Alia Yunis is a writer, journalist and filmmaker. She is currently producing and directing "The Golden Harvest," a feature length documentary about how olive oil has shaped the Mediterranean culture, cuisine and history for 6,000 years, through war and peace. Her debut novel, The Night Counter (Random House) has been critically acclaimed by the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and several other publications. It was also chosen as a top summer read by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix. The Boston Globe has called it “wonderfully imaginative...poignant, hilarious.” Alia was born in Chicago and grew up in the U.S., Greece, and the Middle East. She has worked as a filmmaker and journalist in several cities, especially Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including The Robert Olen Butler Best Short Stories collection, and her non-fiction work includes articles for The Los Angeles Times, Saveur, SportsTravel Magazine, and Aramco World. She currently teaches film at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.
Full House was my first Hollywood experience…At the end of last semester, I found myself doing something I had never done before: sharing with my students my journey to Hollywood. I told them it began with this show called Full House, which ended before any of them were even born. But they oohed and aahed, a group of students who had grown up all over the world. They had all seen it, connected to it, even though it didn’t represent their worlds in terms of race, gender, social structures or socio economics. I, however, did not ooh and ahh when I was told I’d be on the set up Full House. I had won a comedy writing award from Warner Bros as a student, and prize was to intern on a TV show.
I expected to be put on something edgy, not a show that could hardly be raved about for its writing. But edgy writing doesn’t have as wide of an audience, especially if families and kids are the target market. Jack Gilbert, the internship coordinator told me, Full House is what every studio dreams of: a show that lasts years, remains timeless, and thus can be recycled for royalties for generations to come, and doesn’t cost a fortune to make. “This show’s biggest expense are the actors,” he said. Hearing about Bob Saget’s passing, so soon after remembering those times with my students, has revived the emotional roller coaster of arriving in LA for the first time. John Stamos had been one of the great crushes of my teen years, and I felt a bit star struck in his presence, so it was easier to focus on Bob Saget’s acting. The thing I remember most is when he wanted to change a line in the script, and one of the producers said to him, “No, this laugh is for John; he’s the star in this scene. You play straight.” Saget was the only one of them who was a stand-up comedian. But he just nodded agreement. That’s how ensemble, in real life or made for TV, lasts so long, and that warmth is the part viewers craved and could connect to, despite the show’s lack of diversity. It’s how you keep the house full, as they say in the movies. (of course, there are negatives to what I saw at that time in terms of the writer’s room, but I leave that for another time)
When I woke up on Sept 11, 2001 in my apartment in LA, it was still dark. I was a struggling screenwriter up with the sun. I was trying to be like Stephen King, who I’d heard somewhere woke up at 3 am to get his writing done by 7 am. Part of that routine was to not check email, turn on the TV or radio. Thus, in the silence, I jumped when my phone rang at 6:15 am. My caller ID said it was the person I’d had dinner with the night before. “See what your people have done?” he said before I could say hello. “What people?” I asked. “They flew into the World Trade Center.” “How is that supposed to be funny?” I replied to this aspiring comedy writer. By then, I knew who “my people” were, as anytime there was an explosion anywhere in the world, Arabs and Muslims first reactions have always been, “Please don’t let it be us.” But I thought he was in his inner Stephen King writing moment. “I don’t think this is a very funny set up,” I said. Finally, I gave in to his demand that I turn on the TV. There it was and like everyone on the planet, for one reason or another, my future changed. In the blurry hours that followed I remember checking on friends and family in the New York area and began anticipating the way the US would always be different, as it would be for those who would pay the price for this outside the US. The next day, I learned a person in my writing group lost her brother-in-law and my mom’s neighbor in Jordan lost her son, who had just started a job at one of the financial firms. In later years, I would meet a survivor of the towers, who has had respiratory issues ever since. He is Lebanese.
We were told to stay home, but there was something I needed from my car—the water bottles I had bought the day before but was too tired to carry up the stairs when I got home. I was thirsty, and I compared to the other crimes “my people” were being rounded up for that day, a trip to my car seemed fairly safe. Los Angeles had never been quieter. I got the bottles and climbed back up the stairs. An American flag now covered my door. My neighbor across the hall opened his door.
“I heard you going out. I put that up for you,” he said. “So if anyone comes looking for your people, they’ll know you’re one of the good ones.”
