Samera Entertainment and the Chloe Chronicles catches up with Author, Director, Journalist, and Healer Weam Namou
Discussing her new documentary The Great American Family, her inspiration for storytelling, and what the future holds next for her.
Q & A by ~ Chloe Brown of Chloe Chronicles
Q ~ Weam, it is so great to get to speak to you, I think the first question our audience would be wondering is what inspired you into this line of work and how has your storytelling turned into advocacy and investigative journalism?
A ~ I decided at age 19 to write books and went about doing so, sitting on the floor at night with a large and heavy electric typewriter on my lap because we couldn’t fit a desk in my room. I found a New York publisher as easily as one finds a shoe store, only to later discover from his wife that he’d mailed everyone that queried him an acceptance letter before he died. That was my first disappointment in this field, but yet I kept writing and submitting.
In the mid-1990s I went with a friend on a tour of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. On our way home, our flight stopped at Heathrow Airport where I entered a bookstore and saw a rack of novels about Arab women written by western authors. Each front cover showed a veiled woman in distress and on the back, a synopsis told of her attempts to flee from an abusive husband, father, or brother. I thought, “Is this how the west views us?”
After the publication of my first book, The Feminine Art, in 2004, several newspapers and magazines contacted me to write articles about the Iraqi American experience. I did over 100 radio interviews where callers asked very little about my book and were mostly curious to know about what it was like to grow up in Iraq, under Saddam’s regime, as a Christian in a Muslim country. I found that my answers helped dispel stereotypes and provide a more accurate narrative of who Iraqis and Chaldeans are. That, along with being hired as a reporter by the Chaldean News, had me lean toward investigative reporting. It was my way of using writing to serve. This desire to serve through writing became stronger when in 2014 ISIS destroyed my parents’ and grandparents’ villages in northern Iraq and afterward began to destroy the historical monuments.
Q ~ You attended school first at Wayne State University for your Bachelor’s Degree in Speech Communication. How do you think that learning experience translated to your education in Novel and Memoir Writing, Poetry, and Filmmaking later down the road?
A ~ Storytelling is a strong form of communication. Whether I’m composing words for a short poem or a feature script, what matters is that I do so in a way that connects us to our humanity, links us to our past, and has us reflect on our future. What matters is that I use this art-form conscientiously, because words can create love, beauty, and understanding as well as heal.
Q ~ Weam, you come from a long-line of Healers. For those who don't know, how would you define that practice or term, and when did you discover your passion for that as well?
A ~ Healers are people who use their skills and talents to bring comfort and support to others. By being mirrors, they help people heal themselves. My ancestors were wordsmiths and book lovers who used communication, among other things, to perform great acts, including save lives. For instance, my paternal Aunt Hassina was the midwife of Fallujah, a city in Iraq which dates back to Babylonian times, and was host to important Jewish academies for many centuries and later became known as the city of mosques. She worked for decades among tribes who highly loved and respected her. She also helped save a number of lives, especially newborn girls. Long ago, when Fallujah was just a small town, it was customary among a few Arab tribes for the father, if he so desired, to bury a newborn girl. Some men wanted to do just that, and my aunt was such an educated, smart, and compassionate woman that, through words, she convinced them not to. She, a Christian woman, used anecdotes from their Quran, to stop these killings because Islam forbids such acts.
I didn’t discover my passion for healing, nor pursue it in any way. The amazing teachers who came to my door taught me Eastern philosophies and Native American and other ancient teachings that helped me see who I am and what my purpose is in the world. They helped me connect to my lineage, and by doing so, to recognize the deeper work associated with my storytelling. After three decades of spiritual training and continuous writing, I started a spiritual and writing retreat called the Path of Consciousness. When you experience trauma in your life, and you come out of it on the other side, you want to do for others what your teachers did for you.
Q ~ How does being a Healer influence or enhance your art?
A ~ I once received an email from a woman I never met who works in the United Kingdom and Syria, thanking me profusely for writing my 13th book, Mesopotamian Goddesses: Unveiling Your Feminine Power. She said such a book was much needed in that region to empower girls and women in the Middle East by reminding them of their true origins, which have been buried by extremism. Over the years, I’ve received a lot of private messages from women of Arab background who feel that my work, my courage to stay true to my dreams while maintaining my tribal lifestyle, have transformed them in some way. These words fuel me to stay true to my calling and continue to produce meaningful and impactful work.
Q ~ Your acclaimed documentary The Great American Family follows Dawn, an American woman, and her family, as she is accused of colluding with Iraq regarding selling telecom equipment during sanctions and embargo dealings. What brought this story to your attention and why did you feel the need to be the one to tell it?
