Category Archives: local

the big day: world premiere of “the muslims i know”

my first feature length documentary “the muslims i know” opened on june 8, 2008 at the dyrden theatre in rochester. about 300 people showed up. the response to the film was terrific and it was followed by a robust, hour long discussion.

june foster, the executive director, rochester/finger lakes film & video office, introduced me and the film. i spoke briefly about why i made the film and thanked many of the people present that afternoon who had helped with this project. here is my speech:

Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the world premiere of “The Muslims I Know”.

Today is a big day for me. It is the culmination of two years of hard work and the realization of a dream. Since 2001 there has been a concerted effort by the media to paint Islam and Muslims with one broad brushstroke – that of the radical, anti-modern, warmongering jihadist, a growing threat to our so-called way of life. The endorsement of this propaganda by the government has produced a culture of fear. The results have been devastating. This language of “us” vs. “them” has created distance and misunderstanding rather than what is needed, which is dialogue. This is the goal of the film you are about to see. It re-iterates something we all know instinctively – that rapprochement is always possible.

I wanted “The Muslims I Know” to open in Rochester because so many people here today have been instrumental in the making of this film starting of course with all the compelling, charismatic people who appear in the documentary and whom you will meet shortly.

But I would also like to thank:

Thom Marini for being an excellent cinematographer and an even more excellent human being,

June Foster for being my mentor and a source of unwavering support from the get go,

Nora Brown, Barry Goldfarb and all the volunteers today for their invaluable help with this event,

Cat Ashworth, Chuck Munier and Dave Sluberski for their amazing talent and their advice,

Teagan Ward for her beautiful songs,

Sarita Arden, Ruth and Russel Peck and Judy Bello for becoming brilliant ambassadors for this project,

My brother who drove from NJ to be here today and who also did the film’s musical score,

My beautiful family, and finally

All the wonderful friends who gave me feedback and support, posted flyers, sent out emails, spread the word about this film, and are present here today –

Thank you all.

I hope you enjoy the film and I look forward to your questions after the screening. We will invite some of the people featured in the film to join the discussion as well.

Thank you.

“Filmmakers’ lenses never even blink” by Jack Garner, Democrat and Chronicle

Filmmakers’ lenses never even blink
By Jack Garner, Friday June 6, 2008

Let’s celebrate two movies by local filmmakers that are tackling important topics too often ignored elsewhere. Each film spotlights an underappreciated and misunderstood segment of our society:

The Muslims I Know by Mara Ahmed examines the lives and attitudes of the many moderate Muslims who are our neighbors, fellow workers, physicians and classmates.

American Harvest by Angelo Mancuso follows the migrant worker population as it works its way up the East Coast each season, making itself responsible for much of the food on our table.

In The Muslims I Know, Ahmed melds a series of insightful interviews, conducted largely in this area, with a good mix of archival footage. Home movies that reflect a family-next-door existence stand in marked contrast to news and propaganda footage of the Islamic extremists who, unfortunately, get the lion’s share of attention in our media.

Though she has an extensive education in a variety of fields, Ahmed was trained as a filmmaker at Visual Studies Workshop and at Rochester Institute of Technology, and worked two years compiling this important, eye-opening film about the realities of Islamic life and belief. The result is colorful and well-shot by veteran local cinematographer Thom Marini. It also features an appealing background blend of Pakistani, Islamic and Western music.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to see her hourlong film, and hope it achieves broad exposure, for it’s just the antidote we all need to the narrow-minded attitudes of the West in the post-9/11 era.

The Muslims I Know will have its world premiere at 1 p.m. Sunday at the George Eastman House’s Dryden Theatre, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and some of the interview subjects. Admission is $10.

Mancuso’s American Harvest has had area screenings, including one at the recent Rochester High Falls International Film Festival, but now it’s earned a regular opening slot for at least a week at the Little Theatre. Mancuso, who has long been active locally as a writer, filmmaker and critic, brings considerable passion to his feature-length documentary. The film examines the undeniable importance of migrant labor to farming in America, and it raises important questions about the current hot-button topic of illegal immigration.

