Interview with HUMANITAS Winner Cherien Darbis
Cherien Dabis remembers the exact moment that everything changed: she was 14, the Gulf War was underway, and the Secret Service had come to her high school to investigate a rumor that her 17-year-old-sister, Arab-American like the rest of her family, had threatened to kill the president. Of course, the claim was false — but it was at that moment, surrounded by hatred and bigotry, that Dabis, now the writer/director of the identity-exploring movies Amreeka and May in the Summer, realized she had a major choice to make: reject her culture, hiding from her “otherness,” or embrace the very thing that set her apart.
“It was a huge political awakening to me,” Dabis, 37, tells Bustle. “I realized that no matter how hard I tried to be American, people were always seeing an other. So I started to embrace my Arab identity, my Arab culture, my Arab heritage, and started to move towards it in a way that began the process of embracing who I was as a whole — both sides, the American side and the Arab side.”
And that experience, she says, has been “a real privilege,” one that has given her a “perspective and a ability to step back and look at things in an objective manner.”
“Naturally,” she adds, “that was involved in my becoming a filmmaker.”
Dabis, a TV writer, made her first short film, Make a Wish, in 2006. Three years later, the feature-length Amreeka was released to high praise and Sundance success; on August 22, her second film, May in the Summer, will debut. Like its predecessors, May, about a New Yorker who travels home to Jordan for her upcoming wedding, focuses on the struggles of being Arab in America; unlike the others, however, this movie is Dabis’ first attempt at also discussing what it’s like to be an American in an Arab country.