A filmmaker shows what life under FBI surveillance is like for a predominantly Arab-American suburb in Chicago

A screenshot of a screen from Sohib Boundaoui's Arabica Series, looking into an Illinois Arab American community's experience with FBI surveillance.
A screenshot of a screen from Sohib Boundaoui’s Arabica Series, looking into an Illinois Arab American community’s experience with FBI surveillance. Courtesy of Sohib Boundaoui
  • An Arab American filmmaker wanted to tell stories of his community that was surveilled by the FBI.
  • Sohib Boundaoui sought real-life stories of the community beyond just surveillance.
  • He’s hoping to expand the “Arabica” series to dive further into the intricacies of his community.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation spent years surveilling a predominantly Arab and Muslim neighborhood in Bridgeview, Illinois, leaving the tight-knit community dealing with paranoia.

Starting in 1995, the FBI engaged in “widespread surveillance as part of one of the largest anti-terrorism investigations ever conducted on US soil before 9-11,” according to court filings.

In 2019, Sohib Boundaoui, a filmmaker who grew up in the community, decided to produce the “Arabica” series, which was released this month. The film explores the intricacies of “Little Palestine” as the neighborhood is known, against the backdrop of surveillance.

Boundaoui is the brother of journalist Assia Boundaoui, the producer behind “The Feeling of Being Watched,” a documentary on her own efforts to get the FBI to release tens of thousands of documents on Operation Vulgar Betrayal, one of the largest pre-9/11 counterterrorism probes that yielded no charges against anyone.

The film was critically acclaimed and won several awards including Best Documentary at the BlackStar Film Festival and the Camden International Film Festival. In 2017, a judge also ruled in Assia Boundaoui’s favor in a Freedom of Information Act court case that forced the FBI to hand over 3,500 pages of documents a month on the operation.

In the 1990s, the FBI was looking at Islamic charity organizations and communities for white-collar crimes tied to terrorism, specifically surveying charities and groups to see if they were sending money abroad to fund terrorism.

The investigation began by looking into Mohamed Salah, a Bridgeview resident, and the Bandoui’s upstairs neighbor who was released from an Israeli prison in 1997 after serving more than four years after Israeli police found close to $US100,000 ($AU135,804) in hotel room, that he said were for humanitarian aid, but Israel said he was supporting Hamas.

When he returned to the states, he was acquitted of racketeering conspiracy charges for allegedly supporting Hamas in 2007, the Associated Press reported.

In an emailed statement, former FBI agent Ross Rice told Insider he participated in community forums in Bridgeview while he worked in Chicago Bureau from 2001 to 2012 and said those outreach events made it “clear to me that some residents conflated a criminal investigation, such as Vulgar Betrayal, into believing that the entire community was under investigation, which was definitely not the case.”

The FBI had secretly collected information on hundreds of American Muslim individuals, businesses, and organizations, according to the documentary,The Feeling of Being Watched.

Assia Boundaoui told The Chicago reporter, the documents she’d received, most of which were heavily redacted, confirmed the effort was “a mass fishing campaign based on religious and ethnic profiling.”

Inspired by his sister, Boundaoui set out to tell the story of the everyday lives of those living in his community, touching on a myriad of social, cultural, and religious experiences that some experienced.

“The impact surveillance has had on the community embedded a culture of paranoia, a culture of looking over your shoulder, a culture of being judged in addition to the feeling of being watched by government surveillance, but I wouldn’t think that is the only thing that this community has gone through,” Boundaoui said.

“It is the reality that a lot of people live in or have lived through and it definitely informed how the community has moved, but I don’t think that it is the only thing about the community. Over time everybody has accepted it and moved on.”

The community lived normal lives despite the surveillance

“I built on the idea that there is this thing that’s happening in the community, but there’s a lot more happening in it. That’s not the reality that we exist in, we have day-to-day lives,” Boundaoui said.

“The stories of the individuals, their lives — what it means to be first-generation and what it means to be in this country at this time and just live like normal people. The context is very specific to my community, which is the community of the documentary ‘The Feeling of Being Watched.'”

The series follows Sohib himself throughout his day as he tries to get community members to talk about surveillance for a documentary he’s making. He explores their narratives along the way, touching on issues from Muslim women grappling with hijab with one character hiding away from her husbands family after she removes her to racial dynamics with the use of the word “Abeed,” or “slave” in Arabic, a term that has historically been used to refer to Black people and is derogatory, with a scene where an Arab American defends his Black friend after a family member calls him an “Abeed” in a barbershop.

In one scene, two community members argue over whether it was right to send away a white man who was waiting for a locally owned store to open. One member was suspicious he could be spying, while another was concerned the gesture was too hostile.

Boundaoui explained the scene highlighted a generational split, where an older generation of immigrants who came from abroad had an experience with surveillance already that instilled the belief of being careful around strangers.

“That was just the first iteration of the community,” he said, explaining that for his generation, that kind of behavior was just a norm and not an instinct, but that the community is growing and shifting.

Boundaoui added: “Through these little conversations you can see those nuggets where like, okay, this is a real situation, and that’s as best as I could have done. That’s what I was trying to do with those scenes is intrigue people, provoke people, and try to generate dialogue.”

Boundaoui says he’s received positive feedback from his community and is working on expanding the series to further talk about issues pertinent to his community.