American Muslims: In Muslim film contest, diversity wins

For many American Muslims, the mainstream presentation of their diverse voices seems lost in a vacuum dominated by simplistic, cardboard stereotypes depicting them as fundamentalists or perpetual suspects. Thankfully, Link TV has provided this unfairly maligned group with a multicultural konch to creatively showcase their voice in their annual “Link TV: One Nation, Many Voices Muslim American Film Competition.”

The contest received more than 100 submissions for the five different categories reflecting the gamut of sentiments and emotions reflective of the unique American Muslim experience – one that has been forever altered since the 9-11 tragedy.

Nabil Abou-Harb, a 24 year old from Georgia, won the grand prize of “Best Overall Video” and $20,000 cash prize for his contribution to “The American Muslim Life” category: Arab in America. The five-minute video – with professional production values and quality acting – was a satirical, bittersweet yet ultimately optimistic depiction of Arabs having to “white wash” their identity to blend in and avoid harassment. The Arab protagonist is forced to change his name to “Samuel Adam Baker” in order to obtain a lucrative job, and he must continue to lie about his piquant Islamic practices as to avoid “detection” by his often ignorant co-workers.

As the narrator says in the begging, it is a “tale of bitterness…tale of being Arab in America.” Although the characterizations of the White, non-Muslims in the piece was one-dimensional and clichéd, the movie contains a positive, affirming message of tolerance and inclusivity – with FBI surveillance included as a bonus.

“The 60 second movie” winner, “The Teacher” directed by Scott P. Harris, is an all too brief but inspiring portrait of Mr. Khan, a Pakistani Muslim American teaching physics to overwhelmingly White, non Muslim, Texan students for nearly 18 years. Khan emerges as an eccentric but dedicated and beloved teacher whose unorthodox methods have helped over 90% of his students pass the AP Physics test. His annual toy drive and his volunteer work with the Special Olympics portrays a generous, multidimensional portrait of Muslim Americans whose faith inspires them to contribute positively to their community.

Green Blue Sea,” a winner under the “Youth Category” by filmmaker Rolla Selbak, reminds us that Green activists and scuba diving enthusiasts include American Muslims like Hanny Selbak whose Islam inspires him to appreciate, admire and ultimately protect sea life and nature.

Safiya Songhai shows artistic flair in her black and white, wordless portrait of an uncommon friendship between two women of different faiths in her “Two Faiths, One Film” Category winner: Ladylike. Although the movie could easily have been truncated by 90 seconds, it creatively uses striking images of a cloaked, nikhabi woman aiding her neighbor –a woman locked outside her apartment wearing only her towel. The film illustrates how charity can act as a unifying bridge of commonality between two strangers.

Colors of Veil, a film by Jehan S. Harney that won under the “American Muslim Women” category, tackles the perennial, hot button issue of the “hijab” [head covering worn by Muslim women] but this time from a unique cultural lens. The focus of her story is Kimberly King, a White convert to Islam and former US soldier who chooses to wear the veil only to initially find discrimination and harassment at the workplace. However, the 5-minute glimpse into her life is anything but bitter or resentful, as she narrates her successful marriage to a Syrian Muslim American and their subsequent four children whose commitment to one another and their happiness inspire other biracial Muslim couples in their community.

Although the movie submissions lack the sheen and polish of mainstream Hollywood productions, their insight into an often-misunderstood aspect of the American Diaspora is priceless. Even though the “comments” section under the movies reflect some unnecessarily crass and petty criticism, the intention behind the contest, and the multitude of voices that are heard as a result, should be applauded for using more than two paint colors to characterize the vitality of the American Muslim experience.

Associate editor Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com.


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