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Director shines a light on Arabs' plight in America

'American East' from Egyptian-born director Hesham Issawi shows the joys and struggles of immigrants trying to make new lives in L.A.

December 23, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — HABIBI'S Cafe simmers with an ancient, smoky verve. Sisha pipes bubble amid geopolitical musings that veer from the comic to the caustic to the bewildering reality of Arab immigrants in a Los Angeles perpetually on edge for terrorist attacks. SWAT teams clatter across rooftops, cable news hums with dread and undercover agents slip into the bank accounts and private lives of dark-skinned men who smile and sweat and wait for it all to be over.

Amid an incessant pulse of fear, rage and paranoia, Mustafa, the cafe's exasperated but genial owner, will not be deterred from the American dream. He is a lightly bearded Egyptian widower under investigation by the FBI. He refuses the stereotype of radical Islamist; he wants to run a restaurant, not a jihad training camp. He is prodded and pushed by a meaner, more suspicious post-9/11 U.S. and by fellow Muslims who suggest that he too-quickly forgives the hypocrisy and lies of his adopted nation.

"I still believe in this country," Mustafa says.

The declaration is the narrative force behind "American East," a new film by Hesham Issawi, an Egyptian-born director living in L.A. The story of Mustafa's joys and struggles glimpse an Arab American world uneasily existing at the rim of a wider national security debate. The film, which has no U.S. distributor, creeps into the lives of those who are one minute hard-working immigrants and the next suspects in the Bush administration's eerie color chart of terror alerts.

"We wanted to make a movie about us. Arabs in America are successful, they're doing pretty well. They understand the price of freedom," said Issawi, who recently showed "American East" at the Cairo International Film Festival. "But they know they're being watched. If four or five Arab guys walk through an airport, people stop and say, 'Who are they?' It's American paranoia. It's the news. Every time you turn on the TV some Arab guy is blowing himself up. When we wrote the script we said we're going to say it all. No political correctness."

"American East" is acerbic and moving, if at times a bit preachy, a balance of story lines that pours the angst of the Middle East and the jittery psychological state of the U.S. into the crucible of Habibi's Cafe, where leaky water pipes and steaming pots create a hissing atmosphere of tension. Nobody is off limits from doling out rancor or receiving abuse: Arabs, Jews, FBI agents, producers, directors and most especially Mustafa (Sayed Badreya), whose son wants to convert to Christianity and whose sister refuses to accept the Muslim tradition of arranged marriage.

Trouble begins when the FBI investigates Mustafa's donations to an Islamic charity back in Egypt. This infects other parts of his life: a restaurant venture with his Jewish partner, Sam (Tony Shalhoub); the refusal of his sister, Salwah (Sarah Shahi), to marry a visiting Egyptian cousin; and an unsympathetic ear for his cab-driving actor friend Omar (Kais Nashif), who is frustrated in his typecast roles as a jihadist. Playing in the background are TV news updates about an unfolding terrorist plot and cafe chatter awhirl with stereotypes, cultural insults, anger, laughs and running commentary on the past and present Middle East.

Perception becomes reality. Omar, who has an American fiancee and hopes of landing a TV role as a doctor, arrives at the set of another show to play yet another terrorist; he snaps, grabs a security guard's pistol and becomes the latest riveting tick-tock story on the news. Helicopters hover and SWAT teams converge as Mustafa and the guys back at Habibi's Cafe watch on TV as Omar is slipped neatly into the American consciousness -- a man with a Middle Eastern name, rage and a gun.

The immigrant struggle

"American East," which focuses on cultural identity and the struggle of respecting one's traditions in a new land, is an expanded version of Issawi's award-winning short, "T for Terrorist." The tone and feel were inspired by Charlie Chaplin's 1940 portrayal of Adolph Hitler in "The Great Dictator" and the racially combustible pizza shop of Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do the Right Thing." There's a cartoon montage depicting a brief history of Islam that Issawi credits to the style of Michael Moore's 2002 documentary, "Bowling for Columbine."

"Chaplin's Hitler went from comedy to down-deep sentiment," said Issawi, who dropped out of Alexandria University in Egypt and studied in Chicago before moving to L.A. in 2000. "It took a lot to get the dialogue right in 'American East.' . . . We wanted a story about a struggling immigrant like the Poles or Irish generations ago. But how do you market a movie about Arabs? Nobody likes us after 9/11."

Much of the cast in the film had played terrorists in other movies, including Nashif, who was a Palestinian suicide bomber in "Paradise Now." Conjuring explosive-laden villains with wild eyes and half-shaven faces has become a sometimes reluctant rite of passage for many actors of Arab descent.

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