I found this film on Amazon Prime. In what speaks volumes to Arab representation in Hollywood, it lists for the starring cast: Cary Elwes; Agnes Bruckner; William Atherton. The only three white actors to play major characters. Not Khaled El Nabawy, who had 23 years of acting experience when he did this film. Not Khaled El Nabawy, who protested in the streets in support of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Not Khaled El Nabawy, who plays the main character. Bruckner has an important supporting role, but aside from a seconds-long flash-forward at the opening, Atherton and Elwes don’t appear until the final third of the film. I love Walter Peck and the Dread Pirate Roberts as much as the next guy, but nothing screams “Arab erasure” like not crediting Arabs for a movie made by an Arab about Arabs trying to become Arab-Americans. (It doesn’t help that Elwes commandeers the final act as a White Savior.)
|Cary Elwes spends his screen-time looking like he just doffed his pith hat as he returned from a jungle adventure and told his native-boy sidekick to fetch his motor-car.|
The Citizen tells a fictional story, even as it sometimes feels like it came from true events. The film chronicles the immigration process for Ibrahim Jarrah (El Nabawy), a compassionate Lebanese mechanic who won the Green Card Lottery after a 12-year effort. In a stroke of ill luck, he immigrated on September 10, 2001. He wakes up the next morning to a devastated New York that despises everyone who looks like him. For the crime of having a cousin who disappeared, federal agents arrest Ibrahim with no paper trail, no access to a lawyer, and no explanation. They hold him for six months, giving no information to his lone friend, Diana (Bruckner), a white American whom he’d just met. He exits to an America where he struggles to find work, despite having earned a business degree before he immigrated.1 Even as things start to look up for him, a sudden, unrelenting string of tragedies sends him crashing back down. Before long, Ibrahim has to convince authorities not to deport him, leading to a trial that goes public.
Freedom For Arab-Americans
Kadi, a Syrian-born director, focuses on how society has treated Arabs since 9/11. I can testify to the accuracy, both as an Arab and as someone who can usually pass.2 Ibrahim has a college education, but the white people he encounters see only an Arab nametag and an accent. He receives dirty looks on a daily basis and lives under the constant threat of losing everything. Hate crimes happen in this film to Middle Easterners and Jews with no warning, for any reason or for no reason. Natalie June plays Baha, another Lebanese Muslim immigrant who finds it difficult to maintain hope, to the point that she attempts to convince Ibrahim to return to Lebanon with her. (Sadly, Kadi misses an opportunity to depict Baha as an example of the intersectional difficulties for female Muslims in the west.)
The film makes a point of illustrating that the tragedy affected Muslim New Yorkers as well. (60 Muslims died in the September 11 attacks, excluding perpetrators.) Ibrahim reacted with horror at the attacks, as had every Muslim I have ever met. But their horror became compounded with targets on their backs. I once heard a Muslim say that the hijackers didn’t just hijack a plane; they hijacked a religion. This film shows exactly what she meant.
|This racist stink-eye might give you chills. It gives me flashbacks.|
Kadi threads the narrative with footage of George W. Bush’s speeches. In every depicted snippet, he oversimplifies the conflicts and fails to say anything that eases the burden on Arabs who have to slog through a newly opened floodgate of bigotry. He touts America’s freedoms as Middle Eastern immigrants live in fear of attracting attention. Bush claims the terrorists “hate freedom” while Ibrahim undergoes a grueling process to earn it.
|I laughed when I shouldn't have. Even after all these years, William Atherton still looks like… a pecker.|
By the time we see an ESL teacher teach her students to say, “The land of the free and the home of the brave,” it sounds more ironic than anything else. The Citizen’s entire final act depicts Ibrahim having to face the consequences for believing he had the same right to free speech as white Americans. His every equivocation gets plucked out of context and used to paint him as a menace. Even his own lawyer implores him not to take the witness stand for fear that he will incriminate himself. Indeed, opposing counsel uses Ibrahim’s naïve attendance at an anti-Bush protest to impugn his patriotism. What we call free speech for White Americans, we call circumstantial evidence for Americans of color. Freedom of speech may not mean freedom from consequence, but as this film depicts, people of color receive the brunt of the consequence. Just ask Facebook.
The Reality of Ibrahim Jarrah
Although a work of fiction, The Citizen almost felt to me like a documentary because of my own life experience. With uncanny fidelity, Ibrihim’s story parallels my father’s story.
