How a Jewish New Yorker documented Muslim life under Trump
A week into his presidency, Donald Trump made good on a campaign promise to block Muslims from entering the United States.
With Executive Order 13769, the Trump administration suspended entry from seven Muslim-majority countries. But the travel ban didn’t just affect residents of those countries — it had sweeping implications for America’s 3.45 million Muslims, the vast majority of whom are citizens. The order, which became known as the “Muslim Ban,” kept many from receiving family in the country, revoked some 60,000 Visas, and effectively labelled an already misunderstood minority group as unwanted and alien in their own country.
In his new documentary “American Muslim,” filmmaker Adam Zucker, whose previous documentaries include “The Return” (2014), about young Poles rediscovering their Jewish roots and “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth” (2007), about the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, takes an intimate look at the diverse and lively Muslim communities in New York City. Zucker put his Metrocard to good use, trekking to Sunset Park to film Mohamed Bahi, an Algerian-American running a charity for Muslim refugees; to the Bronx to film a speech delivered by educator and activist Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni-American rallying youth in protest of the Executive Order; and Bay Ridge to track the activities of Aber Kawas a young, Palestinian-American community organizer.
Zucker hopes the film — which is playing January 17 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC as part of the Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival — will educate non-Muslim Americans, most of whom are statistically unlikely to have met a Muslim person or set foot in a mosque. He also wants to remind viewers that a version of the Muslim Ban is still in place and causing real harm.
The Forward spoke with Zucker over the phone. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PJ GRISAR: This film is centered around Trump’s executive order. Was that the original impetus for the film?
ADAM ZUCKER: I started the film basically the day after the 2016 election. A few days after that I was invited by a friend to a Muslim-Jewish sharing circle at a synagogue. At that sharing circle, someone from the Muslim community got up and was talking about the things that were already happening in her community — women being harassed on the street for wearing hijabs, and getting hate mail and hate messages. Right at that moment I said, “I have to try to do something.” People in the community didn’t need me to tell their story; I just needed, myself, to tell their story. The very first thing I filmed was on the way to the Women’s March, the women from the Afghan community, which was an amazing day — none of which I could end up using for various reasons. The Executive Order came out six days later, and I was shocked, and it ended up becoming a framing device.
How did you go about connecting with these different communities?
ZUCKER: I realized although I had lived in New York City my entire life, I didn’t have any Muslim friends. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true. At this point in time I would say that many Muslim Americans felt the need to be present and to speak to people and communicate. There was a fear that was expressed by many people that they had kind of isolated themselves a bit, and that it was their responsibility to be ambassadors — which nobody should have to be — but it was in their best interests. To get people to agree to a film over time, that’s always something different. One of the participants was a young woman, and she was really compelling, a youth leader and a rising star, and I just couldn’t get access. I said to her, “I don’t think this is going to work, but I really like what you’re doing,” and she said “You’re looking for recent immigrants, and there’s this guy in Sunset Park, you should get in touch with him.” And that was Mohamed Bahi. Once I started filming with Mohamed, I saw him everywhere, I can’t believe I hadn’t met him before.
A big part of the film is challenging misconceptions about Muslims. Were you yourself surprised to learn anything in the process?
ZUCKER: I would say that I knew more about Islam than most non-Muslims, just because I’m interested in religion. But Islam and Muslims are two different things. The last film I made, “The Return,” was about Jewish people in Poland who were exploring their newly-found Jewish identity. One of the women was a feminist who had a real problem with orthodoxy. At one point in the film, she said, “These rules, the halakha, were made by men.” She understands why they’re there, but she doesn’t want any part of it. For me, an unspoken question while I was filming was, “Where are the women [in the mosques]?” And when I spoke to Debbie Almontaser about it, she answered “It’s this way because men want it this way. And these rules were made by men.” As she was saying this I was thinking, “That’s exactly what this young woman in Poland told me.” There are a lot of parallels in scripture between Islam and Judaism, but I didn’t expect that kind of cultural breakdown. That component of the gender separation was interesting and surprising to me.
That parallel is interesting — especially for the Forward.
ZUCKER: You reminded me, since you’re writing for the Forward, I had a fear or a hunch that perhaps I wouldn’t be so widely welcomed and embraced, because I’m Jewish. I can say categorically I never found that to be the case. And I tended to work into conversations that I was Jewish if they didn’t suspect it, ‘cause I didn’t want it to be a surprise at any time. I’m the last person to introduce the ‘I’ word, Israel. Obviously that’s the dividing line and I don’t really want to talk about Israel, but aside from that, I don’t think anybody had any reservation talking to me because I was Jewish, in many cases I found out they were kind of interested because I also had a connection to a faith.
In fact we see interfaith coalitions throughout — Jewish congregants greeting Muslims coming for prayer at the NYU Islamic Center, for example. Did you always see this kind of support as being a part of the film, or was it unexpected?
ZUCKER: I was surprised to realize that interfaith alliances were a big thing these days. The Islamic Center at NYU is an amazing place, and I was going there one day for Friday services, not as a congregant, but to try to film, and I saw the people from congregation Beit Simchat Torah outside, and I had no idea about it. I don’t really do research, I just sort of spend a lot of time on the ground — I came upon it. Some of my informal advisors, my colleagues who watch my films as I make them, that scene got a lot of reaction in both directions [from them.] It made some people cringe about Jews feeling good about themselves. To me, the Muslims that were going to IC NYU were sincerely moved by the fact that these people were there week in, week out. When I showed the film, there was a Muslim woman who was with a small group, and she said that was the most moving scene for her, and a lot of people really respond to it. Interfaith didn’t get me into the project at all, but now that the film’s done that’s what I’m most committed to: community events, bringing together mosques and synagogues and church groups
You’re showing this film as part of your initiative, the Muslim American Interfaith Project. Can you tell me what that’s all about?
ZUCKER: The Interfaith Project is bringing together a Muslim community group, usually a mosque, and a Jewish and or church group, for a joint screening and then we hold a discussion afterwards, usually led by myself and leaders from each of the communities, and afterwards there’s food and hanging out and more talking. I’ve done two or three of these and I have about a dozen and hopefully more to come. I brought my synagogue to Mohamed Bahi’s mosque on a Sunday evening at Sunset Park and it was amazing. The mosque now wants to come to our synagogue for an event, and someone that our Hebrew school director talked with wants to come teach the kids Arabic, and vice versa. I’m doing this at college campuses, too, between Hillels and Muslim student associations. I’ve just done that in New York so far. I’m raising funds, and if I’m successful in doing that in the future it will maybe go to other places.
An interesting moment of the film is when you ask these young Muslim women what it’s like to have these non-Muslims in their spaces supporting them. That struck me. You’ve said you’re not interested in speaking for Muslims. Were you ever hesitant, as an outsider, about pursuing this project?
ZUCKER: I’ve done a couple of films where I’m an outsider, and I embrace that. I think it has some advantages. I don’t think it gives me a sharper or more insightful take, but I think it gives me a different take. I think that in a sense of making a film for other outsiders, maybe I’m a better barometer or vehicle to transmit that. It was meant as a teaching tool, but there was the thought that most Muslim audiences would say “So what?” Of course they know about the Muslim Ban. But in fact, the other night I did this screening in Bay Ridge for the Yemeni American Merchants Association, and they were really moved by the film. Everyone said to me, “Thank you for telling our story,” and I hold that up as really high praise, that I, an outsider, came in and tried to get inside this world to some degree.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.