In Search of an Invisible City: interview in White Fungus

“The origin, or the seed, of this invisible city was planted shortly after my brother died at the age of 28. He was a writer, a religious man, a husband, a criminal and drug addict. When they were preparing my brother’s tombstone they asked my mother where he was born, and she said he was born in Iraq. Even though he was born in Iowa. Where are we? Perhaps his death birthed this place.

It’s that spell that has lit up the cornfields.”

Read the full interview here. 

Excerpts from Usama’s notebook for Baghdad, Iowa (featuring drawings, collage, and a short story) will be featured in MIDWASTE, a forthcoming publication.

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Unpublished Interview

Here is an interview about my 2011 feature film Profane that was never published.
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What was the inspiration behind Profane?

I’ve had this idea for a long time. A Muslim sex-worker who is conflicted about her job and religion. The idea of the jinn came a little later as I was doing my own research. I was born in Iraq and raised as a Muslim. Although my family were not extremely religious or conservative in regard to Islam– we would attend mosque for special events and Eid. I also lived for a few years in Saudi Arabia where I became much more devout as a young Muslim and started to go to mosque on a regular basis and reading the Quran daily. But I was also exposed to other things in Saudi Arabia. I saw pornography for the first time and would hear stories about orgies and drug use. Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is extremely conservative as the birth place of Islam. This did not surprise me too much – this hypocrisy and dichotomy between religion and vice. As I wrote the outline of the character for Muna I wanted her to be a real person but to also embody some of that conflict that Muslims go through (and for that matter anyone that is devout in their religion).

I was not sure if I was brave enough to make the film but was encouraged by my wife and by doing more research. I learned about a famous prostitute in Egypt who would do her daily prayers and at the end of the day she would start to take clients. In an newspaper interview, she says that she does not consider what she was doing as sinful, because she is surviving and feeding her kids. She says she is devoted to God and she knows that he is the only one that can judge her.

I liked that idea that my character would have a very personal relationship with God and form her own private ritual in her prayers that is infused with sensual devotion.

Profane is a big departure from your background in political documentary. Why did you want to tell the story of Muna?

I’m not sure if I would say I have a background in political documentary. My 2006 documentary about returning to Iraq, Nice Bombs, definitely had political aspects to it since I was talking about the war in Iraq, but generally I would say it was a personal story. I have always had some politics in my films even if they don’t appear so. My first feature, Muhammad and Jane, dealt with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States and how that affected people from the Arab world especially when it came to racial profiling and other forms of harassment and policy to spy and imprison Muslims and Arabs. But the film also had a love story in there. I think we live in a world where we are part of politics everyday. As a thinking person you have to be political in order to be aware.

For me, Profane is my attempt, in some ways, to exorcize my own metaphorical demons. As I grew older I started to identify more as an atheist and was critical of some of the passages in the Quran. But I still consider myself culturally Muslim. I’m still fascinated and entangled in the mythology and rituals of Islam. The Quran is a strange yet poetic book. In creating Muna I wanted her to embody the beauty of the Quran in her prayers and rituals. But she also has a projected fear of what she refers to as her jinn. These jinns are supernatural creatures that are very much part of Islam and are mentioned in the Quran many times. Unlike the Christian notion of demons, jinns can be either good or evil, although their reputation is one of mischief. I liked that idea of creating a narrative that obeyed the Quranic rules of this type of mystical creature called a jinn. The jinn thus becomes something real, or something metaphorical in Muna’s perception of what is happening to her. Is it in her head or is this something real? The political implications of this depends really on your belief system. If you believe in supernatural powers then she is truly haunted, if you look at it from a scientific perspective, then perhaps she has a drug problem combined with mental illness. I present these issues but I don’t necessarily answer them. That is left up to your interpretation.

Is the film intended to mock Islam or explore its relevance/importance to Muna? Is Islam compatible with a “Western” lifestyle let alone Muna’s unorthodox life?

I never intended to mock Islam. Islam, like many religions, has a set core of beliefs and rules laid out by its holy text. In many cultures, the practices of Islam and regional cultural traditions are infused and mixed in. There are many practices in Arab culture that come from pagan traditions and pre-date Islam. The evil eye, reading coffee grains, talismans and charms come from old traditions and practices that are usually passed down by the generation through women. So from Muna’s perspective she is, in a contemporary way, combining her own particular style of praying into core Islamic belief. So she may be in her underwear when she prays, but she does cover up her hair. On the outside that may seem silly, but it’s all a bit silly if you examine it. She is reacting to what she believes she must be doing and what she feels like doing. But she is also using the hijab (head scarf) for a purpose unrelated to modesty. She uses it as a symbol to create a sacred space for herself within her own very personal ritual. So I don’t think Muna really represents Western nor Eastern values. I don’t believe her “Western” lifestyle is that typical of western atitudes. I think people in the west might be tolerant of prostitution but it’s not mainstream in any capacity. I think it would have the same level of taboo in both cultures. I also don’t think Muna’s excessive drug and alcohol consumption is that appreciated in either culture. But yes, there is a certain diving into vice that Muna explores in the United States that would have to be a bit more secretive if she was in a Muslim country. But the irony is that there is nothing she is doing in the United States that she could not do in the Arab world, it’s just more underground in the east.

