Building on New Foundations > New Strategies, New Organizations

Chicago

Widad Albassam

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Director, Arab American Arts Council

Our community does not really know how to work with mainstream institutions —museums, the historical society, the school of music. We don’t know how to approach them, because we don’t have our own institutions, whether cultural or social services.

Economics plays a big role. People don’t have time to explore; they are focused on survival, earning an income, paying their bills. There is less time to get involved in the school. Even education professionals often try too hard to disappear into the American fabric.

It erodes one’s own sense of pride in one’s heritage. There are only a few of us doing this work, and we’re all going against the tide. We’re constantly reminding, prodding, awakening. We are constantly starting over, always reactive, not pro-active.

As a community we are not cohesive. There have been many attempts at coalition building, through peace work, or to look for opportunities to collaborate rather than duplicating each other’s efforts, for example in providing social services for women or networking for referrals. Or just to coordinate schedules.

Work does go on through professional associations for Arab Americans; there are medical, bar, business, and engineering associations for professionals and more educated people, but there’s no clear work plan. The mission is more social, to organize picnics. The Lebanese club is one of the most organized, they do excellent work for the community. They sponsor cultural outings, for example to museums or ski trips, or provide classes on investment.

There is little financial support for projects like the Palestine film festival. People are afraid to support the film festival because it is “political”; there is no recognition that art needs its own space. The Arab Arts Council is less interested in programming for our community, more interested in using it as a vehicle to educate the white American general public, to highlight our heritage to an American audience.

We’ve also been affected by all the cuts in cultural funding. We haven’t been able to get grants. We’ve tried for small grants for classes on Middle Eastern musical instruments, Arabic language classes. We’re still trying, although we have had no success so far.

We’re working on cultivating relationships with museums but there have been a lot of cutbacks — twelve people were laid off at the Museum of Contemporary Art last month.

They did a video project on “war, what is it good for?” It included a Jewish video petition project that evoked a lot of pressures and harassment. It was an installation of continuously running videos; Jewish students at art school interviewed up to 1000 people and asked them to express their concerns through one-minute interviews. Many expressed an anti-occupation viewpoint.

I couldn’t believe the fuss about it. I heard that a volunteer and a staff person began lobbying the Board ... for three weeks they were pounded with phone calls and meetings about why they should not be showing this. They had to include an Israeli government video, sponsored by the consulate, for “balance.”

It reinforced all my feelings that the Palestine film festival must continue and that we must have control over it. I was in doubt about whether to continue, it’s a huge investment of time and energy. Focusing on the film festival leaves no time to focus on other programming.

What keeps us going? People live under occupation day in and day out. They are fighting for survival, for running water, to provide breakfast for their children. What is our contribution to the resistance? Here we are in comfortable, safe, secure conditions, living a normal everyday life.

The film festival is our form of resistance. We fundraise to program especially because the material is not shown on American TV. People need to see the documentaries. People in our community like features, but they really turn out for documentaries, films about Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish. That sense of unity brings people out.

Film-making is thriving because of the conditions — more films are coming out than ever, even though Palestinian filmmakers are working under impossible conditions.