"In a way, I’ve got no business making a country song or music video. At best, I’d be some weird anomaly if I’d made it as an Arab country music singer": Filmmaker and poet Moheb Soliman, outside his home in Center City, Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The Arab Film Fest Collab is underway for its 15th year. Never heard of it? Until 2020, it’s been known as the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. This year, Mizna, the Twin Cities arts organization behind the festival, has partnered with the Arab American National Museum, the Arab Film and Media Institute, and ArteEast. Their national collaboration will stream more than 60 features, documentaries, and film shorts, and run December 3–13. 

The festival has long taken place the last weekend in September, at Saint Anthony Main Theater, in Minneapolis. But the pandemic has pushed the festival online. That change may pay off: Festival programmers hope to discover a much wider viewership without the physical limitations of having to catch the films live, at a specific theater. 

The festival highlights films from Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco to capture a chorus of artistic voices. This year’s edition also offers a series of panel discussions with filmmakers covering topics such as storytelling and visual culture in Afro-Arab cinema and excavating alternate histories. 

Tuesday, December 8, brings a live performance, following the screening of “We’re Back!” a conceptual country music video/short film by Minnesota-based artist Moheb Soliman.

We caught up with Soliman, an Egyptian American interdisciplinary artist, whose short film will play as part of the “Representing Diaspora” program. Moheb has lived in Minnesota for the past seven years: He’s currently staying in a futuristic dome house, surrounded by water, in Center City. But when his parents first moved from Egypt to the U.S., they settled in Stillwater, Oklahoma. 

Soliman was 6 years old then. Now, over 30 years later, Soliman is producing work that questions how place and identity intertwine. His country music video was borne out of that journey. 

“It hopefully puts into question how big of a place you can be from,” Soliman said. “What it means to be from a country and a region in a sense. It’s up for grabs.”

Soliman spoke with Sahan Journal and discussed his reasons for exploring art outside of poetry (his first discipline), the inspiration for his music video, and what he thinks is missing from the cinema of the Arab diaspora. His comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Your work is steeped in poetry. But what couldn’t you do with poetry that made you branch out into a medium like film?

It’s funny. In a way my answer is there’s so much you can’t do in poetry and yet here I am still trying to work with it. I have a real love-hate relationship with this form of literature. I’ve thought about it a lot. 

I think poetry is special as a form of writing because it works with the way our consciousness works. It’s impressions, it’s memories, it’s associations. It’s not complete sentences. Language is constantly happening, yet when we are moving through the world, we don’t put together coherent descriptions of it. We work in these poetic ways. 

But life is so much more abstract, sensual, and experiential. Those are some of the things that writing can’t do well. Writing is about definitions. You chose this one word over a billion other words, whereas music is abstract to the core. I think that was part of the reason I was drawn to this project. 

As somebody who couldn’t play an instrument to save my life, it was really satisfying to do something with a friend of mine to make a song. It took the poetry to a different place. As somebody who is an immigrant, I felt really driven to learn the language. It was a sink-or-swim kind of situation. I had to know how to communicate or it would be a way lonelier life. It was something I was working hard at in the places I grew up. 

Do you think that people can see rural Oklahoma in this film?

This project is a weird one. In a way, I’ve got no business making a country song or music video. At best, I’d be some weird anomaly if I’d made it as an Arab country music singer. When I started to take it seriously, it started to seem like such an absurd idea. 

It still nods to a lot of country music tropes like the romanticizing of where you’re from, and hanging out with your boys drinking beer. It plays a lot with those stereotypes and I think it sometimes romanticizes those stereotypes. Because why should only white country guys get to romanticize these things? We have a place there, too. 

Filmmaker Moheb Soliman has described “It’s Back!” as an “absurd country music video where I’m romanticizing being a white country guy in Oklahoma.” Credit: Photo courtesy of Moheb Soliman

There’s no way I can say I’m from Oklahoma, but that’s where we landed and where we spent some years. And I associate with it in a personal way. I just thought it would be a really funny thing to claim Oklahoma as a place that I can be from when I’m so far from what anybody would consider an Oklahoman. 

For the last couple of years I’ve been part of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship and I specifically applied to spend a lot of time in Oklahoma, 30-plus years later, to see it from the eyes of a completely Americanized person. And to think of myself and my family there. 

What’s it like getting a film like this on screen?

Mizna is a really special organization. I’ve worked with them before as a staff member. They straddle a lot of interesting things and they’re on the front line on Arab American issues. And yet they’re also trying to keep the door open for anything and everything for someone who identifies that way. 

I feel like a lot of my work is in rejecting Arab American identity or at least putting it to the question, ‘What can this mean or do I have to constantly be this thing.’ And they find that to be totally in bounds. That’s a really wonderful and freeing tension to work with. 

I’m in the mix with some incredibly critical and serious work exploring current Arab American, Arab, and North African issues. You’ll see a lot of amazing films. And then to be thrown in the mix with that to be doing this absurd country music video where I’m romanticizing being a white country guy in Oklahoma? I feel a little nervous about how I’m going to play in this space.

People may see you dealing with identity in this film. What’s an influence people might not guess?

I did a lot of weird research for this video, which was hilarious and inspiring. I got into this kind of pop country/bro country band called Florida Georgia Line. They have this song called “Dirt,” and it’s such pop garbage in a way. 

It’s got these corny tropes about some old man remembering his high school sweetheart and getting married and the white picket fence. It’s so easy to make fun of that. But the harder and more stimulating thing is to think about what is true in that? How come I can’t romanticize that? Why is it just for these guys?

When you watch films from other Egyptian or Middle East and North African filmmakers, what do you think is missing?

I I think it’s a really hard time that we’re living in, in terms of identity politics. Especially for Arab American, North African, and Muslim people. The way that those groups have been targeted and vilified, especially since 9/11, has created an environment where you’re sort of cornered into a position. You have to stand up for yourself. It’s a time where we all need to be more urgent and vigilant about protecting who we are and where we come from because it has a really negative connotation. But what that then does is it strips away the complexity of who anyone gets to be. 

I have a book coming out in the summer of 2021 with Coffee House Press, which I’m excited about. It’s a book of nature poetry and I’ve had people look at me, surprised. They sort of expect me to be writing about Arab American identity, since I have a platform as an artist. I just find their assumption to have a racist component to it, because why can’t I talk about philosophical or existential things? 

I understand it because we’re living through a moment that probably won’t end until we are dead. It’s going to take us a lot of time before we get out of the terrible histories that America has brought on itself with slavery, the disposession of Native land, and all the issues with immigration that we’re struggling with. That’s a lot to deal with. 

The moment that we’re in with identity politics is so intense and a lot of the art that is coming out now is celebrating the diverse identities out there. Sometimes I feel like they’re focusing too much on that and they’re re-ascribing race on themselves, while trying to free themselves at the same time. 

What’s your guilty viewing pleasure?

My partner and her son are in the other room making an amazing dinner and we just had on The Great British Baking Show. I just love food. I love baking. I find it calming to see people really loving up their work. It’s nurturing to watch people make food.

The Arab Film Fest Collab runs through December 13. For more information about the lineup, tickets, festival passes, streaming advice, and technology, please visit   https://arabfilmfestcollab.eventive.org/how-to-fest

Abdirahman Mohamed is a Somali journalist, filmmaker, and contributing reporter for Sahan Journal. Born in Mombasa, Kenya, Abdirahman was raised in St. Paul’s East Side. He works as a producer and specializes...