There's a Muslim Football Team at a High School in Michigan

And the guy who made a film about them thinks they can change America.

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Jan 31 2012, 9:00pm

Last December, American DIY store Lowe's came under pressure from the Florida Family Association to pull its advertising from All-American Muslim, a reality show running on US cable channel TLC. As far as anyone can tell, this is because the hardline evangelicals at the FFA like their families to be Christian and not have brown skin, and Lowe's was rightly criticized for its craven and unnecessary capitulation to Amerikkka.

But in all the shouting and anxious, moral stressing about Lowe's vetoing of Islam, people lost sight of the fact that All-American Muslim was, in all likelihood, heavily inspired by a feature-length documentary shot just before it in the same town of Dearborn, Michigan. That film is called Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football, and it's about a bunch of Muslim high school kids trashing all-comers at that great American game: American football.

Which I guess just goes to show how backwards and archaic the FFA's way of thinking is.

The film follows the high schoolers in the lead up to the semi-finals of the state championship, which happen to coincide with Ramadan, which means they're starving themselves while also training exhaustively for their biggest game of the year, which is insane. I don't really care about sports flicks (why bother? Space Jam will never be topped), but the film's in-depth look at how a predominantly Arab-American community exists in a post-9/11 America is fascinating. Thus far, it's largely been confined to the indie documentary circuit, but AMC picked it up for select viewings in the US. State Secretary Hillary Clinton watched it over dinner one night and quite liked it. (Michael Moore watched it too, but that guy concentrates when he eats.)

I don't know if clichés about people from the South thinking all Muslims cradle Halal meat-bombs in their beards are true, just like I don't know if overly enthusiastic frisking at airports has added to Muslim resentment. But I wanted to know, so I caught up with Fordson's director and producer, Rashid Ghazi, to talk about a sport that I know literally nothing about and how it can help soothe sensitive interfaith relations in America. 

VICE: Before we get into the film, could you explain to me what kind of town Dearborn is?
Rashid: It was created by Henry Ford, it's a working class factory town. Over time, a lot of people came here looking for jobs, including a number of people from the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. Dearborn became a centre for Arabs from around the world. It now has the highest population of Arabs outside of the Middle East. Ninety-seven percent of the students at Fordson are Muslim. Also, whenever there's a story about Muslims in the world, the news media descends upon Dearborn. If there's a terrorist attack somewhere, they come and ask "What do you think about it?" 

That should clear things up. So, how did you get involved?
Back in 2004 I read an article in USA Today about this team who had got to the semi-finals of the state championship. It was during Ramadan and I was amazed that a predominantly Muslim team that weren't eating and drinking from dawn till dusk were still playing a high energy sport at a high level and succeeding. Also, I felt that, as an American, especially after the Persian Gulf War, there was a huge disconnect in this country between what Muslims are like and what Americans think they're like. I'm Muslim, by the way, I happen to be of Indian heritage. I was actually born in England, in Stoke-on-Trent.

Really? I'm from Birmingham; small world. You were saying?
Sixty percent of Americans have never met or known a Muslim, yet there are six or seven million Muslims living in this country. There is tension that has only been heightened after 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East. I thought a great way to show people who Muslims really were was to showcase these kids playing football because, in this country, football is ingrained. On Friday night in a small town, high school football is a huge deal, there's nothing more American.

Let's say I don't really understand football, or sports in general (both true). Could you have made the film without the proxy of high school football?
Ideally we wouldn't have to make a movie like this. If we told the story without it, maybe talk about what it means to be American and talk about racism. All those things wouldn't have been as compelling as telling it through a football story, because the angle of sports draws people in. Also, I love sports.

People are always telling me about how sport is a great equalizer and it breaks down ethnic borders and boundaries, but then I hear stories about segregation in locker rooms...
In America, sports have probably done more to break down racial tension and misunderstanding than anything else. Look at Muhammed Ali or Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player to play in the major leagues. Really, for the African-American community in this country, sports were a unique way for there to be racial integration and for friendships to cross ethnic and religious lines. My thinking was that, if you're an athlete and you see these guys playing the game you love at a high level, but whilst fasting as well, you can relate to that. It's a respect factor.


