Fighting the Dangerous Foolishness of Miss Anne and Mister Charlie: Battling Bigotry in The Mauritanian, Vice, and The Great Muslim American Road Trip

by Daniel Garrett Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 34 minutes (8384 words)

The Great American Muslim Road Trip (photo source, PBS)

  1. Ignoring Individual Rights

The Mauritanian (2021), based on the book Guantanamo Diary, is the story of an innocent man, and a military and moral conflict, a legal system, and a trial, the story of a nation and its moral deterioration; and it begins in year 2001 with a quiet scene, featuring a man in white ceremonial dress, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), walking alone on beach, then a communal scene with music—clapping, drumming—in Mauritania, northwest Africa: he at a relative’s wedding.  Officials come to the wedding to talk to Mohamedou, an engineer who has lived in Germany (and briefly in Canada), has international contacts, but has come back to Mauritania, and, being a modern and helpful man, he has put up a village satellite dish.  Slahi has gotten the attention of the officials as he spoken with, and helped with a family matter, a cousin who has been involved in terrorist activity.  The officials want to talk further.  Will Mohamedou Slahi be able to speak with these men so that they will understand who he is, his experience and purpose, his principles?  Will they recognize him; or will the power of their prejudices overwhelm perception?  Ignorance can be a foundation of confidence or doubt, encouraging the will to find knowledge or engendering false conviction and suspicion.  What will Slahi know of justice?  Mohamedou Slahi reassures and says goodbye to his worried mother (Baya Belal); but his reassurance is not well-founded, and it will be years before he sees his family again. 

Slahi’s story was told through his own journals, edited by Larry Siems, in the original 2015 Little, Brown and Company book Guantanamo Diary, which contained much redacted—blacked out—material; and republished with the text restored in 2017 by the publisher Canongate.  Here his story is presented by film director Kevin Macdonald, with a script by Michael Bronner (M. B. Traven), Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani (the production design is by Michael Carlin, the cinematographer Alwin Huchler, and the editor Justine Wright).  Macdonald’s previous work includes the documentary One Day in September, 1999, about the murder of Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympics in Munich; and The Last King of Scotland, 2006, starring Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin.  The Mauritanian is chastening.

What will Slahi know of justice: the appearance of legality, or the actual practice of evaluating fact, logic, and law, concluding in fair judgment?  In September 2001, Mauritanian police question Slahi, the Federal Bureau of Investigation question him—and the police declare him innocent.  Two months later the Mauritanian police contact and question him again, but this time say they are sending him, as the United States has requested, to Jordan.  Jordanian commandos take him to Cyprus, then Amman, Jordan, for nearly eight months, with the Jordanians concluding he is not guilty of the suspicions; then, in July 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency get him and take him to Afghanistan then to the American base in Guantanamo, Cuba.  Slahi (Tahar Rahim) needs divine intervention, or a good lawyer—and gets one.  A lawyer in New Mexico, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), is told about Mohamedou case about three years later, amidst her own work: she is visiting a court for a well-reported case of her younger colleague, then meets an acquaintance for lunch in an outdoor café—a casual place, where others, including a young man, are simply dressed—and her lunch date tells Nancy Hollander that a Paris lawyer representing a Mauritanian family contacted him about a missing man, Mohamedou Slahi, who has been reported to be in the American prison in Guantanamo.  Nancy Hollander’s approach is to defend habeas corpus, legal rights (an arrested person has the right to be brought to court, to face a judge). 

I like The Mauritanian, recognizing the significance of its subject, the talent of the filmmakers (cast and crew), and the simplicity of the storytelling, a wrong discovered and addressed; but I am reminded that, as with many political films, the narrowing of focus to political issues—ethical questions, a struggle for power—what can be ignored or lost are the complexities of life, the lives that actually make the politics important.  We get glimpses of Slahi’s life, but they are mere glimpses—a family wedding, a scene with a woman companion and associates in an apartment.  That, partly, may be why David Rooney the Hollywood Reporter found the “this legal procedural remains strangely flat, despite its star power and a gripping central performance from Tahar Rahim as Slahi” (January 12,2021).  Whereas The Mauritanian is about the betrayal of American principles by the government, Adam McKay’s film Vice is about how circumstances were created—out of ambition, conservatism, fear, ignorance, and rage—for such betrayal; but some of the survivors can be glimpsed in The Great Muslim American Road Trip with Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins, directed by Alex Kronemer.

The commitment to habeas corpus is intended to prevent indefinite and unlawful imprisonment, which Nancy Hollander, as Slahi’s lawyer, uses to seek justice for Slahi.  Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a military lawyer Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), is asked to participate in the Guantanamo/Gitmo war court.  The George Walker Bush administration wants quick, rough justice, Couch is told, regarding the Mohamedou Slahi case (Slahi is thought to be a terrorist recruiter), and people are assuming the facts rather than checking the facts; but the lawyer, Couch, is eager to prosecute, having known someone who died on September 11, 2001, during the World Trade Center attack. 