He was Irish, like from Ireland. He did not speak like an American because he was not American. I was. But at that moment, I knew that, despite his Irish brogue, he was more American than I could ever be.
“Thanks,” I said, because I knew he meant well. I also wondered how he knew my ethnicity or religion. Maybe it had come up in one of our rare small talk chats on the stairwell. I’d noticed the Honduran family downstairs also had an American flag on the door, but not as big.
“Did you give them their flag, too?” I asked.
“No, they were smart enough to do it themselves,” he said.
The next morning, I woke up at 3 am, not to write like Stephen King but to escape nightmares. I turned on the TV. The cyclical speculation of the media circus was unbearable. I went back to my computer, attempted to escape in writing. But no concentration. As I looked at the dialogue I had written just two days before about two white characters on a mad caper adventure in Baltimore, I knew I wasn’t going to finish their conversation for them. A few months earlier, an agent had told me, “Write about white people, that’s what sells.” But now I would be labeled a Muslim writer and expected to write on “my people’s” behalf, like “Muslim” was a one catch-all person.
“My people” have not always been my best friends—whether Arabs, Muslims, American, females, writers–because they are as diverse as white people and all other labeled groups. Still, I consider it a privilege to write scenes in which “my people” exist, whether good, gorgeous, bad or ugly. I still cringe when people ask me about Islam, as if being born as a Muslim means I know all there is to know about it, that I’m a reliable source, just by birth. No one expects such oracle skills of my friends of other religions. But my characters on my computer screen today do their best to speak as real humans, not merely as “my people” even if I still question if anyone really wants to hear our stories outside of the paradigms of terrorism and oppression of women. For me personally, other early morning phone calls since Sept 11 have shattered my world far more, in ways for which I do not have words, much like I imagine the families of the victims of 9-11 and the wars that would follow it must feel. But for me the writer, 9- 11 is when I acquired a voice as a Muslim writer.
I heard Sex/Life is coming back for a second season. I got to say some things.
I used to think Sex and the City 2 (2010) was the worst female-driven Hollywood production with the word “Sex” in the title. Then I saw Sex/Life on Netflix last week. As someone who is no longer a teenager with limited access to soft porn, I’m not the target market for this show. Still, the nerdy academic in me wanted to know why Sex/Life spent much of this summer as the number one show on Netflix here in Jordan–as well as in the rest of the Middle East and India, and likely many other places.
It couldn’t just be for the sex scenes, could it? With all the easily accessible porn online? But after watching it, I conclude it is for the sex scenes. Because it’s certainly not for the whiny, dull storyline—a 30-something rich, suburban mom is bored and starts fantasizing about her tortured, rich ex-boyfriend much to the obsessive disappointment of her otherwise perfect husband.
Yet it is this whiney, dull storyline that troubles me, not the montage sex in a five-star swimming pool. We don’t want our children to watch porn because in fetishizes sex. But this series fetishes relationships. Young people far from white America–still held upheld as the ideal in most series and films– are absorbing dangerously oppressive falsehoods about love and relationships in the process of being able to comfortably know they are watching soft porn on a government and family-approved platform. And learning that love is abusive—and racially-defined.
Some people might argue that the show includes people of color who are actually the smart people in the show. But that brings me back to Sex and the City 2. Sex/Life is one of the most poorly written, edited (that insert penis shot!) and acted shows I have ever seen. For that reason, it belongs on the shelf (if we still had DVDs) with Sex and the City 2, which didn’t have much sex but plenty of bad acting, editing and a horrendous script that basked in ridiculous orientalism. Set in Abu Dhabi, the four whiny, wealthy white women lament their lives while wearing Arabian Nights clothing as they trek in the desert on camels. Who can save them from their sorry selves? The Indian and Arab hotel workers at their seven-star hotel, of course, who double as relationship sage gurus and life coaches by virtue of their exotic looks. In Sex/Life the Indian and Arab servant gurus from Sex and the City 2 are replaced by “sage” but sexy Black woman and Asian woman—oh, and a Black therapist. All of whom somehow still have sympathy for the white people who are so privileged that the object of the star’s sexual desire, a man well into his 30s, is supposed to earn our forgiveness for the way he treats women because he has daddy issues. Like most people haven’t had that one. Most people just don’t have the luxury of using that as an excuse for why they treat the women they bring home to their multimillion-dollar Manhattan pad so badly.
