These Artists Want You to See What Mideast Women Are Really Like

By Laura Rena Murray

After graduating from the UC Berkeley’s Journalism School in 2000, Sara Maamouri has dedicated her career to working on documentaries about social justice. Frustrated by the portrayals of Arabs in the American media, the Tunisian-American alum decided to start focusing on Arabic films five years ago. One of her latest projects, We Are Not Princesses, directed by Bridgette Augur and edited by Maamouri, will be showcased at San Francisco’s Brava Theater on International Women’s Day.

The film follows four Syrian women from refugee camps in Lebanon who participate in a theater workshop, where they read Sophocles before writing and performing their own stories of families torn asunder by civil war. “Antigone’s story is very similar to the lives these women are leading,” Maamouri said. “Their stories are heartbreaking but they’re also so full of love and funny. It’s impossible not to fall in love with them.”

Maamouri wants to challenge the stereotype that Muslim women are subservient by capturing strong female characters on film. “I’m hoping to surprise people with a new perspective,” she said. “There are definitely problems in the Arab world around women’s issues, but Muslim women can be very strong and courageous.”

The March 8th event, “What Do the Women Say?” is being hosted by Golden Thread Productions, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that’s been highlighting the contributions of Middle Eastern artists since 1996. This year, the organization’s annual event will focus on artistic responses to the Syrian refugee crisis. In addition to We Are Not Princesses, there will be a performance based on interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, live music and Syrian food served up by Reem’s, a local bakery that offers traditional Arab street food.  

“One of the things I was struck by when I watched the documentary film was that a lot of the conversations were happening around food,” said Torange Yeghiazarian, founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions. “If you go to refugee camps, there are mostly women bringing up children and making food, creating home out of nothing. That’s the art of resilience and survival.”

There have been some unanticipated challenges for the event organizers, most notably, the Trump administration’s recent travel bans targeting Muslim-majority countries. One of the Iranian performers was traveling when the first iteration of the ban was announced and Yeghiazarian worried that she wouldn’t be allowed back into the country, despite having a green card. The racism they believe is inherent in Trump’s travel ban is one of many issues Golden Thread Productions believes in tackling head-on with productions like “What Do the Women Say”

“I don’t think people are well-informed here,” Yeghiazarian said. “There’s an inaccurate representation about where terrorism exists. Those countries haven’t committed any acts of terror on U.S. soil in the last 20 years.”

One of the organization’s Armenian board members, Artin Der Minassians, was relieved to become a naturalized citizen right before the travel ban when into effect. He points out that one of the more overt goals of the travel ban is to prevent Syrian refugees from resettling in the United States. “The most powerful nations in the world that contribute to war and destruction [directly and indirectly] now are rejecting the people who are homeless as a result,” he said. He speaks from personal experience, recalling vivid memories of bombs destroying homes and schools while he was growing up in Iran up during its eight year war with Iraq.

“The current rhetoric in the United States is that refugees are potential terrorists, but really refugees are struggling to regain a normal life.”

Der Minassians graduated from UC Berkeley in 2007 with a PhD in electrical engineering and computer sciences and joined Golden Thread three years ago because the mission appealed to him. “These are stories of real people, based on real things,” he said.  Der Minassians hopes “What Do the Women Say?” will challenge the assumptions and personal biases of attendees. “When they hear or see a different opinion, a different point of view,” he continued, “that could challenge their curiosity to go and learn more about it, think more about it and make more intelligent decisions about their thoughts and beliefs.”

Maamouri anticipates We Are Not Princesses will illuminate the everyday challenges of displacement. “We don’t have good frame of reference for what it means to be a refugee,” she said. “The current rhetoric in the United States is that refugees are potential terrorists, but really refugees are struggling to regain a normal life.”

Yeghiazarian hopes that this year’s event will illuminate the plight of millions of Syrian refugees hoping to flee a civil war that’s killed hundreds of thousands so far. She notes that although the United States is the richest country in the world, very few refugees are allowed to resettle here partly as a result of widespread xenophobia perpetuated by inaccurate representations of Middle Eastern refugees as dangerous—something she wants to combat by presenting stories of joy and survival. “The Middle East isn’t just bombed out hills and buildings,” Yeghiazarian said. “It’s important to put a human face to the Middle East. That’s what our work is all about.”

Laura Rena Murray is a San Francisco-based investigative journalist covering public interest and accountability stories.

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