A ~ In 2010, at a business lunch meeting with a group of Iraqi-Americans, a friend of Dawn’s family told me about Dawn’s situation and asked if I could help bring media attention to the case in the hopes that it would put pressure on the government to release her. I did not want to tell this story. I was tired of the politics associated with Iraq and the United States, having watched the 1991 Gulf War, the devastating sanctions on Iraq which lasted for over a decade, the 2003 US-led invasion which happened three years after I’d visited my birth country. But Dawn’s family pursued me for months, and I couldn’t keep looking away. The subject matter closely related to things I’d already witnessed as a journalist and as someone who’d visited Iraq in 2000. Ironically, the person who had chaperoned me to Iraq in the spring of 2000 was Dawn’s uncle. My husband and I discussed this project, whether I should get involved, and in the end, decided that this was a humanitarian issue, and the right thing to do was help get the truth out.
Q ~ As a Christian-Iraq American woman, how did you personally connect to this story and what measures did you take to honor it culturally and ethically?
A ~ Chaldeans are tribal, operating as a very large family where each person has a vital role to play in the welfare of the community. Aside from a strong sense of community, we also have a deeper sense of obligation toward one another having endured continuous cycles of genocide over the centuries – as recently as in 2014. Our cultural identity now endangered and our people often stereotyped and misunderstood, our leaders and artists try to preserve our history and culture through various means – in my case, it’s through storytelling. The Dawn Hanna case was particularly special for me because it had a humanitarian element that gave me the opportunity to serve through writing.
Q ~ Through the filmmaking and research process, what did you find to be the most enlightening part of this process, and which was the most unsettling or surprising?
A ~ I discovered that persistence does pay off in the United States. The book The Great American Family took me six years to write and the documentary took eight years to complete. I was raising two very young children during this time, and for five years, also taking care of my elderly mother who lived with us. She had dementia and was bound to a wheelchair. On several occasions, I wanted to give up on the project. That’s when I’d spend time alone, pray for an answer, and realize that I must see it through to the end. I’m so grateful to not have given up. The book ended up winning an Eric Hoffer book award and was recently optioned by 5 Streams of Los Angeles. The film won two international awards – the IndieFEST and ImpactDOCS – which led to Sharry Flaherty of Samera Entertainment acquisition the project for Jeff Porter Pictures of Beverly Hills, California, who is representing the documentary.
The most unsettling part of the process was seeing how afraid some people were of the government. Many influentials I reached out to for help advised me not to pursue this project. One man said, “You don’t want to mess around with these people.” These words reminded me of our days in Iraq, living under the fists of a dictator, afraid of speaking our minds. Another unsettling aspect was seeing how, when the government makes a mistake, it’s not easily corrected. And when it breaks the law, it’s immune from repercussions. This contradicts with the definition of democracy.
Q ~ Dawn was denied a fair trial for her case and ended up serving six years in prison. Do you think that she was the scapegoat in this CIA operation? Did you have any doubt about her story going into filming?
A ~ Yes, I think that Dawn was the scapegoat in this CIA operation. As to whether I had any doubts about her story – by the time we began filming, the story was no longer about Dawn. It was about much bigger issues. It was about a case that sheds light on government conflicts based on greed and profit, foreign affairs that impact the rights of everyday citizens, lies that lead to wars, terrorism and other costly consequences, and double standards by the government. The Hanna family’s experience reveals shocking, unavoidable truths about measures the nation will take when political interests outweigh democracy.
Q ~ During your interviews with Dawn and Darrin Hanna what was the moment you truly knew you had to expose this injustice?
A ~ It was actually during my interview with the CIA operative. Aside from his testimony, the frustration and disbelief in his voice and his disenchantment with the US government’s “freedom, liberty, and justice for all” was telling. The fact that he risked his life for Dawn’s release, for the truth, when he could’ve easily looked away was the biggest proof that this was an injustice.
Q ~ How did you want this documentary to deal not only with Hanna's injustice but also with the issue of cultural and societal prejudice regarding Iraqi citizens and lineage in the United States, and specifically within the U.S. Government?
A ~ Since 2001, the US has spent $6 trillion on its “War on Terror” and began to use discriminatory profiling in the name of national security. This national security threat played out in Dawn’s sentencing, causing her to receive an inaccurate prison term. Even though the government later admitted to having committed an error by adding the national security threat to her case, no one was held accountable or bothered to correct this error. Dawn’s story provides, among other things, an avenue to bring awareness to this issue that has affected countless people. Perhaps her case will motivate demand for accountability for the implementation and enforcement of these harmful policies.
Q ~ This aforementioned documentary was obviously a story that deeply affected and inspired you, so what is it you look for in good subjects and good stories? And do you look for them or do they find you?
A ~ We’re all surrounded by good stories. It’s just a matter of whether we recognize them or not, and if we’re willing to invest one to ten years writing and producing them. In my case, I’m genuinely and always fascinated by real life and real people, so I don’t have to look far for a good story. The problem is finding the time to write them.
