by Jennifer Zobair
In a video post for Muslimah Montage, I said that the Muslim community needs more storytellers, including filmmakers. Movies are a powerful way to communicate experience, and an effective way of changing hearts and minds. I recently watched “The Visitor” for the third time. I love this movie. I love it so much that in my novel, Muslim feminist Zainab Mir and right-wing politico Chase Holland go to see it on one of their first dates. They spar about it afterwards, until Zainab asks Chase the question that illuminates both the film and Chase’s unexpected attraction to her:
“But it did change something. It changed Walter. A person he never would have known otherwise, from a totally different background and circumstance, changed his life, maybe even gave meaning to his life. Is that so hard to appreciate?”
Movies, like books, can also allow us to know people from different backgrounds and circumstances. And in that knowing, beautiful things can happen.
The premise of “The Visitor” is something of a strech: A burned out, tightly wound professor named Walter Vale goes to New York for a conference and finds a young couple, Tarek and Zainab, living in an apartment he owns. Walter rarely uses the apartment, and someone illegally rented it to the couple. After some awkward moments, Tarek and Zainab apologize and pack their things. Walter, somewhat unbelievably, allows them to stay. As Chase says in my novel, “Who would let total strangers stay with him in his apartment?” But then again, Walter’s wife, an avid pianist, has died, his efforts to learn to play piano have failed miserably, and he has little interest in his research or students. Essentially, he is ghost-walking through his life. As he gets to know his houseguests, he becomes intrigued by Tarek’s djembe, an African drum. Tarek offers to teach Walter to play the drum, and they become unlikely but genuine friends.
Eventually, Tarek is arrested, and we find out that both Tarek and Zainab are undocumented immigrants, from Syria and Senegal respectively. What follows is a glimpse into the detention process, particularly for Arabs and Muslims after 9/11.
Haaz Sleiman is fantastic as Tarek. My only complaint was that his portrayal was so over-the-top friendly. The New York Times review noted the excessive friendliness, too, without speculating on the reason for it. Here’s mine: To me, it seemed as if someone –the writer, the actor, the director–felt that as though as “the Arab guy,” he had to be perfect to be likable. But when the media has made monsters out of you, imputing the behavior of the few to the whole, I can understand the instinct to overcompensate. Consider the slack cut.
Hiam Abass, an Israeli Arab, was amazing as Tarek’s mother, Mouna. Her portrayal was so spot on that I felt as though I knew her character from somewhere. She was elegant and strong and beautiful. None of this is lost on Walter when Mouna arrives to try to help her son.
Besides the major themes, the movie touches on a host of sensitive issues within the Muslim community. For example, when Mouna first sees Zainab, she comments on how “black” she is. Zainab doesn’t drink, but Tarek does, causing him to joke that Zainab is the “good” Muslim. When Mouna asks Tarek’s Muslim American lawyer where he’s from, he looks at her and says, “Queens.”
It is a gentle prodding of stereotypes without a full, preachy diatribe.
The New York Times says, “The curious thing about ‘The Visitor’ is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way.”
That’s just it. Is the ending predictable? Yes, absolutely.
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Jennifer Zobair is the creator of story and chai. She is also the author of the debut novel, PAINTED HANDS, which was published by St. Martin’s Press on June 11, 2013. She is represented by Kent D. Wolf of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Lascaux Review, and on websites like Love InshAllah and Feminism and Religion. Jennifer is currently at work on her second novel. She lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston.