Neighbors or Enemies? > Living with Hate

Chicago

Widad Albassam

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Director, Arab American Arts Council

The community climate is very depressed. The intifada, 9/11, the Iraq war — it’s too much. The climate is too unsettling. For most people, it’s too much to handle. They’re worried, especially if their legal status is unclear.

There’s a sense of helplessness. Who do we call, for example for legal assistance? People were taken by surprise by special registration. There was a lack of preparedness, problems in getting information translated.

It was like the rug was pulled out from under our feet. People were panic-stricken if their papers were pending or their status was unclear. It was a particular problem for Palestinians with an ID from the Palestinian Authority — should they register or not?

People respond with terror, because they have no legal fallbacks. Even basic issues, like registering their car, they don’t know how to deal with.

In my work, cultural programs experienced a setback. People in the community responded that it was frivolous. They wouldn’t come out, wouldn’t contribute to help fund it. Even with established programs like Women in the Directors Chair, with the war climate people would not go out to see films.

We held back and rethought our programming, focusing on what kinds of programs could help lighten the mood, like Ibda’a.

In the fall we’ll have the Arab Film Festival, I don’t know how to tackle it. Maybe I will insist on going ahead — but the community doesn’t want to see any more. They’re satiated. We get comments, about the Palestine Film Festival, for example: “we see it all on satellite TV, we don’t need to go out to see documentaries.”

At the same time we don’t want to be frivolous and show features that mean nothing — it’s a delicate balance.

We are really up against an incredible challenge. It’s easy to lose our focus. It’s so easy to get off track and feel despondent and helpless, just turning on the news. I’m so shaken up by the difficult conditions, what people are dealing with. Maybe this is what they want. We’re so scared we can’t function.

There is a larger purpose to making me so subdued. I no longer speak Arabic in public.

In order not to give in to depression and fear, I need to remind myself constantly of what we’re doing, how we’re doing, what our purpose is.

I face it all with a lot of difficulty — a big part of me shuns it. I haven’t watched American TV for three months. I don’t have the mettle to be constantly under attack. I rely on the satellite dish, because I thirst to hear my language and also to hear analysis and commentary on the news. I rarely skim the Tribune — I get my news from Ali Abunimah’s list serve.

It’s a big change for me, not to watch American TV, even for entertainment. I don’t have what it takes to be on the front line every minute of every day.