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…

whose children are these?

last thursday i saw theresa thanjan’s “whose children are these?” at the u of r. it is a documentary about how post 9/11 domestic national security measures have affected the lives of three muslim teenagers. the film focuses on one such program, special registration, which required male non-citizens (as young as 16) from 25 countries, to register with the department of justice. under this program, 83,000 muslim men got registered, 14,000 were deported, yet not one terrorist was found. the deportations were on account of immigration status violations, even if these constituted minor snafus.

the film follows the trials and tribulations of 3 teenagers. as we become better acquainted with them we are moved by their experiences. navila’s father is kept in a detention center for almost a year, then deported to bangladesh. all of a sudden, she becomes the father figure in her family. “i am tired”, she says later in the film, “i just want my dad back”. sarfaraz, a basketball-crazed new yorker who has already lost both his parents, is on the point of being deported to pakistan. at the last minute media attention and activism save him from being sent to a country he knows absolutely nothing about. hager, who wears the hijab, is confronted by strangers on the subway. a man calls her an arab bastard before making a quick exit. she responds to this racism by becoming an activist and educating people.

the film sheds some light on a subject that has been completely ignored by mainstream media and tells the stories of people who are lost in the deafening noise surrounding terrorism and fear. it is an admirable effort to delve into that which is not kosher by today’s standards – muslim communities in america.

what was even more heart-breaking was what many young muslim students had to tell theresa after the screening. they thanked her for making the film and for telling a small part of their stories. they talked about being held up at jfk airport every time they enter the u.s. for 6-8 hours and being harrassed in sadistic ways. they talked about being sent to a detention center in upstate ny, where they were kept for 3 weeks in spite of legal representation and without any accusation of being linked to terrorism. i found it difficult to hold back my tears. it is one thing to look at statistics and read stories in the paper. it is another to hear first hand accounts of racial profiling and the open-ended (and totally legal) persecution of communities across america. it is all the more painful and terrifying if the people being persecuted look like you and pray like you…

whose children are these?

“doubt” at geva theatre

i’ve been interested in this play ever since playwright john patrick shanley’s interview on npr. i followed the play’s fortunes off broadway and read the reviews. cherry jones won widespread accolades. all in all, the play didn’t do too badly – it won the 2004 pulitzer prize, the tony award and every critics’ award. unfortunately, i still hadn’t seen it.

imagine my joy when i found out that “doubt” was coming to geva theatre. my husband had his own doubts – the last (and only) time he had been to geva was to see a vapid “camelot”. we had just moved to rochester from the nyc area and were sorely underwhelmed by the lackluster staging of this larger-than-life arthurian legend. long story short, my husband had vowed never to return to geva.

however, i could figure that this 3-character play was going to be a completely different affair – not a big stage production, but rather a study in character acting. i bought 2 tickets and we went to see the play last weekend. it was terrific.

it’s the writing that hits you first. it has a sharpness and sparkle that’s very new york. it’s witty and profound all at once. i found the subject matter very thought-provoking – not just its reality-based depiction of scandal in the inner sanctum of a closed, rigidly hierarchical system such as the catholic church, but on a broader level, the yin and yang between doubt and certitude and the values society or religion ascribes to each. when does certitude become fanaticism? when does doubt become moral ambiguity? these are important questions to ask in today’s world.

sean patrick reilly gives a nuanced performance, undulating dangerously between the roles of charismatic, hands-on, accessible priest before his congregation; self-important, bullying man when locked in a power struggle; and perhaps morally tepid, unrepentant child molester in private life?

but it’s judith delgado who steals the show. she is a powerhouse of wit and obstinate determination. we hate and admire her. there are no cracks in her shield of arrogant conviction until the very end of the play, when we are reminded of the dangers of absolute certainty, untempered by doubt.

