by writer/director Cherien Dabis
It's no wonder that Americans can relate to the universal immigrant themes in Amreeka. America is a country of immigrants after all, some who arrived centuries ago, others who are arriving as you read this. But despite where they came from and when they arrived, they all seem to understand what it means to struggle. And perhaps it's precisely because they have their own coming-to-America stories that they're inspired to ask me how autobiographical Amreeka is. The question usually goes something like this: "The story feels so personal. What inspired it? Is it autobiographical at all?" It's a double question really, two questions that go hand-in-hand. And in order to best answer it, I'll tell you my story.
The year is 1975. My Palestinian father who just finished medical school in Cairo and my Jordanian mother brave the trip from Amman, Jordan, to—of all places— Omaha, Nebraska, where my father has landed a pediatrics residency. My mother—tremendously homesick—cries everyday and learns about American culture by watching “Days of Our Lives.” My studious father assimilates out of necessity, takes a liking to college football (Go Cornhuskers!) and softens the back-of-the-throat guttural syllable of our last name so that it sounds remarkably similar to Davis. My older sister (three-years-old at the time) is either so bored or so lonely that she literally takes up conversation with a nail in the wall, and they fast become friends. Then I come along, the first in my family born in the U.S.
Four years later, a small town in Ohio is in need of a pediatrician, and my father is recruited. The place has a zero crime rate and when my parents visit, they think it's charming and quaint; the perfect place to raise children. Thus, we move to the middle of nowhere, where it's obvious from my parents' accents and our three-month-long summer trips to Jordan that we don't belong. My mother, refusing to raise Americans, proves to be a particular challenge, making us eat green slimy foods that our blonde-haired, blue-eyed counterparts can't pronounce and bribing us to speak Arabic at home. My sister and I rebel, simply wanting to fit in. Meanwhile, my father builds a relatively successful practice and is known by some as the town hero for saving so-and-so's life.
Cut to: 1991—As American troops enter Baghdad, fear and paranoia enter the heartland. And we're rendered the enemy virtually overnight. My father's patients barge into his office, ask for their medical records and leave. We receive death threats on a daily basis: We'll get Saddam, and we'll get you too. And: We know what to do with you Saddam-lovers. The local newspaper publishes letters to the editor about how "those Arabs should leave town." Then the secret service shows up at my high school on rumors that my now 17-year-old sister has allegedly threatened to kill the President. My sister, terrified that she's in serious trouble with the government for something she never threatened to do, comes down with a 104 fever. My parents sit at the kitchen table, whispering about what to do and browsing brochures of Cleveland. My father, whose name Nazih (pronounced Nuh-ZEE) lands him the unfortunate label "the Palestinian Nazi," buys two baseball bats just in case. And that's it. Somewhere between Saddam-lovers, the Secret Service and a so-called friend approaching me at my freshman locker, telling me that her brother could die because of me, I wake up. The world as I know has been turned upside down. So I go with it. I start to speak Arabic at home. I pay close attention to the news. I realize that there are no depictions of Arabs anywhere other than when we're referred to as terrorists. I see that we're referred to as terrorists often, not just on the news but also in Hollywood movies like True Lies and The Siege. So at the age of 14, I decide to make it my mission in life to change that, to make some effort toward integrating Arab Americans into the fabric of American popular culture.
As fate would have it, a decade later, I move to New York City to start film school at Columbia University. It just so happens to be days before 9/11. It's like déjà vu, especially because shortly thereafter, another President Bush is invading Iraq again. That's when I know it's time to start writing my story, a story born out of my own family's struggle but inspired by the love and strength that kept us going, the friends who stuck by us, the pride that only a mother can instill and the hope that one story can—in some small way—change the world.
Of course the short answer is that the movie is semi-autobiographical. And the best part of sharing it with you is that many of you have been inspired to share your own coming-to-America stories. So please. Do tell. It's your turn.