Cuba is an independent nation, yet the government of the United States maintains a base—and a prison—there.  How?  The United States naval fleet attacked Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War, and maintained Guantanamo’s harbor during the 1898 hurricane season—and never lost control.  American and Cuban forces defeated Spanish troops; and, after the war ended, the U.S. kept a military presence on the island—even after the country became socialist.  Does the military prison there—established in January 2002, as part of the “war on terror”—exist to keep dangerous men from the United States, or the keep American citizens from seeing how the prisoners are treated, the betrayal of principles?  In The Mauritanian, lawyer Nancy Hollander (Foster) visits the Cuban prison to meet Slahi (Tahar Rahim) for the first time; and she is told about the limits of what she can say, record, report.  She arrives with younger colleague, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley).  Hollander explains that the government must present evidence or release him.  Slahi, coming under suspicion because of a relative’s supposed violence, explains that he has been interrogated but not charged.  Hollander asks him to write down his story; and he says that he likes to write but is mistrustful with all the surveillance.  How is the prisoner to be understood, through his words and actions, by culture and religion?  Is his civility and morality perceptible to those outside his culture?  Or will he be condemned based on theories of contamination?  One Muslim is the same as another; and if one is a fanatic or a terrorist, aren’t they all?  If a family or clan member is dangerous, aren’t they all dangerous?  Mohamedou Slahi, an engineer, fought with Al-Qaeda (when America was supporting jihadists against a government supported by the Soviets in Afghanistan); and Slahi maintained contact with a cousin connected to Al-Qaeda even when it was against America.  (Al-Qaeda, or the Base, is the militant Sunni organization, founded in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988 by Abdullah Azzan, Osama bin Laden, Muhammad Atef, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pursuing a pan-Islamic state.)  The United States military prosecutors, believing Slahi dangerous, seek the death penalty.  Slahi (Rahim) asks the lawyers Hollander (Foster) and Duncan (Woodley) to speak with his mother; and Duncan, through an interpreter, does.

Hollander and Duncan visit a secure federal facility in Virginia to read Mohamedou Slahi’s correspondence; but find that the government is withholding the case file: they have only Mohamedou’s testimony.  He recalls his arrival at Gitmo, being bound, shaved, scrubbed, interrogated by several men.  He recalls his life, his father as a camel herder, a father who died when Mohamedou was young.

The military lawyer Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is serious about the case; and after a church service, speaks with a 9/11 widow about the coming case against the supposed 9/11 recruiter; they want justice or vengeance (hard to discern which).  Yet, even Couch will find that loyalty and patriotism are used to cover the lack of evidence, the lack of investigative rigor.  One is compelled to consider whether the suspension of rules or rigor is acceptable even under duress, even under special circumstances: does evil in response to evil bring forth good?

Mohamedou, prisoner 760, speaks with a nearby prisoner when he goes outside to pray: someone who lived in Marseille.  This prisoner jokes with Mohamedou, but in time will despair, missing his life, his wife, thinking he will never get out.  (Nancy Hollander confirms this aspect of Mohamedou’s testimony.)  The lawyers find that there is something wrong with the interrogators’ reports: military prosecutors see missing information, missing dates.  They want to corroborate details.  The lead military prosecutor (Cumberbatch) is brushed off with patriotic generalities.

Mohamedou’s testimony allows for the film’s flashbacks, in which he explains to his interrogators that his cousin’s father was sick and needed money for the hospital, so the cousin sent money and Mohamedou paid the hospital.  Mohamedou explained that he helped friends, and the friends of friends, letting people stay for short times in his German house when they were in need of shelter.  He’d won a scholarship to Germany in 1988 and was the hope of his family.  He has a sense of community—and the Americans long seem to have been attuned to ambitious individuality, not to a genuine community of friendship or morality, but to self-gratification, with people coming together for business or sports or war or some other questionable goal.

Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch) visits a friend and colleague, Neil Buckland (Zachary Levi), to find out how to get back intelligence, the primary reports, concerning his case.  Couch is trying to figure out how to move the levers of the American justice system, even as practiced by the military, to achieve righteous goals.  Where are the fabled checks and balances?  Meanwhile, Nancy Hollander (Foster) and Teri Duncan (Woodley) visit Mohamedou again; and he is upset that the “privilege team” (independent reviewers) read his correspondence.  The simultaneous surveillance and withholding of evidence engender distrust.  The files his lawyers can see are so redacted, so blacked out, they are indecipherable.  They, his lawyers, want Mohamedou to sue the government, in order to see the evidence against him.  The opposing lawyers, Hollander and Couch, meet, and they discuss the Cuban prison, and law.  (Are the detainees in prison to keep them out of court, or to keep the jailers out of court?)  When Couch visits the prison, he sees the actual and appalling conditions, learns of the cold temperature, the sleep deprivation, the noise torture.  Yet, Mohamedou is smart, strong, honest, a good writer, with a good sense of humor and he prays; thus, he survives.

The checks and balances of the American system offers possibilities for calling power into question—such as Mohamedou’s suit against the government to see the actual evidence against him.  The case against the government seems simple: Nancy Hollander tells the presiding judge that her client has been held in prison for six years, that the government has had time to investigate, to fulfill its goals.  The government’s evidence against him seems scant.  Yet, his lawyers see that at some point, Mohamedou, under duress, confessed to crimes.  Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) believes the confession of guilt, and leaves the case, not understanding or accepting that brutal interrogation can lead to false confessions, agreeing to anything to get the pain to stop.  (Thus, the use of torture raises doubt about the truthfulness of a confession.)

