Two Expat Movies: American East and Sabah: A Love Story
Both these movies deal with the clash of Middle Eastern cultures in a western setting, but they’re as different as East and West.
American East has a gritty feel, starting with the opening sequence which shows a post-9/11 terror alert level red indicator. The newsfeed-style background narration places the action in LA, with rumors of a newly uncovered local terrorist plot swirling.
Mustafa and his son Mohammed go to the airport to meet an arriving cousin. Mohammed wanders off and Mustafa, racing through the airport calling out his name, is arrested. After he is questioned and his car is searched, he is released.
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Mustafa is an Egyptian American widower, living with his younger sister and his son and daughter. He’s a businessman with a falafel café and a taxi. The café is falling apart, with a faulty air conditioner and leaking pipes, but Mustafa dreams of opening up a real Middle Eastern restaurant, the finest in LA.
He also feels a duty to see his sister Salwah married, and to reclaim land in Egypt which his father had lost. As Salwah, a nurse, points out to him, he has one foot in America and one foot back in Egypt. He needs to choose.
Mohammed, in typical rebellious adolescent fashion, doesn’t want to be a Muslim. Daughter Leila smokes dope. The café is patronized by a gossipy Iraqi Christian and a bellicose anti-Jewish Muslim Arab, who constantly watches Al Jezeera TV and sees conspiracies everywhere. Omar, the young man who drives his taxi, is an aspiring actor who is tired of playing terrorists and needs to support a newly pregnant fiancée. And Sabir, the cousin who flew in, is there for business – to claim Salwah as his bride and take her back to Egypt to make babies.
Mustafa locates a possible site for the new venture, and shares his plans with a friend, another businessman who has capital to invest. Sam agrees to partner with him in the project. Sam just also happens to be a Jew, whose family business partners don’t trust Muslims.
Stir all these ingredients together and you get a real mess.
I suspect the movie makers had the intention of showing the everyday problems faced by Middle Easterners in the US following the terrorist acts that occurred on September 11, 2001. They certainly portrayed a number of characters with different viewpoints and backgrounds, and showed them all with sympathy and understanding. But the most powerful movies are those where the story makes the statement, and in this movie the makers did too much lecturing.
This movie is worth a watch, but it was ultimately disappointing.
Completely different is Sabah: A Love Story. This film also deals with the Arab community in a Western setting, but on a more intimate scale.
Sabah is a single woman in her early forties who lives with and takes care of her widowed mother in Toronto. Forbidden to work by her domineering brother, who takes responsibility for his mother’s and sister’s finances and spoils his wife with expensive gifts, she lives a dull life, circumscribed by custom and family.
Then Sabah plucks up her courage and steps out of her small circle, sneaking off to swim at the local fitness center. There she meets Stephen after he accidentally snatches up her towel instead of his when he leaves the pool.
Their first meetings are painfully awkward, but their attraction to each other is palpable. Stephen is not a Muslim, but is interested in learning about Sabah’s culture. However, she is afraid to let him too far into her life because of her family’s disapproval.
Then the family is thrown into turmoil when Sabah’s brother admits he’s on the verge of bankruptcy and that he cannot continue supporting Sabah and their mother. In short order, Sabah introduces Stephen to the family, goes to work and marries Stephen.
Sabah was filmed in 2005, post-9/11. Perhaps because it is a Canadian rather than a US film it focuses on the warmth and personality of its characters rather than the grittiness of their lives. The issues of being expats with a foot in each country are the same, but the treatment is completely different. I enjoyed Sabah and would watch it again.
|Buy American East||Buy Sabah: A Love Story|
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