American Harvest opens tonight. Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. screening will be followed by a conversation with Mancuso; Jim Allen, head of the New York Apple Association Inc.; and Sister Janet Korn, social justice awareness coordinator for Catholic Charities.

“The Muslims I Know” by Dayna Papaleo, City Newspaper

the muslims i know

FILM: “The Muslims I Know” (6/8)
By Dayna Papaleo on Jun. 4th, 2008

I hate to blow the ending of a movie, but the Muslims that local filmmaker Mara Ahmed knows are pretty much like the people of faith that you know, cherishing family, tradition, knowledge, and peace. The difference is that your Christian, Jewish, and Druid pals haven’t been subjected to intense scrutiny for most of this young century, so Ahmed’s reflective, graceful debut picks up where the press repeatedly leaves off, depicting what’s known as the moderate Muslim. In “The Muslims I Know,” Ahmed weaves vivid images of her Pakistani culture through dialogue with a cross-section of Rochester’s Muslim community about their experiences, as well as perspectives from scholars on the teachings of Islam. Ahmed also speaks to non-Muslims about their often biased preconceptions, in large part due to the American media because, as summed up by a sharp young man named Ibrahim, “Terrorism sells.”

“The Muslims I Know” has its world premiere at the George Eastman House’s Dryden Theatre, 900 East Avenue, on Sunday, June 8, at 1 p.m. Tickets cost $10, and are available at the door, or in advance at all Wegmans locations. Visit for further details.

if all of rochester read the same book

writers and books’ initiative “if all of rochester read the same book” featured laila lalami’s “hope and other dangerous pursuits”. laila is a moroccan american writer based in california. her blog, which has been on my blog roll since day one, is a repository of information about books and writers, especially non-western writers who are mostly absent from mainstream best seller lists. laila came to rochester to talk about her book and i met her at the st john fisher college reading, a couple of weeks ago.

laila’s book is a panoramic narrative which explores the lives and hopes of four moroccans trying to make it across the straits of gibraltar into spain. the non-linear structure of the plot is a great hook. we start with a vivid scene showing complete strangers thrown into uncomfortable proximity. all the characters are here. this is our first encounter with each and everyone of them. they are cramped together into a lifeboat – illegals trying to get smuggled into spain. we can feel their anxiety, their desperation. we hear their thoughts. the landing is bungled and the characters are left to fend for themselves, struggling to make way in the dark, freezing water.

we then go back in time, pre-lifeboat. we get a peek into the lives of all four characters. we come to know them, understand them, sympathise with them. we become familiar with the realities of living in morocco – corruption, nepotism, red tape, non-existent upward mobility, political repression. many of these problems are characteristic of developing countries. i could immediately see the similarities with pakistan – the differences between various socio-economic classes, the corruption at every level of society, the dejection that comes with joblessness, the urgency to find a better life and become the hinge that pulls an extended family out of poverty. we also see the charm of simple lives unencumbered by greed. even in their most indulgent dreams, the characters wish only for basic comforts.

the final part of the book nudges us forward in time, post-lifeboat. here we see who made it and who didn’t and in the end, were they better off or not. laila’s writing is temperate, lucid, fluent. the book could have easily been three times its present size, packed with more details about the lives of its protagonists. but i like some of its open-endedness. like a great french film it lets you fill in the blanks and become part of the narrative. to me brevity and the natural, homespun quality of a story makes it all the more poetic.

in person, laila was animated and funny and refreshingly honest. she is passionate and not shy about expressing her views. she talked about morocco, the u.s., french colonialism, language and her love of words, the characters in the book and the process of writing.

laila lalami

geva readings: thomas repair

this last monday went to see “thomas repair” at geva. this was one of the best play readings i’ve been to so far, and i’ve been to many. truth be told, it was hardly a reading. the cast was solid and their performances absolutely electrifying.

