I’ve worked as a professional performer in the UK since the age of 12 – and my Arab heritage has pitted me against some pretty awful racial profiling in the industry. My first film job at the age of 14 – Steven Spielberg’s Munich – featured me as an Islamic terrorist’s son. Needless to say, that was an explosive introduction into showbusiness.
I’m now 26, and in my career, I’ve been sent nearing 30 scripts for which I’ve been asked to play terrorists on screen. Roles have varied from ones as meaty as “Suspicious Bearded Man on Tube” to “Muslim man who hides his bombs in a deceptive burka”.
When characters aren’t as explicitly linked to jihadi fundamentalism, most Arab roles I’ve read serve as antagonists to white heroes. BBC’s recently acclaimed The Night Manager reminded me of those difficulties in my own career – watching it, it felt obvious that Arab characters were placed where they were as mere “others,” narrative hurdles to complicate the journeys of its cast of white leads.
When I expressed my frustrations to a prominent casting director, she encouraged me to “use my ethnicity as a playing card”, reassuring me that “white actors are f***ed in this day and age.” It’s incredible how many times I’ve been told to see racial profiling as a positive thing.
And it’s true that since 9/11, there are genuinely more roles for Arab actors than ever before. “Hurrah!” they say. “Rejoice in the bounteous work opportunities! Finally, Arabs have a place in Hollywood!” Not centre-screen, of course, but on the faceless periphery, clutching a prop detonator while a famous white man acts his ass off and earns an Oscar in the process.
While frustrating for Arab actors struggling to forge a name in an unforgiving industry, there’s an even more critical issue at hand here: namely, the fact that nearly zero Arab and Muslim identities are portrayed three-dimensionally on screen. It’s depressingly telling that American Sniper is one of the highest-grossing hits in film history – a box office earning in excess of $500m in a film where white man Bradley Cooper kills unnamed Arab actors for over two hours.
Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging. With masterful directors, sublime works like Moonlight happen; now the story of gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto has become that much more relatable and mainstream. It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.
And hence I pray that La La Land doesn’t clean up at the Oscars (as at the BAFTAs). For this would be a sign that the industry prioritises the celebration of itself first of all, self-indulgently rejoicing in its own nostalgic - and white – mythology.
Moonlight NEEDS to win Best Picture. Not only because it is a cinematic feat that is to La La Land what Frida Kahlo is to paint-by-numbers, but because it sends an urgent message. A message that we’re ready to empathise with any story, no matter how far away they are from us, and how much they defy our systemic misconceptions.
The UK industry, in particular, must similarly do away with its obsession with period dramas. Now is not a time to escape into the “bygone days” of a white imperialist Britain, but to look outwards at the contemporary world, portraying minorities in a way that helps to dispel social prejudices and bring communities closer together.
As an Arab person living in the West today, I feel every Islamophobic utterance by Trump and Le Pen – or Theresa May’s silent apologism – as a personal, frightening blow. Hollywood should not be complicit as well. More than ever before, we need the cinema screen to do its unique job: to illuminate ignored identities, and to challenge the ideas that prejudice and politics would have us believe.
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