SOUTH ORANGE / WEST ORANGE, NJ — Philip Kayal and Abe Kasbo had no filmmaking experience prior to producing their first documentary. What they did know was that Arab-Americans are not the evil terrorists that national media often makes them out to be. They knew, though most Americans did not, that Arab immigrants and their descendants had contributed much to American culture, from the ice cream cone to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They saw that the millions who came to the United States from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were not getting the respect they deserved — and would not unless something was done to dispel misconceptions about Arab culture.
Thus Kayal, a West Orange resident and a former professor of Kasbo’s at Seton Hall University, set out to make a documentary with his former student chronicling the nearly 200-year history of Arab successes in the United States told from the perspectives of some of those who achieved them, including Ralph Nader, Senator George Mitchell and actor Danny Thomas. And roughly seven years later, “A Thousand and One Journeys: The Arab Americans” is indeed making an impact. Its latest screening Jan. 31 at Seton Hall University — where Kasbo first met Kayal in one of Kayal’s sociology classes more than 20 years ago — attracted a warm reception similar to those in New York and Washington, D.C.
For Kasbo, who directed and produced the project, the response has been overwhelming.
“The feedback that we’ve had from the audience has been really incredible and, to be honest, everything I hoped for,” Kasbo told the Chronicle in a Jan. 28 phone interview, explaining that Arab Americans and non-Arab Americans alike have told him the film was “life-changing.”
It is understandable why Kasbo would find the positive reception so meaningful — “A Thousand and One Journeys” has been a passion of his for quite some time. In fact, one could even say it has been fermenting within him since he immigrated to the United States from Aleppo, Syria, as a boy in 1980. That is because Kasbo has encountered misconceptions about his Arab culture virtually since his arrival stateside, recalling that many other children did not know where Syria was on a map and even mistook him for Sicilian. If they did know what Syria was, he said they would often assume he had lived in the desert when the city-bred Kasbo had actually never seen the desert.
But ever since Sept. 11, 2001, misconceptions about Arab-Americans have gone far beyond such innocent mistakes. Just recently, Donald Trump vowed to ban Muslim immigration into the United States if elected president, and approximately 30 U.S. governors announced that they do not want to accept any of the 4 million displaced refugees of the Syrian Civil War, so it seems fear of the Arab world has reached a fever pitch.
Kasbo did not know that his documentary would premiere during such a political climate when he set out to make it. But he said he hopes it will go a long way toward combating the prejudices against the nation’s Arab American population — which totals between 1.8 million and 3.7 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Arab American Institute — that many have recently expressed, and change the way people view the Arab experience in the United States.
“A lot of my friends and a lot of people I know simply don’t know (about the Arab experience),” Kasbo said. “I think that in a democracy, in order for us to make good policy decisions, we have to have an understanding of who our neighbors are and what they do and what they value and what their contributions have been. We’re living in a multiethnic society, and that’s what makes America work. But our story has never really been told before, and now we’re telling it.”
Having the opportunity to tell the story of his culture’s impact on the United States was the reason Kayal chose to get involved with “A Thousand and One Journeys” as both a producer and on-camera subject. Though he is a third-generation American citizen of Syrian ancestry, the retired sociology professor said he is no stranger to experiencing misconceptions about his culture, such as the fact that most Arab-Americans — including himself and Kasbo — are actually Christian, not Muslim. In fact, according to the Arab American Museum, approximately 65 to 70 percent of Arab-Americans practice Christianity today.
Kayal, who has written several books on Syrian and Arab-American culture and acted as a historian for the production, also pointed out that Arab immigrants and descendants have played an integral role in the United States since the first major wave of migrants arrived as part of the United States’ overall Great Migration of 1880 to 1924. From the introduction of pita bread and backgammon to the 15,000 soldiers who fought in World War II to the industrialization of Paterson, Kayal said the significance of the Arab-American community’s contributions to the United States and New Jersey cannot be denied.
And Kayal said that impact continues through the modern era thanks to the work of Arab-Americans such as U.S. Army Gen. John Abizaid, Congressman Nick Rahall and the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid, all of whom were interviewed for the documentary.
Even with this history, Kayal said Arab-Americans are often viewed as an “out group,” which is why people like Trump have found supporters. Though Kayal said he believes this sentiment will eventually pass just as other anti-ethnic group movements did, the former Seton Hall professor told the Chronicle he hopes viewers of “A Thousand and One Journeys” will get the message that Arab-Americans are really just like everyone else.
“We want to rectify stereotyping and discrimination,” Kayal said in a Jan. 28 phone interview. “You can’t do that without educating the public. So that’s why this documentary is so important.
Non-Arabs are not the only people Kayal hopes are educated by the film. The sociologist said he has noticed that the younger generations of Arab-Americans are becoming detached from their heritage. Without being exposed to an immigrant grandparent or raised with traditional Arab family values, he said more young people are identifying themselves as strictly American instead of seeing the world through both an American and Arab cultural lens, as he did growing up.
Now that the “A Thousand and One Journeys” has been made, Kayal said he can rest easy knowing that there is finally a documentary that preserves Arab history for future generations.
“Virtually every larger ethnic group has documentary films on their history, but we had none,” Kayal said. “Now we do. So it is filling a gap in American history.”
Award-winning composer and pianist Malek Jandali, who was featured in the film, is also happy to see the documentary released. Calling it “an honor and a pleasure” to take part in, Jandali said “A Thousand and One Journeys” is exactly what Arab-Americans need to change the narrative that has taken hold in recent years that they should be feared. By telling the story of the Arab-American experience and its beneficial impact on the United States, the Syrian immigrant said the documentary has the power to combat the negative connotation that has been attached to the Arab culture in recent years and make people realize that they do not mean harm to anyone.
“When the world is dark, we must see the light of peace,” Jandali told the Chronicle in a Jan. 29 phone interview. “That film is giving us a glimpse of hope, truth and beauty during these dark times.”
Above all, Jandali said he hopes audiences will come away with the knowledge that Arab-Americans are just like every other ethnic group that traveled to the United States in search of a better life. The acclaimed musician — whose cousin happens to be the biological father of Steve Jobs, yet another famous contributor to American culture of Arab descent — said Arabs have clearly helped make this country great thanks to the freedoms that American values provide. So while some of the nation’s leaders try to think of ways to keep immigrants out, he said he hopes the larger population will turn to what those values truly mean and come to the conclusion that banning certain people is the wrong direction for the United States.
“We don’t need walls — we need peace,” Jandali said. “We have the freedom, we have the rights, we have the beauty. Now what we need to do is search for truth and go deep in our hearts and tell our story of love and peace.
“At the end of the day, we are humans,” he continued. “This should be a symphony for humanity.”
That message has the potential to reach a larger audience very soon. “A Thousand and One Journeys” can be pre-ordered online at www.arabamericathefilm.com. Kasbo said he is also currently in talks for a television-distribution deal.
Whether the documentary will be as well-received by the rest of the country as at Seton Hall and other premieres in New York and D.C. remains to be seen, but Kasbo has high hopes. Like Kayal and Jandali, the director-producer said the ultimate goal for his labor of love is to make people pause the next time they think they have nothing in common with the Arab-American community.
“There is no (difference) between Arab-American culture and American culture,” Kasbo said. “After all, we’re all Americans.”