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 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.
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….