Before Palestinian activist Hatem Abudayyeh agreed to participate in The New Americans, the latest documentary from Kartemquin Films, he wanted to make something clear. "I need to know where you guys are coming from," he told directors Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal. "Because if you have a problem with that political line of mine and my family's and a lot of people that I spend time with that might end up in this film, then I don't know if you can do it justice and if you can be honest about it." Quinn put his fears to rest. "This is a human story and insofar as political realities are part of your life, they're going to be in the story," he told Abudayyeh. "Politics is a part of peoples' lives and you can't leave it out and to leave it out is dishonest."
Abudayyeh, the co-director of the southwest-side Arab American Action Network, and his Palestinian wife, Naima, are two of the subjects in the seven-hour film, which tracks five story lines to relate the experiences of new immigrants from around the globe before, during, and after their arrival in the United States. Hatem, a first-generation Palestinian-American, met Naima on a three-month trip to the West Bank in 1998. After a brief courtship he proposed, and they were married in Chicago in 1999. Naima's two activist brothers had been jailed by Israelis and one died in prison; she was eager to leave the occupied territories and start a new life. But once she got here, Hatem became consumed by his job, and his wife discovered that immigrant life was harder than she had anticipated. A recent college graduate, she had trouble getting a job due to her poor English. She wanted to start a family, but instead found herself accompanying her husband to protest rallies (where, in the film, she looks painfully bored). "I always wanted a job that starts when I wake up in the morning and ends when I go to sleep," Hatem says in the film. "It's probably not fair. I have a wife who expects more personal and emotional investment from her husband." After 9/11, the family felt scapegoated and discriminated against; when Hatem's offices were torched that December, they began to get scared, and Naima's feelings of hopelessness were increasingly at odds with Hatem's activist agenda.
In The New Americans Hatem acknowledges that his politics don't always play well in the territories either. "They say you're not really an authentic Palestinian--you'll never come back," he said after last Saturday's antiwar rally downtown--which Naima did not attend. "My mother-in-law says that all the time. 'Oh, you guys always talk about Palestine and you go to your little demonstrations and you do your educational forums, but you're never going to come back and deal with what we deal with.'" He sees the film as a chance to get his message out to a broader audience. "It's really the first time there is some type of discussion and probing into the Palestinian community in the U.S.," he says. "The people watching the documentary see what actually happened to our family and see a little of what happened to this community after the infitada started and after September 11. This is how those incredible events affected one Palestinian family."
The New Americans airs in three parts on Channel 11 at 9 PM Monday through Wednesday, March 29 through 31.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.