the story unfolds mysteriously at thomas repair, a repair shop owned by jacob thomas, which advertises proudly “if it can be fixed, we’ll fix it”. it’s the middle of the night. jacob is busy tinkering with random bits and pieces of junk fashioned into a curious machine. a young girl called brenna appears at his door. she forces her way in using various pretexts but there is a sense of foreboding here. she articulates it in so many words – he should have seen this coming. she has brought her guitar with her. she painted it blue and wants the paint removed. we soon discover that she herself is literally blue, covered with splotches of blue paint all over her body. she enjoins jacob not to touch her for she infects whatever she touches with her inner “rot”. that rot is gradually revealed – a sexual relationship with a married man, an abortion, lies and deceipt, a final severance of ties with her parents. what jacob doesn’t expect is for his own family to be at the epicenter of brenna’s crisis of conscience.

her need to come “clean” is urgent and all-pervasive. slowly jacob’s daughter and son-in-law and finally his ex-wife are dragged into this emotional fray. jacob’s own life becomes more and more transparent: his hatred of his wife after she left him, the troubled relationship with his daughter whose existence he could never fully sift as disparate from the rage directed at his cheating wife or the contempt he felt for his loser son-in-law, and the self-perpetuating cycle of hate and defensive anger that his life has been reduced to since their departure.

brenna becomes the trigger that sets off this dysfunctional dynamite, to eventually create some space for truth and healing. she is an other-wordly presence with some very human problems. this touch of magic realism generates rich dramatic subtext throughout the play. similarly, recurring biblical verses speak to jacob’s religious convictions but also weave yet another fine pattern onto the play’s canvas. there are fables and edifying conclusions, mirror images and stark contrasts, metaphors, poetic prophesies, mundane realities and much humor. by electing to cast multi-racial actors in various roles the writer and director add another layer of interest.

this is the kind of play one can sink one’s teeth in. it has substance and nuance, a rich tapestry of what is humdrum and sublime, a sound dramatic arc and characters just waiting to fly off the page and walk in the door.

keith randolph smith, a terrific actor who has worked successfully both on tv and on broadway, played jacob thomas.

keith randolph smith

evie’s waltz

went to see “evie’s waltz” by carter w. lewis at geva theatre. the reading was part of geva’s american voices series.

what an explosive play – full of conflict and contradictions, bitterness, delusions, verbal violence and physical aggression. danny’s bizarre behavior results in his parents’ emotional detachment, especially on the part of his mother. it also invites persistent abuse at school. his friend and neighbor evie has her own problems. her mother has survived her father’s departure and the forced lowering of her expectations by turning to booze. evie is dangerously reckless with a long list of exploits to prove it, such as using a nail gun to pierce her tongue. she and danny have known and loved each other since they were children. together they seem to attain some sense of calm sanity, like partners in a perfect waltz. yet here they are – caught trying to buy a gun on the internet. there are detailed maps of their school stashed inside danny’s locker and a disturbing blood stain on evie’s neck as she shows up for a family barbecue at danny’s house. the play is a fusillade of words that summarizes every strained relationship in the play. danny’s parents argue the bejesus out of anything that comes their way. they have reached a place in their marriage where a spouse is just an irritant in a series of disappointments and verbal jousting is the only means of communication left. evie lashes out at them for all these reasons. she is smart but has her own distorted sense of reality. danny, whom we never see and who is perched in the woods behind his house looking at evie and his parents through the scope of a rifle, participates in the conversation through text messaging and well-timed rifle shots.

the play is well-written with a litany of intense, forceful, actionable language that brings home the clash between incongruous realities. the verbal savagery is an apt vehicle for exposing the violence inherent in 21st century american culture – whether it’s the story of the well-intentioned parents who have lost touch with their child and their own sense of self, the single mother who feels isolated and hopeless, the little girl who learns to act out to forge a sense of identity and acquire a false sense of control, and the little boy who deals with his oddity by taking revenge on the world. although the play is about more than the genesis of a school shooting it nevertheless touches a nerve, especially in view of the latest northern illinois university shootings.

