Chris Vlahonasios is the owner of Transfigure Media and founder of the Byazanfest film festival, the world’s only online Orthodox Christian film festival streaming the very best short and feature-length films.
In this episode, Chris Vlahonasios takes on the topic of the persecution of Christians around the world, but especially in the Middle East. He discusses the issue by way of his review, first, of the 2009 indie file, “Amreeka,” which tells the story of Palestinian Christians as they leave their homeland and emigrate to America, where they will face prejudice because of their background. Chris also discusses the book Not Even My Name, which tells the true story of a family who survived the exile of Christian minorities from Turkey during the Armenian Genocide. Through these works, Chris discusses how fear, prejudice, ignorance, and an over-zealous patriotism can keep people from truly experiencing the cultural richness that such minorities can offer. Click the play button below to listen.
[toggle_container keep_open=’false’ ][toggle title=’Click here to see transcript’]
The movie and book reveal the pressures Western societies impose on these people, inspired by ignorance and fear. Muna and her family are frequently mistaken for Muslims or Iraqis and therefore, absurdly, terrorists. Fuelled by over-zealous patriotism and prejudice, this negative environment begins to have an impact on Fadi at school. In an act of rebellion and seeking acceptance, Fadi intimates his cousin, Salma, to become ‘more American’; unfortunately this involves adopting the gangster lifestyle. This attitude of indifference and self-destruction turns the intelligent and talented Fadi into a broken and frustrated soul – was this the ‘reinvention’ promised? To him, and many others, they feel this conformity and rejection of one’s heritage is the only way to be accepted.
This conflict between Old and New World-views is perfectly illustrated when Radhda uses the analogy of a tree being uprooted from its home and transplanted to a different place where it struggles to grow. Radhda (born in Palestine) and her daughter (born in America) are two extremes. For example, Radhda tells her daughter that their home is effectively on Palestinian soil. In response Salma calls her delusional telling her that they live in America. Although she may have a point, she loses merit when one looks at her self-destructive lifestyle and rejection of her origins which cannot be forgotten. We see that Radhda’s home-sickness has made her insensitive to others not familiar with her culture. However, this conflict is reconciled in a scene between Manu and Fadi. Fadi makes a good point that how can one expect things to remain the same when starting again in a very different country. Manu resolves his insecurities highlighting if they didn’t belong in Palestine and didn’t belong in America then where could they go? Every place has its difficulties, all one can do is remain strong and rely on their heritage to give them direction. This also reconciles Radhda’s dilemma of the uprooted tree – though it may have difficulty taking root in new soil, it needs time to adapt to the new environment.
“Amreeka” stresses in order to live together we cannot rely on oppression, but incorporate the best of both worlds. Muna is a great example of this. Though she may not hold herself in high regard, she’s a highly tolerant and insightful individual which you very quickly respect. For example, we see Muna introduces a co-worker to falafels, Arabic and Radhda to burgers. She also holds no resentment. Even upon learning the school principal is of Jewish heritage, she does not express any ill feelings towards him despite the treatment her family experienced in Palestine; this a high admirable. If these persecuted Christians are going to make such an effort we need to do the same. In another scene, Muna is applying for a job and the interviewer asks if Palestine is one of those ‘Israeli-speaking countries’. Yet it is Muna who feels more foolish because of her ascent rather than the man with his lack of general world knowledge. It’s this ignorance that results in what I call ‘Cultural Genocide’.
In Not Even My Name, the author’s sisters, despite being of Pontian Greek and Assyrian heritage, instead wanted to be regarded as Egyptian and her brothers as Turks because of ordinary American’s lack of awareness of their cultures. Thea recounts how her teachers insisted she was confused, that Assyrians no longer existed; they were an ancient people from biblical times who died out. Or when she said she was Pontian, Americans had no idea what she was talking about and as a result she gave up and stop talking about her heritage. Such ignorance and wide-spread lack of general knowledge causes such people to abandon their identity and forget their origins, erasing the memory of an entire people. Cultural Genocide results in the loss of thousands of years of culture and entire living-libraries of knowledge. So what the Genocide didn’t finish off an uninformed society can help. Ignorance coupled with fear comes at a great cost – is this the price for acceptance?
So how should our societies resolve these tensions: through knowledge and understanding. By learning about these cultures we can make our societies more tolerant and in the process better our world. As revealed in Amreeka, did you know that Chess was invented by the Arabs? And that the phrase, ‘Check-Mate’ is Arabic ‘Chuck Matt’ for ‘the king is dead’? So you’ve been speaking Arabic without knowing it. Even the word ‘OK’ is an abbreviation for ‘Ola Kala’ which is Greek for ‘all is good’, used to help communicate with British soldiers during WW2. In Not Even My Name, Thea’s mother cooked not only American-style holiday foods, including apple pie and turkey topped with pineapple and marshmallows, but regional dishes such as stuffed grape leaves and cham-bo-rak, a meat pie cooked in a pan and bread rolls with black seeds. And think of this, if one had to fully adopt ‘the American way’ then Orthodoxy would be in conflict with American spirituality, which does not favour ‘tradition’.
By the end of the film and book it’s obvious that fear, prejudice, conformity, ignorance and extreme-patriotism feed one another. However, I want to stress it’s not the entire population, whether it be America, Australia or Turkey that’s insensitive. Minorities, fuelled by ultra-nationalist and patriotic agenda coupled with lack of knowledge, are the ones who spread this hatred into the wider society. In Amreeka, Muna is helped by her co-worker, the bank employee from next door covers for her and the school principal always being there to help her. In Not Even my Name, they meet several young Turks who provide invaluable help and hospitality on their journey, making Thea wonder how the genocide could have even happened based on the hospitable nature of these people.
In short, by not understanding and learning about the histories and culture of these persecuted Christians, we’ll be the losers.
+ + +
Be sure to check out the links listed below for more info about the film, book and several Pontian groups in America and Australia.
If you want to learn more about Orthodoxy, media and the arts, visit the OFA blog at orthodoxfilmmakersandartists.blogspot.com or LIKE the blog on Facebook.
Thanks for listening.
Amreeka trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRKa2MLkKLA
Amreeka IMbd – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1190858/
Not Even My Name – http://www.notevenmyname.com/
List of world-wide Pontian-Greek organisations
Asia-Minor groups – Australia
Pontian-Greek groups – USA
Armenian National Committee of America
Armenian Network of America