WARNING: this movie review may contain spoilers as it treads the lines of analysis.
Amreeka (2009) is a drama/comedy film directed by Palestinian-American Cherien Dabis and produced by National Geographic. Discontent by the detrimental and unjust living conditions in the occupied land, Mona Farah (Nisreen Faour) and her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) escape their life in Bethlehem after their long-waited immigration papers get accepted. When the visa applications get accepted, which Mona and her ex-husband had filled years prior, Mona is taken by surprise. She had forgotten about that. Now that the opportunity is in the palms of her hands, Mona is disheartened. Fadi is delighted with the news; he presents his mother with an ultimatum, “Do you want to be imprisoned in Bethlehem or free in Illinois?”
The next day, Mona and Fadi pack up their belongings. They were leaving their Palestinian hometown to a strange, cold, foreign city. Dwelling on the grief of parting away from the land, Mona’s grandmother lends them a handful of Palestinian cucumbers to remedy their homesickness and to remind them to cherish their roots, those roots which have to be with them always.
Throughout the film, we note Mona’s vision of a better self in Illinois. The opening of the film is a scene of Mona shopping in the supermarket when she notices her ex-husband’s current blonde, tall, fit, good-looking and, as she describes, “glamorous” wife. Before leaving for the airport, Mona throws a photograph of herself hugging her ex-husband into the garbage can. She has left for good, to tone her body per the consumerist beauty standards and live a dignified undisturbed life. However, the sorrowful reality of immigration slaps her in the face, teaching her that her vision was utopic and unreal.
In the airport, Mona feels unwelcome and alienated when asked about her citizenship for she is not a legal citizen in any country on the map. During the inspection process in the airport, the inspectors suspect that the ‘maamoul’ box (a tin of cookies) she has in her bag contains drugs so they throw it out. Unbeknown to them, it is where Mona hid the $2500 she was willing to spend on herself and her son who will soon go to art college. It went downhill from there. The Arab tradition of hiding money in a box of cookies was thrown into the garbage and so was her utopic vision. Early on, Mona finds out that she economically burdened her sister Raghda’s family – where she was planning to stay – for they were already troubled with a mortgage. She also caused discomfort between her sister’s youngsters who each had a private room of their own before her stay.
Desperate to keep her dignity and provide for herself and Fadi, Mona gets a job in a fastfood restaurant, White Castle. Because in Arab countries waitressing in a restaurant is considered ‘ayb’ or shameful, she claimed that she works in the bank next door. She lives a double life in which she has to lie to her son and family about her work. What makes it even more troubling is the fact that she does not drive, so her sister drops her at the bank that she claims to work at. Mona then rushes to the restaurant in fear of being caught. The situation overwhelms her as she tries to accomplish her goals in exile while also missing ‘rehet el blad’ (the smell of home). Although she spent fifteen years in exile, Raghda took her Palestinian roots with her to America. She takes her homesick sister to a store that sells ‘zaatar’ (thyme) and ‘zeit’ (oil).
On the contrary, Fadi and Raghda’s daughters slip into the American culture’s drawbacks, as Arab parents see it. It is normal for teenagers to search for escapes because they see their parents as oppressive jailers, so the migration to the U.S was the perfect solution to their distress. The teens are portrayed as stubborn, disrespectful, and rebellious persons who vape and sneak out of the house to give their parents a headache. At one point in the film, Raghda voices the struggle of Arab parents in maintaining the Palestinian traditions and beliefs in exile saying, “As long as you live in this house, you live in Palestine!” But as her daughter says, Raghda is delusional. She refuses to acknowledge the reality: that her children absorb the cultural behavior in the environment whether they like it or not. Fadi got into the same problem while trying to find his way in the prejudiced American youth community he found himself confronting. And the news of the American invasion of Iraq (2003) got the two families between the devil and the deep blue sea. Fadi had to hide his Arab descent, Mona had to endure jokes about Muslim extremists, although, ironicall,y she is Christian, and Nabeel, Raghda’s husband and main provider for the families, had to maintain his reputation as clients canceled their appointments with him.
Usually, people migrate with the perseverance of living a better life, a more decent one, the one they deserve. Their living conditions become intolerable and their dreams are to be saved by the American hero. This American hero lures them to build a layer of indifference over their skin, which they mistake for gold. By indifference, I mean the condition of unawareness of the threat to their cultural values. This is manifested in the scene where Fadi’s classmates, Mike, and his gang, disrespect Muna and cause her harm. They disrespect the elderly, a behavior that Muna was taught to avoid. In the scene where Nabeel is watching TV, we see his reaction to the media describing Arabs as terrorists. We observe the disadvantages of such propaganda in Fadi’s daily life in school especially when someone draws “go back to your country” on his car.
Migration isn’t always a good choice after all. In this case, Muna and Raghda areaware of this indirect process of tempting kids to change their identities, and defy it. Raghda even believes she was stupid to make the decision of leaving home. She brings up a tree analogy during a conversation: if a tree is removed from its roots and put in another location, it won’t grow.
In this film, the migrants go through adversity to get back in touch with their original cultural values and behavior. But, in the end, they are portrayed to have succeeded in maintaining their roots. This is shown when the families go to an Arab restaurant and dance to Marcel Khalife’s songs.
Cherien Dabis succeeds in portraying the immigrants’ struggles in exile and the implications of Mona and Fadi’s life-changing choice. However, she does not build enough for the ending. It seems abrupt and far away from being smooth. She does show us Fadi treating his mother better than when they first moved to the U.S but it is not enough to support the ending. Finally, her message that one should make sure to take their cucumbers with them to exile is well received.