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Pathbreakers of Arab America: Cherien Dabis

posted on: Oct 18, 2023


By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the eighteenth in Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our seventeenth pathbreaker is Cherien Dabis. A Palestinian American, she was born in Omaha, Nebraska, her physician father being of Palestinian descent, and her mother from Salt, Jordan. She is a critically acclaimed and award winning Palestinian American film and television director, writer, and actor dedicated to telling complex authentic stories about under and misrepresented communities.

A prescient youth, Cherien Dabis understood the role of cultural and ethnic prejudice in American life

While Cherien grew up in the small town of Celina, Ohio, she had the good fortune to spend many of her summers in Jordan. She visited Palestine for the first time when she was eight. On that visit, she and her family were held at the Israeli border for 12 hours, and she was strip-searched along with her sisters. According to Wikipedia, “This incident would make her understand what it meant to be Palestinian.” On her return from her overseas visits, Cherien would face insulting questions from hometown residents, such as whether Middle Easterners had phones or cars.

“As a Palestinian American, Dabis refused to be seen as an outsider, and instead chose to assimilate to the culture she found herself within.” At the youthful age of 14, with insults being hurled at Arab Americans during the Gulf War in 1990, Cherien felt that no one was accurately portraying the lives of Arabs in America. It was like she knew as a youngster a growing need to change the way that Arabs were portrayed in the media. More obvious impacts of anti-Arab sentiment included her father’s loss of many of his patients, her mother was called an “Arab bitch”, and her family began receiving death threats.

Filming onsite during Covid –Photo Variety

The effect on Cherien of such personally insulting behavior was that she suffered an identity crisis, becoming aware of the fact that she had been placed in a distinct, negative category of an “Arab in America.” The cumulative effect of several years of this realization was that she developed her desire to create films. Cherien received her bachelor’s with honors in creative writing and communications from the University of Cincinnati and her master of fine arts in film from Columbia University in 2004. One of her goals for a career in film was to “make films that represent her experiences as an Arab American, with a goal of changing the negative stereotypes in the film industry that contributed to the racism she experienced.”

One of Cherien’s films that captures the duality of being American and Arab American is “Amreeka.” This film is loosely based on things that happened to her and her family during the first Gulf War. Her film, “May in The Summer” is about being American in the Middle East. Both films capture “the merging, and often clashing, of two separate worlds.” “Amreeka” premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, opening to critical praise. “May in the Summer” screened at the opening night of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. As an aside, one of Cherien’s inspirations for filmmaking was Egyptian movies, which she grew up watching.

Cherien was named one of Variety magazine’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2009, and in 2010 received a United States Artists Fellowship. In 2022, she was nominated for the Outstanding Directing for A Comedy Series award for her work on the television series Only Murders in the Building. In March 2022, Dabis was named Laureate for Cultural Excellence by the TAKREEM (to honor, respect) foundation, for her work on authentic Arab representation in Hollywood.

“Narrating Our Struggle”: Cherien rejects censorship, pushing Palestinians and other marginalized people and communities to center stage

A young Cherien, then in her little rural Ohio town, had expressed an interest to her Dad that she wanted to become a filmmaker. According to the publication Filmmaker, her father told her, “You can’t be a filmmaker, you’re Palestinian. No one will care what you have to say.” Hurt but silent, she said to herself, “You’re wrong. Yet his words have continued to haunt me. She reminded herself of the aforementioned encounter in Palestine with the rude and abusive armed Israeli soldiers. As they drove through Jerusalem after the ordeal, Cherien recalled, “This is what it means to be Palestinian. People don’t like us. And so they treat us badly.”

Still, as a young girl, Cherien recalled, “I started to notice that when I watched TV, I never saw anyone who looked like my family. If we were there at all, we were lumped together as “Arabs”– oppressors, or oppressed women. The rare portrayal specifically of Palestinians had us wrapped in kuffiyehs throwing stones or committing acts of terrorism.” She ardently began filming Palestinians on her return trips to the occupied territory. At that point, she announced to her father her intention to become a filmmaker.

Cherien recalled that her “entire career has toggled between fighting to prove my father wrong, while realizing time and again how right he really was.” This resulted in the earlier mentioned feature films, “Amreeka” and then “May in the Summer.” Earlier drafts of Amreeka resulted in her protective self-censoring, followed later by trying to speak her truth. Cherien, afraid of losing her job as a filmmaker, noted, “I was living with profound dissonance. At the very least I needed to walk into any room in Hollywood and introduce myself, loudly and proudly, as Palestinian.” She slowly but surely began pushing to the side the idea of trying to be liked or accepted.

Filming onsite — Photo Filmmaker

Cherien’s career as a filmmaker has developed beyond storytelling about Palestinians, moving towards other stories about other marginalized peoples. An example is her direction of an episode of “Only Murders in the Building–The Boy From 6B,” which focuses on the story of a deaf character. She said, according to the magazine Variety, “I knew instantly that I had to do it. It was precisely the kind of story that excites me, a story told from a point of view we rarely get to see, portraying a character from a community that’s underrepresented and misrepresented.” This was part of her driving force to push marginalized people and communities “out of the margins and into the center. Why? Because I know all too well the pain of misrepresentation.”

Cherien is proud, deservedly so, of her work, which is held in high praise by many critics. She spoke eloquently of her passion: “The critical acclaim and universal love for “The Boy From 6B” proves that audiences are ready for marginalized characters and communities to take center stage. And for whatever has placed us on the margins — whether a disability, racial, cultural or religious difference — to become our superpower. As creators and makers, we have great societal responsibility. We can either make content that perpetuates the increasingly violent world we live in, or we can create a world that reflects the one we hope to live in. I choose the latter and will continue to look for ways to uplift those of us who’ve been cast aside, until one day, perhaps, we’ll all be considered equally valuable members of the human race.”

براڤو عليك
Bravo Alaik!

–“Cherien Dabis,” Wikipedia list of Arab Americans, 2023
–“Narrating Our Struggle”: Cherien Dabis on Palestinian Stories and Rejecting Censorship, Filmmaker, 6/30/2021
–“The Emmy-Nominated Palestinian American Director of ‘Only Murders in the Building,’ Storytelling Is a Matter of Survival,” by Cherien Dabis, Variety, 8/16/2022

John Mason, Ph.D, focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

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