A few days ago, I came across this article, where Nabil Elouahabi criticises the ‘real problem’ of the stereotyped portrayal of Arabs in films and television, and scrolled down to the comments, which typically asserted that the stereotypes weren’t stereotypes, but based on reality and probabibility,  capped with that definitive line “No all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim.”

And then I watched the premier of Tyrants.

Ramy Zabarah called it “just another show about violent Muslims” along the lines of 24 and Homeland. I think this is worse. There is something somewhere between nauseating and hilarious about watching this show that takes the painful turmoil of the break up of countries and societies and people’s lives and the death of thousands and the displacement of millions and turns it into the dangerous/seedy/repellent backdrop for an ill-conceived adventure by characters who seem remarkably blasé about having a blood-thirsty dictator in the family. The main character knows better though. He doesn’t want his nice family becoming tainted by the violence and savagery and bloodshed of the country of his birth.

Just promise me we’ll come back, says Bassam Al Fayed, the lead character, to his American wife Molly. He means come back from Abbudin, which is the made-up name of a country that is a mismash of stereotpyes of the region, very much like the setting for The Dictator.

Al Fayed is played by Adam Rayner, who goes by the name of Barry, is half-English and has blue eyes, which apparently tells us that he is different from his bestial brother Jamal and his tyranical father.Here’s another review that dwells on the “not an insignificant problem that this role, this trailblazing step in Middle Eastern representation is being played by Adam Rayner, an English-born actor who is half-British, half-American and not Middle Eastern in the slightest.”

One of the explanations was “Rayner’s resemblance to Ashraf Barhom, the Israeli-Arab actor who plays Barry’s brother Jamal, and also to the Moroccan actor who plays Young Bassam.”
Given his apparent resemblance to Adam Rayner, I’ll let Ashraf Barhom talk about how often Hollywood lets him audition for roles written for British guys with non-ethnic last names, because apparently that market should be wide open to him. But sarcasm aside, when the best defense for your white-washed casting is that the actor you cast resembles other actors who actually fit the ethnic requirement, you may want to stop and pause and wonder if, indeed, you exhausted the available resources of Middle Eastern actors.”

Melani McAlister makes some points about the portrayal of Arabs on screen in the last decade in the first presentation here. She mentions Planet of the Arabs by Jackie Reem Salloum. And there’s Jack Shaheen‘s books on the subject.
Which returns us to Nabil Elouahabi and his point in the article: “There’s a real problem here. Without wanting to sound in any way ungrateful, over the years a lot of my work has revolved around playing terrorists.”
As part of changing that,  Elouahabi has co-produced and will act in a new play about an Iraqi refugee who comes to London to reinvent himself.

The asylum seeker recreates himself as Carlos Fuentes and is coached by a wealthy older British woman, whom he marries, for his citizenship test. The play, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, by journalist Rashid Razaq is based on a collection of award-winning short stories by Iraqi author Hassan Blasim.It was Mr Elouahabi, whose parents emigrated from Morocco, who recommended the stories to the journalist.


The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, is described as “A black comedy.”

Salim, an Iraqi refugee, takes on a new identity In London after fleeing persecution in Baghdad. He is picked up, and marries a wealthy older woman, who enthusiastically coaches him in the bedroom for his forthcoming citizenship test. But Carlos Fuentes finds that knowing the names of all six of Henry VIII’s wives can neither satisfy his new wife nor turn him into a “Britishman”. The nightmare of the violence of his past catches up with him, and suddenly he is at the airport,accompanied by a G4 security guard, waiting for a plane to take him back to Iraq.

The play is directed by Nicolas Kent, who was artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre from 1984-2012 and will be performed at the Arcola Theatre in London from July 23 to August 16.

One thought on “Acting the Arab

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