In both Sex and the City 2 and Sex/Life, the white people still need exotic people to tell them about sex and passion, just as they did in the early Hollywood films. See The Sheik (1921) The Sultan’s Wife/Caught in a Harem (1917) and so many more. Back then, it is was to maintain the purity of white women, so Hollywood gave the dirty job of being sexy to women of color from far off lands.
In Sex/Life, nothing has changed except the exotic women get to dress like everyone else, instead of in weird headdresses and belly-dancing outfits. And the white women get to have sex on screen, although without ever being sexy, even at a sex party
The show is so ridiculous, that my fellow nerdy professors and I almost forgot to notice the Black sages in the story are professors at Colombia, where it seems that writing about your sex life is all that is required to rise up to the top of the profession. As someone surrounded by people struggling with the endless publishing roadblocks in publishing their research, I can only say if only writing an article about your sex life for a pop magazine like Psychology Todayqualified as “ground breaking research” to be celebrated by the highest echelons of academia. Or journalism, for that matter.
Do I blame Netflix for airing this show? No. Netflix’s job is to make money, and clearly this show doesn’t disappoint the bottom line. Nor do I blame the millions of teens who have likely been the demographics behind making this the number one show not just in Jordan, but most of the Middle East, India and anywhere else sex scenes are not allowed, not even kissing. Teenagers have hormones. And women have frustrations, if I contemplate the other likely target audience, compounded by shows that make them even more frustrated if they find them believable.
But I do actually ask the countries that through viewership numbers are making this show a hit to take a better look at themselves. The East still looks to America as the fantasy, where privilege rules and sex is easy. While Hollywood sexualizes the women of the East, the East does the same today. Women’s sexuality seemingly has to be othered. In the East, White privilege has become objectified as the fantasy. To be watched—and also reviled by.
In 2018, Netflix released JInn, its first TV series filmed in the Middle East. Like Sex/Life, it’s not brilliant production value, but that’s not why it caused an uproar. The day after it aired, I happened to be in a taxi in Amman. The taxi driver was so passionate in his disgust at a scene where a Jordanian teenager (the talented Salma Malhas) chastely kisses a teenage boy, that he almost veered off the road. I told him I had not seen it yet. He told me neither had he and thanked God his daughter wasn’t growing up in America. A lot of people in Jordan can’t afford subscription to Netflix. But they know what it is ok for white women to do and what is not ok for Arab women to do.
So there is sex and there is life. But there is not Sex/Life, a title that implies sex and life are the same thing, if we want to follow the grammatical meaning of the backslash. But life is not grammatically correct, and while sex and life overlap, they are not the same thing, just as sex and relationships aren’t. And it’s that backslash interpretation of this series that makes me wish there was more of a backlash against it. Not for the sex, but for what it tells us about women, privilege and relationships.
These are the words of Saudi poet Bakhut al-Murriyyah of the al- Murrah tribe, who was the first Bedouin woman to compose poetry on heavy motorized vehicles, beginning in the 1950s.
I learned about Bakhut and so many others from Marcel Kupershoek. Before I met Marcel Kupershoek at NYU Abu Dhabi where we both work, if anyone had recommended to me that I read Bedouin poetry, I would have thought they were making a joke—how do you read the poetry of illiterate people? But after meeting Marcel, a tall, lanky retired Dutch diplomat who has dedicated his life to transcribing and translating Bedouin poetry from the Najd, the geographic center of what is now Saudi Arabia, I’ve come to realize poetry is like music when it comes to literacy—it’s written with rhythm and soul whether the creator can put letter to paper or not. While most Arab Bedouins can read today, their ancestors used memory instead of text to preserve these poems. I’m so glad that those of us who don’t rely on memory and disappearing oral storytellers, can now read them. And they are worth reading—racy, funny, daring. Bedouin stereotypes, like the camel and the desert sand are anything but clichés in these poems, but rather subterfuge for sharp wit. Please see Aramco World for my interview with Marcel—and some fine poetry.
I lived in a house only once in my life. For three years. It was in Minnesota in what was a kind of small town back then called White Bear Lake. I was six but I still remember the couple who lived in the house before us saying to my parents that they never had a chance to plant the yard because they had their hands full with a teenage girl that was always in trouble. That’s why they were moving. I wanted to know more about that girl but I was sent out to that empty yard. A few years ago, I went to a look. They were little stick trees when we moved away. Today, the trees are taller than the house. No olive trees, but a great apple trees.
