While Arab Americans have long been absent from both silver and small screens, there seems to be more and more exciting shows, stars and creators on the rise in recent years, ready to bring their stories to life. In light of the reveal of this year’s Emmy nominations, let’s take time to celebrate Arab Americans in television!
We’d be remiss to write this without starting with Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub, who nearly twenty years ago won his first Emmy for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his iconic role as former homicide detective Adrian Monk in Monk. Shalhoub boasts a total of 11 Emmy nominations, including two more wins for Monk in 2005 and 2006, as well as the award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in 2019.
While Shalhoub’s talent and influence is undeniable, neither of his award-winning roles have him playing an explicitly Arab or Arab-American character. Similar is the case for Rami Malek, star of the acclaimed series Mr. Robot. For his role as anxiety-stricken vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson, Malek won the Emmy for Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 2016. Series creator and showrunner Sam Esmail was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series that same year. Malek and Esmail are both Egyptian-American. Esmail cites the Egyptian Revolution as inspiration for the show, explicitly how young revolutionaries in the Arab Spring used social media and technology to bring about change.
Besides Mr. Robot and his upcoming sophomore feature film, Esmail has also directed episodes of Prime Video’s Homecoming, and has written and directed episodes of upcoming limited series Metropolis.
Speaking of Arab Americans in television, Palestinian writer-director Cherien Dabis is one of the more notable TV directors working today. Dabis got her start in television after writing and producing several episodes of The L World. After directing her feature films Amreeka (2009) and May in the Summer (2013), she transitioned into television directing for shows like Empire, Quantico, and Ozark among others. This week, Dabis received her first Emmy nomination for Directing in a Comedy Series for the Hulu Original Only Murders in the Building. The episode she directed, “The Boy from 6B”, is considered by many to be the best episode of the show so far. Congrats to Cherien, and fingers crossed she walks away with the trophy!
2019 brought with it the premiere of Hulu’s Ramy, created by and starring Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef. The show is a milestone for Arab-Americans across the country, as it follows the titular character navigating life as an American Muslim in his New Jersey neighborhood. Dabis, Youssef, Jehane Noujaim and more have directed episodes of the show. The ensemble is littered with talented Arab actors, including May Calamawy, Mo Amer, Amr Waked, Dave Merheje and Hiam Abbass among others. For its first season, Youssef won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy Series, and was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for the second season.
While we’re at it, let’s give a shout-out to the always wonderful Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass! She plays Ramy’s mother Maysa in Ramy, Marcia Roy in HBO’s hit series Succession, and more recently a supporting role in the FX drama The Old Man. In the latter, she is joined by Palestinian actress Leem Lubany and Iraqi-American actress Alia Shawkat. Shawkat notably has had a long career in television, landing her first leading role in the sitcom State of Grace in 2002. She appeared in Arrested Development as a member of the main cast, then later produced and played the lead role in the black comedy Search Party, whose final season aired earlier this year.
To shine a spotlight on more Arab Americans in television doing great work, Algerian actor Tahar Rahim starred in the Netflix series The Serpent last year, and Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter was nominated for a British Academy Television Award for his work in Baghdad Central. In 2020, AppleTV+ released the anthology series Little America; one of the more moving episodes, titled “The Son”, stars Haaz Sleiman playing a gay Syrian man who must flee his home country because of his identity. Currently, Disney+ is airing the Marvel show Ms. Marvel, which is not only a milestone for South Asian representation but also includes several Arab actors in the main cast, including rising star Yasmeen Fletcher.
And last but not least, this year was the premiere of Marvel Studios limited series Moon Knight, streaming only on Disney+. Based on the superhero from the Marvel comics, the show follows Marc Spector and Steven Grant, two alters of a man with DID played by Oscar Isaac, as they are drawn into a mystery involving Egyptian gods. Mohamed Diab, director of Amira (which opened up 2021 edition of our festival) led the directing team. In his pitch for the show, Diab was very intent on depicting Egypt and Egyptians in a positive way. In an interview, he states: “As an Egyptian, seeing us always portrayed in the wrong way, always portrayed with this… we call it orientalism…It was very important for me to portray us as normal human beings.”
The five-episode series was indeed praised for its portrayal of Egyptian culture and mythology, and its darker take on the MCU. Actress May Calamawy, who plays Steven’s wife Layla, became the MCU’s first Arab superhero! The character was originally a white woman, until Diab and his producer-wife Sarah Goher pushed for her to be Egyptian, and approached Calamawy for the role. This week, the Emmy’s honored Moon Knight with several nominations for the creative team: Egyptian composer Hesham Nazih was nominated for Original Dramatic Score, and veteran actor (and previous Emmy nominee for guest starring on Homeland) F. Murray Abraham was nominated for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performances for voicing moon-god Khonshu.
It’s wonderful to see so many Arab Americans in television getting their shine, and encouraging to know that it can only go up from here! Currently, comedian Mo Amer is in post-production on his new Netflix comedy series Mo, which follows Palestinian refugee Mo Najjar on his path to U.S. citizenship. What upcoming project are you looking forward to the most? Is there anything we missed? Let us know so we can update our list, follow us on our socials, sign up for our newsletter, and remember to always #SupportArabCinema!
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