In the Pentagon, the military lawyer’s friend Neil admits to him, Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch) that he went along with George W. Bush’s secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “special measures” and allows Stuart to see primary reports, which contain details of torture.  Meanwhile, Nancy reads Mohamedou’s testimony, which also details torture—and that included isolation, cold, loud music, and even sexual assault.  (Slahi is beaten, nearly drowned; for seventy days, enduring a variety of tortures.)  When he still refused to cooperate, they threatened to bring his mother to the Guantanamo prison.  The military lawyer says that as a Christian and a lawyer he refuses to prosecute the case; and he is called a traitor by colleagues, although he is affirming the nation’s principled Constitution.  False patriotism sometimes gets more allegiance than genuine patriotism.  A newspaper publishes an article about Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch), “The Conscience of the Colonel,” drawing attention to the complexities of the case.)

The Mauritanian “lays bare the systematic criminality, including the use of illegal detention, torture and murder, of the Bush and Obama administrations, the US military, the CIA and other agencies,” wrote Joanne Laurier in the pages of the World Socialist Web Site (“The Mauritanian: 14 years in Guantanamo detention camp—the horrifying reality of America’s ‘war on terror’,” March 8, 2021).  The World Trade Center attack gave permission for the execution of old plans abroad and the curtailing of rights at home.  “Of the 779 prisoners who have been held at Guantánamo, eight have been convicted of a crime, with three of those convictions overturned on appeal,” she reminds us.  David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter  had written, “The stain on both Republican and Democrat governments is an important point, even if the film does not address the congressional restrictions that blocked Obama’s commitment to shut down Gitmo” (January 12, 2021).

Mohamedou passes a polygraph text.  Teri finds the wife of the Marseille prisoner that Mohamedou befriended, more proof of his testimony.  Nancy asks Teri to rejoin the case.  At the court proceeding, Mohamedou participates via teleconference, and testifies, talking about his fear of the police in Mauritania, but not in Germany, and the fact that he believed in America as a land of opportunity and fairness.  He says he was told that he was guilty without evidence.  He has been eight years in prison.  In 2010, he gets a letter that he has won his case; yet he remains in prison for another seven years, not released until October 2016.  Slahi, who more than ten years before had reassured his mother that he would be back soon, never saw his mother again.  What can excuse or remedy all this trouble? 

  1. Ignoring Evidence

“What do we believe?” asks Dick Cheney.  Donald Rumsfeld laughs.

Vice.  Dick Cheney is howling drunk, playing dice, then drives erratically, before being stopped by the police at the beginning of Vice (2018), filmmaker Adam McKay’s surprising portrait of a man who made himself an important, if not wholly impressive, figure of American power.  Cheney, as Vice president to President George Walker Bush, during the September 11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, is resolute.  How did the drunk become the dominating conservative, and what have been the consequences for the nation?  Adam McKay, the director of The Big Short, a film on the financial crisis, has figured out how to make political films—glamorous, informative, and satirical—for our time.  (“The pace is jaunty, the scenes crackle with gleeful, giddy incredulity, and the dry business of statecraft attains the velocity of farce,” remarked critic Anthony Scott in the December 17, 2018 New York Times.)  Adam McKay provides answers that seem true; and, unfortunately, the truth can be far from satisfactory.

Richard Bruce Cheney and Lynne Ann Vincent had met when they were in their teens, becoming high school sweethearts; and in 1963 they are in their college years; and she is ambitious, discipline, and he is not.  She is a literature student, and will get several degrees in that subject, including a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.  A Yale dropout, he received from the University of Wyoming his bachelor of arts and a master of arts degrees (he began working for a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin but did not finish).  Dick Cheney worked for a time as a laborer on the power lines, and he drank—a good old boy who was not much good.  When Lynne (Amy Adams) bails Dick (Christian Bale) out of jail for the second time, she threatens to break up with him, and date someone else if he does not straighten up.  (She thinks that as a woman her possibilities are limited, but that he can go far—if he stops being a big drunken piss-soaked zero.  He promises not to disappoint her again.)  Their marriage begins in 1964, as the film credits role; and he gets military deferments, saving him from Vietnam.  There is a congressional internship program in 1968 that interests Dick; and congressman Donald Rumsfeld addresses his group with honesty and humor, impressing Cheney, who gets a position with Rumsfeld in the Office of Economic Opportunity.  Rumsfeld, who had studied political science at Princeton and had been a navy pilot, would go on to be ambassador to NATO, and chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and secretary of defense; but now he says what he wants from his intern is quiet, obedience, and loyalty—and Cheney offers that, and gets a small office (Lynne is enthusiastic).   

Behind closed doors, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, first national security advisor then secretary of state, plan war in Cambodia (despite Nixon’s political campaign saying he would end the American war in Asia).  Dick Cheney overhears that.  “What do we believe?” asks Dick Cheney of Don Rumsfeld, who laughs, as if the question is absurd.

