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What's in a Name?

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Section: Arts Geography: Canada Topics: terrorism, racism, film

June 15, 2005

What's in a Name?

An interview with "Being Osama" director Mahmoud Kaabour

This interview originally appeared on Qantara.de.

Despite the positive message of the film and its call for tolerance, its director was made to answer unfriendly questions about his personal political stances.
"Being Osama" is a close observation of the Arab-Canadian community in the aftermath of 9/11, told by six of its members who share the name 'Osama'. In this interview, director Mahmoud Kaabour talks about how 9/11 affected tolerance in Canada.

How did you come up with the unusual concept for "Being Osama"?

Mahmoud Kaabour: Months after 9/11 I was working at video store in Montreal, where my Italian boss not so politely asked me to change my name to Moe. His argument was that an Arabic name was not the best way to charm clientele during that period. My name also happens to be my grandfather's, a renowned violinist who played with the likes of Um Kalthoum, so I was naturally proud of it. I walked out on the job the same day and dozed off in front of the TV. CNN was on, and I think they mentioned the name of Osama Bin Laden like 20 times in ten minutes. I got up from my nap wondering how much more awful it must be to be called "Osama".

A week or so later I advertised in various Montreal classifieds looking for people called Osama. I thought it would be enlightening, entertaining and probably horrific to find out what kind of experiences these people must have had after 9/11. It took a year of research to come across 17 Osamas whom I trimmed down to the six most unique and diverse. I picked my Osamas based on their differences in conviction, looks, and faith. Each challenged an Arab stereotype in a way or another, and the juxtaposition of their realities next to each other seemed to be a good way to challenge the idea of a monolithic Arab experience.

Each Osama also served as a vehicle to discuss an important theme: the Iraqi helped us understand the tribulations of the Iraqi diaspora during the invasion, the Lebanese Osama helped us understand the aftermath of the Lebanese war, the activist Osama shed light on the unfairness of legal system and the clampdown on civil liberties in Canada, and "big " Osama had a charming quest of finding his own identity which just had to be shared.

Canada is often perceived as the friendly, tolerant, cosmopolitan little brother of the US -- however your film is about prejudice and racism and you yourself have experienced hostilities because of your Arab Muslim background. In how far would you say is this image of a tolerant society still valid and in how far does mainstream Canada identify itself with the US after 9/11?

Kaabour: Canada continues to be a more tolerant society, I find. However, 9/11 still had some serious repercussions: Canadians are not so worried from international terrorism, but they've definitely become scared of any negligence that might enable terrorism against the US – keeping in mind of course that the border is open between the two countries. For that, Montreal and other cities witnessed a clampdown on civil liberties of Arabs and Muslims, simply because they are the center of US premonitions. Canada is no longer the 'tolerant' brother but the obedient one that also believed the myth of the 'Arab/Muslim threat'.

In practice, this heightened sensitivity towards Arabs and Muslims translated into a suspicion towards visible Arab clichés: turbans, beards, veils, spoken Arabic and, well...Arabic names! Canada even activated a long forgotten practice called ' security certificates' where an individual can be arrested and detained without any evidence being shared with the detainee or his lawyers! To our surprise, the five people detained on security certificates currently are Muslim Arabs.

And even when "Being Osama" was broadcast, and despite its positive message and its positive portrayal of Canada in the eyes of most of its subjects – it still generated suspicions. I was summoned for a casual "interview" with a few officials who just wanted to make sure that I was "never approached by fanatic Muslims to make films about them in the future…"

Your film is about prejudice and injustice and your protagonists are all, in a sense, "victims". "Being Osama", however, is not an angry film. Were you at one point of the project thinking about making it more emotional and sharp-edged?

Mahmoud Kaabour receiving the "Best Documentary" award at the Canadian National Youth Film Festival.
Kaabour: I didn't want "Being Osama" to be a polemic film. Nor a statistical listing of the atrocities against Arabs. The film is meant to engage and create sympathy. That is why the theme of "backlash" is dealt with early on in the film before the project becomes an observation of the lives of six interesting Arabs whose humanity, quirks, and petty problems will help remind that an Arab is much more than a simple political caricature.

Did the Arab migrant community in Canada and non-Arab Canadians view your film differently? What was the different kind of feedback like? Was there a "public interest" for such an unusual theme?

Kaabour: "Being Osama" was equally acclaimed by both Arab and non-Arab Canadians. Arabs felt vindicated to finally have a voice on network television, a film about them and, in a way, by them about how they are often wrongly perceived after 9/11. Non-Arabs seemed so appreciative of being allowed into the intimate world of the Arab community.

I toured with the film in high schools and colleges and it was touching to listen to students compare their perceptions of Arabs prior and post watching the film.

Unfortunately the film did not hit a similar chord with Canadian authorities. Despite the positive message of the film and its call for tolerance, some officials were concerned that the film might be giving voice to Muslims. I was made to answer unfriendly questions about my personal political stances vis-à-vis terrorism and the West. Also one of the Osamas was hassled and interviewed quite a few times about his convictions and his religiosity. That was really frustrating to me and a further proof that Islamophobia was prevalent in the country.

A few weeks before the unofficial interrogations took place, Immigration officials refused to facilitate a trip I was invited to make to Harvard University to speak about my film in connection to civil liberties post 9/11. Given I was not a Canadian citizen, immigration officials threatened that I will face difficulties returning to the country if I go to Harvard, despite how welcoming the Americans were of me and the stealth in which they issued my entry visa.

The story made headlines across Canada but alas that didn't change the hearts of immigration officials. I ended up scraping the trip and joined my audience at Harvard by phone.

The tight grip that officials in Canada were placing on this film got me feeling so unwelcome. I had been waiting for my Canadian residency for four years at that point, and had been living in Canada for seven years as a stranger. That was my cue to leave. I abandoned my Canadian dream and joined my parents in Dubai after a seven year absence. I live in Dubai for three weeks now and am intensifying my efforts to bring "Being Osama" to people all around the world.

Born in Lebanon in 1979, Mahmoud Kaabour directed his first film at the age of seventeen. In Canada, he studied film production at Concordia University, Montreal. "Being Osama" is his first film.

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