THE AL-ARIAN FAMILY, STARS OF NORWAY
OSLO, Norway — Before daylight on the day that marked four years of Dr. Sami Al-Arian’s imprisonment, his eldest daughter Laila and wife Nahla were guests on the popular Norwegian television program God morgen Norge (Good Morning Norway). But during a week in which she was whisked from one reporter to another, that show wasn’t even the most watched television program on which Nahla appeared.
Three days after those Feb. 20 appearances, Nahla headlined Norway’s top TV show, FÃ¸rst & sist (First and Last), the equivalent of appearing on Letterman, Leno and 60 Minutes combined. Nahla was seen by 1.3 million viewers in this country of 5 million.
Being major celebrities is a new experience for even such a media-weary family as the Al-Arians. They were in Norway last week for a whirlwind of interviews, television appearances, meetings at Parliament and film screenings surrounding the premiere of the new documentary USA mot Al-Arian (USA vs. Al-Arian). The film is a hit, and the Al-Arians a cause celebre.
The star welcome here is in stark contrast to antipathy (or apathy) they’ve grown accustomed to in Florida. Concerned Norwegians have followed the case in the media for the last four years, but interest has magnified ever since the Jan. 19 screening of the film at the TromsÃ¸ International Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award. After the film makes the festival and cinema rounds, an abbreviated version will air on Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Greek television and on the satellite channel Al-Arabiya, potentially reaching 55 million viewers.
The documentary is an emotional chronicle of the Tampa trial, plea agreement and sentencing of Dr. Al-Arian during 2005 and 2006, with emphasis on how the ordeal is affecting his family. On the morning of the Oslo grand premiere last Thursday, which received a standing ovation, the reviews were published in newspapers across Norway: “Go see this one!” “An international-class documentary film,” “Sober, low-key and balanced … a strong human portrait,” “A real-life horror film” and “Touching and memorable” were some of the raves, accompanied by ratings of 5 and 6 out of 6.
So much buzz had been created that Agot Valle, a Member of Parliament, hosted a private screening of the film for her fellow members last Tuesday.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt warned the American people not to give in to fear,” Valle told me. “Giving in to fear may lead us to infringe human rights, civil rights, freedom of speech — the basis of democracy.” She said that since 9/11, Americans have been consumed by fear, “but a movie like this, I think will bring a new debate on how far [stripping of civil liberties will] go and not to give in to fear.”