Being Arab-American

 My Teta and Jedu (Grandma and Grandpa) in the Middle East in the 1950s.

My Teta and Jedu (Grandma and Grandpa) in the Middle East in the 1950s.

While “Christina Wren” doesn’t sound Arabic, my maiden name is Christina Salam Ghubril. I’m a Lebanese-American who grew up like any other kid, believing my life was totally normal. I assumed everyone had a Teta and Jedu and a Gramma Rose and Grandpa Bob; that all holiday celebrations bounced between boisterous, Mediterranean extravaganzas and quiet, Midwestern gatherings. I never questioned the validity of my family or even considered it was anything but normal.

Until 9-11.

I experienced 9-11 like every other American - with horror, shock, heartbreak. I feared what it meant for our safety or how it would change the world from that moment on. I knew my friends may soon be at risk of being drafted - a thing I only knew from scary documentaries on the Vietnam War - and hugged my teenage brother close that night. 

On September 12, I went to school, still covered by the cloud the day before had caused. One of my best friends, an Irish American girl who I never saw as very different than myself, had to stop in the school office.  I went with her and the school secretary - who I had helped and volunteered with many times - was raging about how all the Arabs should be “sent back to where they came from so we can bomb them all to hell.” 

I was shocked - literally stunned silent. My friend grabbed my hand below the counter because she knew where my family was from. My heart beat fast and my mind starting racing, “Bomb us all to hell? We had nothing to do with those people! We’re as shocked and heartbroken as every other American! My dad, a full-blooded Lebanese immigrant has spent his life making Pittsburgh a better place - you want to send him away and kill him? How about us young half-breeds - where do we belong? You’re a descendent of immigrants, too, like every non Native-American - should you be sent back to where you came from?” 

But no words came out of my mouth. She raged on and I stood completely, silently still, realizing that the lives of Arab Americans would most certainly change from this moment on.

Shortly after, I took a trip to New York with my dad. We were “randomly” stopped and searched a total of five times as we made our way from security through the airport. The final time, armed guards pulled us from the line as we were about to get on the plane, roughly taking our carry ons and just shaking them upside down, dumping them publicly, with no regard for us or what was in them, looking and walking away, apparently the dismissal letting us know we could re-pack our things and board the plane. I was young. I had things like tampons and other private items in my backpack. I was mortified and also heartbroken, insulted, embarrassed. I felt like everyone else in line was looking at us sideways, all of a sudden seeing us as threats or dirty, as if we deserved what we got simply by being us. 

Then came the Patriot Act. I was sure our home phone was being tapped and every time my dad spoke Arabic to his mom on the phone was one step closer to me coming home from school one day with him just being gone. Untraceable. I had plans for how to defend him, hoping all the people of Pittsburgh he had served would come out in support. I got mad at him on the back steps one night for making loud jokes about watching Al - Jazeera, sure the neighbors would report something they just didn’t understand. 

Thank all the Gods, Homeland Security never showed up on our doorstep. My family has been safe and except for countless frustrating experiences in airport security, the racism we’ve personally faced has been fairly small. Some of us are fair-skinned. Some have American Accents. Many of us “pass” for the most part or are assumed to be Latino or French or Half Japanese or....

Which means we hear what others say about us, say to our faces, not knowing they are spewing hate in our direction.

I understand fear. I understand that there are horrible people doing horrible things and I recognize that the public representation of Arabs is almost entirely as violent extremists and I know so deeply, so profoundly, that this just isn't accurate. I am blessed as an American to have friends that are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, from East Africa and India and Brazil and Japan and China - we are able to drink coffee in public together, to laugh together, to enjoy each other and in this context, we share the truths about who we are.

But publicly, I don't see my family being well represented and as an artist, I am figuring out how to use my voice to better introduce ourselves to the world. 

More on that next time.





Women in Cinema

As a kid, I wanted to be the Super Hero, not the girl who got caught falling from a building. I wanted muscles and fight scenes and to believe I had the strength and the power to save the world.  I ran around the yard with a towel pinned to my shoulders, pretending to fly, just like my brother. I wrestled with the boys. I rode bikes. I grass stained and ripped my tights every week after Sunday School.  I wanted to be fast and strong and go on the adventures. I LOVED LOVED LOVED the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. LOVED. And I was sad that I could never be Superman. My brother could, but I couldn't.  And I was really sad when there were enough Ninja Turtles for each of the boys to play but my friend Jacque and I had to both be April. 

Fast forward to 2014 and that feisty little girl is dancing happy dances on the reg, leaving theaters going, "I want to be Katniss!" or "I want to be Tris!"  Like so many, I rejoiced when it was love between two sisters that could bring healing at the end of Frozen and I rejoice every time I watch Orphan Black and Tatiana Maslany plays a plethora of incredibly interesting, complex, smart, tough women (and let's not forget the other smart, tough women in that show: Maria Doyle Kennedy, Evelyne Brochu, Inga Cadranel).

This is important to me. The majority of media created still has a much larger assortment of men on screen than of women. So often there are a host of male characters filling in a range of body types and ages, playing all sorts of jobs, attitudes, education levels and walks of life, while there regularly is one main female character who is hopefully really awesome. Then we get her cute/quirky best friend and a wise older woman who graces us for one, perhaps two scenes. 

We're telling ourselves, our children, our leaders, over and over again, that there are lots of options of how to be a man, of what you can do with your life as a man or how you can dress/look as a man but as a woman you need to be either sexy or funny (generally be ready to take your clothes off) and then not know what to do with your life until you are a wise grandmother. 

This is a gross over generalization, I know.  But it's hard not to let those thoughts seep into one's brain after watching themes play out over and over again. Even as a tough girl, it's sometimes hard to believe I can be strong, to believe I can be feisty and dynamic and have messy hair sometimes.  So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to the amazing men and women who are writing/financing/producing/playing/directing/watching/affirming strong, inspiring heroines these days. You guys are all awesome.

And of course, to Zack and Demetrius, who've given me chances to play tough girls on the big screen, you are both heroes of mine.