In 1973, in Bethesda, Maryland, Cheney (Christian Bale) and Lynne (Amy Adams) have children—daughters Liz and Mary—and he works for a consulting firm.  Once a deputy sheriff, her husband an engineer, Lynne’s mother, although she is not a swimmer, drowns (an accident, or murder?); and Dick warns Lynne’s father to stay away from Lynne and their children.  Richard Nixon, following the criminality and scandal of Watergate, resigns in August, 1974.  While Lynne is upset, Dick sees an opportunity; and Rumsfeld is back in the White House as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and Cheney becomes deputy assistant to the president.  Rumsfeld will become secretary of defense, and Cheney chief of staff in 1975.  Dick Cheney acquires the skill of making wild ideas sound rational, says the film’s narrator Kurt (actor Jesse Plemons)—who is to be a heart donor for Cheney.  Dick Cheney acquires wild ideas from various sources.  The lawyer Antonin Scalia—and future Supreme Court justice—advises Dick Cheney about absolute executive authority, the unitary executive theory: the president, as chief executive, as national leader, can control the entire federal executive branch.  That’s authoritarian.  Following the pardon of Nixon, President Ford loses his election; and Jimmy Carter becomes president.

Dick Cheney runs for Congress, but he is not a natural: he does not give a good speech.  He does not feel well, has a problem with his heart, and is given bed rest.  His wife Lynne campaigns for him—and she is a natural, utilizing anger and ideology and wit.  He wins his political race and becomes a congressional representative, a legislator.  Ronald Reagan wins his campaign too.  Dick Cheney’s responsibilities makes him very busy, and he has a heart attack; but it is clear that he and his wife both relish power (Lynne makes a comment about how many people want to be them).  Lynne will become the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993 (and known to reject grant applications from radical and eccentric scholars despite positive peer reviews).  Dick Cheney helps to get rid of the “fairness doctrine,” which required that diverse views be presented in the media.  They are Miss Anne and Mister Charlie without restraints.  (Miss Anne and Mister Charlie are African-American colloquialisms, referring to an arrogant European-American woman and man, self-infatuated and self-serving, clueless to what they do not know—and sometimes the terms are used to refer to people of color who embody the same self-serving attitudes, oblivious to the wants and needs of others).

In this film, Vice, written and directed by Adam McKay, with production design by Patrice Vermette, cinematography by Greg Fraser, and edited by Hank Corwin, Steve Carell is Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell is George W. Bush, LisaGay Hamilton is Condi Rice, Tyler Perry is Colin Powell, and Matthew Jacobs is Antonin Scalia, Alison Pill is Mary Cheney, and Lily Rabe is Liz Cheney.  Christopher Orr of The Atlantic found the film “zany yet hectoring,” too much so for its serious subject: “Rather than tamp down his inclination toward wackiness in light of such material, McKay takes it up to 11:  His bells are topped with more bells, and his whistles bellow like air horns” (December 21, 2018). 

Is Dick Cheney a monster, or merely a determined conservative bureaucrat?  Dick Cheney loves his children—that may be the nicest thing anyone could say about him.  He may have had good intentions, too.  (How can one know, considering the consequences?)  “Revulsion and admiration lie as close together as the red and white stripes on the American flag, and if this is in some respects a real-life monster movie, it’s one that takes a lively and at times surprisingly sympathetic interest in its chosen demon,” noted A.O. Scott in the New York Times (December 17, 2018).  Mary Cheney, Dick and Lynne’s daughter, leaves school, and has a car accident, upset over the break-up with her girlfriend Susan (Mary is a lesbian); and Dick offers unconditional love.  Dick Cheney becomes secretary of defense under George Herbert Walker Bush.  Dick considers a presidential run of his own but does not pursue it as it might hurt his family, particularly his daughter Mary, whose personal life might be used against him.  He becomes chief executive at Halliburton, a large corporate provider of energy products and services—with a lot of government contracts. 

However, Dick (Christian Bale) later gets a call of interest from the political campaign of George Walker Bush, the Texas governor and the son of George Herbert Walker Bush; and while Lynne (Amy Adams) is skeptical, Dick Cheney sees opportunity. Vice President?  Dick is about power; and sees independence is possible as Vice president, wanting an expanded role—for shaping the federal bureaucracy, and policies regarding energy, the military, and foreign policy.  On election night, despite the close race and the controversy concerning the counting of ballots, Al Gore concedes.  (The controversy resurges, but a Supreme Court decision—stopping a recount of the ballots—renders Bush Jr. the winner.)  Dick Cheney begins to plan White House staffing: Cheney’s team seems better-placed than that of the president.  (Does Cheney transform the bush into a shrub?  When Rumsfeld realizes that certain Bush friends are not getting jobs, Rumsfeld speculates that Cheney is either more ruthless than he used to be, or he’s just not getting enough sex.)  Dick Cheney has several offices—in White House, in the Senate, in the Pentagon; and he works against taxes on the rich, environmental protection, and business regulations.

