How a Syrian American film producer found connection in Koreatown after the L.A. Riots

Mustafa Rony Zeno, bottom right, with a K-TOWN '92 subject (far left), filmmaker Grace Lee and K-TOWN '92 production team.
Mustafa Rony Zeno, bottom right, with a K-TOWN '92 subject (far left), filmmaker Grace Lee and K-TOWN '92 production team.

Editor’s Note: Mustafa Rony Zeno is a producer of the CAAM-funded interactive web documentary, K-TOWN ’92, directed by Grace Lee. Here, Mustafa writes about the role of Muslim Americans during the L.A. riots, also known as Sa-I-Gu in Korean.

Last September, director Grace Lee reached out to me about helping with her new project, K-TOWN ‘92, which explores the history of Sa-I-Gu in Koreatown. Even though I was born in LA, I was missing that part of my city’s history because my family moved us back to their homeland of Syria in 1991, and I didn’t return until 2004. I was always very curious about how Sa-I-Gu and the ’94 Northridge earthquake shaped the LA that I live in now, and how different (or similar) that LA was to this one.

As it happens, my mosque is in Koreatown, even though I live about 30 minutes away and there are two other mosques that are closer to me. I make that trek a couple of times a week because I love its diversity, which in large part is by virtue of it being in K-town. It’s a mosque that is very involved in interacting with the larger community, doing interfaith work, serving the homeless, and more. Still, as soon as Grace and I started talking about the project, I realized that I had no idea what effect (if any) the riots had on the mosque, or if the mosque itself had any role or place in these events.

It was really difficult getting answers. When I first started asking around the mosque for people who were in K-town at the time, it seemed like none of them were left. No one really knew who was there because no one talked about Sa-I-Gu. Finally, the people started trickling in – mostly from the Bangladeshi community who had been in Koreatown since the 70s and 80s. Much of that community fled the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide and later the Liberation War, and have since created a ‘Little Bangladesh’ within Koreatown.

So, hallelujah! I thought. But, they wouldn’t say much. They were around, but it was a long time ago and all they remember is the burning and looting. It was only after a lot of chatting around the topic that stories really came out about where they were, what they were doing, what they saw, and how it affected them and their families. It was really interesting to me that the images they saw on TV seemed to be more prominent in their memories than their own experiences. An important factor in this disconnect is the fact that most people at the mosque old enough to remember that period are first generation immigrants, who came here as adults from places where involvement in political issues was very dangerous. In that way, most people wanted to stay out of what was going on then as much as possible. The same goes for a documentary that deals with such issues now. Something I’ve experienced being raised in Syria (a dictatorship for as long as I’ve been alive), is that you program yourself not to get irate about the systematic problems around you, because getting involved usually leads to being put in very risky situations.

This made getting information very difficult. Furthermore, the few that I was able to get some good stories out of, completely froze when on camera. Suddenly it was as if they felt that nothing they had to say was important enough for the camera. This happened time and time again.

Finally, through several referrals, I heard about this group of all-Muslim security guards from my mosque who were on 24-hour duty protecting several Korean businesses around K-town during Sa-I-Gu. Luckily, the owner of that security company is still in business doing security for a few shopping centers in the area. Mohamad, who is originally from Libya, is so entrenched in the K-town world that when he talked about the neighborhood, he really talked about it like he was its mayor. The first time Grace met him, he started speaking in fluent Korean to her. When she asked him how he knew Korean, he answered her (still in Korean) that his mother was Korean. Of course, he was just pulling her leg. He learned the language from being around Koreans for so long. He then told us many stories from Sa-I-Gu, and how his guards weren’t enough to protect the stores he was responsible for, so he had to recruit many others (mostly from the mosque) to temporarily help out.

I’ve yet to get to the bottom of the interaction between the mosque and Sa-I-Gu, but something that came up for me in doing all of this research is the connection between what happened here 25 years ago to what is happening in my other city, Aleppo. Something that is also happening after I left that country. Of course, it’s a different place, at a different time, with different dynamics and different factions and ideologies at war. However, it is also a conflict that broke out because of grave economic and power disparities drawn along ethnic lines. There was a brutal military response after that rebellion, and people took advantage of the anarchy that ensued. In the short term, there seems to be no comparison because that war is still going on six years later with more than 400,000 killed. However, looking at the larger context of both events, I see there are lessons for me to learn about the inequalities that ultimately lead to rebellion and anarchy in some way… and wonder how, if ever, they get resolved.

Learning there was a group from the local Muslim community that was involved, in a very real way, in protecting the other when they were in need feels very hopeful to me. It’s also noteworthy that the businesses they protected did not get looted or harmed in any way. I learned not only more about LA, and but about the ways my community interacted with other communities and the ways history exhibits itself similarly in different parts of the world.

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Mustafa Rony Zeno is an independent filmmaker, who served as Consulting Producer of K-TOWN ‘92.