doubt poster

beyond belief – NYWIFT event at the little

NYWIFT or new york women in film and television’s rochester chapter opened last week with the screening of the documentary “beyond belief” at the little theatre. the film recreates the step by step progression in the story of two 9/11 widows (susan retik and patti quigley) who decide to help afghani women. there are some illuminating moments in the film – the very idea of turning hate into love, of forgiving in order to achieve “post-traumatic growth”, of realizing that we are all connected and that what happens in afghanistan affects us here at home, the concept that all the small, day-to-day decisions we make in our lives cumulatively define who we are in the world, and that our common humanity can transcend even the most striking socio-cultural differences. that’s powerful. the director beth murphy talks about compassion fatigue, a dulled sensitivity to crisis over time. viewers, when faced with a relentless barrage of snapshots showing human suffering all over the world, start to feel helpless and so disengage. this film puts the ball back in our court – instead of feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, we are reminded that every action we take has a ripple effect and can change the course of the world in small but cumulatively potent ways.

as far as the overall documentary, i felt that 9/11 was the star of the film. the grief of the two widows is obviously real and palpable but as patti quigley says herself, she is ready to move beyond her role of 9/11 widow. much has happened since 9/11 – we have invaded afghanistan and killed more afghanis, we have invaded iraq and started a barbaric civil war (more than 655,000 iraqis have died along with thousands of american troops), we have legitimized torture and trampled on basic human rights all around the globe, we have reworked the laws of our country in order to curtain civil liberties, we have discovered that our government is far from being honest and that our media is far from holding it to account. with all the things that have gone horribly wrong since 9/11, shouldn’t we move beyond our role of wounded nation?

i wish that more time had been spent telling the stories of the afghan widows. we only see them as a one-dimensional horde of burqas on cnn. this film could have afforded us a rare glimpse into their lives and suffused them with some depth. there is a little bit of that but not enough. we cannot help but fall in love with some of the afghani women profiled in the film. they are honest and accessible, strong and dignified and possess a calm inner beauty. that’s a face not often seen in the media, a voice not often heard. beth murphy has made a laudable effort to show us another side, let’s hope this is just the beginning.

after watching “beyond belief” the writer june avignone sent me the link to this article she wrote called “the cure we wait for” (sun magazine, march 2003). she talks about 9/11 and compares it to her experience with cancer.

“i am not shocked at all. if anything, i am shocked about how many other people are shocked. i know that there will be a precious moment figurine about all this down the road, perhaps a cute little fireman followed by a sweet, gun-toting marine. and i know america will eat them up, unlike the truth that was there all along, the warnings ignored like a bad dream and hidden behind the correct purchases made at the mall.

and with their shock comes the talk of getting the bad guys; of killing some good to destroy the bad; of using cannons to get the thief who robbed us of innocent lives, and threatens us still; of hitting larger territories to get at the hidden problem and make it go away for good. and the language is so familiar I cannot bear it.

i do not know where all of it is going. i only know that we tell ourselves we have the cure, and we don’t. the thief is inside all of us. and part of the cure, at the very least, lies in knowing that.”

dov and ali

just saw this play reading at geva theatre. “dov and ali” was written by anna ziegler and describes the relationship between a precocious muslim student of pakistani descent and a jewish high school teacher. both are unduly burdened by their fathers’ religious dogmas and we witness some of their conflicted emotions. whereas dov reacts with lassitude by simply avoiding life’s big questions (and decisions), ali becomes a strident mouthpiece for his overbearing father. dov and ali are simultaneously drawn to each other and repelled by the recognition of their own fear and self-doubt in each other’s psychosis. ali is mortally afraid that the world might not be black and white, as his father says, and that the quran’s directives might not be enough. is being “right” more important than being “happy”? although he strikes dov as being sure of himself (and of everything else) we suspect that it’s self-hate that’s making him lash out. dov on the other hand professes that he has a mind of his own and chastises ali for being a fanatic, yet we sense that his own convictions are half-baked at best.

the dialogue between these two characters is sharp, funny and fast-paced. there are many references to william golding’s “lord of the flies” which serves to pit what’s good for the individual against what’s good for society.

the play’s turning point is based on ali’s relationship with his sister sameh. sameh acts both as the play’s narrator and one of its characters. in her asides she gently reproves ali for something he did, becoming more and more agitated as the play progresses. she also reveals her love affair with a liberal muslim boy mo (short for mohammed) and we are slowly led to think that it did not end well and that ali had something to do with it. she appears as a character in flashbacks and as a ghost-like apparition in ali’s dreams. ali finally confesses to dov that he led his father (and uncles and cousins) to sameh and mo and that she was packed off to pakistan as a result. this has been ali’s torment – his guilt and the loss of his sister have torn apart his family. the girl’s end is left unresolved. our only clue is that she now lives with an aunt in pakistan and all she does is pray – this led an audience member to think erroneously that she might have been sent to a convent. in fact, there is no concept of any types of convents in islam.

