Day 6

'Things Arab Men Say' captures candid truths of Arab life in Canada

Edmonton filmmaker Nisreen Baker documents the conversations of eight Arab men who discuss the stereotypes they face and the struggle to integrate into their community while maintaining their faith and cultural ties.
The men featured in Nisreen Baker's NFB documentary, Things Arab Men Say. (Nisreen Baker/NFB)

As filmmaker Nisreen Baker sat in the waiting area of the local Edmonton barber shop her husband frequents, she found herself listening in on the conversations of the men in the room.

There were eight of them, from various countries. But they had at least two things in common: They're all Arab, and they all love to talk.

Listening to the men, Baker knew she had a great story to share.

Those eight men are the basis of her new National Film Board documentary Things Arab Men Say.

The entire film takes place at Jamal's Eden Barber Shop, where the men meet regularly for haircuts, shaves — and, of course, conversation.

"I wanted the larger Canadian community to get a sneak peek at what happens.'- Nisreen  Baker, director of Things Arab Men Say

As Baker tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, she was struck by the blunt discussion she overheard from the group.

"I just heard [these] funny, unapologetic, hard-hitting, really honest and very raw opinions," she explains. "So I thought, 'There's something there'."

Baker says that the Arab community is generally shy, and reluctant to talk when a camera is present. So she put a camera in the shop one Saturday, and asked the men to talk as they normally would.

By the third Saturday, they were more comfortable and able to talk without looking at the camera. That's when Baker started to film.

"That was an intimate setting that I wanted to invite the larger public into," Baker says.

"I wanted the larger Canadian community to get a sneak peek at what happens — not only in a barber shop, but those are the conversations we tend to have within our own homes."

Ghassan and Fisal look on as their friend gets a shave in Things Arab Men Say. (Nisreen Baker/NFB)

The men — and the stereotypes

The shop is owned by Jamal, who cuts hair and takes part in the conversation as a junior hockey game airs on the television in the background.

The men switch between English and Arabic with ease as they sit and talk in a semicircle, taking turns in Jamal's barber chair.

The men are from Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan. Ghassan is Palestinian, and Fisal has both Métis and Lebanese roots.

It's clear that they have a good bond as they joke and tease one another. But amid the laughter, they also discuss serious issues.

Hassan, getting his hair cut, in the documentary Things Arab Men Say. (Nisreen Baker/NFB)
Ghassan asks whether the men have taught their children to speak Arabic, and whether that's important to them. Several men in the group speak up to say that language is a part of the culture.

"Just think about the Quebec situation and French language," says Hassan, who is from Egypt. "Think about the Aboriginal communities and the languages. So, if you lose the language you lose part of the culture."

They also talk about the stereotypes that often dog them as Arab men, and about how they are perceived.

The jokes are almost always about me being a terrorist.- Ghassan , Things Arab Men Say

"I don't care if you're a Christian or a Druze or whatever, if you're an Arab background or South Asian background, you're lumped all into that same category: we're terrorists and we're ISIS and they have protect against us," says Fisal. "That's just being used as a political ploy to gain votes."

Ghassan talks about the stereotypes he's dealt with at every job he's ever had in Canada.

"When they get used to you … and they know you're a normal guy or whatever, the jokes start," he says. "The jokes are almost always about me being a terrorist, something about me blowing something up."

Jamal the barber in the NFB documentary Things Arab Men Say. (Nisreen Baker/NFB)

Baker acknowledges that these comments may be meant as jokes, but there is a darker meaning behind them.

"Every joke holds a little bit of a mindset of that joker and of how he, or she, perceives the world," Baker says. "It just tells me that maybe in the back of their mind they're [thinking] maybe he's one of the good ones. He's the exception to the rule. Whereas the reality is that he's the rule. Those maniacs are the exception."


Finding home

Baker says that those racial stereotypes, Donald Trump and his travel ban are now often the topic of discussion in the barber shop.

"Many of us have family in the U.S. and our families are calling us terrified," she says.

The decision to emigrate is one of the most difficult, courageous decisions anyone can make.- Nisreen Baker, director of Things Arab Men Say

Baker recalls the time her sister-in-law in the U.S. discovered her young daughter, age six, packing a carry-on bag with all of her toys. When her mother asked what she was doing, the girl said she was moving to Canada to live with her uncle.

One of the girl's African American friends had told her that the president was coming for them, as well another friend who was Hispanic. Baker was at a loss for words of how to comfort her sister-in-law.

"The decision to emigrate is one of the most difficult, courageous decisions anyone can make," says Baker.

She says they leave everything behind, including family, travelling to the unknown.

But, Baker notes, she now feels that Edmonton is definitely home.

"Now when I go to the old country sometimes I think: 'I miss home!'"

Things Arab Men Say has its Toronto premiere on Thursday, June 15th at Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario. You can find more about the event via the NFB.

To hear the whole interview with Nisreen Baker, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.