Independent Lens: Recycle

Tue, 03/31/2009 - 10:00pm

Pictured: Abu Amar waiting with his son in their van.

Photo Credit: Abu John/ITVS

What makes a terrorist? In Zarqa, Jordan’s second-largest city, with close to 1 million people, it is a much-debated question. Zarqa’s political Islamists are a powerful force in this industrial center, and it is the birthplace of Abu Musa al Zarqawi, the brutal leader of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was killed by American forces in 2005. Many in town knew al Zarqawi, many in his family remain, and Zarqa continues to be a source of new recruits to the jihadist cause. A film by Mahmoud al Massad, who was born in Palestine and raised in Zarqa, Recycle will air on the Emmy® Award–winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Terrence Howard, on Tuesday, March 31 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

Recycle is a portrait of the city as seen through the eyes of Abu Ammar, a 40-something Jordanian who served as a mujahid during the Afghan-Soviet War and the former owner of a failed grocery store who now struggles to support his two wives and eight children by collecting discarded cardboard for sale to a recycling plant. A deeply religious man, he has also collected thousands of scraps of paper with Islamic sayings that he intends to use in a book on jihad as soon as he can find a publisher.

The film joins Abu Ammar on his daily work routine, in intimate family settings at home, at prayer, and after his arrest and four-month imprisonment on suspicion of involvement in the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman. The subjects of his periodic, wide-ranging conversations with friends and neighbors include the inadvisability for Muslims to work or live in “infidel” countries, the 9/11 attacks in America, the rise of extremist violence, and the role of Muslim theologians.

Reminiscences of Zarqawi are also related, with all agreeing that he was a very unremarkable man, a man who was uneducated, apolitical and not at all religious—indeed, his main concerns seemed to be pills, alcohol and women—but who suddenly became religious and surfaced as “the Prince of al Qaeda” in Iraq.

Filmed over a period of two and a half years, Recycle, in its patient and gradual accretion of biographical and social details, portrays a man who is torn between his religious beliefs and ever-pressing economic problems and who, as his situation deteriorates into bankruptcy, must make a difficult decision. In exposing this all-too-common environment of poverty, political humiliation and Islamic fundamentalism, Recyclereveals the social environment that spawns both terrorists and economic immigrants. Unlike the daily bombardment of dramatic “good and evil” headlines about Islam and the war on terror, Recyclesuggests that the potential for evil can emerge quietly in the most ordinary of circumstances.