dov’s trajectory from traditional to modern is tracked through his relationship with a “blonde” (there is frequent mention of her hair color) white girl. she definitely believes in being happy above anything else – a symbol of western-style jettisoning of religious orthodoxy?

although i found the play interesting (more should be written about the interplay between different religions and cultures, especially in a country where we are proud to describe ourselves as a melting pot), much of it was hackneyed and one-dimensional. i liked the verbal sparring between dov and ali and the not-so-apparent similarities which are nevertheless explored. but did ziegler have to throw in something as corny as “israel should not exist – the jews stole it” and play into the already over-propagandized stereotype of the jew-hating muslim? maybe she was being facetious, but sometimes one has to wonder, do we always have to go there – the lowest common denominator of our so-called “free” mainstream media coverage which is sold in bulk and therefore cannot afford nuance or novelty. for some reason, in my unwaveringly idealistic mind, i hold artists to a higher standard. rather than pander to pre-existing stereotypes why not turn things around and present a topsy turvy picture of what people perceive as reality. in my opinion, that is true art.

stereotypes abound in this play – from the fanatical quran literalist, to the emotionally-distant orthodox rabbi, from the blonde blue-eyed voice of tolerant modernity, to edward said as a proponent of arab victimization in full view of palestinian suicide bombers. you will be happy to know that tossing the hijab is still very much the means to female empowerment and as a pakistani-american, i was interested to know that being sent to pakistan is the ultimate kiss of death.

all in all, it reminded me of your average story in the ny times with all its comforting clichés and facile generalizations. it’s no coincidence that ziegler’s writing process for this play started with newspaper clippings and the endeavor to write something “current”. this is why many audience members were confused about sameh’s destiny, thinking that she must have been killed because of “all the stories in the news”. five years after 9/11 and the ensuing media blitz which divided the world into those who were with us (and like us) and those who were against us (and different from us), it is time to get beyond our narrow view of what “others” are like. i think that american audiences are ready to undertake that journey.

peace, propaganda and the promised land

saw this film at the anti-war storefront on monroe avenue, in rochester. being a hyphenated american who moved to the u.s., as an adult, from one of the oldest parts of the world, i was born with a healthy dose of skepticism in my blood. i know that governments lie, that the press can skew reality, that there is such a thing as propaganda. the middle east conflict is a case in point and so is the war in iraq.

“peace, propaganda and the promised land” is an excellent documentary that explains the step by step process of filtering information and using a mammoth PR machine to manipulate public opinion. many cannot accept this so-called mind control, especially when it applies to an open, free market society like ours where the unrestricted flow of information forms the very basis of our economic/political system. this too is a mirage. the only difference between american-style minutely researched, consumer-savvy, impeccably packaged, and innocuously dessiminated propaganda and soviet-style, grainy, no frills attached, in your face, badly executed propaganda (much ridiculed during the cold war), is in production values. ours is simply better quality. like a carefully flavored smoothie it goes down easy and feels good once it’s been ingested.

but i will let you decide for yourself. if you’ve never read noam chomsky, robert fisk or alexander cockburn, this documentary might be a true eye opener for you. i found it on youtube.

the film was introduced by judith bello. read more about the post-screening discussion moderated by judith on her blog under “reviewing the presentation and jenin jenin” (aug 11, 2007). she talks about “an individual in attendance who persistently and emphatically interpreted every assertion back into the standard frame of information, the very frame that the film was designed to discredit”. i attribute that to ignorance but also to the staggering power of language – our thoughts and ideas are constrained by the linguistic and therefore conceptual framework we are given. i was reading “weasel words” by john lahr (new yorker, dec 19, 2005) a review of the harold pinter double bill (including “the room” and “celebration”) and some of lahr’s comments jumped out at me. he talks about pinter’s obsession with the “psychological truth that he continued to explore brilliantly for half a century: mankind’s passion for ignorance. blindness, as pinter has dramatized it over the years, is something internal. the habit of not seeing is for his characters a sort of narrative device, an evasion of self-awareness that allows them to sustain their stories of themselves; the very syntax of their speech carries them ever farther from a real understanding of their emotions”.

