Montreal’s Arab community took center stage on Place-des-Arts’ esplanade this week with the launch of the eighth edition of Le Festival Arabe du Monde. Filled with tents, the path made way for intriguing photography, beautiful artistry and stunning crafts.
But inside Café de la Medina, festival organizers dispelled with glamour and presented its audience with one of the most genuine and raw takes on the reality faced by members of the Arab community post-9/11. This past Friday, Concordia graduate Hala Alsalman presented her film, Stuck between Iraq and a Hard Place.
The film follows Alsalman’s brother Narcy, an Iraqi hip-hop artist seeking to translate through his music the prejudice North America’s Arab community has faced since 2001. Formerly of the group Euphrates, Narcy made the transition from band member to solo artist following the death of one of his band mates, Nofy Fannan. A Montrealer, Narcy, whose stage name is The Narcisyst, has toured North America, Europe and the Middle East, hoping to combat negative stereotypes.
During the final moments of the film, Narcy himself says he does not want to be the voice of Iraq, but rather the voice of what he wants Iraq to be. Alsalman’s film made no attempt to draw remorseful compassion from its audience, but aimed at opening the eyes of spectators to change, just like her brother does through his music – perhaps the reason the two work so well together.
Hala and her brother immigrated to Quebec from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1987 for security reasons. Her father having fled Iraq during the 1970’s in fear that the Baath party would pummel Iraq, his family eventually moved to the UAE, but Hala’s father still didn’t feel secure.
“Even though we were away from Iraq, the Baath Party was always near: renewing our Iraqi passports at the Embassy was a nightmare because officials began to become more and more ‘insistent’ that he join the party overseas and basically become a spy,” recounted Hala. Their father eventually packed his bags and brought his family to Canada. Her father never envisioned Iraq being in a worse situation than it is right now. “He never thought it would get as bad as it is now.” Hala’s experience in the province has been a rewarding one, but life in both Quebec and the Middle East has propelled her into a world of different cultures. Although their busy schedules have often kept Hala and Narcy apart, the two carry on with their collaborations. Her friendship with her brother has helped her creatively as the two work together to artistically express both their passions and concerns. Hala feels the arts are an effective way of getting any kind of message through, which is why she is dedicating herself to filmmaking and graphic design.
In her film, Alsalman not only highlights the hardships of being an Arab in North America, but also emphasizes the difficulty Narcy faces as a rapper.
“It is a very bizarre time for Arab artists because, either people will think of them as terrorists or they will think of them as very interesting,” said the Communications graduate during a Q&A following her presentation. During the opening moments of the short film, Narcy, casually sitting in a metro car, was asked what was harder, being a rapper or being an Arab. He answered with a smile: “Being an Arab is hard and being a rapper is hard.”
A graduate in political science, it’s no surprise that Narcy’s music steers itself towards politics and activism. Being of Arab descent adds to the inspiration. “I would have to say that 99 per cent of Iraqis are innately politicized!” says Hala.
Like so many hip-hop artists before him, Narcy has been asked to dumb-down the politicized side of his lyrics, but he refuses to sell out. Narcy perseveres in his goal of promoting peace, and has done so through performing around Canada and the United States with members of other communities, including the Jewish community. Hala nonetheless stresses the fact that not all Arab rappers promote peace, and that some do in fact endorse war and Jihad.
Like her brother, Alsalman believes her people are fighting against unjust perceptions of their entire culture. Building on her experiences as a video journalist for Reuters in the Middle East, the Iraqi-native has immersed herself in the world of documentary filmmaking in order to exonerate the belief that Arabs and Muslims are a forceful, evil-doing people.
Alsalman thinks this will take time, however. “We have a lot of obstacles to overcome. We are always portrayed as terrorists and evil-doers. When a person hears the word Muslim, they immediately think the women are oppressed and that the religion is domineering.”
This misconception often leads to profiling, something Narcy has been a victim of since the 2001 terrorist attacks. After being invited to perform at a U.S. university, Narcy made his way towards the border with his crew members where he was stopped upon presenting his passport. Hala believes that it is because of his foreign name that the artist was strip-searched, interrogated for an hour and eventually let go, but not before he missed his bus.
Racial profiling is not restricted to North America however. Hala herself has been profiled in Egypt, where she and a group of Iraqis were huddled in a specific area at an airport because of their nationality. Hala is grateful that she has not been discriminated against in Quebec, but says that this may not have been the case had she been wearing a veil.
With the “reasonable accommodation” hearings heating up in Quebec, the question of profiling was difficult to avoid. A Tunisian audience member, who declined to leave a name, emphasized the fact that, despite his three degrees, which included one in journalism, he was unable to find a job in the province.
Alsalman herself felt that employers can sometimes be unfair when they see an Arab name at the top of a job application. Nevertheless, the filmmaker did not want to take away from the fact that many Arabs and Muslims have managed flourish in North America.
Looking for daylight
The downtown esplanade seemed more like a ghost town than a space on which a festival was taking place, a sore sight for organizers who were hoping to see more of an interest. The handful of people who did turn out for Alsalman’s presentation were extremely pleased.
Sarit Farahmand, a native of Iran who withstood the blinding cold inside the tent, especially appreciated the way in which Narcy and Alsalman conveyed their message. “I think it is very effective to use hip-hop or any kind of music as a platform to promote peace and I think that is what’s great about what Hala is doing here tonight.”
The war in Iraq has drawn considerable dismay all around the world and artists are using film and music to promote a revolutionized view of the world we live in today. Organizers of the festival are just hoping that despite the cold days ahead, more people will turn up to witness an exceptional experience.