Islam is compatible with any lifestyle if you want it to be. I think people confuse tradition and religion. For example, there is nothing in the Quran that says women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, but they enforce it. I would say in some ways that Islam is not compatible in many Arab traditions that are too strict. Most Muslims I know drink and party and have sex before marriage, and those are the ones living in the Middle East. So no, I don’t think it’s Islam as a religion that causes any friction to Muna. I think it is the people, or the men that want to enforce their own dogma or rules onto her. The religion is benign in a way– it is the men that come to her apartment to ‘save’ her in a way from how she is practicing Islam. They come to set her straight even though she doesn’t believe she is doing anything wrong.

There are several provocative scenes such as Muna reading the Quran while in a state of undress. What was the importance of these scenes?

There are traditions in many religious beliefs that conflate sensual and mystic/religious ecstasy. Usually, when it comes to religious devotion, we will see passion in reciting of the Quran from men. Rarely will you hear a women reciting passages from the Quran in front of Muslims or hear a woman’s voice when it comes to call to prayer. And you will rarely ever see women lead a prayer group. I wanted to preserve Muna’s free-spirit with her belief. She feels very sensual toward the Quran and the prayers so she makes herself slightly naked to it. She is playing with powerful symbols. In many eastern cultures there is a kind fear and taboo when it comes to women and their bodies and hair. She is placing herself within that energy and making it her own. You also have to keep in mind that what we are seeing is something very private. When she prays in her bra, she is not doing this in public, just alone in her room. As I mentioned before, the head scarf is recontextualized for Muna and becomes a way to remove herself from the mundane and enter into a more meditative or sacred mindset. She places herself as a submissive to God. And in accordance to Islam that is exactly what she should be doing, to submit. That is the meaning of of the word Muslim, to submit, to surrender to God. So I wanted to reveal that about Muna. That she is a sensual, religious person that has her own personal relationship with God. Muna says it in the film when asked why she gave up escorting: I used to submit to men now I only submit to God.

Were you concerned about causing offence to devout Muslims? Has the film actually caused any offence at screenings?

I was not too concerned with causing any offense to Muslims. I’m not trying to offend anybody but I can’t control it if they are. I don’t believe the film has caused any offense at any screenings. When I premiered the film at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, there were some Muslims in the audience and they appreciated the film and commented that they knew people like Muna. I think there is way too much fear when it comes to artistic expression associated with Islam. I think because there has been such a back-lash against Muslims in general, it makes it more difficult to make this kind of film. But I think people of Islamic faith will really appreciate my film. But of course you worry about some of the extremists out there. I don’t want to live my life afraid and we need more Muslims and Arabs to stand up to the religious police and thugs.

How important is it to test the boundaries in cinema in terms of portraying sex, violence, drug use and religion?

I’ve always been interested in sex and violence and drug use. It’s a theme in many of my films and of course politics and religion usually play a role in this. In many ways nothing is too shocking anymore. But I do think that there is this Western false notion of how Arabs and Muslims live. That we are all angry and devout and cruel to our women, etc. But young people are the same wherever you go. Everybody is hooking up and drinking and doing drugs, no matter where you live. There is a seedy side to every culture. What I was showing is just that one slice of life. The BDSM scenes in my film are very much real. These are real submissive men that pay these women for services. I have many friends that are professional sex-workers and I worked closely with them in creating these scenes. I was not so much concerned with pushing boundaries but with showing how Muna and her friends lived and worked. Yes they party’ed a lot and had a casual relationship with sex and perversity. I’m not really trying to test the boundaries, I’m trying to show what I believe to be truthful. Some of the sex and drug-use might be a bit stylized but mostly it draws directly from real life.

[click here to purchase Profane DVD]

Trailer for Chicago Underground Film Festival

I shot and edited this. For me, the chosen movements of the performer, the edit in relation to the next shot, is another instrument at play. They’re all working together. The music by City of Djinn is repetitive enough to visually riff from.  I would describe the majority of my editing style as musical. I always wanted to be a musician but could never master any one instrument. But I had a talent in the visual arts and a deep love for music. I’m also happy to contribute to my homefront, the Chicago Underground Film Festival. They have been playing my work since I was a young lad. Dance habibi.

Directed by Usama Alshaibi. Starring Amandine Troy, with Seabrooke Mooney as art director. Music by City of Djinn, Marwan Kamel and Micah Bezold. Made in Baghdad, Iowa.