susan b anthony’s house in rochester

last week i took my parents and daughter to visit susan b anthony’s house on madison street, in rochester. susan b anthony was a consummate activist – she lobbied for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, women’s suffrage, education reform, temperance and a myriad other causes close to her heart. at a time when women were struggling to find a voice, susan b anthony’s speeches held sway over generations of men and women and changed the socio-political landscape of our country. she was arrested in 1872 for casting a vote in the presidential election. this is the speech she delivered in court in defence of women’s right to vote:

“friends and fellow citizens: i stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. it shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, i not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all united states citizens by the national constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.

the preamble of the federal constitution says: “we, the people of the united states, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the united states of america.”

it was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the union. and we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. and it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government – the ballot.

for any state to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people, is to pass a bill of attainder, or, an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land. by it the blessings of liberty are forever withheld from women and their female posterity. to them this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. to them this government is not a democracy. it is not a republic. it is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor. an oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the saxon rules the african, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters, of every household – which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.

webster, worcester, and bouvier all define a citizen to be a person in the united states, entitled to vote and hold office. the only question left to be settled now is: are women persons? and I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void, precisely as is every one against negroes.”

frederick douglass was one of her lifelong friends. the bronze statue of susan b anthony and frederick douglass having tea in the park by laos-born sculptor pepsy kettavong is located across the street from anthony’s house. it is life-like, life-size, accessible and bang in the middle of the neighborhood where she lived. it’s genius. the house itself is being renovated and slowly restored. but what really brought susan b anthony back to life for us was the knowledge and passion of our excellent docent annie. as rochestarians, and even more so as american women, we should all be proud of anthony’s legacy.

susan b anthony

wynton marsalis at the eastman theatre

just saw wynton marsalis, the jazz at lincoln center orchestra and ghanaian percussionist yacub addy’s nine member ensemble odadaa play their new composition “congo square”. during french colonial rule, congo square in new orleans, also called la place des negres, was where slaves were allowed to congregate on sundays. they could set up market and sing and dance. the more uptight english protestant states did not allow such unsupervised, “savage” freedom of expression. however, in new orleans congo square allowed slaves to create a community rich in african tradition. much of that music and dance tradition survives to this day. as marsalis explains: “any music with a rhythm section has roots in congo square. if it has a bass and drum together, the roots are in congo square”.

creating this bridge between african percussion-based music (including different drums and congas) and jazz as we know it today is what “congo square” strives to achieve. and how eloquently those ties are established in this jazz suite. the associations are strong yet complex, the transitions are clear yet elegant. marsalis credits bassist carlos henriquez for developing a sound rhythmic understructure that allows this effortless meshing of music.

all in all, the music was vigorous, the performances flawless, the atmosphere charged with energy. there were many standing ovations and much thunderous applause. wynton marsalis is the man!

congo square 1700s

untitled darfur play

talking of darfur, i was lucky to see “untitled darfur play” by winter miller as part of geva‘s hibernatus interruptus festival of new plays. that was oct 14th, 2006. this year in april the play made it to manhattan at the public theater. it is now titled “in darfur”. winter miller is a playwright as well as a research assistant to nicholas kristof, the pulitzer prize-winning ny times columnist. she has traveled to sudan with kristof. the play is an alejandro gonzalez innaritu-style pastiche of different stories that coalesce into a powerful whole. there is an american journalist trying to make a difference, an aid worker and a courageous darfuri woman. joanna settle directed the reading i went to. it was harrowing to experience a small slice of the violence being committed in darfur.

darfuri refugee in chad

brighton says thanks but no thanks to the patriot act

acts of terrorism do not justify the u.s. government’s attacks on civil liberties. the patriot act does not make us feel safe – it’s just another way to create fear and consolidate control over civil society. backed by many anti-war organizations including RAW (rochester against war) brighton passed an anti-patriot act resolution – go brighton!

