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Reel Bad Arabs

My cousin Chris and his wonderful wife, Alyssa.

My cousin Chris and his wonderful wife, Alyssa.

My cousin Chris has the most tender heart of almost any man I know. He is half Syrian, half Lebanese and works with college students in Arizona, particularly focusing on nurturing minority students of all backgrounds, making a safe home away from home in an environment that doesn’t always make minorities feel welcome. He has thoughtfully shared his journey of wrestling with our own identity with me and this week sent me the documentary REEL BAD ARABS: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, based on the book by the same name by Dr. Jack Shaheen who is a fellow Lebanese man.

I have to say, I was overwhelmed. Seeing our people represented as evil terrorists and buffoons over and over and over again was really painful and what was more shocking was how I’ve seen these images all my life but hadn’t fully experienced the horrifying weight of it until it was all condensed into one space. The documentary honestly is probably more powerful for fellow Arabs to watch than to share beyond our community because it doesn’t do the best job of then painting the picture of who the majority of us truly are. It tries but in conversation with my husband, I realized it didn’t really leave viewers with an image different than the stereotypes and that’s a big bummer. It’s a 10-year-old film and isn’t perfect but for me, it crystalized once and for all that as a media maker, I absolutely have to share the truth of who my people are. 

If all most Americans know about Arabs comes from repeated images of terrorists and buffoons, then how on earth could I be surprised by the ease with which many accept hateful rhetoric and fear tactics surrounding us and our cultures?

The funny thing I realized is that part of why I missed the lack of meaningfully positive representation within the documentary is because in my own life, the Arab side of my family is always so pristine, held to such high standards of excellence, beauty, behavior, sparkling home life (I really can’t keep up…. #selfacceptance) that it is shockingly polarizing to hear that the only kinds of Arabs most westerners can picture in their minds are terrorists or live in dusty refugee camps. And of course, while the Arabs who are their doctors, lawyers, engineers, their neighbors with beautiful lawns and children in private school are present, they may not register as culturally the same as what is being seen in the media. 

I do not at all mean to downplay the truth of our brothers and sisters who are daily struggling, living in fear, trying to survive under very challenging circumstances. That is real and super painful. But that’s not the only truth, right? 

Can I share a few truths from my own family? I’ve always loved them so much but I am now more deeply and profoundly admiring who they are as contributors to our society, to the United States of America, and how they are representing us in the world.

My Amo (Uncle) Georges.

My Amo (Uncle) Georges.

My uncle, Dr. Georges Y. El-Khoury, has been celebrated as one of the top radiologists in the world. He is of Palestinian descent and can be credited as the first member of our family to come to the US to work at the University of Iowa hospital. He is a true scholar, has studied French and literature throughout his life, alongside of his professional work. He travels the world, speaking about radiology and he and my Amto - my Aunt - raised two amazing sons who now are a lawyer and a doctor with beautiful homes and children of their own, serving their communities in Iowa and Alabama with love and grace.

Papa Sal

Papa Sal

My dad, Saleem Ghubril, committed his life to serving the people of Pittsburgh, where I grew up. When he was 25, he started an organization called The Pittsburgh Project that provided home repair to neighbors in need, after school programs and job training for young people and ongoing support to the community of Pittsburgh. After 25 years of growing The Project into fully adult form (we always said TPP was the third child in our home), he then transitioned to leading The Pittsburgh Promise, a larger organization which provides free college education to students who graduate from Pittsburgh Public Schools. He is committed to reforming public education and making the city a livable place for young people to grow up and thrive within. Last year he was voted 38th most powerful person in Pittsburgh. All for a guy from a little village in a tiny country in the Middle East!

One of my cousins is a top engineer at Boeing. Another owns his own private practice. My brother is a lawyer working in healthcare. Several of my female cousins work in healthcare, empowered working moms who nurture at home and at work. When they first moved to America, my Teta (Grandma) was the first in our family to find a job and help support the family as they settled into their new life here.

……..

After tearing up through REEL ARABS, I accepted some healing laughter from Amy Schumer's HBO Special. Bold, confident,  I love what she is doing to break down walls for women and open doors for conversation around equality, identity and sexuality with her no-holds-barred comedy. 

I land here again: comedy. Laughter is such a powerful healing agent, a way we can relate to each other, shout out how outlandish certain parts of society and norms are and recognize our participation in it without being totally shamed and overwhelmed.

This is a new journey for me, I must admit. I am listening daily to the still, small voice inside that whispers hints of next steps to take, next stories to tell and right now, HICKSTERS is what I keep coming back to. My quirky comedy about Ruby and Alex, an adorable urban couple who find themselves in the deep south in a world where all parties must now confront their stereotypes and misconceptions about one another. Can we laugh about it together and get to know each other better? That’s what I long for. That’s what I’m dreaming of.

I guess I should go work on my scripts….

xoxo

Christina

BTS on the set of HICKSTERS as I play Ruby, getting to know Starla the Cow.

BTS on the set of HICKSTERS as I play Ruby, getting to know Starla the Cow.

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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.

xoxo

Christina

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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.

~Christina

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