here i have to say how ridiculous i find efforts to prevent such terrible tragedies by trying to identify possible assailants in their early childhood or through sensitivity training or some kind of social discourse where potential problems like violence in films, video games and rap music are happily pointed out. we can analyze our socio-cultural identity and the age we live in until we’re blue in the face. the answers need not be so broad, complex and ultimately impossible to redress. anger is natural and so is social alienation, teenage angst and mental disease. these are things we will never be able to fully understand or regulate unless we start replacing human beings with impeccably-wired robots. humans will be humans. the only thing that makes america different from other countries where school shootings are not commonplace is the easy availability of guns. anger is natural but the snappy and efficacious use of a gun to act out that anger is not!

democracy for all!

rally to show solidarity with movement for justice in pakistan

the rally to support justice and democracy in pakistan was a success last sunday, nov 18. about 50 people turned up. it was a diverse group of people from local activists to religious and interfaith groups, from lawyers to teachers and students, from pakistani americans to americans with no ties to pakistan. it was heartening to see that human rights matter to so many. there was plenty of media coverage. here is the article in the democrat and chronicle.

this is the speech i made, as main organizer and spokesperson for the rally:

“we are here to show our support for the people of pakistan in their struggle for freedom and democracy. civil society in pakistan is being dismantled by the present dictatorship. thousands of lawyers, human rights activists, judges and academics have been put under arrest. hundreds of people who have committed no crime have mysteriously disappeared. shameful instances of torture against prominent lawyers have occurred and the government has even arrested the sisters of opposition leaders. freedom of speech has been curbed and independent media have been shut down.

martial law has been declared to supposedly fight terrorists yet the government is actually negotiating with them and every day they grow stronger. and all this after six years and billions of our tax dollars sent to the pakistan army in the name of fighting extremism. obviously, this strategy is not working.

what is happening today in pakistan is NOT to fight terrorists, NOT to preserve law and order, NOT to make pakistan or the world safer – it is a naked power grab. i ask you to send a clear message to your congressmen, senators, the u.s. administration and the whole world: americans will not stand for what is happening in pakistan. human rights violations must be stopped. those arrested must be released, the constitution must be restored, the judiciary must be restored, the media must be freed, and no more dictatorship.”




thanks to usman for these great pictures!

americans for justice in pakistan, rally on sun nov 18, 2-3.30pm, 12 corners in brighton

Rally to Support Restoration of Judiciary and Civil Liberties in Pakistan
Date: Sunday November 18, 2007
Time: 2.00pm – 3.30pm
Place: Twelve Corners in Brighton
Contact: Mara Ahmed







pakistani lawyers rally for the return of law
student protest in lahore

RIT screening

the first part of my documentary “the muslims i know” was screened at the carlson auditorium, at rit, today. it was exciting to see the first 30 minutes of my film on screen. it was also interesting to see the audience’s reaction to it. it all went well. i got a lot of questions from the audience and some feedback from malcolm spaull, howard lester and other rit film faculty. i was extremely pleased by the interest the film generated and the many comments that continued after the screening, when many of the students and some faculty approached me to talk about it. people liked the lahore collage i had put together to show the vibrance and beauty of my hometown. they also liked the muslims i had interviewed and with whom they felt a connection – the connection was different for different people but it was definitely there.

there is still a lot of work ahead of me if i want to get the film ready by february 2008 for the highfalls film festival, but during the last 11 weeks at rit (in cat ashworth’s documentary workshop class) i have gone from 30 hours of unedited footage and transformed that hodge podge into a story. cat’s input and help have been invaluable to me. not only is she an astute filmmaker but she is incredibly generous with her time and all the resources at her disposal. it has been a very hectic, sleep-deprived but also a wonderfully productive 11 weeks.

clip from “the muslims i know” coming soon…