'Osama' Director Barred from Entering U.S.

Bring up the topic of augmented security in a post-Sept. 11 world, and most will complain about longer airport security waiting times. But reconsider bemoaning a five-hour wait in a terminal—Mahmoud Kaabour is a young Lebanese director who has waited five years in Canada to be allowed a visa to come into the United States.

Kaabour had been slated to screen his first documentary Being Osama, at the Harvard Film Archive Sunday night. However, despite having lived legally in Canada for seven years without any criminal history, the Canadian Security Intelligence has delayed granting his immigration rights and now refuses to assure him that he will be allowed back into Canada if he leaves. His retention is based solely on the inefficiency of bureaucracy and an overly cautious security system that perhaps too eagerly equates “Arabic” with “potential terrorist.”

Kaabour briefly telephoned into the HFA at the end of the screening, to issue an apology for not being present and field a few questions. The director, speaking without overt anger, simply commented on the irony that “the paranoia that inspired the making of the film prevented [me] from coming tonight.”

The basis of Kaabour’s documentary seems superficial—he and co-director Timothy Schwamb interviewed people from Montreal named “Osama” about the effect of Sept. 11 on their lives—but serves as a vehicle for a more comprehensive discussion of the diversity of the Canadian Arab community and the modern state of pluralism in North America.

The six Osamas are a veritable ethnic collage, tied together only by a regional nationality and a now-feared name: ranging from a 20-year-old Palestinian Christian and aspiring rock star; a young conservative Muslim Iraqi who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime as a child; to a gentle, wide-eyed Lebanese high school principal with a thick accent.

In combining personal narrative and a backdrop of political tension, Kaabour’s film could be seen as a public service announcement against intolerance as well as a slice of life cinematographic exploration of character. While Osama El-Demerdash, eager and willing to leave Canada, visibly shakes with frustration at pending arrest charges for a political demonstration, fellow Egyptian Osama El-Naggar plays poker with friends in a local hookah bar and thinks of French as his first language.

Kaabour manages to capture the most subtly nuanced elements of what ethnicity and nationality mean to individuals, rather than making sweeping cultural generalizations. The filming of quotidian events of the lives of his subjects represents the natural integration of Arabic and Western cultures; most notable is the Islamic basketball league in which the devout young Muslim Osama Dorios plays.

It is truly unfortunate that Kaabour could not be present to more fully introduce his film, and his struggle is a blatant example of the injustice facing Arab immigrants. While the United States and Canadian governments continue to create policy unfairly biased against the entire Arab community, young directors like Kaabour need to continue documenting the true individuality of persons of diverse ethnic, religious and social backgrounds.

—Staff writer Kristina M. Moore can be reached at moore2@fas.harvard.edu