Let's talk about sex! Palestinian American filmmaker touches on taboo topics
Suha Araj on set one of her films. (Image: Facebook)
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It is not easy to talk about sex in any community and that could not be more true for the Arab and Arab-American one. So when the characters in the short film The Cup Reader openly grappled with the regulation of sex and virginity to the cascading laughter of a diverse audience at the DC Palestinian Film Festival, I was intrigued about the filmmaker.
Suha Araj is a young Palestinian American woman who grew up in Ohio and now lives in New York via San Francisco. Her work explores the displacement of immigrant communities and her passion lies in bridging cultures.
The Cup Reader had its world premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival 2013 and won the Next Great Filmmaker Award at the Berkshire International Film Festival and second prize in the Baghdad International Film Festival. Her latest feature script, The Khsara Club, explores the humour created from the contrast of cultural expectations. For seven years she was part of the film selection committee of the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco and has also served on the LunaFest Board of Advisors.
Her short film I am Palestine screened at festivals internationally and is used as an educational tool. She served as a story advisor to the Sundance selection Slingshot HipHop produced the narrative short Fruition and recently directed narrative short Running With Sharks in NYC. Installation art (Displacement, Inshallah Falasteen, Buried in Michigan) and acting (Chocolate in Heat, Suitcase) have inspired her storytelling in new mediums. She is a cofounder of DivineCaroline.com, a publishing platform for women to tell their stories and is currently a teaching artist with the TriBeCa Institute in New York City.
This interview was originally recorded in a restaurant in the East Village, over french fries and next to a table of bored children watching their mothers trying to take a break from them. The interview was transcribed by Nusayba Hammad, Associate Producer of Jad For Reel podcast.
Noura Erakat (NE): Your film The Cup Reader is about women. It’s also about Palestine, but you can’t really tell that the film is set in Palestine. Can you tell us why it seems to focus on Palestine and yet that fact is deliberately obscure?
Suha Araj (SA): Because to me there is a universal story and I didn’t want to create any judgment based on location. I wanted it to be about the characters and their stories. And I think that Palestine is a very Mediterranean culture so we could’ve been in Greece or we could have been in Italy -- and for me, if an audience sees Italy in that, that’s a good thing. Because at the end of the day it’s just people living their lives and that’s the part of Palestine that we never get to see so I wanted to take that factor away.
NE: The first scene is about a shamed woman leaving her husband the night after the wedding, and then the last scene is about the same woman providing the means to avoid that same fate. Why this focus on virginity in the way that you’ve done it in the film?
SA: It didn’t start from a place of virginity, it started from a place of solidarity, of the women looking for out for each other and I feel that we come from a society where everyone’s ready to talk about the next person, especially in village life. And I feel that there’s also a real kindness and a real looking out for one another and so I think what Wardi, the main character, went through - and we don’t actually know why she was shamed, if it was her choice to leave or if she orchestrated that or not, we don’t know - but I think the reason she’s protecting this girl, she’s protecting her from the judgment that society placed on her, and she’s giving her the choice she didn’t have.
NE: So is it about choices?
SA: I think so. And I think for me, about choices we didn’t have, I think about my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and what sort of choices they had and what kind of life I’ve been afforded, and the way I get to dream and create is not something they could have ever thought to do. I mean there weren’t choices for women and it’s still a luxury, so I think for Wardi to give her (Gina) that choice, to protect her, is her being unexpected in her role, is her maybe going outside of society’s expectations because she’s always been an outsider.
NE: This is part of a larger project for you.
SA: So this film is a prelude to a feature film that I’ve been working on for some time, and The Cup Reader takes place five years before the feature, which is called Khsaara, it’s called the Khsara Club -- its about Arab women who don’t get married in time. So the premise of the film is that, the word khsara in Arabic means “what a waste” or “what a shame,” and it could be referred to fruit that’s gone rotten or a glass of wine that’s spilled or just something unfulfilled and wasted.
