The director of Newyorkustan talks about challenging people's assumptions and humanising Muslims in America.
Web series Newyorkustan aims to open minds of non-Muslims
The neighbours are not who we thought they were. Welcome to Newyorkustan, the first of its kind: a US programme on contemporary American Muslim realities.
This is not to be confused with reality TV. That's All-American Muslim - the TLC network show that trains the cameras on the Islamic community in Dearborn, Michigan, the largest in the US - or Shahs of Sunset, the Bravo network version about a group of Iranian-Americans living in Beverly Hills.
Newyorkustan is a drama seeking a deeper truth - a shoestring-budget web-TV series with the arc and power of narrative, about a small Muslim congregation, set against the teeming backdrop of Queens, New York. The young stars Gabriel (Vinny Anand) and Amir (Bilal Beydoun) fight to save their local mosque while developers, politicians and other adversarial parties scheme to pull the land out from under them.
The plot follows Amir, a Muslim-American, as he struggles to define his identity at the intersection of piety, politics, culture and love, wrestling with conservative/liberal forces, with Michelle (Axita Patel) representing the progressive voice. De Castro explores the American Muslim double-bind.
Progressive Muslims get heat from both sides - from the right wing, for being extremist, and from Muslims, for being too liberal. These are the contradictions in practising the fastest-growing religion in America while remaining an alien in your adoptive - or native - land.
Did someone say alien? Newyorkustan director Steven De Castro can push that further. He's not even Muslim. Raised Catholic "and not even religious", De Castro developed and executed the project "totally as an outsider - that's my strength".
A Filipino from DC, De Castro is a New York trial lawyer by trade who worked as a Jersey City Human Rights Commissioner. He was culturally politicised in 1994, after the arrest of Omar Abdel Rahman, who was eventually sentenced to life for conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
"Some folks in Jersey City wanted to go further than that - they wanted to evict the mosque" where "the Blind Sheikh" had preached, in a commercial building above a pizzeria. Jersey City went after the mosque for what De Castro calls "alleged zoning violations".
"Since I served as a human rights commissioner, I saw it as a violation of religious freedom," De Castro says. He fought City Hall, which backed off, "but I was canned. It was the proudest firing of my life".
And it was a spark. De Castro wanted to enter and affect the cultural debate, but not as a legal activist. "There's a difference between advocating for a group, and humanising them. I wanted to be a filmmaker," he says.
This, then, is a labour of love, among other virtues.
Newyorkustan was initially a Muslim crime story, but, "I didn't want to do it with stereotypes", De Castro says. "I wanted to teach people something about folks they didn't know."
Which took him to Imam Shamsi Ali, and the folks he knows.
Ali is the imam at the Jamaica Muslim Center mosque in Queens, "the most diverse county in the world". Indeed, with 135 different languages spoken, Queens is a boiling, roiling collision of cultures. The JMC has a congregation of 2,000, drawing from a larger pool of 10,000, a subset of the 800,000 Muslims in New York who have their own subdivisions and sources. They are African, Middle Eastern, European, South Asian (Ali is from Indonesia) and American.
De Castro sought Ali out several years ago and showed him a script. "I acted as a kind of 'cultural guide'," Ali says, opening doors and offering a sounding board. "I think he's a very fair-minded person. Willing to learn." And Ali saw in Newyorkustan an opportunity to "capture modern Muslim life" and even correct some misconceptions. "It's said that women are not allowed in mosques, but in Indonesian culture, there are often more women than men. Or that Muslims cannot have dogs."
Or that they are hellbent on destruction.
When Mohamed Merah, the French Muslim who admitted to murdering soldiers and Jewish citizens in Toulouse, was gunned down in a police firefight, Ali had just signed on to a joint statement with the New York rabbi Marc Schneier on "defeating the common enemy of prejudice". "It saddens me for many reasons. Our religion is misused as the justification for these terrible acts," he says. And said acts can only exacerbate tensions: as the joint statement reads, a recent Gallup poll found that "43 per cent of Americans admit to at least 'a little' prejudice against Muslims".
Is it, then, hard to be Muslim in America?
"No," Ali says. "For me, America is basically a good place to practise our religion because we're free. And to be Muslim, you must be free."
And this, of course, is an election year in the land of the free, so Newyorkustan won't be without its challenges. The title, for instance, reads like a Tea Party member's nightmare. However, Siraj Huda, one of the actors on the show, says "the object is to reach a neutral audience. Not necessarily non-Muslim, but neutral".
Huda plays Mr Atoue, the Lebanese landlord of the mosque. "He's not a very devout Muslim - he likes gambling. He's very money-minded," Huda says. Reflecting such unorthodox realities of modern life back to the core audience for the show may help it reach a wider audience. "I don't think that the show is preachy, so it should work." Especially here. "New York is open to so many cultures. It wouldn't be possible to make the show elsewhere," Huda says.
Likewise, the web. At 45, De Castro wasn't interested in "the years-long process" of dealing with network executives, "and then it never gets made". A web series is faster and cheaper - but then again, De Castro put up all the money. The first season cost US$10,000 (Dh37,000) "and everybody gets paid". With five episodes (each four to nine minutes long) in the first season done and a goal of 18 episodes in total, his series was an official selection to the 2011 Manhattan International Film Festival.
"You know, [polls say] that most Americans have never had a Muslim friend," De Castro says. "But most Muslims count a non-Muslim among their best friends."
So there remains a disconnect, although not in De Castro's case. It prompts the unasked question: you're not Muslim, so why should you care?
"When I was fired as human rights commissioner, someone stood up and spoke out for me in City Council," De Castro says. "It's my turn to tell stories that haven't been told."
• For more information, visit www.newyorkustan.com
Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE