Interview: Jihad! filmmakers Muhammed Rum and Nara Garber

Muhammed Rum and Nara Garber (Photo: Maureen Clare Murphy)

“It’s a personal jihad for me, to have made it, to have gone through the process of making it,” says Muhammed Rum of his directorial debut Jihad!, the name of which comes from the Islamic spiritual concept of struggle of the will — the film’s central theme. Cinematographer Nara Garber, who took on many of the production roles because of the film’s limited budget, also considers the film to have been a personal journey, because it helped her more fully realize the hurdles Arab-Americans and Palestinians face in their respective situations.

In town for the world premiere of their film at the Chicago Palestine Film Fest, Rum and Garber discussed in an interview the trials and tribulations of making a film with “a ghetto-guerrilla budget,” as Garber puts it, and how the dark comedy was shaped both by September 11 and the filmmakers’ experience being detained in Tel Aviv and denied entrance to Rum’s hometown of Ramallah.

Jihad! tells the story of the thoroughly Westernized Palestinian-American Ed living in Manhattan, who deals with reconciling his “Americanization” and what’s happening in his homeland, and his cousin Salaam who is visiting the States after his friend was shot and killed in Ramallah. When asked if his film is autobiographical, Rum acknowledges that the film reflects his views and thoughts to a large degree, but says he wanted to simplify the story to make it more universal, not necessarily strictly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and true to the concept of jihad.

Explaining why he chose to make a feature film rather than a documentary, Rum explains, “I like the idea of doing a fiction film. It’s really the same as doing a documentary because there’s a message that can be portrayed. The reason that I like the feature film aspect is because there’s more controlled circumstances, there’s a more controlled environment.”

But, as Garber explains, “When you’re making a feature film [dealing with] something that is so fraught a subject as the question of Palestine, a lot of people would say when they heard about the story, ‘Why doesn’t Muhammed do this, why doesn’t he include this?’ In that sense, when you’re making a feature film, everybody feels that it’s something that can be changed; it’s be something that be challenged.”

Indeed, during production, some of the actors dropped out of the film because they either felt the title or the content to be problematic. Garber says, “The Jewish actors who suddenly had reservations about the film weren’t objecting to the content, they were objecting to the title,” and were worried how appearing in a film called Jihad! would reflect on them.

“And the Palestinian actress who refused to let us use her footage was not objecting to the title she was objecting to the content. So the people who had objections were objecting from completely opposite points of view, and I guess that should not be surprising,” adds Garber. Another Arab-American woman, who was cast as a news reporter, later refused to appear in the film for fear of repercussions, given the anti-Arab sentiment since September 11.

However, the largest obstacle experienced during the making of the film was when the filmmakers were detained in Tel Aviv after their El Al Israel flight from New York, and deported from the country, before the two were able to even shoot one frame in Ramallah. The trip was to be Rum’s first time returning to his homeland since his family left in 1976.

“It was frustrating, but it definitely strengthened my solidarity of being Palestinian, with the Palestinian cause in general,” he says. “Having gone through the experience of being flown over there, being detained, interrogated, put into gender segregated cells, denied use of the bathroom, or to make phone calls, made me wonder about the conditions of those Palestinians who are living within the cell that is Palestine. If they can do this to us and we are American citizens … what is really going on behind this wall?”

After the first edit of Jihad!, Rum explains, he felt that he and Garber needed to go to Ramallah to get the essence of Salaam’s story. He adds, “It gave me a great reason to finally want to go back. It took many, many years to finally make the decision to want to go back. And this was a sort of reinforcement. I have a purpose, I can make a project, and go there, and visit my family, and see my homeland. …. Had we gotten into Ramallah, I really feel that we could have presented on screen in Jihad! a much more visually appealing and truthful representation of Salaam’s story, which we didn’t get a chance to do, so we had to opt with him … talking about it.”

Garber thinks it ironic that they were deported from Israel on the assumption that they would capture footage for anti-Israel propaganda purposes, because they had decided beforehand not to shoot checkpoints and other visible symbols of the Israeli occupation, and instead capture aspects of daily Palestinian life like the markets and olive groves. “We weren’t able to obtain any of those images,” says Garber, resulting in “a more pro-Palestine message than the film may originally have had.”

Discussing how the Israelis they interacted with treated them as less than human as soon as the Israelis saw Rum’s name on his passport, Garber says, “We were instantly picked up on the plane and put in police vehicles, taken to passport control.” She adds, “They would not make eye contact and would grunt. Nobody answered you … nobody would really touch you. They would point and maybe push you in the direction they wanted you to go.”

Rum was asked by his interrogator, who was fluent in Arabic and looked like any guy walking down the streets of Ramallah, “ ‘Why do you love Hamas, Muhammed?’ … ‘Why do you support al-Qaida, Muhammed?’” Rum adds, “Here I am thinking, man, why can’t we just go out and have a beer, we can talk about this. There’s no reason for you to treat me like this or have these preset notions of who I am, and what I am, or what my intentions are.”

“I definitely felt that the paranoia that the Israelis exhibited, at least the ones I experienced, was really nothing more than something that veiled their racist attitudes. I was actually sympathetic to them in a way because they actually use it to justify their actions. … They’ve bought into that whole hype that their government feeds them. … I don’t think that they understand that Palestinian people are just normal folks who want to be able to have freedom of will and live and be able to stop the checkpoints,” says Rum.