“Bale, thickening and graying before our eyes, burrows into the personality of a shrewd operator endowed with whatever the opposite of charisma might be.  His Cheney lacks any trace of charm, humor or warmth, except sometimes in the company of his family,” wrote A.O. Scott in the Times (December 17 2018).  When the World Trade Center attack occurs, Lynne insists on going to be with Dick Cheney, who was acting as leader—whom and where to target? (Afghanistan?  Iraq?)  The American nation might have responded to the World Trade Center with a police action, a search for particular criminals, rather than declaring war on a country.  Declaring war on a country could deny terrorists official resources.  Dick Cheney sees the attack as an opportunity to expand the reach of government—and his own power.  Colin Powell, the CIA, and an international armed coalition—with partner Great Britain, and Australia, Canada, France, and Germany offering support—defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks: Operation Enduring Freedom lasted from October 7, 2001 to December 17, 2001.  [The Taliban—the Seekers—with ideological roots in Afghanistan and India, was a militant Islamic fundamentalist group, consisting of ethnic Pashtuns and Deobandi (Sunni adherents to Hanafi laws), emerging during the 1994 Afghan civil war, led by Mullah Omar; and the group governed much of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.]  Yet, despite this apparent victory, the removal of the Taliban from the government of Afghanistan, war would continue in Afghanistan from 2001 through 2021, with the American evacuation and the Taliban returning to power. 

Following the declaration of war—the United States, joined by a coalition of national forces—Dick Cheney pursues power, other goals: the surveillance of American citizens, and torture of foreign detainees.  (In the film, a waiter offers a menu of political license and indulgences.  Cheney is enthusiastic about all the offered items.)  The war on terror?  Focus groups consider how the war is being sold (not clear on who is the enemy—a man? a group? a country?).  Cheney turns attention to Iraq—and begins to generate and control “intelligence.”  The secretary of state Colin Powell is asked to give a speech against Iraq at the United Nations, February 5, 2003; and, the Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a rebel opponent, is cited, given international attention.  Zarqawi, who formed a group devoted to monotheism and jihad in 1999 in Jordan, led an Afghanistan training camp for fighters.  He moved to Iraq after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.  Powell made claims about Saddam Hussein and Iraqi weapons of destruction, based on faulty U.S. intelligence reports, although Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attack (many people considered this would be a war for oil; and on February 15, 2003, millions of people in more than 300 cities around the world protested—but the voices of citizens were ignored, which is very frightening if one stops to contemplate it).  George W. Bush, looking both clueless and determined, announced the war against Iraq to Americans via television in a very calculated speech on March 19, 2003.  The focus of American financial resources and military would change, from Afghanistan to Iraq (the Iraq war lasts from March 20, 2003 to December 15, 2011).

A lion-hearted Joe Wilson (The Politics of Truth), a diplomat who traveled to investigate Saddam Hussein’s possible purchase of uranium for weapons, comments, criticizing the Bush administration’s policy in The New York Times (“What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” July 6, 2003); and the name of Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame, an intelligence officer, is leaked to the media, making her work impossible, endangering her life (and leading to Cheney Vic presidential aide Scooter Libby’s legal conviction).  Zarqawi once cited by Colin Powell as a powerful figure, is elevated, and Zarqawi further organizes, founds ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  There are cabinet resignations, including Powell’s.  Cheney tells Rumsfeld it is time for Rumsfeld to go.  Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, someone who voted against war, is elected; inaugurated.

Dick Cheney, with recurring heart trouble, is hospitalized; and he gets a heart transplant from the film’s narrator.  Liz Cheney, Dick and Lynne’s daughter, runs for public office, for the Senate; and she is pressured to go against gay marriage, an issue in the ongoing culture wars—and she goes against gay marriage, and her sister Mary is hurt.  Liz, however, withdraws from the Senate race, and gains a seat in the House of Representatives.  The film offers a montage of personal and political events and the last images are of Dick Cheney’s bad heart followed by an interview with Cheney affirming his policies.

  1. Ignoring Culture, Recovering Culture

The Great Muslim American Road Trip.  A journey of culture, faith, and history is taken by a married couple in a three-week car trip along Route 66 in the United States, in which they visit Muslim communities and accomplishments.  We, with them, learn about Esteban the Moor.  We learn about Hadje Ali.  Alex Kronemer is the director of the documentary, presented in three episodes: “Life Is a Highway,” in which the couple Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robbins visit Chicago, Illinois, and Missouri; “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” in which they visit Oklahoma and New Mexico; and then Arizona, Nevada, and California in “Back on the Road Again.”  Haydar and Robins are an almost oddly sexy couple—he, a teacher, looks like a red-haired bookish cowboy and, although a musician, she is as wrapped up as a nun, but in colorful garb, and she has a joyously sensual smile—and they have with them books by John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac and quote Kerouac, “The only people for me are the made ones” (On the Road).  Of course, John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) wrote Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962) as well as The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952), among other works; and in the novel Grapes the migrants take highway 66, leaving poverty in quest for a decent living.  Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, known as Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969), the author of The Town and the City (1950), The Dharma Bums (1958), and The Subterraneans (1958), but best known for On the Road (1957) celebrated freedom through movement—whether by bus, car, or hiking.  That meant freedom from convention and prohibition, the freedom to find pleasure and new community and a different self.  The Great Muslim American Road Trip (2022) documentary series exorcises dreary ignorance with delightful knowledge.

