True Tales of a White Muslim Woman

Nicole Ballivian’s latest short comedy film Joe & The Shawl 1 is based on Deonna Kelli Sayed’s “Contested Whiteness: True Tales of a White Muslim Woman 2.”

“Yes, the woman in the shawl?”

My American University film class professor would call this out when I’d raise my hand in class.

A chortle would burst out of my best friend Gary every time our professor would do this. He’d never call me by my name, always by my hijab.

“You all need to get rid of your hopes of ever becoming filmmakers because you’ll never make it,” the professor repeatedly told our class. Maybe he was deflecting his own midlife fears on us, but Gary and I were taking off for Los Angeles after graduation anyway, leaving that festering professor in the DC dust.

I went on to direct a feature film that traveled around the world on the fest circuit (and took me with it), I became a Sundance Screenwriter Fellow, but before that, I had hit the LA grounds running on crew for both studio and independent productions.

Those fast days seem long ago compared to the pandemic that has us at a halt, uniting us all in our sacrifice and pain - to one degree or another, depending on if your fate is mired in the injustice wreaking havoc on the poor and unemployed.

It’s also a pandemic that unites many Americans in hate, inquietude and entitlement.

But for both the compassionate and the haters, we all stand under the mercy of a government that gives billions of dollars to cruise lines while thousands of families line up for food every day of this plague.

As we sit in many forms of stagnancy, our identity still rushes more fluid, and the hyphens become more hyphenated for almost everyone. We’ve broken out of the one box we found ourselves stuck in during my college days. For most Muslims in the US, they’re no longer just an “American-(insert ethnicity) Muslim.”

When I found Deonna Kelli Sayed’s blog entitled “Contested Whiteness: True Tales of a White Muslim Woman” it made me laugh from my depths as people do when they read about similar crazy events the characters go through.

Deonna and I are the same age, I am an “unidentifiable Muslim”, considered “white” on face value, living post-hijab and having walked through different levels of life, love, marriage, divorce, children and the spirituality tied to these and independently.

The questions behind the humor in Joe & The Shawl’s story, which is based on Deonna’s true story ask:

Who is identified as “American” by Americans?

If a European-native component is required somewhere in that notion: What happens to the brain when this person encounters a white American Muslim?

Are these Muslims still “American” in the sense of being an equal compatriot, deserving of respect as a human being?

What is it like to be a white American Muslim when half the voters in the country, most of whom share a very similar Ancestry. com report as you, voted for a bigot who says “Islam hates us”, meaning “Muslims hate us”?

These questions do not lead to the statement that a “white Muslim struggle” is one that should be sympathized and advocated for, or that we should rally the masses and start to get intersectional over it. Rather it is an observation of the inner state of these Muslims’ dissimilation from the majority on more than one level.

One example is when you are hijab-less, you can hear the conversations without filters that people have about Muslims. Many of us have had to stop people from embarrassing themselves further as they share their xenophobic thoughts out loud. I once heard a conversation that involved talking ill about Muslims and they spoke in Spanish so that I couldn’t understand, which makes me laugh from the absurdity of it all. My Spanish is pretty fluent since I’m Latina.

Moraleja (moral of the story): a fantastic way to discuss all these very difficult, very awkward issues is through humor, which is what I did with Driving to Zigzigland, my feature comedy about the struggle of an immigrant Palestinian cab driver trying to be an actor in Los Angeles.

So a few years ago I emailed Deonna and asked if I could turn her hilarious story into a film.

Today, Deonna writes:

“No one plans to have a film on the festival circuit during a global pandemic. No one plans to debut a film about whiteness at a moment when whiteness is becoming more weaponized and dangerous. But, here we are.

The final result: a short film, Joe & The Shawl is now on the online film festival circuit.”

For more details visit:

1. Joe & The Shawl

2. Contested Whiteness: True Tales of a White Muslim Woman

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