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Rola Nashef: Redefining Arab-American Narratives Through Romantic Comedy

Writer-director-producer Rola Nashef discusses the Arab-American community in Detroit, Arab-American identity and the politics of challenging media stereotypes through romantic comedy.

Sami (EJ Assi) and Najla (Nada Shouhayib)'s courtship takes place in the 'cage' of the gas station. (Photo: Rola Nashef)

What would an Arab-American romantic comedy look like? Look no further than Detroit Unleaded, the story of a first-generation Lebanese-American courtship that revolves around a gas station in Detroit. While in many ways Sami and Najla’s relationship resembles the typical boy-meets-girl story, Detroit Unleaded also explores how the dynamics of the closely knit Arab-American community shape the story of their relationship and the community around them.

Although Detroit Unleaded began as a short film on the Arab-American community in Detroit, popular demand and community support made it become a feature film. On Saturday, it was released to the public on iTunes, On Demand and DVD.

I got a chance to interview the film’s writer, director and producer, Rola Nashef, on the Arab-American community in Detroit, Arab-American identity and the politics of challenging stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans in the media through romantic comedy.

Anna Lekas Miller for Truthout: What inspired you to make this film?

Rola Nashef: I took a break from school and moved from Lansing to Detroit to work for ACCESS, the Arab-American Community Center. It was the first time I had lived in such a concentrated Arab-American community. It was also the first time I saw bulletproof glass in gas stations. I kept seeing these repeat images of Arab guys behind the glass. All of our Arab guy friends seemed to have stories about the gas station. They either worked at a gas station or owned a gas station, and it seemed like a rite of passage for so many Arab men.

I ended up going to film school and this story about a gas station remained stuck in my head. I had no idea what it was, but I felt like the gas station operated as a turnstile where people came in and out of each other’s lives, but the bulletproof glass was a murky barrier that comes between people. I would go to these gas stations to visit my friends and kept seeing these Arab clerks behind the counter. It is a stressful job – as anyone who has ever worked in retail can imagine, but it is also very mundane at times. But what I really observed were a lot of friendships that formed between these Arab clerks and the customers they served – predominantly African-American customers, but also just Detroiters. I knew why the glass existed. I understand that it is because of a history of violence on both sides. But I was more interested in the friendships forged in spite of these barriers.

2014 0305-1aNajla (Nada Shouhayib) meeting Sami from behind the bulletproof glass. (Photo: Rola Nashef)

Also, the gas station is at the center of so many Arab-American families and communities. It is our means and represents upward mobility to the Lebanese-American community, here in Detroit. It is where members of families spend 12 or 14 hours a day, particularly Arab youth. Since it is often a family business, you are kind of forced to be there, but still people create their own world.

In previous interviews, you have discussed the representation of Arabs and Arab-Americans in films, and the desire to see a film with people that look like you. Can you elaborate on this idea?

The Arab image is so polarized. On one hand, we are bombarded with negative imagery of the Arab terrorist or the oppressed Arab woman who hates her family and her religion and rebels against it. Then there is the opposite of these negative stereotypes, which are often a reaction to them. “No! We are very religious; we are very pious! We Obey our parents,” etc.

I have seen characters stuck in this mode of explaining culture and explaining who we are to the audience. This is problematic because it alienates the audience. We go to the movies because we want to be entertained. But it is also a way that we receive culture and information and experience people.

I wanted to present a story that was told through an Arab-American dynamic instead of explaining Arab-American culture. It was my goal to create complex characters on both sides of the glass, seen through an Arab-American perspective. If I can get an audience member to identify with Sami, who is trapped in a job that he doesn’t like – and just happens to be Arab – that audience member is bonding with a person that they have been told is their enemy.

I think it is important to balance our image with more universal experiences. Who hasn’t lied to sneak out of the house to see their crush or been stuck in a job they don’t like?

