JxJ Film Festival: Abe (starring Noah Schnapp)

Abe (Noah Schnapp who plays Will Byers on the popular Netflix show, Stranger Things) is a quiet, sensitive, 12-year-old half-Israeli and half- Palestinian kid living in Brooklyn who loves cooking. He has a food blog, IG account, and many (online) friends who follow his progress in the kitchen. One side of the family prefers to call him “Avraham” (in Hebrew), the other side “Ibrahim” (in Arabic), while his atheist parents call him “Abraham.” But he prefers Abe. A few boys in school are turning 13 y.o. and planning big bashes for their bar mitzvah; Abe admits that he’s curious about the Jewish religion. This is music to his (maternal) grandfather’s (Mark Margolis) ears. Abe also wants to know more re: Islam; he tries fasting for a day (like his paternal grandparents).

Abe’s parents, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk, wife of Patrick Wilson and 1st gen Polish-American) and Amir (Arian Moayed, a Tony nominee of Palestinian heritage) want him to make more (real-life) friends, so suggest he go to a summer cooking camp. It’s too easy for Abe, so he decides to bail w/o consulting his parents. He seeks out an experienced Afro-Brazilian chef, Chico, who specializes in fusion food at local pop ups. At first, Chico is reluctant to let a kid work in his kitchen, but then he sees the passion and potential in Abe. He rides the subway on his own, starts working at Chico’s kitchen, and eventually creates some recipes of his own (combining the ingredients used by both sides of his conflicted family).

This is such a well-made, timely, and unique film; I hope it comes out on a streaming service soon (so can get a wider audience)! Abe is just one representative of the many kids in modern society w/ families from different races, cultures, religions, etc. He’s not sure if he wants to be atheist, like his parents, b/c the traditions of his grandparents appeal to him. His maternal grandmother left a box of family recipes; his mom gives these to Abe. He does some research and discovers that Jews and Palestinians, who have a contentious past, use many of the same ingredients in cooking.

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New Series Trailers: Turn Up Charlie, Delhi Crime, & Ramy

Turn Up Charlie (Netflix) – This show is now streaming!

This show stars British actor Idris Elba; he worked as a DJ in London & NYC for years in his 20s & 30s.

Delhi Crime (Netflix): March 22nd

NYC-based writer/media critic Aseem Chhabra (who I’ve been following since 2005) posted re: this show on IG. He “loved the first two episodes,” which were directed by his Canadian friend (Richie Mehta). The cast includes Rasika Dugal (Bombay Talkies) and Shefali Shah (who some of you will recognize from her memorable co-starring role in Monsoon Wedding). The show focuses on the Nirbhaya rape case of Jyoti Singh. I’m guessing that most of the actors in this show are theater veterans.

Ramy (Hulu): April 19th

You may have seen Ramy Youssef’s stand-up before. In his 1st series, he plays a young man (NOT unlike himself) who is a first generation Egyptian-American exploring the challenges of being a Muslim in today’s world. His mother is played by internationally-acclaimed Israeli Arab actress, Hiam Abbass (The Visitor; Blade Runner 2049). Mo Amer (another stand-up comic) who is a Palestinian-American/refugee is part of the cast; he has a Netflix special (The Vagabond) that is funny and educational. Dave Merheje, a Canadian-Lebanese stand-up featured in Comedians of the World (Netflix), also has a role; he just won a Juno award this week. Indian-American actress Poorna Jagannathan (The Night Of; Gypsy) is also listed in IMDB for 3 eps; she is a friend of one of my writer friends (from my NYC days).

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon) starring John Krasinski

So you MAY have heard that this ain’t your dad’s (or grandpa’s) Jack Ryan! There are MANY negative reviews (bordering on Islamaphobic) to be found re: this new Amazon series. FYI: It has been renewed for S2. I saw the 8 eps over a 3-day weekend soon after its release; I thought it was meh (like some critics I follow). The writing is (mostly) predictable; I wanted to see a LOT more depth. You can check it out; it keeps your attention (w/ its editing/pacing, high production value, and a few unique characterizations). The action (if that’s your thing) is well-done; Michael Bay is one of the executive producers. Carlton Cuse (Lost) is one of the creators.

Jack Ryan (John Krasinksi) is a 30-something former soldier w/ a PhD working as an “analyst” (they don’t say “officer”) for the CIA. He rides his bike to work, dresses preppy (BUT has a V fit body underneath), and works in a (nice/modern) cubicle. One of his young co-workers is played by Mena Massoud (who will be star of the new live action Aladdin); he doesn’t have many scenes. Jack’s direct supervisor, James Greer (Wendell Pierce- one of my fave actors), has been aged down and is a Muslim convert divorced from his Arab-American wife. THIS is one of the points that that die-hard Clancy fans objected to in their reviews. There is a scene early in the series where we get to know a BIT re: Greer’s family life, incl. his conflicted relationship w/ Islam. He meets w/ an older immigrant man at a little cafe who says that he is missed at the mosque (masjid); I haven’t seen a scene like this on ANY (network) show!

