Since 9/11, my "Muslim" name has been the cause for the suspicion of countless airport security agents, the frowns of teachers at my Catholic girls' high school, and the tapping of my home phone line in Phoenix, Arizona, even though my family had absolutely nothing to hide. I'm sure many American Muslims can relate to the stereotypes that spring up simultaneously with introductions.
"Naz + Maalik" share the same experience, growing up under the surveillance that is our post-9/11 reality. However, these two young men really are hiding something-- but it isn't what the FBI agent trailing them thinks it is.
An upcoming independent feature film borne out of director Jay Dockendorf's reaction to hearing about the FBI's program of secret spying in mosques in Brooklyn, "Naz + Maalik" explores the world of two closeted Muslim teens who have their Friday afternoon ruined by FBI surveillance.
Dockendorf was appalled by NYPD and FBI tactics, which cast suspicion on perfectly innocent groups of people without cause. He says, "Mosques and prayer and devotion and love are beautiful things. Per NYPD rules, though, a business can be labeled a location of concern if police can expect to find groups of Middle Easterners there."
"Mosque-goers are not committing a crime. How can you not take issue with the government spying on its own people just because they're praying in a mosque?" he asks.
He interviewed people in Brooklyn about their real-life experiences with surveillance, including some closeted Muslims who must still conceal their lives from conservative communities. The secret of their sexual identity even landed one couple on a watch list in real life.
Their reality requires privacy, though as attitudes progress, more and more gay Muslims are coming out into accepting mosque communities. The face of American Islam is changing, and this film reflects that truth without beating you over the head with it.
Though the American Muslim community is becoming increasingly diverse, the problem of ignorance and bigotry towards Islam is still an issue. In that sense, American Muslims share a history of prejudice with the black and gay communities, which all intersect in this film.
"The film considers Islamophobia through the lens of homophobia and homophobia through the lens of racism," comments Dockendorf. "I know they're very separate issues, but for some people, real people on whom these characters are based, they're completely linked and the balance is delicate. "
The trailer for the film states, "While deciding whether to tell their community about their homosexuality, Naz and Maalik's ambiguous and secretive relationship unknowingly sets an FBI agent on their trail. As the agent grows convinced that the boys are engaged in 'violent radicalism,' her pursuit becomes increasingly menacing and the stakes surrounding the boys' hapless hustling and lies grow." The premise is all-too convincing, and for me, it's easy to imagine something like this happening in real life.
We're all being watched, but some of us have the gaze of suspicion directed squarely upon us as soon our skin meets the eye, or our names fall upon the ear.
"Naz + Maalik" is currently raising funds for post-production, now that shooting has been completed. The team says, "Our overarching goal is to spark dialogue on a macro-level. We intend to reach wider audiences invested in issues of surveillance and civil rights, the social and political difficulties facing minority communities in the United States, and the ongoing challenges of all ranges of expression."