Q ~ Besides being a filmmaker you are a successful author and journalist, with over a dozen books about your culture, heritage, art, and Iraqi-Americans what is it that drives you to write about these topics that are personal and integral parts of yourself and your story?
A ~ Known as the cradle of civilization and the land of milk and honey, Mesopotamia, now called Iraq was home to the Chaldeans, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Akkadians. It is the setting for much of the Old Testament, including the Garden of Eden, the birth of Adam and Eve, and Prophet Abraham. Some of the most significant developments or inventions credited to the Mesopotamians include writing, the wheel, agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, separation of time into hours, minutes, and seconds (the clock), irrigation, religious rites, and beer! The first writer in recorded history was a woman from ancient Mesopotamia. Enheduanna, a princess, priestess, and poet, wrote and taught about three centuries before the earliest Sanskrit texts, 2000 years before Aristotle, and 1,700 before Confucius.
Yet for the most part, up until the 2003 US-led invasion, Americans knew little about Iraq. Most didn’t realize that it was associated with Mesopotamia and they were not aware of the contributions it had made to our modern-day civilization. This was partly due to its name change from Mesopotamia to Iraq that happened after World War I, when in 1921 the British created the Kingdom of Iraq.
I myself grew up not knowing much about my Chaldean heritage. In Baghdad, where I was born, schools didn’t teach about history that occurred before Islam some 1400 years ago. There were, however, selective history courses at universities that taught about ancient Mesopotamia. Chaldeans and other Christian groups, having endured persecution under the Ottoman Empire and oppression in a war-torn land ruled by dictators did not have the freedom or resources to keep their culture and heritage alive. They were, for instance, discouraged from speaking in public their mother tongue, Sureth, which is a form of Aramaic. This wasn’t the case in certain towns in northern Iraq, in the province of Mosul, which were almost exclusive to Christians.
The situation in northern Iraq dramatically changed in 2014 when the Islamic State invaded their villages and forced them out of the region. The attacks caused many Iraqi Americans, including myself, to assist our relatives abroad as well as to find ways to preserve our stories, heritage, and language.
Q ~ As a woman in the entertainment industry, how important have you found it to find your own voice and create your own opportunities and what advice would you have for other young women trying to do the same?
A ~ To find my own voice, I had to find my own opportunities so as not to cave into the pressures of the publishing and film industry which wanted me to write stories that fit into their definition of diversity. As a woman of Middle Eastern background, this was especially important for me. It meant I can do it with or without anyone’s help or approval. It meant that my children and the younger generation, in general, will have the chance to view a version of themselves that’s relatable and inspirational rather than pigeonholed.
The advice I would give young women is the belief in yourself long enough to see the project through to the end. Be patient. Don’t use your gender, marital status, motherhood, money, or any other factor as an excuse for not honoring your dreams and aspirations. Don’t be afraid to work hard. Be creative as well as practical so that you don’t rely on connections, philosophy, dreams, and luck to get you where you want to go. Your faith, work, and persistence will communicate to the universe your needs, and somehow, somewhere, the things you want the most will happen.
Q ~ What was it like to write the book and also produce the film?
A ~ I wrote the book The Great American Family while producing the documentary, but completed the book two years prior to the documentary. By then, I was ready to be done with this story. Writing it had been challenging in many ways, with people afraid to get involved in the case, including filmmakers, and the Hanna family going through so much emotional turmoil. Of course, writing it was also quite rewarding.
The main difference between the two projects is that in the documentary, I don’t show up. In the book, I’m the main character, observing as an Iraqi American journalist what is happening to our country, how we’re giving our powers away to our government. Simultaneously, I’m sharing my experience of when I visited Iraq in the year 2000, chaperoned by Dawn’s uncle. During that time, Iraq was under sanctions and I was able to see firsthand the devastating effect the 1991 Gulf War and the grueling sanctions had had on the Iraqi people.
Q ~ Now after The Great American Family spent up awards at IndieFest and ImpactDocs, what is next for you Weam? What can you tease our audience in terms of future films or books…?
A ~ I’m currently working on two projects. One is a personal and historical documentary about Chaldeans, titled Living Tribal in a Democracy. The second is a screenplay called Pomegranate, a dramedy about a young, politically liberal, Iraqi Muslim immigrant struggling to find her footing in a neighborhood of well-to-do, politically conservative Iraqi Christians while battling her family’s fears of deprivation and demands of loyalty to Muslim traditions.
The script was selected as a quarter-finalist by Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope contest and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship judges said the script was mesmerizing, full of meaning…welcomed, refreshing, and original.” Subsequently, the script garnered the attention of veteran film producer Dr. Stan Williams who also works as a Hollywood script consultant. I will direct and Stan will produce. I’m excited that we recently partnered with Santa Monica-based, Buffalo 8 Productions, to produce Pomegranate.