Rami Malek's win is a victory for us all, Arab, Copt, Egyptian alike

Rami Malek's win is a victory for us all, Arab, Copt, Egyptian alike
7 min read
26 Feb, 2019
Comment: Squabbling over whether Rami Malek is Arab or Copt misses the point. Let's celebrate his win as a victory for representation in the film industry, writes Ruby Hamad.
Malek played a terrorist in '24' and vowed never to do so again [Getty]
One of the cutest highlights of the Hollywood awards season that culminated in last weekend's Academy Awards was Egyptian-American actor – and current pride and joy of the Middle East – Rami Malek repeatedly speaking broken Arabic during media appearances. 

The American-born child of immigrant parents was, despite nearing the end of his 30s, clearly only just beginning to embrace his heritage.

Like so many of his peers from that part of the world, Malek had been constrained and limited by western perceptions of Arabs and the Middle East region informed by decades of films, television programmes and news stories of swarthy terrorists, religious hordes, and double-crossing agents.

Malek himself played a terrorist in a minor role on 24 and vowed never to do so again, before landing his breakout role in Mr Robot.

"I'd be auditioning and I could feel that I just knew that I wasn't going to get a part for some reason other than what I had delivered in the room," he told Arab Australian journalist Patrick Abboud on SBS Television, ahead of the Australian premier of Bohemian Rhapsody.

That interview was a huge hit with Middle Eastern communities in Australia, many of us not able to quite believe we were watching two men converse and joke in Arabic on mainstream television.

This feeling was amplified following Malek's Oscars triumph when he movingly paid tribute to his Egyptian immigrant parents and humbly acknowledged his story "was still being written".

For centuries we Levantines have absorbed the Arab language and culture and yes, religion

Given the paucity of roles available for visible Arab actors as well as the overwhelming negative image Arabs have in Hollywood and the west in general, Malek could be forgiven for downplaying his background. Instead, he is blossoming into it.

In his post-awards press conference, he spoke his clumsy but adorable Arabic again to an Arab journalist whose own voice gave away her joy at this representation in the most unlikely of places.

"When I grew up as a kid, part of me felt like I wanted to shed some of that," he said of his Egyptian heritage, "I didn't feel like I fit in. I definitely felt like the outsider."

This is a feeling many of us in the diasporas know all too well, particularly those of us around Malek's age. As first and second generation children we are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) taught to despise ourselves.

Our language is mocked and associated with terrorism and extremist violence. We are denied individuality and innocence and presumed to be either enemies or potential enemies. Many of us absorb this lesson of inferiority and exile, of belonging neither here nor there. Out of Place as the great Edward Said's memoir put it.

No wonder so many of us diaspora Arabs rejoiced at Malek's victory but no sooner had we expressed that joy, than the internet angrily informed us that he was not in fact, Arab but Coptic, and that it was wrong to refer to him as such.

Of course, Malek had never hidden his Coptic heritage nor has it (to my knowledge) been denied by others but nor had I seen or heard him disavow the Arab identity either.

In the interview with Abboud, when Malek spoke of his fear of not landing his breakout role as Eliot Alderson in Mr Robot, Abboud asks, "Why not? Because you're Arab?" to which Malek replies, "Yeah."

Nonetheless, Malek's Oscar victory reignited a debate that has plagued the region for so long: What is an Arab, who is an Arab, and what of those other Middle Eastern identities?

Egyptians carry in their blood their own proud history; whether they are Coptic or Sunni this history lives on in their skin

I don't blame Copts or other minorities for resenting the Arab shadow they dwell under. The problem is though, the entire West Asia - Central Asia region, encompassing North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and Afghanistan confounds our modern concept of racial, ethnic, and cultural identity.

There has been so much human movement, conflict, conquest, migration, conversion, and integration over so many thousands of years that it is impossible - particularly in North Africa and the Levant - to talk of a common Arab identity.

Arabs are not a race, unless one is referring to the "original" Bedouin and other Arabian tribes of the Peninsula. The language which did spread with Islam - both as a result of conquest and as a result of nomadic migration and conversion - has sadly in many cases replaced the languages that came before it, including that of my own ancestors.

As a Lebanese/Syrian from the mountains of Tripoli and the coast of Syria, my ethno-religious community, a Muslim minority found only in Syria, Lebanon and now the diaspora, still carry the blood of the Canaanites, commonly known as the Phoenicians.

Many Lebanese who reject the Arab identity demand to be recognised as Phoenicians even though the language and culture are extinct. They have a point.

A recent study in the American Journal of Human Genetics found that more than 90 percent of Lebanese DNA comes from the ancient Canaanites, indicating that the Arabisation and Islamisation of the Levant wasn't an immediate process of supplanting the local population, European colonialism-style, but a more gradual process of the indigenous culture and language dying off.

Being Arab comes with so much baggage there are times when I too want to disavow it all; to claim my Canaanite heritage and links to a land and people that didn't come from anywhere else; to cease being labelled an invader when it was my people who were invaded.

But I also know this is absurd; I cannot claim something that is long gone and that I have never lived.

For centuries we Levantines have absorbed the Arab language and culture and yes, religion. But we did it our way. Lebanese dialect is profoundly different to the Arabic spoken in the Gulf and Egyptian Arabic is something else yet again.

Our practice of both Islam and Christianity varies from country to country and from sect to sect. It is Arabic but interpreted through a peculiarly Levantine framework.

Many Lebanese who reject the Arab identity demand to be recognised as Phoenicians even though the language and culture are extinct

Likewise, Egyptians carry in their blood their own proud history; whether they are Coptic or Sunni this history lives on in their skin just as our Canaanite past lives on in ours.

But if we succumb to the temptation to disavow all that is now Arab about us, we only give in to the racism that punishes us all, no matter how much we try to escape it.

Being Coptic did not shield Malek from being considered for little else but roles as terrorists. Racism does not see our individuality.

Read more: The absent Arab

Yes, it is terribly unfair that there are many communities who don't identify as Arab but that get lumped into the Arab basket. It is also terribly unfair that Arab which is itself such a diverse, broad church of many dialects, cultural influences, ethnicities, races, and histories are collapsed into one singular threatening figure of the Reel Bad Arab.

But on this too, Rami Malek seems infinitely more generous than those of us who took the sheen off his bright victory, somewhat by squabbling over who he really represents. See, he had already told us: he represents us all.

"As I got older I realised just how beautiful my heritage and my tradition is and the wealth of culture, and magic, and music, and film, and just pure art that comes out of the Middle East," he said post-Oscars victory. "And now I am so privileged to represent it."

And we are so privileged to have Rami Malek represent us.

Ruby Hamad is a writer and Phd candidate in media and postcolonial studies at the University of New South Wales. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she splits her time between Sydney and New York. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rubyhamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.