The Great Muslim American Road Trip counters the negative fragments of information—reports of conservative religious practices and terrorist violence—of popular media and paranoid gossip and political rhetoric.  Route 66, a path a Muslim helped to map, is legendary, made so by books and films and songs—and here it allows for a unique quality and quantity of visits.  Mona Haydar, a literature student, poet, and musician, and Sebastian Robins, an educator, environmentalist and farmer, and (Lama) foundation administrator, first meet in Chicago a civil rights attorney (Marria Mozzafar) who talks about standing for something, not merely against something.  Marria Mozzafar talks about the Muslim contribution to history and society.  Someone else, Maryum Ali, a social services provider and public advocate, and one of boxer Muhammad Ali’s daughters, speaks with Mona Haydar about how the fighter, who defeated Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and got into trouble for refusing to fight in Vietnam, felt liberated by his Islamic faith, a faith that affirmed belief in a singular divinity, in prayer, alms, fasting, and religious pilgrimage, and wanted to defend it.  The Muslim community Ali belonged to accepted Elijah Muhammad as a prophet, one who affirmed African-American independence and pride.

They, Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins, see the Gemini Giant, the 30-foot-tall statue outside the Launching Pad restaurant, near Wilmington, Illinois.  Haydar and Robins visit a mosque in Springfield, Illinois, standing in different prayer lines.  “Nothing is worthy of worship except God,” someone says.  They meet mosque worshippers who appreciate Muslim diversity and embody it.  The congregants talk about hostility of the Taliban to educated Muslims (of course, many fundamentalist believers of different faiths are hostile to education, to liberalism, to science); and speak of the congregants’ own regard for Jesus as a prophet—and reverence for his mother.  They talk about seeing the order of nature as an embodiment of divinity.  Women admire Mona, who is a musician, for her individuality, her expressiveness.  They talk and laugh.

A guide talks about Americans not knowing about the history of Muslims, or the fullness of their current presence.  (Islam, with 3.45 million Muslims as of year 2017, is the third largest religion in the United States, after Christianity and Judaism.) Enslaved Africans were the early American Muslims, for instance.  Slavery, which began in the United States, in 1619 with twenty enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, and end after the American civil war in 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution remains—with the mistreatment of indigenous Americans, the country’s natives, its first peoples—one of the most challenging legacies, in which cultural richness, economic exploitation, and political conflicts meet; making cultural and spiritual recovery, reclamation, and reconciliation of continuing importance.

What should we know?  The documentary presents us with people, not statistics.  Yet, it might be helpful to know that Muslims have originated, or contributed to the development of, algebra, the astrolabe, coffee, the crank, Damascus steel, a flying machine, ghazal (poetic form), glass, hospitals, the kerosene lamp, oud, scimitar, sitar, steel mills, surgery, the toothbrush, and the understanding of optics.  If asked to name a Muslim person, many of us might think of Osama Bin Laden or Malcolm X—neither of whom could be said to be ordinary.  Of course, there are other Muslim figures we might think of—basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and lawyer and congressman Keith Ellison, comedian Hasan Minhaj, and businessman Hamdi Ulukaya.  If we want to pursue culture, pursue knowledge, there are Muslim filmmakers such as Riz Ahmed and Mahershala Ali and… Moustapha Akkad (The Message), Khurram Alavi (Bilal: A New Breed of Hero), Abrar Hussain (One Day in the Haram), Hesham Issawi (American East), Deeya Khan (Jihad: A Story of the Others), Imran J. Khan (The Drone and the Kid), Justin Mashouf (The Honest Struggle), Tahminey Milani (The Hidden Half), Sharmen Obaid-Chinoy (Saving Face), Salem Kekuria (Sidet: Forced Exile), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Akram Shibly (From a Distance), Iman Zawahry (Americanish).  There are Muslim writers such as Al-Ghazali (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) and Mahmoud Darwish (A Lover from Palestine), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children), Mohsin Hamid The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and Reza Alan (No god but God), Tahmima Anam (The Good Muslim), Tamara Gray (Joy Jots: Exercises for a Happy Heart), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Jamillah Karim (Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam), Naguib Mahfouz (Palace Walk), Orhan Pamuk (My Name is Red), and Feryal Salem (The Emergence of Early Sufi Piety and Sunni Scholasticism).  Yet, the most important Muslims may be the Muslim next door.

The Great Muslim American Road Trip introduces us to Muslims both ordinary and exceptional—agricultural workers, doctors, musicians, science students, social workers.  (Incidentally, the couple, Haydar and Robins, see the world’s largest ketchup bottle, south of Collinsville, Illinois: the 170 ft. tall water tower was built for the G.S. Suppiger catsup bottling plant, by the W.E. Caldwell Company in 1949.)  At the Missouri History Museum, Haydar and Robbins meet with Edward E.  Curtis IV, an editor of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, who talks about Muslims in America from the Middle East and other places, people who came for economic reasons, with not enough jobs in their native lands, when there was a need for cheap labor in the U.S, after the American civil war until World War I.  Yet, in the 1920s, immigration policies changed: immigration policies were very welcoming for Nordic peoples, but very constricted for others.  The opening and closing of doors seem to form cycles.  More recently, and until today, refugees seek a better life: Bosnian Muslims came as refugees of war, and for economic opportunity.  (The Bosnian War, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992 – 1995, following the collapse of Yugoslavia, was fed by ethnic, political, and religious conflicts; and was known for unusual brutality, including massacres and rapes.  Angelina Jolie depicted this in her film In the Land of Blood and Honey.)  During their Route 66 journey, Haydar and Robins visit a restaurant, Grbic, where the sous-chef talks about Bosnian Muslims as new members of the community, and as a resource.