And I feel that I’ve heard that word refer to women who are otherwise accomplished, beautiful, educated, professional, potentially even just kicking ass in whatever their field is, and then to hear the word that they’re a waste always felt like a contradiction to me and I wanted to explore that and that’s where this film idea was born, in that why is it that you need to be married to validate you. And some of the most interesting women I know, I think a lot of us live between different cultures. We live in one world, maybe the Arab world and maybe the Western world, and not just Arab but all Latin, all sorts of other ethnicities, and I feel that we struggle between the old world and new world ideas, and I feel that the most interesting women I know, you gotta come to terms with who you are when you live in different worlds.
And some of us are lucky enough to find someone that meets us where we are when we find ourselves, or grows with us, but I feel like when you grow up in one world it’s much clearer who you are and what your path is. And when you grow up in different worlds it’s not as defined. And I feel like for the women of this film, that’s kind of the unique texture of it. For me, this is about people who live between different worlds, different old and new paradigms of what expectations are, and learning to navigate that. And just for you, and then how do you create a life partner?
And I think as a woman from an old world culture once you’ve broken out of tradition in some way, going back is harder. I think tradition generally favours men, and it’s easier for them to break out and live for ten years in the United States and do their thing and then go back and live a traditional life. And I think it’s more rare for women to be afforded that luxury. And that’s what Gina is to me in The Cup Reader.
NE: Why is that? What about Gina for the viewer who hasn’t seen the film?
SA: Gina is an accomplished professional who did her master's abroad, worked abroad, and because she loves Palestine, because she loves her country, because she feels that she can contribute, she comes back. And the way for her to come back and live without too much complication is to get married. And so she kind of goes for someone that isn’t really a match for her but she knows she can live in a certain way. And she knows in her heart that it doesn’t work for her, and that’s why she runs to the cup reader in her wedding dress to know about her fate, when she already knows. She also loved one when she was living abroad, but she gave that up to pursue what she thought she needed to pursue: a career, going back to Palestine. She didn’t understand how he could fit in her world there. And this is all the backstory of Gina, which is relevant to the feature.
NE: I was just going to ask you, is Gina in the feature?
SA: She is divorced in the feature. That’s a preview.
NE: You used your short as a flashback.
SA: It’s a prelude. So it’s like the main character is actually the American cousin, and the feature takes place mainly in San Francisco in an Arab American context but also twenty percent of it is in Palestine, so we go into both worlds. I think where modern meets traditional is not where you expect it because a lot of the traditions are very alive and well outside of Palestine while people have held onto the year that they immigrated, while meantime things might have moved on. Where Gina might be living a much more modern life than Nisreen is living in San Francisco. And so the film kind of interweaves some of those.
NE: You do this very well, where the Arab Americans in your film are self-deprecating. Was that conscious on your part? Because a lot of Arab Americans, when they say go to the old country, whether they intend it or not have a level of superiority that they have something to teach or to give, you know. You come from something you want to offer, this is like the inherent dynamic between states but also this cultural norms and yet you spin that on its head by taking a critical look at Arab Americans who “return” home.
SA: I was really going for the humourous aspect of times where yeah we think we know more because we’re living in the United States, but we go back and we don’t know anything about there. We want things to happen quickly and we want things to move and I feel like when you’re back home you have to resign yourself to the way things work there. You can come up with new ideas about how things should work all day long, but they’ve been working like that for hundreds of years and who are we to come in, having lived outside, to place any form of judgment? I mean they’re doing it too when they come here, right? It’s not necessarily against Arab Americans but my role as a filmmaker I feel is to find the humour, to find the moments, to find the human moments that anyone can relate to and anyone has been through, and I feel like that’s what’s going to connect us. So it’s funny that her getting her hair done like that – that was the direct reaction to something I went through – when I was...
NE: We’ve all been through that.
SA: Yeah! When I’m getting ready for a wedding and my head’s back for an hour and I don’t know what they’re doing to me and I look up and I don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before. And my cousins who live there, they know what’s coming! I don’t know what’s coming and so the way I react to that is going to be very different than the way they react. My reaction was to go home, wash my face and take down my hair so that I could feel like myself at this wedding and maybe it’s more beautiful that they think – to be all dolled up was very uncomfortable to me. Gina would be comfortable in that look maybe more than her cousin, who has never had that makeup cumulatively in her life.
