX’s music-infused family drama, Empire (which several Fb gal pals were praising), has changed the face of TV. 
WARNING: This review contains MILD spoilers! 
WHY is this (midseason) show so ground-breaking?  Empire (created by Danny Strong and produced by Brian Grazer, Lee Daniels, and Francie Calfo) focuses on a successful African-American family in NYC.  (Everyone can relate to family drama, right?)  They’re running a successful company (Empire Entertainment), which includes musical talent (Timbaland is the show’s music producer), tennis shoes, champagne, etc.  (If you’re a fan of hip-hop, this would be the hook for you.)  The business is headed by charismatic, dapper, and strong-willed patriarch, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard).  He’s a man’s man who doesn’t suffer fools; he segued from being a musician to producer, then eventually… entrepreneur (EX: P. Diddy).  At the start of the series, Lucious is in a relationship w/ Anika (Grace Gealey), head of Empire’s A&R division (meaning that she signs/develops new talent). 
Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), is claiming her own power by managing teen pop singer Tiana (Serayah) and their middle son Jamal (Jussie Smolett, younger brother of Jurnee).  Hmmm… why was Cookie put in jail for so long (17 years)?  Do she and Lucious still have a future together?  She provides the a LOT of the humor for this show!

Lucious and Cookie have two other sons- Wharton MBA, Andre (Trai Byers), and impulsive 18 y.o. rapper, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray).  Jamal (considered Cookie’s fave) and Hakeem (chosen as heir by his father) have a contentious relationship for the first half of the season, though the unconditional love between brothers is always underneath.  (ALMOST everyone can relate to sibling drama, right?)

They call us Takeem.  -Tiana explains to Cookie about the celeb couple nickname fans have given her and Hakeem
Tiana and rising star Hakeem seem to make a natural pair, BUT they are NOT as simple/innocent as they appear!  Will these kids have a future… or only sing together? 
An honorary member of the family is a man that grew up on the streets of Philly with Lucious, Vernon (Malik Yoba, best-known for New York: Undercover), a father-figure/mentor to Andre (the CFO and non-musical son).  I started watching when I saw a TV promo w/ Yoba; he’s not in a LOT of scenes, since his main focus these days is on community development. Aside from the strong cast, there are MANY guest stars on Empire.  (Those up on the current hip hop music scene can probably spot who these are more quickly.)
Good Enough
See, it doesn’t matter what you think
I’m still a man

Not only is Jamal talented (his songs are the best IMO), he’s the most kind, honest, and likeable character on the show!  He comes out of the closet (to live openly as a gay man)- something that his father can’t accept.  (We learn about the drastic measure Lucious took when guest-star Raven-Symone shows up.) 
Keep Your Money
Can’t ask for a hand-out
It’s time to be a man now
When Lucious belittles his attempt to go his own way, Jamal refuses his cash.   As the show develops, we see how Jamal is redefining masculinity within his family, by writing his songs (personal/touching)… and network TV!

Two Films from The Washington Jewish Film Festival


Apples from The Desert

This is a coming-of-age story (one in a shory story collection- Apples from the Desert by Sayvon Leibrecht) about Rachel, a 19 y.o. ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl, who lives in Jerusalem w/ her parents.  Unlike most families in their community, she’s the only child of her parents.  Rachel yearns for a different life than the one of her housewife mother.  Rachel’s unmarried aunt lives down the street, w/ her cat, and seems content to be single/celibate.  We learn from her father that people in the community still whisper about the time Rachel drank bleach (in an attempt to kill herself). 


At a community center, Rachel watches young secular men and women doing folk dances.  This is forbidden in her sect, of course.  She eventually gets the courage to joins the class, taking some time off from her job.  A red-headed college boy in this class tells her about his life on a kibbutz, and they develop a friendship.  Her father, worried about Rachel’s changing attitude and future, plans a different future.  Her mother sees that she’s unhappy, but fears losing her only child to the world.

The Dove Flyer (AKA Farewell to Baghdad)

The Dove Flyer

This film (based on the novel by Eli Amir) tells the story of the last years of the Jewish community in Baghdad, Iraq, before their expulsion in 1950 and settlement in Israel. The teen narrator, Kabi, watches as the members of his extended family each develop different dreams/fears: his father wants to emigrate to the promised land, his uncle Hizkel (a Zionist) is suddenly arrested; his Muslim teacher, Salim, believes in the equality of Arabs and Jews; and his other uncle just wants to raise his doves.  World War II draws closer, houses are ceased, Jews are beaten in the streets and hung in public.  Kabi is watchful of Hizkel’s spirited young wife, who turns heads w/ her blonde hair, blue eyes, and revealing dresses.