Rami Malek’s Emmy victory is deeply important and marks a milestone moment for Arab or Egyptian Americans in Hollywood

Narrow conceptions and caricatures of Arab identity are deeply rooted in Hollywood. The hijacker and the terrorist, the opulently wealthy oil sheikh and the oppressed and over-dressed woman, among others, comprise the most prominent depictions of Arab identity in film and television.

These negative illustrations of Arabs are built upon a flat conception of Arab identity, and indeed, the diverse and rich range of identities encompassed or related to the Arab World.

On Sunday, Rami Malek – the lead on the USA Network’s drama-thriller Mr Robot – claimed the Emmy for the Best Actor in a Drama series . The nod also earned Malek, an Egyptian American, the distinction of being the first non-white actor in 18 years to win that award.

The historic moment spurred a series of headlines and tweets that identified Malek as an “Arab American”, in addition to the Washington, DC-based Arab American Institute endorsing his victory as, “balm for Arab-Americans normally stereotyped or absent in Hollywood”.

Malek’s ethnic identity

However, Arab-American jubilation for the historic victory was subsequently complicated by the particular dimensions of Malek’s ethnic identity, and specifically, how his status as a Coptic Egyptian – an Orthodox Christian population indigenous to the northeastern African nation – conflicted with widespread identifications of Malek as Arab.

Ironically, the off-screen identity of Mr Robot’s Elliot Alderson – a white anti-hero cyber-security hacker – spawned a robust conversation about the intricacies and complexity of Arab identity, and related identities flatly illustrated and understood as Arab.

While marking a milestone moment for Arab or Egyptian Americans in Hollywood (or both), Malek’s victory transcended the four corners of the television screen by challenging the flat conceptions of how America understands identities originating from the Arab World.

Hollywood has been a culpable accessory in the narrow and negative illustration of Arabs. The golden age of Hollywood was saturated with portrayals of Arabs as savage and backwards, tribal and misogynistic. Arab women characters seldom appeared on screen, and on the rare occasion they did, were silent, subordinate, or exoticised sexual objects . Reel bad Arabs

Prominent Hollywood caricatures reflect the prevailing political concerns of the day, and as the Bush administration mounted its global “war on terror”, depictions of Arabs on screen were overwhelmingly linked to war , terrorism, and the looming threat of both.

Film and television, arguably society’s best mirror, recreated popular and political characterisations of Arabs on screen. The consequences of these depictions not only endorsed and broadly disseminated damaging stereotypes of Arabs, but just as deleteriously, cemented a flattened understanding of identities native to the (modern) Arab World.

Anybody from the region had to be Arab and Muslim, suggested the illustrations on screen, and the two identities were disoriented and conflated as one in the same.

The broad array of groups indigenous to the Arab World that preceded Arabs, and dis-identify as Arab, were simultaneously erased and submerged into an identity they actively refuse or resist.

Orientalism left no room for Chaldeans, Nubians, Kurds, Berbers or Copts; and Hollywood – a proponent of the ideology that reduced the Arab World into a cultural, religious and racial monolith – happily followed suit.

Malek’s historic Emmy victory, and the political dimensions of his Coptic Egyptian identity, offered a rare opportunity to disrupt that process. When Egyptian is, and isn’t, Arab

The wellspring of tweets, social media statuses and headlines celebrating the historic “Arab-American” Emmy win were met with resistance by Coptic Egyptian Americans – who echoed the fact that his “parents were Coptic Egyptians”.

Far more than merely a matter of ethnic identification, the rift between those embracing Arab identity and Copts is deep-rooted and, at times, rife with hostility.

With the latter viewing Arab identity as colonial and compelled upon them, and thus, an affront to their indigenousness, faith and existential sovereignty: “Most of Egypt’s Copts maintain that they are the purest bloodline to have descended from the ancient Egyptians. As one Coptic friend tells me: ‘I maintain that I’m not an Arab. I’m an Egyptian and of pharaonic descent. The only thing that ties me to the Arabs is the Arabic language.'”

The critical rebuttals saturating social media, and article comments, following Malek’s Emmy victory gave this rift renewed relevance: Arab Americans claiming Malek as one of their own, for many Coptic Egyptians, was another example of forcing an undesired identity upon them, and in the process, erasing their identity once again.

This exchange injected a foreign discourse into the broader American conversation on race. Egypt is in the Arab World, and therefore, its inhabitants are Arab-American racial logic presumes.

The US census implicitly adopts this framing , classifying those people originating from the Middle East or North Africa, effectively, as Arab.

The rich milieu of groups native to the region, and the rifts and rivalries between them, has no place in codified constructions of American race and ethnicity. Therefore, Malek being a native of Egypt must be Arab, a widespread belief illustrated by the celebratory news stories and headlines that followed his win.

The tug-of-war between Arab and Coptic nationalists, fighting to claim Malek as one of their own, was ultimately a victory for all involved. It furnished Coptic Americans with a timely platform to discuss the distinct and independent dimensions of their culture and identity, and more broadly, enabled a conversation that complicated how Hollywood, and America, sees people that hail from the Arab World. This is a conversation Washington and Hollywood has strategically avoided, but one Mr Robot, coincidentally kick-started.

Now whether Malek made “Arab-American” or “Egyptian-American” history ultimately hinges on how the Emmy winner identifies himself: picking one side of the Arab and Coptic divide, or choosing to embrace both. Whatever he chooses, everybody wins. – Al Jazeera

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


‘My biggest fear was getting the virus and dying in...

South African Wuhan evacuee speaks about his nine-week ordeal

Border walls don’t stop viruses, but a blanket amnesty might

Why South Africa should consider amnesty for undocumented migrants in the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories