The first one was The Siege, made before 9-11, about a fictional Iraqi terrorist group and the countries over-reaction to the carnage they cause. Denzel Washington plays a New York based FBI agent and Tony Shalhoub is his Arab- American partner. In the movie – and, I believe, in real life – the terrorist are reacting to what we are doing in the Middle East. In this case, we think the chain of events started when a a secrete American “extraction team” kidnapped a Shiite cleric. Annette Bening – the very same, overwhelmingly attractive, Annette Bening that charmed President Andrew Shepherd – plays a CIA agent who set up a Shiite terrorist operation to oppose Saddam Hussein’s regime that set-up the kidnapping. It wasn’t a great movie.
The second movie was much better. It was the The Reluctant Fundamentalist by the Indian director, Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). The Reluctant Fundamentalist bridges 9-11 and is about a very smart, very secular, Pakistani who is living in New York as a successful management consultant. When 9-11 hits, he goes from being “king of the world” to pariah. Not so much in terms of his friends but in terms of the America he loves.
The last movie was The Past by Asghar Farhadi – the Iranian who directed A Separation, nominated for an Academy Award – and is playing now. It is directed by an Iranian and stars Ali Mosaffa, another Iranian, who has come back to Paris to be divorced by his French wife, played by Bérénice Bejo, but it is not about Muslims, it is about people and it is superb.
A couple of weeks ago, I got in a conversation with a friend about religion. That is not a big surprise, two of my favorite conversation topics are religion and politics and it is two of my friend’s favorites as well. He is – if not a baptised, at least a confirmed – atheist. I knew my friend found all religions troubling, but he surprised me by saying that Islam is the worst by far. That those qualities that make it the worst religion, are built it. As an aside, I would classify myself as pro-religion. I believe in The Wonder, A Divine, Love, but I find it very hard to understand, let alone believe in, an anthropomorphic god. I find it borderline insane that anybody thinks there is a god who created the Universe with its billions of galaxies, of which we are in a tiny corner of one, and then cares about how we have sex; but I also think religion can comfort and can be a force for compassion and good. If pushed, I would say I am an agnostic with Buddhist leanings. End aside.
The first two of these movies touch on what it is to live in a world in which good people, smart people, even compassionate people, think your religion is one of hate and terror. To live with people’s assumption that you are not the same as them at a very basic level. All three movies deal with the deeper question of not completely belonging. Not belonging in the sense of not being accepted. Not because of anything the characters have done, but of not being accepted because of who they are.
At one point in The Past, a friend of Ahmad’s – the Iranian who came back to Paris to be divorced – says You were not made for this place, you do not belong here. And he doesn’t which is why he left his wife and her two kids to go back to Iran. Changez Khan, the reluctant fundamentalist, wants to stay, he is very good at getting rich the American way, but he is driven out by full body searches at airports, stares in restaurants, and the burden of being the other. Agent Frank Haddad in The Siege, wants to quit the FBI when his son is jailed in a round-up of young Muslim men.
These three movies tell the collective story of Muslims between worlds. In a way, it is the classic immigrant story but it is also the story of a minority that has been identified with the enemy. When I read about Bernie Madoff ripping off investors, my first reaction is Oh shit! not another Jew. I am sure that when most Muslims read about some asshole blowing people up at the Boston Marathon, they say something like, Oh shit! not another Muslim, why can’t it be another Timothy McVeigh? In their case, in 2014, the consequences can be much more serious and that makes me feel sad.