Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2012, Pages 32-33

Southern California Chronicle

Tarzan and Arab See Their First Movie Show At Austin's Alamo Drafthouse Ritz

By Pat and Samir Twair

altGaza artists and filmmakers Tarzan (l) and Arab Abu Nasser. (Staff photo S. Twair)

Difficult as it may be for an Angeleno to grasp, there are award-winning artists and filmmakers who have never been able to visit an art gallery or movie theater—or even view their exhibitions or accept prizes awarded them.

This is the confinement to which twins Ahmed (Tarzan) and Mohamed (Arab) Abu Nasser are subjected in their hometown of Gaza City. In March, Israel refused to allow them to travel to London, where their war movie posters were exhibited in London's Mosaic Rooms gallery. In May they were prevented from attending the Cannes Film Festival, where their short film "Colorful Journey," earned a positive response. Israel even banned them from traveling to the West Bank city of Ramallah to pick up first prize at an A.M. Qattan Foundation film competition.

In August, Britain's Guardian newspaper wrote about the brothers' determination to create movies despite the challenges of living under such draconian restrictions. The article and photo of the twins editing and producing films in their one-room rooftop sleeping quarters/studio captured the imagination of Henry Mazza, chief creative officer of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, headquartered in Austin, TX.

Mazza wanted the twins to attend the Alamo Drafthouse's annual Fantastic Festival in September. Herculean tasks lay ahead before the twins could exit Gaza—let alone enter the U.S.

A limited knowledge of English and lack of travel documents didn't discourage the twins, who had a paid invitation to the U.S. When a window of opportunity opened in late September to exit through the Rafah gate, the brothers made a beeline for Cairo, where they left their papers with the American Embassy.

That's when their troubles began. Visas were not forthcoming to the long-haired, bearded twins who wear beads and necklaces, jeans, athletic shoes and might be described by your grandmother as hippie terrorists. As their money dwindled, they increasingly stayed indoors, marking their 24th birthday alone in a Cairo hotel.

Thanks to a congressman who answered the pleas of Alamo Drafthouse, the twins' visa finally was expedited, and on Oct. 20 they arrived in Austin. Six days later their dream came true when they saw their first full-length film on a giant screen of the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. It also marked the U.S. premiere of their six-minute-long "Colorful Journey."

Texans quickly came under the spell of the twins' charisma. Within minutes of meeting these free spirits it is clear that they were nurtured in a creative environment. Their father, a school headmaster who painted in his spare time, encouraged his sons, who as toddlers he nicknamed Tarzan and Arab, to experiment in every artistic medium.

Gaza City's last remaining film theater was blown up during the first intifada, two years before the boys were born, but they loved to watch DVDs on the family TV. As youngsters, they sneaked into the theater's ruins and gazed at film posters moldering on the crumbling lobby walls. They decided to create their own film posters, naming them after Israeli military operations: "Operation Cast Lead," "Defensive Shield," "Summer Rain." In all, they created 20 faux war movie posters.

In 2010, the two graduated from Al-Aqsa University, Tarzan with a degree in fine arts and theater, Arab in fine arts and painting. They then began creating "Colorful Journey," which depicts two men in combat gear facing one another—symbolizing the insanity of brothers (Hamas and Fatah) killing each other as an enemy helicopter hovers overhead.

Commented Los Angeles-based screenwriter Elana Golden: "'Colorful Journey' offers brilliant imagery that carries out an indelible message: Every war is a civil war between brothers as well as an inner war between the creative and the destructive. The camera work, sound, music and editing make it a cohesive work without dialogue."

Producing films under their Gazawood label has been costly and daunting. Permits were required to rent a camera from Israel—for $700 a day. Hamas only grudgingly gave the twins permission to use combat uniforms, helmets and mock automatic weapons.

Earlier, Arab and his computer hard drive had been detained by Hamas on the suspicion that he consumed alcohol. Why? His poster, entitled "Field of Dreams," depicted him drinking in an imaginary bar he'd created on his laptop.

On the last days of their one-month visa to the U.S., the twins visited relatives in Southern California. At a Nov. 11 fund-raiser in the Covina Women's Club, the twins also showed their film "Masho Mashook" ("Something Sweet"). They returned to Gaza Nov. 19.

The twins hope they somehow will be able to attend film school in the West. Readers who would like to contribute to a fund for Tarzan and Arab, or keep up on their progress, are asked to e-mail <[email protected]>.

CAIR/LA Hosts 15th Gala

altComedian Aasif Mandvi (l) and composer/musician Malek Jandali. (Staff photo S. Twair)

Comedian Aasif Mandvi and Syrian composer/musician Malek Jandali were headliners at the 15th annual fund-raiser of the Council on American Islamic Relations/ Greater Los Angeles Chapter. "Making Democracy Work" was the theme of the Nov. 15 gala in the Anaheim Hilton Hotel.

