Civil Rights and Marjoun and the Flying Headband

I started film school in September 2001. By May 2002, I had written a treatment for a short film called Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf about a young girl in Austin, Texas who discovered she had superpowers when she used her Sufi practice. Little did I know when I wrote that title that I was going on a 20 year journey through the horrors of Islamophobia and storytelling empowerment.

At the time, I was about to make a documentary in Palestine, and I was thrilled that I would do Marjoun when I got back.

Amazingly, I received a letter from our department head stating that it would be “exceptionally dangerous” to make my documentary in the West Bank and that if I could do it, I would have to retire from university. I was asked to sign the letter.

Susan Youssef during film school.

For my shoot in the West Bank, I had planned to get film equipment and a carnet (a shipping document that exempts you from paying import duties or taxes if you cross international borders with film equipment) from the university. In 2002, the equipment you needed to make a movie was extremely expensive.

I was determined to make the documentary, so I signed the letter and withdrew from university. I started emailing people to ask for help to pay for my film equipment. When it became known what had happened to me, I received press inquiries from all over the country.

Again the film department of the university entered. They told me not to speak to a journalist.

I was shocked. I wanted to be a filmmaker. And I wanted to go back to school.

So I haven’t spoken to anyone. I have just resumed the movie and plunged into credit card debt which later resulted in eviction notifications from my studio apartment.

A still from Susan Youssef’s documentary Forbidden to Wander.

This was my first experience with Islamophobia. I didn’t know this was happening to me because I was just a young woman trying to do her job. I didn’t even think about the fact that this is Islamophobia. I made a personal documentary about a Christian family in Ramallah. I didn’t understand what was problematic about it. I had always felt completely invisible in the world of film and television, but I had never been oppressed. So I couldn’t see the beast when it found me.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of my problems. During a stopover in the Holy Land, I was arrested at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I didn’t have a carnet for all of the equipment I was carrying. After being held underground at the airport for a long time, I was searched. When I was finally released and went on to Jerusalem, I had to wait a full week to regain access to the equipment. When my documentary Forbidden to Wander was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2005, the screenings were shown by demonstrators who had never seen the film.

Nina Dandachli in Susan Youssef’s short film Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf (2006).

Because of my experience with Forbidden to Wander and because it happened so early in my film career, the way I made and published Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf has inevitably changed. At first I only sent the short film to festivals in Arab countries before a friend suggested that I show it to Sundance as well. When the film was accepted by Sundance, the programmers couldn’t find me – because it never crossed my mind that Marjoun would get into it. You finally found my sister!

When I decided to expand Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf from a short film to a feature, I felt that the expanded version of that film needed to address the myriad of rights violations against Arab and Muslim Americans. Unfortunately, my experience with Forbidden to Wander was not an isolated incident and I was exposed to increasing institutional discrimination throughout my career. It’s always in the shadows, but I suppressed it because I just wanted to do my work and show it off, relying on the support of individuals for that purpose. With the feature version of Marjoun, which I completed in 2019, I challenged myself to bring the shame and guilt that discrimination had caused out of the dark and into light.

The story I have written is about a teenage girl in Arkansas whose father is imprisoned on dubious terrorist charges and who is on a trip to rescue her. I chose her to go to the same high school as Little Rock Nine and thought about the civil rights trips shared between blacks, Muslims and Arabs in the United States.

Maram Alhahmi in Susan Youssef’s 2019 feature film, Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf.

The ill-treatment Arab and Muslim Americans have suffered include harassment of students, dismissal from faculty, Muslim ban, state-controlled ban on Syrian refugees, police and FBI surveillance, airport detention, violations of the first amendment and material support to the Terrorism Act, which was originally created to deal with white supremacists but was used to imprison Arab and Muslim Americans.

I recently organized a clubhouse event to discuss our civil rights trip since 9/11 with human rights lawyers, using Marjoun and the flying headscarf as a case study. One of the things we discussed was that under Biden’s presidency, the Muslim ban is the only policy that is directed against Arabs or Muslims who are postponed. Despite all of this, the Arab and Muslim-American communities have evolved to provide resources to better defend their rights. (We are providing a recording of this clubhouse event as partner material for Marjoun. Anyone wishing to listen to it can contact us at [email protected].)

What happened to me can happen to anyone who does work or works with Arabs and Muslims. It changes all of us. In the feature film version of Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf, the title character gets exactly what she was looking for at the beginning of the film: her triumph. I hope Marjoun’s agency will become a symbol of progress for all of us.

Susan Youssef with actress Clara Khoury during the making of Marjoun and the flying headscarf.

Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf can currently be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award nomination. I chose to qualify the film for the Oscars because not only did the Buddhist monks performing in Marjoun mention an Oscar nomination to me when we were making the film, but also a powerful Muslim public figure who helped us told us to enter. When I heard this from these spiritual and civic leaders, I wanted to follow the word of my sisters who inspire me. They were so encouraging and wanted the film to be successful, and so did I. It was nice to make the film available for healing in the screening room of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. I translated the proposal to qualify the film for the Oscars into the power of creating mindfulness for all of us. It was an act of resistance, but more powerfully an act of affirming our presence in the world.

The picture shown shows Veracity Butcher in Marjoun and the flying headscarf.

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