The two eventually sued the airline, and were reimbursed for the plane tickets and even the bottles of Advil the Israelis broke. “[The lawsuit] wasn’t a major victory, because I was denied entry of where I was born, where I came from, and I was prevented from meeting people who are related to me, and [being in Ramallah] could have helped make more sense of my narrative,” says Rum. He adds, “we did sue them, and I’m really proud of that … people out there should know that they should fight and be persistent in trying to get some kind of justice. Whether it’s a small victory or a major victory, they should definitely pursue it.”

Garber adds, “There’s additional psychological compensation in the sheer humor of having to go back to small claims court five times before the judge even heard our case, in just hearing the case presented to everyone else who was sitting in the small claims court waiting area, ‘Muhammed Rum vs. El Al Israel airlines.’”

Rum and Garber ended up getting a wedding videographer in Ramallah to shoot the alleys in which an Israeli soldier chases Salaam. One scene in which Leila, Ed’s childhood sweetheart whom his parents are pressuring him to marry, dips her feet in a river, was actually shot in a New York park, and bags of sand were poured in Rum’s back yard for another scene set in Ramallah.

I ask Rum if a scene in Jihad!, in which Ed takes some drugs and hallucinates that the party he is attending is filled with Hasidic Jews dancing with belly dancers while a woman wearing a burqa spins records, is a reaction to his experience with the Israeli interrogator. Rum responds, “My father tells me stories of times when his neighbors were Jews when he lived in Lid, and they would have dinner together, and how it was a time when they did leave their doors open; they really didn’t fear each other. That scene is based on those thoughts, on those stories from my family, from my father. These situations have existed and can exist … It happens here [in the United States]; we’re just not wearing the outfits.”

Garber adds, laughing, “There were actually dancing Jews and Arabs in the scene, and it wasn’t a problem. The only problem was getting them to shut up and actually pay attention because they were having such a good time talking.”

Not only was their deportation experience taxing, but because they were working with such limited resources, Garber says, “You’re just constantly doing damage control, and the whole process probably took ten years of Muhammed’s life.”

Despite the challenges the production of the film presented, Garber says that she felt it rewarding to work on a project that addressed American stereotypes of Arab-Americans. Garber, who is half Japanese, explains, “I saw parallels between [post-September 11 knee-jerk treatment of] Arab-Americans and [that of] Japanese Americans during World War II, in terms of there being such overt prejudice against an entire category of people.”

While Ed has fully assimilated to American life, and can pass for a variety of ethnicities, Salaam’s character faces many more challenges because of his nationality. Rum says, “I really wanted to make a point about Salaam being doubly or triply victimized here as a Palestinian.”

Explaining that Salaam is automatically assumed to be a terrorist because he is nationalistic and portrayed studying explosives and soldering something on a roof, Salaam is ultimately innocent (he’s really a pyrotechnician building fireworks). However, viewers are not given much room to think otherwise, because Salaam is seen building something explosive on a rooftop — causing the plot twist to be hyperbolic rather than subtly poignant.

Rum says, “Salaam ultimately proves his innocence, but then he’s the one who gets thrown in the slammer and he’s the one looked upon as responsible for having committed the 9/11 atrocities. … Wherever he goes, he winds up in a cell because of his ethnicity, because of the fact that he’s Arab.”

On the subject of September 11, Rum says, “I just took my camera and went out in the streets and just started [filming] because I didn’t know what else to do,” and some of Rum’s footage from that day appears in the film.

He adds, “But it was really amazing because I had this feeling overcome me that was so reminiscent of my childhood days in Ramallah, running through the streets after curfew had been officially called. That same sensation … was very similar to the sensation I had walking around New York City on 9/11, and I think for the first time, in America, people got a taste of what it’s like to be in a situation where there is no security, where at any moment in time something bad could happen.”

Looking back on growing up in Ramallah, Rum says, “You don’t know when a tank is going to come up; you don’t know when a chopper is going to throw something down. You don’t know when someone’s going to break into your home. So you’re constantly living under this fear, and it has such a psychologically traumatic effect on you. I sensed it that day on 9/11 and it was really interesting to see how people were walking down in Times Square and every time a plane flew by everybody would look up, and people were confused, they were distraught and they didn’t know what to do. … Palestinians live like this every single day, and we [here in America] finally got a taste of it, and it shows us that we’re really not that far removed from what is going on there [in Palestine] …”

Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is used by those responsible for the September 11 attacks to justify their actions, Rum says, it’s crucial that the conflict be stopped. “The easiest thing to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says, “is by getting an international force to go into Palestine and to Israel and line them up on the green line, just give people a month of just no pressure. I think that would at least … let them assess where they are.”

Rum adds, “Whoever did commit the September 11 bombings, they did commit a jihad. But that is their jihad; it doesn’t necessarily represent my jihad, it doesn’t represent Nara’s or yours or anyone else’s. There are as many jihads as there are people, because it really is nothing more than the Islamic take on freedom of the will, and it’s just been sold as [something demonic] by the popular media and it’s been sold to us to demonize Arabs or Muslims as a whole … .”

Explaining that his concept of jihad is more about love of humanity, Rum concludes, “Everything that we have talked about [in the interview] … is the epitome of Jihad!. That’s the reason that Jihad! was made, to shed light on all of these conflicts and difficulties that a person goes through because of their ethnic background, because of who they are, because of what they believe.”

Maureen Clare Murphy, a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is Arts, Music, and Culture editor for the Electronic Intifada.

Related links

  • Review: Jihad!, Maureen Clare Murphy (2 June 2004)
  • BY TOPIC: Festivals and Special Events Coverage — includes comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Palestine Film Festival
  • The official website of Jihad!