Everyone assumes that people from the Middle East are Muslim and Arab, but that isn't always the case.
That is why Abe Kasbo, a New Jersey resident, Christian and native of Aleppo in Syria, began working on a film in 2007 to dispel the ignorance about his home region.
The documentary, “A Thousand and One Journeys: The Arab Americans,” which launched at the end of 2015, has seen a sudden spike in DVD orders and screening requests, Kasbo said on Friday.
The timing, unfortunately, couldn’t have been better.
This past weekend, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants — including visa and green card holders — from Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Libya.
Protests erupted at major airports from coast to coast on Saturday and Sunday.
The executive order invoked the 9/11 attacks as the reasoning behind the ban. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies were kept in the dark, or their disagreements were overridden by Trump’s team, and the order was signed.
New York’s federal court and Judge Anne Donnelly issued an emergency stay, nationwide, on the ban, but the DHS said Sunday the actions couldn’t stop the ban entirely.
Other media reports have also criticized the ban as affecting some countries that were not origins of the 9/11 attackers, and have been embroiled in their own civil wars, while allowing immigrants from the home countries of the attackers.
“I think the timing is just coincidental, to be honest with you,” Kasbo said. “I think it was just time to finish the film. I do want to say this, this film is actually about the American experience. It is about the Arab-American experience, but it is about … American history and the American cultural fabric.
“The heightened awareness of what’s happen in the Middle East right now, absolutely, it has generated a lot more curiosity about the film. It has generated a lot more buzz, but that is, it kind of breaks my heart at the same time. I am seeing the city where I grew up destroyed, but I’m also encouraged by the fact that people who watch the film here walk away with something they have learned.”
Kasbo grew up in Aleppo, now infamous after images from Syria’s civil war surfaced in the last few years, and said that, from the time he moved to the U.S. and now, nothing has changed in terms of the lack of knowledge about the Middle East.
That includes the xenophobia and “other” treatment of the 1900s immigrants from the Middle East, as explained in the film.
Initially, Kasbo thought of writing a book, since he had no film experience. But a discussion with his wife led to the idea of a film, since, after all, Kasbo’s expertise is in marketing and advertising.
“She said, why don’t you think about it as a 90-minute, 30-second spot?” Kasbo recalls.
The film was funded by Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns, as well as private donors, and was shot in 11 states, including New Jersey.
The featured historian is Seton Hall University professor emeritus Philip Kayal.
The film explains how the first wave of Arabs came over in the early 1900s searching for textile jobs, and a majority of them were Christian, unskilled and illiterate. This includes the now well-known hub of Arab-Americans in Paterson, which was largely formed by individuals from Aleppo, according to the film.
Texas and New York were also major hubs for Middle Eastern immigrants, many of whom had their names changed or were misclassified as Asian when they reached Ellis Island.
“This is a piece of American history that hasn’t been told,” Kasbo said. “It touches on the struggles of the Arab-American community, which includes the Christian community which … a lot of them get lumped together (with Muslims).”
Other featured interviews in the film include U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, former U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader, retired Gen. John Abizaid, comedian Dean Obeidallah and White House press corps member Helen Thomas, to name a few.
The film won the Homegrown category at the 2016 Garden State Film Festival, is working on a deal with the PBS station in Chicago to show the film nationally, and received more requests for screenings around the country. It was supported by a number of Jersey-based organizations, including The Victor Machuga Foundation, Basem & Muna Hishmeh Foundation, and former New Jersey resident and businessman Lloyd Baroody.
In just the past week, Kasbo said 100 copies of the DVD were ordered, which is unusual since “orders usually trickle in.”