Open Letter to Abbas Rattani, Creator of ‘Somewhere in America.’

Open Letter to Abbas Rattani, Creator of ‘Somewhere in America.’

Author: unknown (if anyone knows the source, let me know!)

3 Dec

Asalaamu’Alaikum Mr. Rattani,

I viewed your production: ‘Somewhere in America,’ fortunately, while my seven year old daughter was already tucked in for the night. I read a hashtag underneath the post which advertised it as a creative work which dispels stereotypes about Muslim women. I eagerly clicked on the link and saw images of girls juxtaposed to lyrics which inspired the title of the production. If you were going for shock and awe, it worked. I heard the ‘N-word’ ring out and a command to perform a sexually provocative dance move while a young lady in hijab lifted her hand to her head and jutted out her hip for the camera. Your short film did a pretty thorough job of objectifying women to the tune of “twerk, twerk.” Apparently, the misogynistic lyrics so inspired the film, that you even borrowed the song’s title for your video.

Originally, the only positive comments for the production I ran across were bland, lacking any strain of analysis, including adjectives like “cool,” “dope,” “great,” which makes it hard for a skeptic like me to understand the artistic value.

Later blog post came out defending the film, imbuing it with a variety of noble qualities. I’m perplexed that we are reading any meaning into it at all beyond what it invites. Some commentators appear to be scrambling, trying to attach a redeeming value that your film doesn’t ask us to derive. It is what it is. Now that the conversation has started we are spinning it into another hemisphere, inside of a context that is out of place and quite bizarre.

I clicked on the biographical information of the creator, and to my horror saw the figure of a pseudo-celebrity, that is you, who I had reported a year earlier for misconduct involving a female participant at a MIST competition at the University of Maryland. I was in attendance as a judge for the debate and original oratory competitions, and in between events I accompanied my son to see the short film competition over which you presided.

You are not a person easily forgotten. You have a sharp wit, making people laugh, particularly while poking fun at their own expense. Up there on the stage you were in rare form, overtly aware that all these high school student were on high alert, at the edge of their seats, seeking your approval. In that way, you reminded me of my high school Latin teacher. He managed to be the coolest kid on campus, despite his thirty-some years and receding hair line. What he said was gospel, and the more sardonic his speech, the more we soaked it up, even choosing to spend our lunch break in his double-wide portable classroom-trailer instead of hanging out with our peers in the cafeteria. It seems odd to me looking back, but his cool-ness factor gave him an immortal edge- trumping any religious truth or moral value that had ever been ingrained in me.

Men like that have a particular influence with young, impressionable women; especially women subconsciously looking to have their self-worth validated. Once upon a time, I was one of those women; I think I would have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge to get a head nod from my Latin teacher at one point. I eventually wised up near the end of my senior year and tossed him overboard in my mind.

But back to my first impression of you that day. At one point in the production, a teenage girl competitor stood up and made her way down the aisle. It was her long-awaited turn to unveil to you the creativity of her work- a moment that she was surely greeting with tinges of thrill, hesitation,and anxiety. As she walked closer, you tilted your head, widened your gaze and commented very audibly on how attractive she was, walking up to the stage. Promptly the high school boys vociferously responded with an “OOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” Many upheld clenched fists corked against their lips, letting the deep, booming sounds escape, and then rounded it by outbreaks of laughter.

The high school girl, probably no older than 16, seemingly put off by the sudden onslaught of gawking and ogling, naturally hesitated a moment before proceeding to stand in the verdict square on the left side of the room where all of the other contestants perched. There she waited to find out whether, to your standards, she was both hot and talented at the same time.

My heart beat rapidly. I looked around to realize that besides our co-panelist, I was the only other adult in the room. I then saw my 11 year old son coming near me. He had taken a seat in an aisle chair and was now making his way back to tell me something. He whispered in my ear: “Mama, why did he say that? Isn’t he a Muslim? How can he talk like that?” Really, I wish you could have seen the expression on his face. It was so otherworldly. It made me loathe you and hate myself for having flinched, instead of abruptly standing up to sharply call you out for the injury.

Why didn’t I stand up and speak out? I’m not exactly a wall flower. Three years of law school and then working in the profession, certainly turned me into an adversarial junkie. Maybe it was because I have not fully dealt with all of the knives in my own closet. Hearing comments like yours takes me back and stills me.

You looked really thrilled by your own performance in the face of that young woman, and wore this sheepish expression on your face when the young men responded, like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. You earned another laugh, which you seemed to enjoy.

I want you to consider it from another perspective. I want you to know that it takes a long time for a girl to get over creepy comments and actions. I know. I can’t forget my own monsters even though I’m all grown up with kids of my own, and a daughter to raise.

Mr. Rattani, I promptly reported you to two MIST officials who were naturally aghast, ashamed that a judge would attempt to usurp this competition to render such a hideous impromptu performance. It is my understanding that you won’t be invited back to MIST. For that, I am truly thankful.

