Before Brigid Maher visited the Middle East in 1991, the farthest she'd been from her Seattle-area home was Canada. Then, at 17, she went to visit her older brother, who was studying Arabic in Cairo and spent his breaks rebuilding Palestinian homes in Bethlehem. It was near the end of the intifada, and there was "a lot of tension," says Maher.
"My brother was very strict with me, making sure I got a full education," she says. "He made me talk to people who'd been shot and who'd been in jail. He sent me on a tour of Gaza, where they don't even have proper sewers."
Inspired by her brother's example, she returned to Israel two years later to study Arabic and women's studies at Birzeit University near Ramallah. The Oslo accords had just been signed, and "the settlers were very upset," she says. "They would come into towns under the protection of the Israeli military and would vandalize. They would write in Hebrew and English 'Kill Arabs' on people's storefronts. They burned tires, smashed cars. Nobody could do anything."
One day, says Maher, a member of the Palestinian family she lived with was at school when settlers fired on the schoolyard. "They ended up killing a boy who was standing next to him."
In her six months in Israel she made a lot of new friends. One night a group of Palestinian women snuck her into their dormitory. "We were dancing, arguing, and eating too much," she says. "There was one woman I'd been intimidated by, a member of the Hamas student organization. I was looking at a very political poster hanging above her bunk bed. She looked at me and said she had to brush my hair, it was all in knots, and she started brushing my hair. I thought, 'I was so wrong.' And that's when it hit me, how all this misrepresentation about Muslim women being subjugated and extremists of Hamas are all stupid stereotypes based on the media. Those women were so much stronger than myself. And they had such joy."
They were the inspiration for the character of Aysha in Adrift in the Heartland, which Maher made to complete her master's degree in film at Northwestern University. A newly married immigrant from Palestine, Aysha (played by Janie Khaury) offers to help out Jasmine (Ida Smith), an African-American social worker whose car has crashed in front of her Chicago home. After some initial tension--most of it the result of stereotypes each holds about the other's culture--the two women realize they are both fans of Miles Davis and become friends.
The film juxtaposes Aysha's recurring memories of the intifada with an exploration of both the growing relationship between the two women and the dynamics between Jasmine and her boyfriend and Aysha and her husband, who is facing his own identity crisis and doesn't want her to wear a hijab--the traditional Muslim head covering. "It was important for me not just to represent what it is to be Palestinian and be denied a homeland," says Maher. "I also wanted to look at what it is to be Muslim in the U.S. We never see Muslim Palestinian women on TV or in movies unless it's some junk like Not Without My Daughter."
Maher had nearly completed a script for a less character-driven film when she saw Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies in 1996. Inspired by the realistic relationship between that film's two central characters, she chucked her script and wrote a skeletal treatment for Adrift in the Heartland. After finding her two leads, she copied Leigh's improvisational technique, working with them once or twice a week for over a year to examine ethnic stereotypes, develop their characters, and flesh out the story. Much of what's in the script is based on their own experiences with discrimination, from misconceptions about head scarfs and arranged marriages to assumptions about loud, pushy African-Americans.
To make sure the film rang true, Maher held several screenings for Arab-American audiences and asked for their feedback. The final scene, in which Aysha walks into the Velvet Lounge in her hijab, caused considerable debate. "Some said of course Aysha would walk into a jazz bar to meet Jasmine," says Maher. "Others said it wouldn't happen at all. I had to take creative license with that one."
Maher, who now teaches at Northwestern and Columbia College, made the film for less than $50,000 under the auspices of the nonprofit Tiny Leaps Productions, which she cofounded in 1998 "to create films and videos that work on issues of identity and involve issues of misrepresentation." But Maher is quick to point out that she's no expert on the Arab-American experience. "I may have studied it, but I haven't lived with it," she says. "It was something I was conscious of from the very beginning."
Maher will join most of the cast of Adrift in the Heartland at a free screening of a fine (as opposed to final) cut of the film this Wednesday, November 29. It's at 7 in the theater of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Call 312-437-0137 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.