So it fits that The Golden Harvest, which was inspired by dad’s love for trees, will play again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival as Best of the Fest.
The first time I saw the Western Cape, I thought “This looks just like Los Angeles,” and then I thought, “This looks just like Lebanon.” I’m not just talking about the magnificent mountains and endless sea. The townships remind me of the camps in Lebanon, certain Cape Flats areas remind me of Compton, and Simons Town, with its dramatic cliff homes and a local museum hosting a meditation workshop with Tibetan chanters, reminds me of Santa Monica. But South Africa’s landscape is all its own, mired in a history all its own. Historian Joline Young has been digging through Western Cape Archives for 20 years to recapture the town’s history, as the archives had been closed to non-whites during Apartheid. As we were walking through Simon’s Town one Saturday afternoon, “We have generations of trauma in our genes.” While that’s not biologically possible, you see a lot of people chasing their genes. That afternoon we ran into a 50-year old woman, Shirleen, whose mixed-race family was relocated (forcibly removed from Simon’s Town) during the Group Areas Act. This was her first time here, and she and her husband were trying to figure out where her uncle’s fishing restaurant would have been.
Simon’s Town’s Harbor
Zainab Davidson, better known as Auntie Patty, would have had an answer. She literally mapped the whole town from memory, which inspired her to turn her family home, Amlay House, which was confiscated during the Group Areas Act, into the Simon’s Town Heritage Museum, dedicated to preserving the Muslim heritage of the town. She is part of the story in “The Written Heritage of South Africa.” She was 60-years old then. She’s 84 today, and lives above the museum with her husband.
I sat down one day with a sheet of paper and I drew a map of Simon’s Town, all the roads, just to see if I still remembered who lived here. I remember the old fisherman, and the old Dutch church, and I remembered lane by lane the cottages, and bigger houses over there. And I took all lanes and went house by house until I had this whole map of our community here in Simon’s Town and it ended at Simons Town Station. Yeah. And then I said to my husband, man I want to start our own museum. –Zainab Davidson (Auntie Patty), interviewed at Amlay House in September 2018
(March 14, 2019) The Golden Harvest (2019, 85 min) made its debut on March 4, 2019 at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival to a full house. The screening was followed by a lively Q & A that continued onto the pier along the fabulous arthouse area of the city where the majority of the festival takes place.
Greeks have the highest consumption of olive oil in the world, so it is no surprise that the audience reacted with tears and laughter to The Golden Harvest, which weaves the 6,000-year old love story between the people of the Mediterranean and their olive trees through personal tales in Palestine, Greece, Italy, Spain and Israel, including that of the filmmaker’s father.
“We are delighted that the film debuted in Thessaloniki, one of the top 10 international film festivals, and in a country where part of the film was shot,” says Alia Yunis, the director/writer.
The Golden Harvest is not just a foodie film, although there is plenty for foodies to savor, including learning from one of the top tasters in the world how to evaluate oil. But through a unique cast of characters, the film tackles the social and political dimensions of olive trees, including environmental issues, war, globalization, the European Union, marketing and branding, and Fair Trade, all of which impact this genie in a bottle.
“After seeing this film, I changed my mind about selling my family’s olive trees,” one audience member announced during the Q & A.
Alia was joined on stage for the Q & A by Pavlos Georgiadis, who is the youngest farmer in Makkri, his village in the Thrace region of northeastern Greece. His family is one of the many families that the film introduces to viewers.
“This film was inspired by my dad’s love of the olive tree, and I started noticing when talking to others with roots in the Mediterranean that the mention of olive oil opens up their souls and uncorks to their own heritage,” Alia says. “We shot over 80 hours of footage over four years, and the stories just kept coming. This is just a taste of all this tree can tell us about ourselves.”
The film is next schedules to play at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April.
To contribute to the financing still needed for the marketing and distribution of the film, please visit the non-profit, UNESCO member NGO collecting funding for the film: https://www.heritage-activities.org/food-and-heritage All individuals and institutions who donate receive a mention in the thanks, as well as their logo in the credits, if desired.
Every filmmaker making a film on her own dreams of it opening at a Top 10 ranked festival. We are delighted thus that The Golden Harvest will make its debut on March 4 at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Greece. Not only is it a great festival–it’s in the country with the highest per capita consumption of olive oil. We’ll post photos later. More Information on The Golden Harvest