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Video Tapestry site
In "Middle Eastern | American: An Interactive Video Tapestry," 42 students from the Bay Area and New York talk about how they view both cultures. The site's visitors can choose several ways to listen to the hundreds of segments.

Generation Y wrestles with 9/11 in new Web video project
18 September 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - After the attacks of September 11, Americans of all ages struggled to understand how the world perceives us, agonizing over our place in the world. With "Middle Eastern | American: An Interactive Video Tapestry," UC Berkeley alumna Ana Pinto da Silva (Architecture, 1991) takes this process public.

Funded by an outreach grant from the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Pinto da Silva interviewed and filmed 42 New York and Bay Area students, including four from UC Berkeley. Aged 16 to 24, the interviewees possess wildly diverse backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities. They share their opinions of the best and worst of American and Middle Eastern cultures in a tapestry of video segments that the viewer can watch in a number of interactive ways. The students also tell how 9/11 changed their lives — or how it did not — and what each believes his or her greatest personal gift to be.

Keshav Dani
Berkeley Ph.D. student Keshav Dani agreed to be interviewed for the video tapestry after da Silva approached him on the street. "Of course I will help out another researcher," Dani explains. Photo by BAP

As a recent letter to the online publication Salon points out, the media too often talk about youth and too rarely to youth. This site takes that notion one better: here, you listen.

And in contrast to the callow, consumerist stereotype that frequently dogs Generation Y, what we hear from these students are thoughtful, articulate expressions of the need for peace and understanding between cultures. This comes as no surprise to Pinto da Silva, who spends a lot of time with young adults. In addition to heading Workshop 173, a Bay Area design firm, she teaches at San Francisco State University's multimedia studies program and volunteers with Art and Film for Teenagers, a community outreach program.

"I think a lot of people are afraid of teenagers because of their prickly exteriors, but it's so important to engage with them, " Pinto da Silva says. "They're very forthright. As we get older, we become more circumspect about our opinions. Teenagers call adults on our functional hypocrisy."

The participants in the project certainly don't pull their punches. They agree on what they value most about American culture — freedom and diversity. And they are also united in what troubles them about their home country: the U.S. is materialistic, shallow, hypocritical and racist, alleges voice after voice. Abroad, the U.S. is perceived as ignorant, haughty and rich, say the students, many of whom were born or have traveled extensively outside the States. They are divided on whether that perception is accurate.

The most interesting — and revealing — answers are given in response to the question, "Do you feel you have changed since 9/11?" Nearly every U.S.-born student says yes, and details feelings of shock, a greater interest in world news, dissatisfaction with the government, and an increased sense of life's fragility.

Meanwhile, most of the foreign-born students say they were less shaken by the events of 9/11. Berkeley physics PhD student Keshav Dani, 23, who is from India, puts it this way: "I don't think it has changed me. Terrorism was something that has been going on in India, in Kashmir or other parts of the world, and I'd been following it ... It came to America, but I haven't been in America all my life."

He himself may not have been changed by 9/11, but Dani does believe that America has, he said in a recent interview after the anniversary of the attacks. "There's a sense of vulnerability and insecurity now that I don't think was present before. People are asking themselves a lot of questions that I think they should be."

Many of the students tell how their lives have been affected by the changes in America. A dark-skinned, bearded student stoically describes being called "Osama bin Laden" and the pain of having his classmates stop talking to him. A Saudi Arabian woman recounts attempting to explain to friends how she could be Muslim and yet not sympathize with the terrorists.

Afghan Muslim student
Iranian Jewish student
Friends Jon (top), an Afghan Muslim, and Jonathan (bottom), an Iranian Jew, traveled to New York City from Boston to record their views.

For best friends Jon and Jonathan (on the Web site, Pinto da Silva uses only first names to protect students' privacy), the 9/11 attacks gave their friendship a special significance. Jon is an Afghani Muslim, while Jonathan comes from an Iranian Jewish family. They heard through a friend of a friend of a friend about Pinto da Silva's search for interview subjects, and took the train to New York from Boston to participate.

"For most people I'll be the only Afghan they ever meet," Jon says in the taped segment describing his greatest personal gift — his understanding of both American and Middle Eastern ways of thinking. "I have to make the best impression possible. I try to make people understand that in our country, we are not just Taliban or starving refugees in Pakistan. That we have a rich culture and we are able to have fun and be good neighbors."

This multiplicity of reactions and viewpoints are what make "Middle Eastern | American: An Interactive Video Tapestry" so valuable. Although Pinto da Silva intended the site to be used as a classroom tool with which teachers can spark discussion, she also hopes the project will someday aid international diplomacy.

To that end, she would like to translate the current segments into Arabic, so they can be viewed by the Middle Eastern world, and to travel to Egypt and/or Israel to undertake complementary interviews with youth there. But first she must get additional funding, and surmount formidable cultural and language barriers. The $12,800 outreach grant from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies' Al-Falah Program barely covered the expenses of the project, like hiring a camera operator and sound engineer. Pinto da Silva built the entire Web site herself, sifting through hours of footage and teaching herself how to use video streaming and editing software.

"The pilot project has great potential," says Nezar AlSayyad, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Pinto da Silva's collaborator for the project. "I would like to see Ana make it into something that can be shown perhaps on public television. I think the principal value is not as a teaching tool, but as an instrument for understanding in the world outside the university."

Few people with hard-and-fast views, whether Middle Eastern or American, will have their minds changed by the project, AlSayyad acknowledges. However, "it shows how complex Americans are and how powerful personal experience can be in shaping culture and attitudes," he continues. "It also provides a way for people to learn about Muslims even by default — that while some are very different, others cannot be distinguished from other Americans by looks, accents or anything else."

For Pinto da Silva, the project has achieved her primary goal, even without the Egypt/Israel segments. "Instead of the world getting its impressions of young Americans just from Britney Spears," she says, "I think it's far better for them to listen to real people like Jon and Keshav and see what thoughtful human beings they are."

Visit the "Middle Eastern | American: An Interactive Video Tapestry" project