Often, religious congregations became the center of Muslim communities—and that can mean imbuing ordinary functions and rituals with a significant purpose, as well as developing a greater understanding of theology.  It can mean the sharing of resources, spiritual and material.  However, Muslim contributions to the general society have been diverse, such as creating the ice cream cone—and expanding food culture.  “The American story is the Muslim story, and the Muslim story is the American story,” says the encyclopedia editor, Edward E. Curtis IV, a Christian of Arab background (he says that after 9/11 he became “a lot browner and a lot more Muslim.”)  He, Curtis, notes that race and religion have been tied together in America. 

Each of us makes meaning out of what we encounter; but our history, our culture, influences the kinds of connections, the meaning, we are inclined to make.  Do we recognize value?  Do we respect, or disrespect?  Will we welcome or rebuke the stranger?  There are various books on American possibilities and prejudice—such as Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt (Viking, 2019), A History of Islam in America by Kambiz GhaneaBassiri (Cambridge University Press, 2010), The Religious History of America by Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh Eric Schmidt (HarperOne, 2002) and Prejudices Across America by James Waller (Univ. Press of Miss., 20200.  In Documents of American Prejudice (Basic Books, 1999), editor S. T. Joshi collects more than 100 primary documents of racial arguments and declarations, affirmations and denunciations of racism, covering 300 years or so, from colonial times to the late 20th century.  Yet, many of us do not need such a reminder: the current culture wars—the struggle among groups and within institutions—regarding beliefs, culture, principles and political practices are full of raw hatred. 

Somehow, some people transcend that.  Sebastian, who had a Jewish father and a Christian mother, says that he did not find home in either parent’s religion; and then he met a woman, Mona, and she was key to his conversion.  They began as friends, and he admired her spiritual practice.  They had been living in an intentional community, Lama; and a teacher performed the conversion ritual for Sebastian.  Mona and Sebastian are together, but they are human, not angels, and they still work to reconcile their own differences and difficulties.    

Mona has auto-immune concerns, and feels exhausted, hurt, but optimistic.  The couple attend a Muslim doctors’ picnic in the park.  One young man says that in addition to medicine, he engaged in religious study and learned that if you save one person’s life it is akin to saving all of humanity—that’s what each person represents.  “If you sit with the sick, you will find Allah with the sick,” someone says, remembering a lesson.  Women and girls talk about not being seen, not having themselves represented in the media, made to feel unworthy.  They appreciate Mona’s work, her music and videos, for her representation.  (There is also the mention of a significant local event: the Joplin, Missouri tornado in May 2011.  Some had been playing outside.  Some were in the mosque.)  Sebastian reflects on the trip, talking about the significance of seeing new people and things, of getting outside one’s comfort zone, of being refreshed.

Episode 2.  Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins continue traveling and talking, and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, they take turns driving, while reflecting on the people they have met—and the history they have encountered.  Kamau Kemayo, a University of Illinois African American Studies professor, speaks about enslaved Africans sold five or six times before even getting on a slave ship, separated from families, leaders, community.  Trauma.  Death on ships.  Lost aspects of culture, of religious training.

In Reconciliation Park in Oklahoma, there is a memorial for the Black Wall Street massacre, in the Greenwood district.  The Tulsa Race Massacre.  There had been doctors, lawyers, others, building business and foundation for community and wealth; and then an elevator incident, a white woman screams in response to a black man and there is a claim of insult or assault.  Rumors, tensions.  A black man is arrested; and others go to the courthouse to monitor the legal process.  There is a bloody wealth-destroying riot by whites—with white people killing blacks in an area of great success, the Greenwood district.

With all that suffering, from 1619 on, many African-Americans would come to see Christianity as part of the problem, as a religion of resignation, and identify Islam as politically and psychologically liberating.  The Koran (or Quran), the Muslim holy book, helped to reveal the nature of Allah—and affirm the singularity of God and the significance of his prophets.  Aliye Himi, the executive director, of the Tulsa Metropolitan ministry, an interfaith organization working toward reconciliation, speaks about the Tulsa race riot, about which he had heard a snippet in college; and he raised money for a few remaining survivors and as loans to locals.

Mona Haydar, who grew up in Flint, Michigan, and liked poetry, had found inspiration in black women, connecting to the healing in their music.  Mona Haydar recalls that the unsaid is revealed in a people’s music.  The Leon Rollerson Band, a jazz group, performs in a club.  There is talk about the clubs, churches, businesses and parades in Tulsa before the massacre; and how people had to return and rebuild.  The past and present bleed into each other.  Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers is discussed as someone who went to Africa for research in culture and spirituality.  Other artists who connected to Islam are mentioned: Dakota Stanton, Frank Morgan, Ahmad Jamal, Jackie McLean, James Blood Ulmer, Leo Smith, Max Roach, among them. (Hisham D. Aidi has written about the influence of Islam on jazz and other forms of music, in Rebel Music, Pantheon Books, 2014).