An Arab Muslim like Ibrahim, my father also had a nomadic childhood, moving from one Levantine country to another to escape war and economic misfortune. Ibrahim lost his parents in a bombing; my father’s aunt starved to death in her infancy, and his grandfather got gunned down in the streets for unwittingly taking firewood from the wrong place. My father immigrated to the United States in 1977. Like Ibrahim, my father crossed paths with a woman embroiled with an abusive, drug-addicted suitor. Five years later, that woman became my mother. My father also had great difficulty finding jobs because of his name, including those for which he exceeded the qualifications. (My father actually had to travel overseas to find work, leading him to miss several years of my life.) Like Ibrahim and Diane, my parents had to count on the kindness of new friends, as their family proved unreliable. But like Ibrahim, my father has an unfailing belief in the ability of anyone to attain success. They even have similar personalities and mannerisms and the same catchphrase in the face of adversity: “Everything happens for a reason.”3
I point this out because these stories can have happy endings. My father became a successful civil engineer and public works director. He’s served the American military for the past 30 years, including a tour of duty building infrastructure in Iraq. Just last year, he received the Legion of Merit award! My father never faltered in his belief in America. After 40 years of living here, he still hasn't.
|This headline also applies to my dad.|
If men like Donald Trump ran the United States in 1977, my father could never have immigrated here. He’d never have met my mother, and I’d literally never have existed!
So if nothing else, I part ways with Trump’s policies out of my own love of existing.
The Real Tragic Ending
Rizwan Manji plays Mo, an anxious mini-mart proprietor who correctly predicts that life for Middle Easterners will plummet to new depths of despair after 9/11. But The Citizen came out in 2013, right before the political rise of Trump. Until I die, I will remember September 11 as the day I became A Problem. But from what I’ve seen as an Arab-American, the real hate had a 15-year delayed reaction. I see more hate here now than I’ve ever seen in my life, even in the wake of 9/11. The film shows white supremacists assaulting both Arabs and Jews, but incidences of both have skyrocketed since the film’s setting (late 2003), with anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016 reaching their highest levels since 2001. Cary Elwes’s character mentions America’s shame over its own xenophobia following Japanese internment. While even in 2013, such human rights violations seemed like ancient mistakes, their return now seems like a likely future.
The Citizen ends on a feel-good note, but today, January 20, 2017, it feels like a tragedy. Sam Kadi didn’t predict that life for Arab-Americans would worsen. He didn’t anticipate that the suspicion would intensify, that the hate would get worse, that Americans would rather sentence millions of Syrians to certain death than allow immigrants a chance (even though we learned the danger of this mindset in junior high). The Citizen’s injustices have become our new normal.
|They even act like my parents! Did the writers stalk me?!|
The real tragedy of this film lies in the near-certainty that President Trump will quash even the hopeful parts of stories like Ibrahim’s. The toupée that launched a thousand hate crimes infamously declared his wish to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States, and he’s also mentioned plans to end the Diversity Visa program. He plans to fill Guantanamo Bay and torture the prisoners there. Trump has even mentioned planning to kill entire families of terrorists (a war crime). Complain if you want about me “bringing politics into this,” but I have to. As an Arab living in Trump’s America, I live in daily fear for my physical safety.
If my worst fears come true—if The Citizen becomes my Turban Decay swan song because I got imprisoned or hate-crimed or genocided—I hope some distant reader looking back on post-Trump America sees my effort here with Turban Decay as more than a film critic grousing about Arabs in movies. Turban Decay really started when a lonely 9-year-old Arab kid saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and, for the first time in his life, didn’t feel like a demographic oddity, a freak accident who owed the world something for existing outside its Procrustean boxes. That I saw John Rhys-Davies play someone “like me” matters. That I saw my ancestors’ part of the world in a movie (one of the best ever made, no less) matters. When kids (and even adults) see someone on the screen who shares their ancestry or their sexual orientation or their religion or their habit of peeling labels off soup cans, that matters. Stories exist to help us understand ourselves. The more we understand the characters in these stories, the better we understand ourselves. And the more we get to know people who live different lives and see what makes us the same—even fictional people—the closer we get to becoming our truest, best selves. Let that stand as the message I leave behind.
Also fuck Donald Trump.
1 This really happens: a brilliant acquaintance of mine who emigrated from the Middle East with an undergraduate degree faces this exact situation right now.
2 More times than I can count, White folks have told me that I pass as a reassuring blandishment. If you do this, stop. Telling us this does not reassure us. It reminds us of the precarious conditions of our social acceptance and reinforces your condescending view of our place as fortunate outsiders.
3 I don’t share this belief. I’ve seen one too many Asylum movies to believe humanity has any underlying order.