Later in the day an overwhelming sense of guilt and my better judgment persuaded me to approach the young lady who was the captive in your thrill-seeking. I told her that I felt very bad about what had happened and that I had reported your misconduct. I told her that she had not done anything wrong, that it was younot her, who had done something very immoral. She tried to explain it as your way, your sense of humor. But she wasn’t laughing at all. She thanked me. Then, she told me that she felt shy and in so many words that it was an intimidating moment. The saddest part was when she told me she was sorry, though I reassured her that you were to blame. Victims too often feel a need to apologize, in this way; she’s no different.

I felt even more remorseful for not having stood up. I could have helped to make it a different memory for her. Now, she will only look back on it for what it was…her alone in the corner, the sound of rumbling, the shock, and the beating of her own heart. I hope she will fully realize that you were a jerk and she was innocent. I hope she will grow into a woman with the firm knowledge that empowerment never comes from one’s ability to arouse a man’s sexual desire and attention, and any man who tries to indicate otherwise needs a swift kick good-bye.

Back to your “Somewhere in America,” production. I understand that the song is intended to be about racism, but I just don’t buy the professed message of the video. On its face it is a collection of models (as the credits state). They are Muslim ladies, vacillating between giggles and introspective gazes for the camera. In the film they are fixated on taking self-portraits in various poses, laid out in the back of a trunk, one woman can’t manage to chop wood because she’s trying to manage a glamour shot and wield an ax simultaneously in the woods. The only powerful, persuasive images are of the fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammed. In fact, she contrasted so much with the prior scenes that I found it startling. I imagined the rest of them operating under a layer of total confusion and disintegration which had so clearly paralyzed their otherwise beautiful complexity and grace.

The film’s overtones are so blatant and would be clearly delineated by the average college freshman guy, regardless of the professed social message. In the real world, I mean, not the theoretical daintiness of cafe conversations. It’s just more of the same and proof that in and of itself hijab is not a protection. It’s the one drawing that hijab…it’s in her uncompromising determination and unapologetic attitude. And yes, occasionally she will have to ‘stick it to the man’ when he lays claim, or professes a special ability to bring out her true self.

I pray that this depiction does not become the norm and the dominant narrative. I’m so grateful that this wasn’t on the scene in my early days. I don’t think the message would have resonated well with me, as the reason I embraced hijab is partly because I saw it as a solution to the type of objectification, (i.e. girl laid out in the back of a trunk), which the film displays. In the hyper-materialism which has grown even sharper fangs nowadays, I can see where the allure for young girls would be strong, plus at the end of the day, they get your approval. They may numb their distant hesitations with your incessant praise. They will let you create such messages in their image for the ultimate prize of being self-proclaimed ‘trail-blazers,’ ‘hipsters,’ ‘cool girls.’ In this regard, public disapproval only makes their trail blazing, awesome-girl status rise.

As a Muslim and as a mother of a daughter, your creation of this myth, and your agitation in the otherwise upward mobility of a young women’s development and character-building is something to behold with scorn and fury. The fact that you posture yourself as an activist, an artist bent on de-mystifying and breaking down stereotypes, is frightening because it makes criticism of your efforts an up-hill battle. You have seemingly created the perfect lair around yourself. It’s then not surprising that when Sana Saeed dared to tweet criticism about your work, she was received with bitter scorn, and riddled with a barrage of insults, namely: ’a hater,’ ’catty,’ ‘jealous,’, ‘emotional’, ‘judgmental’ and, my favourite one, a ‘feminazi with a political agenda.’

She gave a thoughtful analysis of your work. I especially liked her quote:

“What we as Muslim women don’t need in trying to own our spaces in our small and large communities is the use of our image for the purposes of fixing our image. More specifically: we don’t need to use a (“positive”) superficial representation of us to combat other (“negative”) superficial representations. The reason why stereotypes are oppressive and hurtful is that they dilute the diversity and power of our individual experiences by employing caricatures and images that do not allow, to any extent, for depth. The formula for creating stereotypes, mainstream tropes of assimilation and ’good’ vs ‘bad’ should not be our formula for fighting against those very things. So, we need more than our image. We need us.”

I consider, Mr. Rattani, that you have a completely myopic view towards facilitating a true narrative that celebrates the fascinating diversity of my sisters and me. You fancy yourself an activist and an academic, but really you’re the kind of guy who tells a high school girl how attractive she is and lets other boys jeer.

Oh yes, Mr. Rattani, I have a sharp tongue without 70 excuses to bear. I have the incensed heart of a mother who is trying to raise an impressionable daughter. She’s in my total embrace right now, but I know that one day I’ll have to let her meet more of the world, and with it, more men like yourself. I hope and pray that if she is ever faced with a crises such as what that high school girl faced, that she will have the grit, and enough ownership over her truth, to unflinchingly respond, and refuse to budge until you have been commanded out of the spot light.

God willing.