NE: But the funniest thing about Nisreen was her language. She didn’t have language.
SA: Yes and it’s embarrassing, I think you know - I don’t read or write Arabic and when I live in this country I feel very Palestinian. It’s my lens into the world and then when I go to Palestine I realise how American I am. And it’s always been an identity crisis for me and I think for a lot of us that live on the outside, and that were born on the outside. And I think what I realise through my first film I Am Palestine was that, because I was really exploring what it means to be Palestinian while Palestine doesn’t exist on a map, and what does that do to your identity. And what I learned was that the people on the inside, they’re not thinking about their identity, they know exactly who they are. They just want a chance to live, they want to be free, it’s not complicated at all. And I think for us on the outside it is complicated, it’s a different thing, it’s a different complication. They know who they are. They’re very, very clear on that.
I think for me, growing up as a Palestinian in Ohio, it took me a long time to understand who I was and which elements of which culture I wanted to hold onto. I resisted learning Arabic as a kid and now it’s one of my biggest regrets, not having that language be strong because then I feel like then maybe I don’t have the credibility there to express myself in a certain way. I think my way of thinking, my mannerisms, are very Arab, I’ve been told I’m very Arab, but I don’t always have the language to match and I wanted to highlight that in The Cup Reader with Nisreen in a way – the “my salami” line, when she’s trying to say “maa il salameh” - that was the biggest laugh from the American audiences, because they could connect with that, they could connect with being… and then another friend of mine saw the film and was like ‘that American character really bothers me…because that’s me when I go into another culture, it bothered me to see me like that.’
That was interesting for me because Nisreen is doing it very innocently; she was being herself. Maybe later we try to protect ourselves and hide, she was just being herself, not knowing she was embarrassing herself you know. I don’t know which is better, to know or not know. But either way when you come into a different culture you need to be humble and respect it.
NE: A piece of your motivation, aside from being the artist that you are, is the question of Palestine and the story of Palestine. Why is that a motivation and how do you feel that shapes your work?
SA: When you’re Palestinian, you’re Palestinian every single day. There’s no, you know, you can disconnect from it a little bit but it’s always in you and I think it defines the way you see the world, it defines how you interact with people, it defines how people react to you, and I feel like taking all of that in and creating something out of it, is something I can’t avoid. And I think that to me, I started by wanting to – every conversation I had was about educating and telling the history of Palestine and all of this and really trying to explain to people what happened to us and how we got here and what we lost and the tragedies we’ve endured, and I found that to be really exhausting on a one-on-one basis. And I think with my art I got to a point where I just want to tell a story.
And it happens to be in a Palestinian context, and the characters happen to be Palestinian, but that is not who they are. And the art that I enjoy the most really leads with story and I feel that that’s what I want to do. And so for me, if someone can watch my films or see my work and just engage with the characters, and then as secondary, see them as Palestinian, maybe they’ll see a different light of who we are. I’ve always felt that way, where someone tells me ‘you don’t seem Palestinian’ or ‘you don’t look Palestinian’ and I’m like ‘what the hell does that mean, what do you think we are?’
And so, I’m not trying to do a public relations campaign, I’m just trying to be like ‘hey, think twice about what you think other people are.’ And I think I’m guilty of it with other cultures, I’ve been the target of it…I think to me the work is always about connecting cultures and crossing those boundaries and that’s what art has the ability to do because I feel like you’re disarmed and to me, that’s why I’m doing comedy.
NE: So how long do we have to wait to see your feature?
SA: So now are raising the financing for Khsaara and we are looking for partners who can invest. It’s been developed with the Sundance Lab, with RAWI, Torino Film Lab, Dubai, the Berlinalay, Tribeca, IFP- we’ve gotten a lot of support in the development process. I’ve been working on it for four years now and I feel ready to make the film. So hopefully after Dubai we’ll be ready to start pre-production.
A longer version of this article was originally published in Jadaliyya.