We share some of the sight-seeing of Haydar and Robins in Oklahoma City and Groom, Texas (there is a leaning tower in Texas); and they visit Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.  In Amarillo, at the Refugee Intake Center, an Islamic Center, one young man talks about coming from Burma; a Muslim, he works with Catholic Charites to help refugees.  In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, built in 1626 (one of the oldest churches), features a statue of Jesus’s mother Mary, who is important in Islam.  Mona talks about feeling connected to Mary and Jesus as mother and son.  A priest speaks about hospitality, and if Mary as hospitable (concerning a story of a wedding party and the serving of guests).

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the Islamic Center, there is a program for children incorporating technology, featuring the development of apps and robots.  It’s amazing to see children so knowing and excited about robotics, so communicative (they won an award for their work).  They speak with other children around the world.  This brings religion and science together; and the history of Muslims and science is mentioned.  The Lama Foundation, where Mona and Sebastian met nine years before, is in a mountain location; and Mona recalls their dynamic, their interesting conversations; and he recalls a sense of familiarity, of fate.

Esteban the Moor was considered the first person of African descent to explore America.  Described as an Arab-speaking black man, Esteban the Moor (circa 1500 to 1539) left Cuba as part of the Narvaez expedition.  The conquistadors on ship met a storm, and there was a wreck; and the Moroccan Esteban was captured by Native Americans, escaped, and became a traveler, medicine man, and guide, meeting native tribes.  Esteban affirmed stories about available gold.  He is discussed here in relation to Zuni pueblo land (Esteban disappeared in or near New Mexico). 

Episode 3.  Leaving Flagstaff, Arizona.  Sebastian talks about traveling and insecurities—he says he’s a minimalist and Mona admits to being a maximalist (he says he fights living in the material world, and thinks she carries a lot of stuff).  She says they do not like the same food or music; and he likes to hike, and she likes to sit home with a book.  They visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  “We want each other to be better.  We want to be better for reach other; we want each other to grow,” she says.

In Las Vegas, in the Muslim Village, there is food distribution to those in need, and other social services (including a prison service program).  Mike Tyson, others, contributed to a building there.  Someone says that giving is part of African tradition.  One man recalls conversations with friends about culture, spirituality, politics—connections to Islam, Muslims.  There is talk about moral values, the virtues of character.  (Of course, these are shared human concerns—our beliefs and disciplines and institutions merely codify them.)  

In 2004, the king of Jordan and a leading sheik issued a declaration of Muslim tolerance, known as the Amman Message, beginning, “Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools (Mathahib) of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali), the two Shi’i schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Ja`fari and Zaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Thahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim.  Declaring that person an apostate is impossible and impermissible.  Verily his (or her) blood, honour, and property are inviolable.” 

Hadje Ali, known as Hi Jolly, is recalled in The Great Muslim American Road Trip (2022): from the era of the American civil war, he was hired by Jefferson Davis to use camels in the American southwest.  Haydar and Robins see a Quartz site, and the last camp of Hadji Ali, born in Syria, a Muslim convert in Mecca.  After the civil war, Hadji Ali helped survey the best roads to California, and he identified and established Route 66. 

In Mecca, California, Haydar and Robins visit the Mecca Date Farms.  Date trees were brought from the Middle East (dates are shaken into bags from trees); and most dates eaten in the US are grown in California.  Sebastian reads from The Grapes of Wrath about highway 66, about people in flight from poverty to supposed opportunity.  (There is a montage of earlier scenes from The Great Muslim American Road Trip.)

In Al Shifa Clinic, a free Muslim clinic in San Bernadino, California, again, someone says something about saving humanity through saving one life; and the volunteers talk about helping the needy, demonstrating empathy, recreating systems.  “Almost everybody we’ve met has seen past limitation,” says Sebastian, who chaperones a children’s hike, with the Art and Wilderness Institute; while Mona meets an old friend, her friend, a skateboarder, is a product designer and transport planner.  (We learn that Sebastian and Mona have children.)

Amir Abdullah, an actor in Pasadena, at the Noise Within Theatre, is found working on Seven Guitars, the August Wilson play.  Actors talk about the ambitions and frustrations of Wilson’s characters; and we see a play rehearsal.  Amir Abdullah talks about the importance of Islam to him, about some people’s discomfort with his name, about the world’s attempt to define Muslims.  He discusses the questioning of identity.  Mona and Amir mention, with admiration, the rappers Native Deen.  Finally, there is Santa Monica, the end of the trail.  Sebastian says that he is feeling inspired to be better, more generous and kinder.  Mona talks about the importance of being gratified, for existence, work, who you are and what you do.  (There is a montage of meetings.)  This is a wonderful series!

Submitted October 2023

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Film Reviews   black cinema   black history   comedy   independent cinema