Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Building Babel


Sharif and David

Tonight we are screening David Osit’s (son of Sanctuary NYC's cofounder Karen Osit) documentary, Building Babel. ( David’s original idea was to enter into the world of the controversy surrounding the efforts to build the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, the Park 51 project.   Get to know the characters, explore both sides of the issue. But he ultimately decided the best thing he could do was to focus in on developer Sharif el Gamel and show in detail the life of one America Muslim family, in its warmth, intimacy, and normalcy. That alone would be radical enough.

The film follows Sharif in intimate detail. Listening to obscene threatening messages on his answering machine. Facing angry chanting mobs. Facing down the powerful New York City Landmarks Commission. Challenging the thought that the fact that landing gear from one of the planes fell on the roof of what was once the Burlington Coat factory was not enough to warrant landmarking. As one commissioner said, we can’t landmark the sky, though I wish we could. 

Sharif is seen  as he is. Driven. Single minded. Passionate. Seeking to be faithful as a Muslim. A loving father. And husband. And neighbor. My neighbor,living two floors down in my apartment building. 

The most ugly face of Islamophobia is revealed in the film from activists to Fox News, who even tried to corner Sharif in our own apartment building  garden.The images of fear and intolerance are disturbing. I am very happy that Sharif has come to join us this evening for questions and answers. He’s been doing his best to stay out of the spotlight and not speak on the record. He receives a warm ovation as he’s introduced.

Bob, Sharif, David Osit, Karen Osit
But even here, in this liberal environment, the anxiety comes through. Far too many questions along the lines of well, you’re obviously a good Muslim,but..., liberals fearing the loss of social gains, as in the fear of eurostanization and the imposition of sharia law. Somehow forgetting the more draconian tenants of Torah, the history of witch hunts and Inquisitions in Christianity, the blood stained history of most religious traditions.  

What I always find most ironic is what people don’t see. That Sharif is, in his own words,  a typical New Yorker, an American, a Capitalist.. I remember my friend Maher in Pittsburgh. A graduate of Texas A&M. If it weren’t for his status as a Palestinian exile, he would have been considered a classic, conservative believer in the American dream. But what he represented as a living testimony of the reality of American supported Israeli policy made him an outsider, marginalized. 

I remember out building sukkot shabbat dinner in the sukkah during the height of the controversy. Invited as a neighbor, even here among people who share a building, the questions for Sharif  turned into challenges. A warm and pleasant evening turned uncomfortable until the conversation was guided in another direction. 

Tonight, Sharif does his best. Defending himself. And sometimes Islam itself. We have so far to go. David’s film has given us a start.

When the film is over, Sharif wants to see the whole building. I give him the full tour. He wants to have breakfast next week. I’m open....

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