Documentary explores Arab-Canadian barbershop culture

Sunday 02/07/2017
‘Things Arab Men Say.’ A scene from the trailer of “Things Arab Men Say” by Egyptian-Canadian film-maker Nisreen Baker. (Vimeo)

Ottawa - Nisreen Baker was wait­ing for her husband at a Lebanese-owned bar­ber shop in the western Canadian city of Ed­monton. She overheard Arab men conversing in the waiting area. Baker said the men’s frank and una­pologetic discussions over politics, identity and family sparked the idea for her documentary “Things Arab Men Say.”

Baker, an Egyptian-Canadian film-maker, said what she over­heard at Jamal’s Eden Barber Shop was characteristic of discussions that Arab Canadians have in their homes over hard topics, especially when mainstream Western media tend to associate Arab culture with extremism.

To counter that negative portray­al, Baker said: “I want to invite the Canadian public into our homes.”

Baker had her husband, his friends and other customers take part in her documentary, with Ja­mal’s shop serving as the film’s set. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, “Things Arab Men Say” aims to correct the media depiction of Arab Canadian men.

With a hockey game playing on a small corner screen and the sound of electric razors in the back­ground, seven Arab Canadians, in a mix of Arabic and English, debated identity, politics, family, work and, of course, religion.

Baker selected the participants of her 52-minute documentary to serve as a microcosm of the Arab community. They were from vari­ous Arab countries — Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq — as well as from different faiths, including Islam, Christianity and Druze.

By having diverse participants, Baker said she wanted to “show the Canadian public the 50 shades of Arabs.”

“We range from the very liberal to the very conservative, from the religious to the non-religious,” she added.

Of the topics raised by the docu­mentary’s participants, three stand out: Preserving Arabic culture while living in a Western society; stereotypes and challenges they face daily as a mischaracterised mi­nority; and the elusive, unsettled relationship they have with their home countries.

Ghassan, Baker’s husband, de­scribed his challenge of being a “stateless” Palestinian until be­ing allowed to stay in Canada. He noted that throughout his career he has been subject to stereotypes and negative perceptions by co-workers.

“The jokes are almost always about me being a terrorist, some­thing about me blowing something up,” he said.

Faisal is a third-generation im­migrant with Metis and Lebanese roots. He said Canadians of Arab or South-Asian backgrounds are “lumped all into the same catego­ry. We’re terrorists and we’re [the Islamic State] ISIS and they have to protect against us.”

“That’s just being used as a polit­ical ploy to gain votes,” Faisal said.

A recent report by Statistics Canada indicated that hate crimes targeting Muslims in Canada in­creased 61% from 2014-15. The re­port noted that religion motivated 35% of hate crimes reported to the police in 2015. The report noted an increase in reported crimes moti­vated by hatred of race or ethnicity. Much of the increase was the result of more hate crimes targeting the Arab and West-Asian populations.

Issues regarding their countries of origin were also debated in the documentary: How and why should they preserve their culture while in Canada, for example, and how can they relate to their own country after immigrating abroad.

Most men in the group said that teaching Arabic to their children was essential to maintaining cul­tural links with their origins.

Hassan, an Egyptian-Canadian, said: “If you lose the language, you lose part of the culture.” Other communities, such as Québécois and the First Nations, in Canada try to preserve their culture through maintaining their languages.

Keeping the culture alive, how­ever, does not mean they are not changing.

“I’ve changed compared to the Lebanese people,” said Adnan, who immigrated to Canada from Leba­non in 2002.

The general notion of immigrants struggling to adapt to life in a new country while trying to define and construct their hyphenated iden­tity is real. However, what also seems prevalent is a loss of belong­ing to their country of origin due to exposure to different cultures and ways of life as well as conflict and underdevelopment in their home countries.

Baker said the issue of conflict­ing identities observed in the docu­mentary relates to her own experi­ence.

“From my perspective,” said Baker, “my country, Egypt, has be­come the home that is never going to be home. You change, and the (home) country changes, too, and unfortunately in two different directions.”

Baker said the sad reality is that the Arab world is deteriorating and failing to progress. When Arabs move to a developed country, how­ever, they start to move forward.

“What’s a common identity?” asked Baker. “I think we are still trying to figure that out… [Some of the documentary participants] are trying to go back to their roots and some want to break out of their shells.”

The overall message that Baker aimed to deliver through her doc­umentary is that Arabs and Arab Canadians are “a lot more than the one image they keep watching about us in mainstream media.”