2014 0305-1bSami (EJ Assi) works behind bulletproof glass. (Photo: Rola Nashef)

I was very intrigued by many of the choices you made in regard to representing Arab-American culture. For example, none of the women is covered; there is very little mention of Lebanon as the characters’ country of origin but more of an emphasis on Arab identity. Also, the use of Arabic – Sami’s mom speaks to him in Arabic, but he responds in English and many of the characters speak in an “Arabglish” hybrid. What made you make these choices?

As Arabs, we are constantly put in boxes. We are forced to carry around virtual identification badges. “Oh, you’re Arab? What is your political stance on 9/11?” Like, what?

I wanted to take all of that away so that we could have a chance to explore the inner world of the characters. I don’t think we are as foreign as we think we are. I think that especially for Americans from Detroit, Los Angeles and New York – areas with concentrated Arab-American populations – the image of Arabs in the media doesn’t match up with their actual experiences with Arabs. Who doesn’t have an Arab friend these days? Who hasn’t had a crush on a Lebanese or an Arab girl or guy?

When you are friends with an Arab-American, you are not sitting there asking them questions about their religion or immigration history all the time. You are talking about boys, going out to the club or just talking about life.

We are talking so much about cultural similarities, but what about cultural differences? In the courtship between Sami and Najla, he tries to kiss her, and she stops him. But it an “American” romantic comedy, she would already be pregnant or something. How was it to express this difference in dating and intimacy within Arab culture in the context of everything else we have been talking about?

This was a really personal thing for me. As an Arab-American woman, so many of my friends and so many of the people in our community understand that dating within our community has always been different. There is so much pressure for us to get married, but also so many restrictions and taboos within our community. I didn’t want it to be a forbidden love film. I wanted it to be about how we find the loopholes to see each other and date “normally.”

When Arabs get together, you are automatically put in this box of “this is marriage potential.” This can make your relationship very unnatural and puts up obstacles to achieving real intimacy with the other person. So the scene where they are both under the counter, where they are both laying there but are separated by a piece of wood – that is what this represents, to me. We, Arab women and Arab men, are expected to be together by our community. They want us to get married and preserve culture. Of course we want to – but we aren’t supposed to date or touch each other or kiss each other; we’re just supposed to get married. So that closeness, along with that separation underneath the counter, was a huge metaphor for me.

2014 0305-1cCustomers in Sami’s (EJ Assi) gas station. (Photo: Rola Nashef)

You talked earlier about some of the interactions in the film – specifically between the Arab-American and the black communities in Detroit. Could you elaborate on this, and how you represented these interactions in the film?

To me, the bulletproof glass represented this barrier that obstructs communication. It physically muffles your voice and distorts your image. It instantly criminalizes people by being there to protect one from the other. When you are behind the glass for 12 hours, you constantly see people through this lens.

In the opening scene with the father, there is no glass – but then he is murdered and the glass goes up. I deliberately left out the identity of the murderer. I did this on purpose because I think in the United States, whenever a crime like this happens – especially an inner-city murder – the only question is, who did it? If it is an Arab guy, he is a terrorist. If it s a black guy, he grew up in a violent, inner-city neighborhood.

No one asks why. If they did, the answer would be much more complex.

How does the Arab-American community, and the stories told in Detroit Unleaded, fit into present-day Detroit?

I like that there are no heroes in Detroit Unleaded. People take one step forward by the end of the film, but only one. I think this is far more realistic in the context of our everyday lives and everyday struggles.

Detroit itself represents so many things in this country. It is such a microcosm of what is happening in the broader scheme of things. It is such a hub of innovation and industry, with such a legacy of art and music, too. What I love about it is that it is one of the most diverse places, with immigrant communities and a huge African-American community.

Regardless of the breakdown of the system, people are empowered here. The breakdown of the system contributes to our innovation and inspires us to create more as people. We tend to take that and turn it around and be inspired instead of letting it bring us down.

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