Laura Nix, Director, The Light In Her Eyes
We arrived in Amman four days ago. I’ve never been to Jordan before but I was three hours away by car when we were shooting in Damascus, Syria. The landscape looks and feels familiar but I’m very aware we are not in Syria. Because of the war, it would be impossible to go there now, and I will feel its shadow throughout the trip.
On our first day of the program Jill Miller (Consultant, Film Forward) and I, along with staff from the U.S. Embassy, head over to Hayat FM, an Islamist radio station. I’m jetlagged and happy to be back in Arab culture where you are served strong delicious coffee in a beautiful cup on a tray. I’m interviewed by a woman named Asma Abo Saif, who’s wearing hijab (the head scarf) and a long coat, similar to what Houda (the main character of our film) might wear. We talk about the film for a bit but she really wants to know why the image of Islam is so distorted in the West. Particularly around Muslim women portrayed as victims, and what can be done to change that. Every caller into the radio show asks a different version of this question, and it becomes a theme at almost every screening. This is a tough topic to condense into a soundbite – the topic of entire academic conferences. Asma and I agree we have a great deal of work to do to improve the dialogue between our cultures; clearing up misunderstandings on both sides.
After the interview we’re invited to meet the founder and director of the station, Musa Al Saket, who introduces himself to our group to find out exactly what we’re up to. He’s perplexed by this group of Americans, accompanied by Jordanians who work for the U.S. Embassy, to discuss a film about a Qur’an school in Syria made by an American woman. It’s quite the anomaly here. He wants to know why Julia and I would ever make The Light In Her Eyes in the first place. I’m so fascinated by the topic it’s self evident to me, but I tell him any opportunity to talk about the importance of women’s education and give a different perspective on Islam to the West is a film worth making. I’m told in advance that the station is very conservative but that’s not my impression while we’re there. Especially after Musa shakes my hand, which is something a conservative would not do. He tweets me later, wishing me luck with the film.
Next up is the American Corner at the University of Jordan. It’s about 20 students, mostly women and three men. About three quarters of the women wear hijab and everyone wears jeans and trendy modern clothes. They have already seen the movie the day before and are literally jumping out of their seats to talk about it. Some of them thank me for creating a positive image of Islam and then start passionately arguing with each other. A woman says she is happy to hear Houda (the head of the school featured in our doc) explain that it’s a woman’s obligation to wear hijab because she believes it is too. She’s interrupted by another woman who says it’s not an obligation – Houda is incorrect. A young man says the treatment of women is a big problem in his culture, and he wants to “rip down the patriarchy”, he’s always arguing with his family and friends about the treatment of women. (I want to clone him.) We talk about the importance of debating, not pre-judging people, and how they can develop their own voice to articulate their point of view. This is exactly the conversation I was hoping the film would initiate. Everyone is whip smart, feisty, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
Later that night is the first public screening of the program kicked off by a reception. The U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Stuart Jones, and some members of the royal family are in attendance: HRH Prince Raad bin Zeid and HRH Princess Majida, HRH Prince Firas bin Raad and HRH Princess Dana Firas. HRH Princess Majida has many questions for me about Houda’s school, and shares her heartbreak about the war in Syria. Ambassador Jones remarks that the Syrian conflict comprises a large percentage of his job right now. I knew that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees had come to Jordan, but he tells me that as of today, 1/6th of the country’s population is now Syrian (1 million people out of 6 million), and the Syrian refugee camp called Za’atari has become Jordan’s 4th largest city. It’s sobering.
On day two, Meredith Lavitt (Director, Film Forward) and I make an appearance on a TV show called Donia ya Donia, hosted by a fantastic creature named, of course, Donia. She is wearing a floor length peach chiffon gown, high heels, long flowing hair and elaborate makeup. Donia hasn’t seen the film but is super curious about it. When I say the film also deals with how women are handling the balance of family and work, her eyes light up and she agrees this is the challenge women face all over the world. The interview is in Arabic and is translated into my ear through an earpiece that wouldn’t stay put – it was unnerving, and I hope it turned out ok.
Afterwards we take off for an interview with Spin Jordan, a pop station with English speaking DJ’s. DJ Tamer Gar encourages me to keep it light and fluffy and I try. In between brief snippets about women’s religious education we talk about Justin Bieber and Ke$ha – a moment I’m pretty sure will not happen again.
We are driven between the different locations by a driver from the U.S. Embassy in armored SUVs or vans that have a hi-tech GPS system that sends our coordinates back to Washington, D.C. so they can track the vehicle at all times. After taking great effort to be low profile when we were filming in Syria it’s unsettling to feel so visible, so “American”. Even though I know it’s supposed to keep me safe, I must admit it makes me anxious.
The van picks us up at the hotel and I meet our translator for the day, Fayyad (for security purposes, I’m not using his real name), who is Syrian. His story is not unusual these days. He was able to get out of Syria three months ago with his wife and two children but had to leave behind his parents, his house, and many members of his family. He was an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Syria for over 14 years, and he is waiting for a visa to go to the U.S. He told me he loved our movie and admitted he cried when he saw it because he misses his country so much and it shows Syria when it was peaceful. We talked about the war for the entire car ride and when I gave him a copy of our DVD to show his wife, he looked at the pictures of Damascus on the back and his eyes filled with tears.
40 minutes after leaving Amman, we arrive in Salt, an ancient town that was previously a regional capital during the Ottoman Empire. We go to Musa Al Saket Cultural Center, which, coincidentally, was founded by the grandfather of the director of Hayat FM we met the day before. During the screening they are having a meeting of a few dozen tribal leaders who enter the building dressed in traditional robes and kaffiyeh, (headdress). A few of the men come to watch for awhile and when they step out to go to their meeting they give me the thumbs up sign for the movie. I’m encouraged.
At this Q&A it is the men in the audience who are the most eager to speak. They said they liked the balance of women studying in the mosque with details of life in the women’s homes because women are playing a major role in society that must be recognized. They want to know if what I learned from the movie made me want to convert to Islam (which is not the first time I’ve been asked that question). And when I say you don’t have to be Muslim to defend Islam they still ask, with a wink, “But wouldn’t you like to convert?” One man asks me if my government tried to prevent me from making the film and when I tell him no, that the reason I’m standing here is because my government brought me through Film Forward, they are shocked. It’s clear they believe the U.S. government is repressive and opposes Islam. Because it’s a question that is asked at a few screenings actually, I see it as a sign of the work we need to do to bridge the gap between our cultures. They all thank me profusely for the movie. They hope the film can help change opinions about Islam in the West.
While flipping through channels in my hotel that night, I learn about the bombings in Boston on CNN. I lived in Boston for five years and I’m saddened by the violence and grateful that none of my friends who still live there were affected. The other international channels are covering Boston as well, but they also have a story about the 31 people who were killed in bombings in Iraq on the same day. Not a peep about that on CNN. It’s hard not to interpret this as a differing valuation of human lives. The disconnect between the reality of this region and the news we get at home is not new, and this trip reminds me again of how wide the gap can be. Hopefully the conversations we’re having here can play one small part in closing it.