NEW YORK — In Peace After Marriage, Arafat is a lonely, neurotic, pornography-addicted 30-year-old living in Brooklyn, New York, with Palestinian immigrant parents who want him to find a suitable bride, preferably a girl from "back home." It's a broad, sexually-frank comedy that looks to Woody Allen's early films for inspiration, although the satire is softer-edged, and the romance less ambivalent.
Writer-director Ghazi Albuliwi, who also stars in the film, says it is semi-autobiographical, although he doesn't admit to some of the broader aspects of the comedy: trying to dispose of a suitcase full of pornography, for example, Arafat is apprehended by New York police who suspect he's hiding a bomb.
Albuliwi, who was born in a refugee camp in Jordan to Palestinian parents who later immigrated to the U.S., grew up in Brooklyn, with friends from various backgrounds, he says, not only other Arab Americans, but blacks, whites, and Latinos.
"I was a street kid, and there was no racial divide in the streets, and that's what made me love this city a lot — there's a kind of cultural openness," he said in an interview at a bar near his home in Brooklyn.
"Really all I've ever known is Brooklyn," he said. "I'm probably more of a Brooklyn guy than I am an Arab guy. The big culture shock for me is the reverse: it's not Brooklyn, it's when I go 'back home.' And you see that in the movie."
He's referring to a scene in which Arafat flees an arranged marriage "back home," on the West Bank, and is pursued by angry relatives of the jilted bride. He throws himself at the feet of Israeli soldiers guarding a checkpoint. "Shalom! Do any of you guys know the way to the airport?"
Back in New York, still starved for female companionship, Arafat agrees to marry a young Middle Easterner seeking a green-card marriage to obtain permanent U.S. residency status. The hitch is that she is an Israeli Jew.
"And is she from Palestine?" his mother, played by Hiam Abbass, asks hopefully.
"We call it Palestine," Arafat answers. "She doesn't."
Last fall, Peace After Marriage became the first Arab-directed film chosen to open the Jerusalem Film Festival. It will be commercially released this summer in Turkey.
Albuliwi says it is a New-York-as-melting-pot story, and disclaims any political message.
"I think people bring in their perceptions and their baggage of the Palestinian conflict or the Israeli conflict, I was just writing about myself," he said. "I just thought it was funny taking my life here in Brooklyn and using an Israeli girl who had come to New York — to take the politics out, and that's what I'm always looking to do."
Well, maybe not always. At the film's Abu Dhabi Film Festival premiere, Albuliwi joked that "sexual jihad" or an orgy might help bring peace to the Middle East — and he was subsequently boycotted by the Arab press.
"There's no joking in the Middle East," he said. "I think that's maybe the problem."
Albuliwi's next film is set in New York in the year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and is a comedy about a young Arab American named Osama who can't get a date. Again, he said, it's inspired by his own experiences.
"It's basically about how Osama bin-Laden ruined my sex life after 9/11," he said. "I had this kind of invisible wall that I put up, because of a lot of guilt I felt. You're an Arab, a Muslim, and here you have this portrayal of your people on TV, and also you're a New Yorker, and you're like, 'Well, I'm just a New Yorker.'
"It's kind of like a film postcard to that time for me, and it's also about kind of regaining hope," he added. "But it also shows the city as a city that can really forgive, and a city that's culturally open to letting someone like me regain his life after the fact.