Before each match the coach leaves the room (gotta keep that separation of church and state) and the players pray together

Do the guys ever get racially charged verbal abuse while they're on the field?
There's a history of them being called everything from "sand-nigger" to "camel jockey" to "towel head." We interviewed three generations of players and it's always been hurled at these guys, even from when they were young. But the coach's mantra is "No Excuses," meaning whatever the obstacle you're facing, whether it's fasting, situations at home, being a working class kid, or facing racial insults, there are no excuses, that's just part of life. I thought I'd find a community that felt a bit sorry for themselves, a bit down on their luck. What I found were people that were very proud of who they were, to be Arab Muslim Americans.

The guys in film seem pretty American to me.
Well, everyone in the film has an American accent. Most people at the school are like fourth, fifth, sixth generation immigrants. You see a woman wearing a hijab, as well as a T-shirt with the high school's name on it, speaking in a strong American accent. Without the hijab, she's just the average American mom.

To me these people represent how America is supposed to work, with immigrants from allover pursuing the American Dream. Why is there so much opposition to a community that represents an experience that is uniquely American?
Well, I'm an immigrant and you can feel like your patriotism is in question, but I think the reality is opposed to that. Who else would be more patriotic? You came here and stayed here for a reason. The other thing is: Who are Americans? If you can be Irish-Catholic-American, you can be Arab-Muslim-American. The irony is we weren't the first people who came to this country escaping religious persecution, right? 

Fordson High's big rivals are Dearborn High, right? And the film shows the days leading up to the big game against them. It's during Ramadan so they're all cream crackered. What's Dearborn High like?
Yeah, Dearborn High is in the same town. That school is about 30-35 percent Arab—it's a more affluent neighbourhood.

So, there's a bit of good ol' fashioned class war?
There's a little bit of that. It's a strong, friendly rivalry.

Were you apprehensive dealing with 9/11?
Some people told us we shouldn't even address September 11th—Muslims worried about the association. But what's the point in making a movie unless you're going to discuss the issues that need to be discussed? Nine-eleven effected Arab communities and that's a story many Americans need to know and want to hear. Big Joe, one of the guys in the film called, for Osama bin Laden to be "shot in the head on national television." He was serious.


Big Joe

What was it like in Dearborn on September 12th, 2001?
They shut the school down because they'd had bomb threats. For a lot of the young people it was kind of an end to their innocence, just as for a lot of the youth in America 9/11 was a big wake up call. There was no violence actually in Dearborn, but there has been elsewhere. One guy in California had his house daubed and vandalized in racist graffiti. He moved out. When he went back to the house he died because someone had planted a bomb in it.

That's terrible. Like the worst attempt at irony ever, made by the worst people ever.
The other thing September 11th did was make the Muslim community do far more outreach work: inter-faith work, community support, things like that—they have all increased in the last ten years.

Do you think that's in any way indicative of collective atonement? So, even though they obviously weren't responsible, American Muslims felt on some level that they had to do something?
I don't think it was out of guilt, but a need to educate our country, reach out and explain who we are, otherwise this whole mystery will remain.

One of the guys in the film, his brother got put in the slammer for some bogus terrorist plot, right?
That's Hassan Houssaiky's brother, Ali. He was an All-State running back who went to Ohio to buy cell-phones so he could sell them on for more money in Michigan with his friend. A lady at Walmart noticed that his name was Ali and his friend's name was Osama. They called the police and they were arrested and held on terrorism charges. The charge was money-laundering to support terrorism, but after ten days the prosecutor let them go, there was no evidence. It was basically because of his name and his background.


Ali Houssaiky (right) and his friend Osama Sabhi Abulhassan being potrayed in a less than flattering light by the media.

That would taint my outlook on life.
He said, "It opened my eyes to what's going on in America." The problem he has is if any employer or potential employer Googles his name, all these terrorism charges come up. Even though he's legally clear, he'll never be clear by association.

It took you a while to make this film, six years in all. Do you think the issues are a little time-sensitive, that the film could lose its pertinence?
One thing I've realized over the years—and bear in mind that I wanted to get this film out in 2005—is that these issues we're dealing with are pretty evergreen. Islam and the international community, this is all going to be around for at least another 20 years. You have a billion people facing the rest of the world, it's not going anywhere. 

Is there a global relevance to your film, then?
If you look at the Arab Spring, what's happening over there is people want freedom, they want a right to have their businesses, to educate their children, right? They want many of the same rights that their relatives and friends have in the United States. There's a direct link. With the internet, people are seeing this and thinking "Why can't I have the same freedoms in Egypt or Syria that my cousin has in Detroit, Michigan?"

You may be right. Thanks for talking to us, Rashid.

@JoshuaHaddow

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