Tea on the Axis of Evil
After two years of providing security intelligence about the activities of Al Qaeda to the United States government in the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration publicly dubbed Syria a threat to democracy by including it in the so-called Axis of Evil. Knowing very little about the secular republic, filmmaker Jean Marie Offenbacher decided to spend a year in Damascus in order to offer a look at everyday citizens of Syria and combat stereotypical depictions put forth in the mainstream media.
Though the U.S. Embassy warned the director that Syrian folks would be too afraid to talk to her, Offenbacher found enough subjects to fill the hour-long film. She highlights the stories of a few Bedouin people, the family of a taxi driver, and a couple of impressively quintilingual teenage boys who sell rugs at a souq in Aleppo, but the film focuses on people most Americans will find quite palatable: liberal, middle-class, educated Syrians who speak English and whose lifestyles mimic those in the Western world. There are several students of literature, sociology, and journalism, as well as a fashion designer, an actress, a weaver, a painter, and a businesswoman. In an interview with New America Media, Offenbacher explains this choice by saying she chose people she believed Americans could identify with; unfortunately, tactic undercuts her claim of and desire for authenticity, as the film’s characters are hardly representative of the general population (Syria’s lower classes, political conservatives, and the religiously dogmatic are conspicuously absent from the interviews) and simply become a counter-stereotype themselves.
This bumble heightens the well-intended, if naïve, thesis of the film: Syrians are just like us! They dance to 50 Cent in pubs. They swoon over movie stars like Antonio Banderas. The women struggle with feeling beautiful, and with sexist double standards regarding female sexuality. They worry about how to balance the need for childcare with their demanding careers. They learn to reconcile their religious practices and beliefs with newly emerging desires. The version of Syria presented in Tea on the Axis of Evil is, indeed, very much like urban America, but just as one should not forget that urban America comprises more than latte-sipping, New York Times readers, it is equally necessary to understand that Syria is not America—nor should it be—and, in a film about countering false depictions, present the complex diversity of Syrians’ lived reality.
Originally published in Bitch Magazine