“Arab Americans have been in the weeds of American history for too long, and it’s time for the flower to blossom and tell this story” says Abe Kasbo, CEO of Verasoni Worldwide, himself a Syrian immigrant and the inspired, unstoppable man behind the new documentary film, A Thousand and One Journeys: The Arab Americans.
“Particularly in the wake of 9/11,” Kasbo said, “I saw how incredibly important it could be if average Americans knew who their Arab American neighbors really are and about the aspirational values we share.” He described his passionate goal for the film to “bring a really important story to the public about our shared values and the remarkable contributions made by Arab Americans in all the professions over two centuries,” saying that Americans are familiar with the narratives of Irish and Italian immigrants, refugees from World War II, Asia and now the Hispanics,” but few know the story of millions of Arab Americans.”
Watching the film feels like an enjoyable visit with lots of interesting people. Seeing them all together, Arab Americans will feel uplifted that a positive light is finally shining and the story is “out.” As one character after another comes into view, committed to public service, talented, funny, and proud, American viewers will hear up close and personal—possibly for the first time— the Arab American story. Commenting on impressions left by today’s intense media focus on the Middle East, Kasbo expresses exasperation: “Arab Americans are not ISIS. It’s simply not relevant to this story…to who we are as proud Americans contributing every day to the fabric of this great nation. That’s not the dialog we need to be having.”
So, who are the Arab Americans? People may self-identify as Arab American if they, like Kasbo, emigrated from an Arab country and became U.S. citizens or, were born here to one or both Arab parents. Immigrants came to pursue brighter futures for their families and thrived as productive and proud members of society. They became prosperous, well-educated, raised families, built American cars, contributed to the law, the sciences and the arts…but often hiding in plain sight. According to the United States census citizens identifying themselves as Arabs or Arab Americans enjoy a higher than average level of education and income. “These are good solid citizens,” says Kasbo, “besides including some remarkable characters that most people have no clue are Arab American.”
One Thousand and One Journeys celebrates this vibrant community, whose leaders today are protesting increased federal monitoring, while they lead productive lives. Their names may have been homogenized—or the pronunciation changed, or replaced with new names to avoid discrimination. The difference is important. It’s one thing to be concerned about mispronunciation or being recognized as ethnically different. But, if one belongs to an ethnic group which has historically been demeaned in the American media—as have Arabs– then of course one seeks to avoid stereotypes by blending in.
Ethnic fears stoked by some politicians and the media and the region’s unrelenting conflicts, have steadily intensified more negative views of Arabs.” Comedian Dean Obeidallah says: “On September 10, I went to bed as a White guy and September 11, I woke up an Arab.” The late-Anthony Shadid, New York Times foreign correspondent who tragically died in 2012, was a great friend to the film. “Growing up in Oklahoma,” he said, “you always had this notion of being Arab American but at the same time, not wanting to be too different.” The film’s educational message highlighting who Arab Americans really are will be well-timed.
Few Americans know that some individuals whom they’ve considered icons in society, civil rights leaders, doctors and entertainers—are actually Arab American. The film announces and celebrates them. Americans will be surprised, to hear General John Abizaid relate how: “As an Arab American, it’s always interesting getting on an airplane and all of a sudden you’re selected for a special search. It happened to me as a retired four star general that led our forces in the Middle East.”
The film profiles heroes such as surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who invented the artificial heart and the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units. Ironically, another Arab American, Jamie Farr, played the role of cross-dressing corporal Maxwell Klinger in the famous MASH television series.
Ralph Nader recalls his dad saying: “When I sailed past the Statue of Liberty in 1912, I took it seriously.” “He meant freedom, Nader says,” …free speech was a reason for being.” Nader’s tireless advocacy of consumer rights and freedom of speech has been exemplary.
Composer Malek Jandali describes working as a church organist for ten years…as a Muslim saying: “I was so amazed by [their]decision to embrace another human being of a different religion.” Many Americans do not know that there are vibrant Arab Christian communities in cities across America.
The film’s montage of cameos is creatively interspersed with a narrative showing photographic and other memorabilia to convey the strength of the community’s historical contributions to American society. While the pace is dynamic and engaging, the blend of conversations and facts reinforces the theme. Admirably echoing the style and tenor of Ken Burns’ award-winning documentaries, Kasbo has succeeded in painting a rich tableau of the Arab American community in their own voices and with impressive documentation.
This film marks that moment of “before” and “after,” to establish a positive appreciation and identity for a people who’ve been living in relative anonymity for generations. It conveys a convincing case for the vitality and contributions of Arab Americans to the fabric of this country and their abiding, patriotic connection to American values.