In accepting the CAIR/LA 2011 Courage in Media Award, Mandvi looked at the audience of more than 2,000 guests and remarked that the only time he'd hung out with so many Muslims was in the holding area of JFK Airport.

According to the comedian, who appears on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," shariah law scares Americans—but it scares Muslims, too. Noting that theshariah penalty for dishonesty is to cut off the hand of a thief, Mandvi observed that this would mean that in the U.S. there would be many handless politicians.

His advice to Islamaphobes who call for an end of Muslim immigration to the U.S. is to wrap bacon around the U.S. borders. On a serious note, he stated that al-Qaeda's greatest enemy is moderate Muslims. "In an age of fundamentalism, fear wins," Mandvi concluded.

Internationally acclaimed concert pianist Jandali received the CAIR/LA Freedom of Expression Award for circumstances surrounding his song "Watani Ana" ("My Homeland"). Even though the lyrics do not mention Syria or the Arab Spring revolutions, the song's themes of liberty have incensed some forces. The song's lyrics include: "Oh my homeland, when will I see you free? When the land is watered with blood of the martyrs and the brave and all the people shout: Freedom to mankind."

On July 28, Jandali's parents were attacked in their Homs residence. As the assailants beat his elderly mother, Linah, they shouted: "we're going to teach you how to raise your son." Less than four months later, however, his parents and wife were in Anaheim to hear him perform "Watani Ana" and see him receive his award.

CAIR/LA executive director Hussam Ayloush told the huge audience that one thing he's learned from the Arab uprisings is that change is possible. And now, he noted, seekers of change are in the streets of New York, Oakland and Los Angeles demanding an end to economic greed, social and economic injustice and political corruption.

Since 1994, CAIR has served 24,000 victims of discrimination, Ayloush stated. Over the past year, it has worked on 2,900 civil rights cases, met with 86 congressional offices and been quoted or mentioned in the media 33,000 times.

"CAIR no longer is solely about serving the Muslim community," he said. "We've matured into a community that sees its place as carrying the torch of advocacy and justice with others who struggle to make democracy work."

UCLA Talk on Arab Uprisings

altMiddle East historians Juan Cole (l) and James Gelvin. (Staff photo S. Twair)

"Taking Stock: The Arab Uprisings on the Eve of Their First Anniversary" was the topic addressed by historians James Gelvin of UCLA and Juan Cole of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who spoke Nov. 10 at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Gelvin began by objecting to the term "Arab Spring," which he called an abomination. The uprisings would better be described as a "wave," he said. Arab states undergoing upheaval share similar characteristics, he observed, in that the governments initially offered free health care, education and food subsidies in exchange for complacence. They also practiced crony capitalism, had a fraying social safety net and a demographic time bomb of a huge unemployed population under age 30. In Egypt, for instance, where the price of wheat doubled, angry youths took to the streets because they couldn't vote the leadership out.

Gelvin proceeded to group the Arab states in clusters. Tunisia and Egypt, he said, have a functioning military that survived the overthrow of their autocrats. Yemen and Libya are fragmented, with the former struggling between northern and southern divisions, and the latter torn between eastern and western tribes ruled by a personalized dictator who had weakened all institutions.

Another group comprises Algeria, Syria and Bahrain. Algeria has a state apparatus, Gelvin noted, Syria is coup-proofed by a ruling Alawite kinship, while Bahrain's Sunni monarchy rules its Shi'i majority with an imported Sunni army. Gelvin divided the seven remaining monarchies into the oil-rich and oil-poor.

According to Cole, who visited Tunisia and Egypt this past summer, the uprisings in both countries were led by youth revolutionaries whose shock troops were 20-year-olds. Egyptian uprisings were non-sectarian, he said, spearheaded by progressive youths who had sympathy for the working class, with the Muslim Brotherhood remaining largely inactive.

As an aside, Cole noted that these revolutions are being treated differently by the U.S. media. "The massive demonstrations around Sept. 4 in Tel Aviv weren't publicized much," he said, "but Israeli youths are fed up by being stiffed by high rents while the rich are getting richer. On exclusive Rothschild Avenue, campers' chants of "walk like an Egyptian" were an allusion to Tahrir Square."

Regarding Syria, Cole opined that the Assad regime can survive uprisings in cities such as Homs, Hama and Daraa—but not massive protests in Damascus, which would threaten the heart of Alawite power.

"There's a tipping point," Cole elaborated. "If the opposition gets 42 percent of the people actively behind it, it probably will win." 

Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance journalists based in Los Angeles.

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