By Elana Golden
‘Recognizing Voices of Courage and Justice’ was the caption on the two large TV screens looming over the glitzy ballroom of the Sheraton Parkway Hotel in Los Angeles where the 20th annual Media Awards event presented by MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council), and attended by five hundred guests, took place on June 25th.
The 2011 honorees were Hiam Abbass, the actress in the feature film Miral, portraying Hind Husseini, the Palestinian woman who in 1948, in wartorn Jerusalem, took in 55 Palestinian orphans and established a school for orphaned girls; Leonard Dick and Ted Humphrey, co-producers of two episodes in the CBS series The Good Wife that tackle stereotypes about Islam and Muslims; and Rashid Ghazi and Ash-Har Quraishi, the director and producer of the full length documentary film Fordson – about a Detroit high school football team, comprised of Muslim Americans, having to play a game during Ramadan.
Twenty years ago when MPAC president, Salam Al-Marayati, conceived the idea of the Media Awards, it was difficult, almost impossible, to find a Hollywood film that portrayed Muslims positively. He had to look hard, he said in his introduction, until he found one character of a Muslim in a Hollywood film. It was Morgan Freeman’s part in the film Robin Hood, and Mr. Freeman became MPAC Media Award’s first recipient. Since then the list of filmmakers and actors who depict the Muslim experience authentically and were recipients of the MPAC award has grown extensively. It includes Spike Lee for Malcolm X, Hani Abu Assad for Paradise Now, Cherien Dabis for Amreeka, and many others.
If MPAC’S goal is to integrate Muslims into American society and promote social justice, as Al-Marayati told me, then the Muslim and Arab experience as currently portrayed in film and TV, certainly proves MPAC’s success. It’s enough to mention a touchy scene in the documentary Fordson to see this fusion of cultures and rituals in action: The high school football team huddles before a game and prays in one voice: Bismillâh ir-rahmân ir-rahîm al-hamdulillâhi rabb il-âlamîn: In the name of Allah, The Infinitely Compassionate, The Infinitely Merciful…
The clip from Miral fused the tragedies of the past with a tragedy of the present. After Hind Husseini finds the orphaned children in the narrow allies of Jerusalem and takes them in, she has council with the Mufti of Jerusalem about the orphanage. The Mufti of Jerusalem is played by the late Juliano Mer Khamis, actor, director and activist, part Muslim part Jew, who was murdered earlier this year in front of his Freedom Theater in Jenin. “It’s the first time I see him since he was killed,” said Hiam Abbass overcome with emotion when she came on stage to receive her award. “He was a man who sacrificed his life for the education of Jenin Youth.” She was honored to have played Hind Husseini, “who deserved the award more than her,” she said. To date, the orphanage has housed more than 3000 girls. Ms. Abbass shared that she grew up in a conservative Muslim village in the northern Galilee and that “it wasn’t easy….”
The CBS Good Wife episodes "Boom" and “On Tap” brought the Muslim experience smack to the living rooms of mainstream America, challenging negative public assumptions regarding Muslim charities and cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
The evening concluded with the wise words of Dr. Maher Hathout, MPAC’s senior advisor, who defined art as “the message of the soul in an envelope of beauty.”
MPAC offers coaching to Hollywood filmmakers who seek to create authentic and compelling stories about Muslims and Islam. When we change the story, we change reality. MPAC’s recognition of voices of courage and conscience helps create this new story: A story where Muslims are integrated into American society; where racism and prejudice are replaced by social justice and respect.
– Elana Golden is a screenwriter, director, educator and activist, and founder of the Los Angeles based creative writing and screenwriting school The Writing Studio. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.