Press Release
Brighton Town Council Passes Resolution Upholding Rights and Liberties In Response to Flawed Patriot Act Provisions and FBI Abuse of Power
Rochester, NY— In response to concern about flaws in the Patriot Act and recent revelations of FBI abuse of Patriot Act powers, the Brighton Town Council, in a vote of 5-0, today approved a resolution upholding the Bill of Rights and Constitution and protecting the rights of Brighton residents from anti-terrorism measures that the Council believes go too far. Brighton is the first community in the country to pass an anti-Patriot Act resolution challenging National Security Letters (NSLs), which were recently revealed to be overused and abused by the FBI. Brighton also joins 409 municipalities to have passed resolutions against the Patriot Act, according to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which tracks the resolutions and encourages a national debate on threats to civil liberties from the Patriot Act and other post-September 11th anti-terrorism measures.

The Rochester Civil Liberties Coalition (RCLC) was founded by Lee Price of Fairport , NY to encourage local governments in Monroe County to pass anti-Patriot resolutions during the reauthorization process of the USA Patriot Act. “Rochester City Council’s resolution last year was our first success”, he said. ACLU legal counsel, Scott Forsyth, worked with the town of Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, to craft a resolution to address Patriot Act threats to civil liberties, specifically the still-flawed Provision Section 215 and NSL provisions. Nancy Braiman, a coordinator for the RCLC, called the Brighton vote a vote for the Bill of Rights. Ms. Braiman coordinated media coverage, lobbying, and other community events to build public support to adopt the measure. After a year of lobbying, Ms. Braiman and the RCLC finally convinced the board to adopt a resolution after the Department of Justice released an audit revealing widespread FBI abuse in the issuing of NSLs. “Brighton’s courageous vote sends a strong message to Washington and our whole nation that the tragic attacks of September 11th were not a signal for the United States to abandon the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. It also lets the residents of Brighton know that their elected officials have taken the necessary steps to ensure public safety, while protecting the civil liberties of its citizens” said Braiman.

The full text of Brighton’s Resolution is available online at: http://bordc.org/detail.php?id=743 ]

a night of religious music

on march 8th i had a meeting with my mosaic partner pat domaratz and my friend sarita arden, at java joe’s, rochester’s farmers market. i had never been there before and loved the ambience. there weren’t that many people at 11am but i loved the art and the sunflower-yellow paint on the walls, and their crepes were great, especially the homemade cheese sauce.

in the evening we went to an event organized by the center for interfaith studies and dialogue (CISD) at nazareth college. it was a night of sacred music – an energetic performance by cantor sam asher of temple beth david, the islamic call to prayer performed by imam ishak kizilaslan, supplications by youness tihm and his group, a qawwali (sufi music) performed by the pakistani american society of rochester, afro-american spirituals performed by the mt baptist church, performances by the downtown presbyterian church, hindu invocations by the hindu temple of rochester and finally buddhist chants. i filmed bits and pieces of the entire show for the documentary, especially the qawwali in which my husband and many of our muslim interviewees were taking part. thom came along and shot with a different camera. it was 9.30pm by the time we left. my husband and i hadn’t had dinner and it was way past our kids’ bedtime but all in all the CISD is doing a great job in bringing people of different faiths together by highlighting the common thread that runs through all religions – music inspired by god.

a quick aside on qawwali (devotional sufi music from pakistan and india) – check out a brief intro on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawali. i find qawwali absolutely fascinating. not only is the poetry exquisite in its simplicity and emotive earnestness but the music is equally entrancing. there is a slow but steady build-up to a crescendo as the qawwal (the qawwali singer) lets go more and more of the rhythmic understructure of the song and paints with increased intensity on this musical canvas. such variations soon turn to repetition until the words start to blur and lose their meaning. the goal is to achieve a state of ecstatic rapture, an altered state of consciousness, a union with the divine. nusrat fateh ali was a great qawwal. he collaborated with peter gabriel and eddy vedder (of pearl jam) to bring qawwali to the west. some purists hold that against him but truth be told, whether it was traditional qawwali or some creative fusion between different genres, fateh ali was a musical genius with immense range. he died tragically in 1997 at the age of 49. here is a sample from nusrat fateh ali’s rendition of “allah hu”.