By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Being a kid isn’t easy, nor is parenting, and that’s much of what the film Amreeka is all about. Some kids have it worse than others , however. Being a kid in Ramallah, in occupied Palestine, involves more than the relatively trivial irritants of adolescence in America: zits, cliques, bullies, clueless adults and raging hormones. It’s life-threatening. As a result, mothering a boy on the West Bank is terrifying.
Muna has a fifteen year old son. Fadi’s big mouth is going to get him into serious trouble. Muna understands this when he sasses a slow-witted but arrogant Israeli sentry at a roadblock and very nearly gets dragged out of the car. There’s nothing Muna can do but clench the wheel, watch silently—and pray, even though she’s not much into praying. Finally the Israeli decides that this kid isn’t a threat to Israel, not for now anyway, although Muna senses that such experiences repeated could turn him into a stone thrower.
So Fadi’s basically a good kid with a strong sense of justice, but his approaching manhood, along with all the other indignities of life under occupation, is a fearsome prospect for Muna. Once upon a time her commute to her job as a bank officer was a matter of a half hour. Now it takes an hour and half, what with roadblocks—or long detours to avoid them. The route to Fadi’s school is equally problematic, and each checkpoint presents an opportunity for his adolescent mouthiness to get him into terminal trouble.
Off to AmreekaAs for Fadi himself, he's sick of the restricted life he has to lead. He wants to go to America, where Muna’s married sister lives and, by all reports, thrives. Of course, after he gets here, he discovers that being an immigrant kid, especially an Arab, in an American classroom is not a piece of halwah. He blames his mother for dragging him away from home. That’s what kids do. Meanwhile, the Israelis have lucked out: the male population in Palestine has been reduced by one smart kid.
Ironically Fadi gets into trouble in America. He goes after the bigoted thugs who come close to killing his mother in the course of shoving her around while she’s cleaning floors as a Jill of all trades at a White Castle. This is totally inappropriate work for a woman with two university degrees and good English. But it’s typical bottom rung stuff for immigrants, and Muna is pragmatic, even as she salves the family pride by pretending she’s really employed at the bank next door.
All the while, Muna is discovering that life in Amreeka has been especially hard for Middle Easterners since 9/11, even for those who thought themselves well assimilated at the professional level. Muna’s brother-in-law is an MD with an upper middle class life style. Now his patients are deserting him. The budget is busted, and what Muna can contribute from her puny pay at the White Castle doesn't go far. Not that Muna had expected to arrive in Amreeka as a pauper, but her next egg was confiscated by a U.S. customs inspector. She'd hidden the funds in a tabu cookie tin. Enter the USDA as villain.
An Arab's an Arab
There’s another irony. This is a Christian family, but that doesn’t matter. They’re Arabs, so the police are determined to treat Fadi as a terrorist-in-the-making. American police. Israeli soldiers. It’s all the same. Fortunately, there’s a hero who comes to the rescue. Fadi won't be booked and prosecuted. Our hero is the guidance counselor at Fadi’s school, who’s also—are you ready for this?—sweet on Muna. And Muna’s not uninterested. Her husband traded her in for a younger model some years ago.
Lighten up! Amreeka isn’t tragedy. It’s a family comedy, with fine funny moments, as well as seriously scary overtones. What’s more the optimism grows out of real life experiences. Both writer/director Cherien Dabis and producer Christina Piovesan have roots in Jordan and/or Palestine. Both obviously have done well in Amreeka, which doesn’t mean it’s always been easy for them, before or after 9/ll.All in all, Amreeka isn’t saccharine, but it isn’t strychnine either. See it.