In the Harrison Ford helmed movies, Jack is older and has two young kids w/ his eye doctor wife. Here, Jack’s future wife- Dr. Cathy Mueller- is an epidemiologist. Cathy (Aussie actress Abby Cornish) tells a work friend that Jack’s NOT like the guys she usually goes out w/; perhaps he’s more brainy, reserved, and unsure of himself (when in comes to romance). Their paths (work-wise) eventually cross; this is a staple in MANY network TV shows and movies. Some Clancy fans didn’t like this coincidence; I wouldn’t have cared IF Krasinski and Cornish had chemistry onscreen. I’m sure there are MANY other actresses who could’ve done better w/ this role.

The villains of this story are NOT cartoonish stereotypes; Suleiman (Ali Suliman), is a former banker who grew up partly in the ghettos of France w/ his artistic younger brother, Ali (Haaz Sleiman from The Visitor). As kids, they survived the bombing of their hometown in Libya. Suleiman has a young/beautiful/clever wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), as well as three children who live in a spacious compound in Syria. Shihabi grew up in Saudi Arabia and (quite naturally) portrays a woman who would do anything to protect her kids. I hope this actress gets more roles! There is great (familial) chemistry between the actors, making them believable as brothers. How did they become terrorists? We get to see the backstory (also unusual in a typical network show). As some viewers noted, these characters are MORE interesting than the Westerns who are on their trail.

Below are excerpts from some IMDB reviews:

The writing is far from great. This could’ve been an amazing series, but instead the writing is very TV. Also, I can’t with the love interest. Her acting is terrible and there is zero chemistry between them.

If you are new to Clancy, or the action spy drama all together, you will probably enjoy this. The acting, action, and production value will carry it a long way.

…it doesn’t break any new ground. But it provided a season of tense, tight entertainment, if this is a genre that you find appealing. There, of course, is lots of violence, some of it graphic… but I thought all of the particulars of good visual storytelling were present.

Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/2649/american-dervish

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself. 

 

Thoughts on a few South Asian diaspora books

Books I’ve Recently Read:

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Synopsis: 1947: the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into two separate countries, India and Pakistan. And with one decree, countless lives are changed forever. An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity… In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.

Don’t start this book if you’re in a bad (or down) mood; it’s not going to cheer you up. I liked a few of the stories, but some of them seemed too far-fetched or pandering to the exotic image of India. I don’t think men will enjoy this book much; the males in this collection are either terrible or impotent (as in unable to improve the lives of the women and girls in their lives). There is also no mention of the religious (mainly Hindu/Muslim) strife before (or after) Partition; this seemed odd to some of my book club. 

Streets of Darkness by A.A. Dhand

Synopsis: The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. 

This (page-turner) is written by a pharmacist (he kept his day job) who grew up in Bradford, England. If you’re looking for literary, descriptive book re: desis in the UK, this isn’t the book for you; look up Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie instead. This is mystery w/ some desi flavor and interlinked characters who inhabit a city in decline (joblessness, drugs, religious strife, and white power). One of the best threads is the loving marriage between Harry (who was raised Sikh) and his wife (a nurse of Pakistani Muslim heritage). This book may be tough to find (for those in the US, as I learned from those in my book club); it’s available from UK sellers on Amazon. Dhand has already sold the rights to this book (and its sequel), so it will eventually be made into a TV show. 

Books I’m Currently Reading:

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald 

Synopsis: Nineteenth-century Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island, bags heavy with silks from their villages in Bengal. Demand for “Oriental goods” took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey’s boardwalks to the segregated South. Bald’s history reveals cross-racial affinities below the surface of early twentieth-century America.

This book is full of statistics, so it’s not a fast read. I’m in the middle of it now, and will keep on reading. It’s very educational, so I highly recommend it to anyone in the desi diaspora. I wanted to read it a long time ago, but didn’t get around to it. One of my acquaintances, an actor-turned-teacher, Alauddin Ullah, is featured in the book; his father came to East Harlem about 50 yrs ago from Chittagong (now a mid-sized city in Bangladesh).  

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Synopsis: In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child–a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom. 

I’ve only read a few chapters of this (nonfiction) book, but the topic is very interesting, so I will keep on reading. At the start of the story, Nordberg gets to know Azita, a female parliamentarian in her mid-30s, who has turned her fourth daughter into a boy (Mehran).