A film still depicting a scene from the film "Americanish."

Born in the Aftermath of 9/11, Tasveer Festival Centers South Asian Stories

by Beverly Aarons

The Seattle Globalist was a daily online publication that covered the connections between local and global issues in Seattle. The Emerald is keeping alive its legacy of highlighting our city’s diverse voices by regularly publishing and re-publishing stories aligned with the Globalist’s mission. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, the twin towers fell, and the face of terrorism became Muslim, Sikh, and South Asians of all religious persuasions. Xenophobia burned through the American landscape, unmasking deep-rooted racism hidden just beneath a thin foliage of inclusivity. Many people who were perceived as foreign were harassed. Rita Meher, the cofounder of Tasveer, was told “go back to your country” only weeks after she became a citizen. The experience shook her. She began to doubt her decision to immigrate. Was America really the land of inclusivity and opportunity she had imagined it to be? But out of the embers of her disillusionment the seeds of a new vision began to sprout — Tasveer, an arts organization, festival, and platform to showcase South Asian film, literature, and storytelling.  

“It’s never so straightforward that this happens and then we do this,” said Meher during an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. Her journey to cofounding Tasveer with Farah Nousheen in March 2002 was filled with many twists, turns, and surprise destinations. But if one had to highlight an important waypoint, it might be Meher’s first film, Citizenship 101, an autobiographical account of what life was like for South Asians in the shadow of 9/11. Nousheen, who Meher said is an activist and a friend, encouraged her to make the film and helped cultivate Tasveer into a social-justice-centered organization. 

“Our existence hasn’t been weaved into the community yet,” Meher said of the South Asian community, “but as you see in Seattle or greater Seattle, our population is huge.” She wants South Asian characters to go from sidekick to center stage. Tasveer has begun achieving that goal by funding films like Coming Out With The Help Of A Time Machine, which opened the Tasveer Festival Oct. 1, 2021, and introducing audiences to filmmakers like Aizzah Fatima and Iman Zawahry, the producers of Americanish, a romantic comedy about Muslim immigrant women navigating love, career, and family. Americanish will screen at the festival’s closing night on Oct. 24, 2021. 

Photo depicting the cast and crew grouped on the red carpet of the Tasveer Festival on opening night.
Cast and crew of “Coming Out With The Help Of A Time Machine” at Tasveer Festival in Seattle on opening night, October 1, 2021. (Photo: Beverly Aarons)

“Growing up all we saw were Muslims on screen as either terrorists being angry or women being victims of the barbaric Muslims or Brown people,” Zawahry said during a videoconference interview with the Emerald. “You as a kid get convinced, that’s how it is. … I would be on a plane and I would see a Muslim and then I would get scared.” Zawahry is a Muslim woman; she studied religion and Arabic at the University of Florida and she wears the hijab, but as a youth in the aftermath of 9/11, her perceptions became clouded.

“That’s absolutely my experience as well,” Fatima said. “Like post-9/11, there was so much of this like fear of the other and fear of bearded men. I totally remember being on the subway and some bearded dude would come on with a freaking large briefcase and I’d be like, ‘Well, is there a bomb in there?’” Zawahry laughed. Fatima continued, her cadence half joking, half serious, “‘Like, what’s happening?’ Look, because we were fed so much of this in the news, and that you see people like us who come from that background who come from the faith. If we’re questioning, I can’t imagine the person, you know, in the middle of like Mississippi or Arkansas who has never met a Muslim person what they are thinking.”

Photo depicting Iman Zawahry standing on set behind a film camera.
Iman Zawahry, “Americanish” filmmaker. Photo courtesy of Tasveer Festival.

Zawahry has some idea of what a person in segregated America might think about bearded men who seem too different. She grew up in Panama City, Florida, a mostly white “Bible Belt” town where she experienced extreme racism from people who were ignorant of other cultures. She escaped the daily abuse through comedy. She and her five closest friends would create comedy skits based on The Arsenio Hall Show and record them with a huge VHS camcorder. 

“My love has always been for ’80s comedies and the light, feel-good comedies of that time,” Zawahry said. “And we don’t really have that now. And I really yearn for that.”

The filmmakers point out that there is a glut of stories about oppressed Muslim women in mainstream cinema.  

“When we watch these things, we don’t ever see ourselves in them,” Fatima said. “The more nuanced, human, funny, flawed stories of Muslim women, I never see them.” That reality compelled them to produce Americanish which took eight years — four of them spent writing the script. 

Headshot depicting Aizzah Fatima.
Actress and producer Aizzah Fatima of “Americanish.” Photo courtesy of Tasveer Festival.

Fatima was performing her one-woman show, Dirty Paki Lingerie, at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City when she first met Zawahry in 2012. It was Zawahry’s 21st birthday and she was visiting New York with her cousins and friends. She wanted to take in a show — something relevant but entertaining. 

“And when I saw the poster, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a Muslim woman and there’s a play about it,’” said Zawahry. “I was like completely floored that my stories were being portrayed on stage and I was just completely flabbergasted because I felt very alone in the process that I was creating as a Muslim female filmmaker, creating films. And there was no one else out there.”

In Dirty Paki Lingerie, Fatima transformed herself into a variety of Muslim women characters, from a 6-year-old to a woman in her 60s, and she used only a scarf to do it. Zawahry was impressed and she knew she had to “memorialize” Fatima’s artistry on film. Many characters from Dirty Paki Lingerie were integrated into Americanish, which tackles xenophobia, racism, sexism, and bright-eyed naivete with seriousness and hilarity. 

Photo depicting the movie poster for "Americanish."
“Americanish” movie poster. Photo courtesy of Tasveer Film Festival.

A playful yet serious tone defines much of this year’s Tasveer Festival (Oct. 1 to Oct. 24, 2021) which features 60+ films, 30+ Asian American authors, South Asian Queer coming out stories, and a Desi Girls Comedy Project — a four-week comedy workshop for South Asian women. Much of the festival can be viewed online but there are in-person events. 

“South Asia is not a monolith,” said Meher. “There’s so much diversity, so many stories to be told.” And despite ethnic, religious, and political differences, Meher said, Tasveer brings everyone together — Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Muslim, Hindu, etc. “We all are so proud of our friendship.”

Visit the Tasveer Festival website for more information.

Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.

📸 Featured Image: Movie still from “Americanish.” Photo courtesy of Tasveer Festival.

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