Rami Malek’s Oscar win is the first for an actor with Egyptian heritage and one of the few Oscars awarded to an Arab-American. The critically successful film also won the Best Motion Picture – Drama Award, and was Malek’s first win at the Golden Globes, after two previous nominations. The win has produced mixed feelings for many Egyptians.
In his speech, Malek spoke about the challenge in finding one’s identity as the son of “immigrants from Egypt…and a first generation American.” He also spoke about the difficulty in playing the role of a gay man in his portrayal of Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury. It is this portrayal of homosexuality which clashes with the conventions of Egyptian society and for many Arabs might be seen to tarnish the sheen of his award.
As a second generation Egyptian-Australian, I feel great pride in Malek’s win, and at the same time I am conscious that strong anti-gay sentiment might overshadow his win. Egypt is a conservative and religious country, it has a vastly Sunni Muslim population and a substantial proportion of Christians, with a yearly calendar governed not by bank holidays and long weekends, but by celebrations of the Prophet and Christ’s births, as well as lengthy seasons of fasting during Easter and Ramadan.
So laden with taboo is the topic of homosexuality that merely discussing it on Egyptian TV is fraught with danger. An Egyptian court recently sentenced a TV presenter to a year in prison for merely interviewing a gay sex worker on his show. ‘Mohammed el-Gheiti was found guilty of encouraging immorality over an August 2018 segment in which the guest described his profession’, news.com.au reported.
After the news dropped that Malek had won the award for Best Actor, I texted a relative who responded, "some people will do anything to get famous." She made it clear that the gay element of the performance was what triggered her ire.
Many Egyptians have taken great pride in his achievement: seeing it as a great cultural milestone for Egypt in the Western media
Beyond the clash of values that Malek’s performance sparks however, many Egyptians have taken great pride in his achievement: seeing it as a great cultural milestone for Egypt in the Western media, up there with Omar Sharif’s accolades for Lawrence of Arabia and Mohamed Salah’s successes on the field for the Liverpool football team.
Malek’s win is being reported widely in all Egyptian news media, in glowing terms, like this from state newspaper Al Ahram:
“Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek has won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama …Malek has spoken fondly of his Egyptian roots in numerous interviews, saying that his father brought him up connected to Egyptian culture and their extended family in the town of Samalut.”
In Egypt at the moment there is an emphasis on the idea of ‘identity’. The recently revamped Government Ministry of Egyptian Expatriates’ Affairs is promoting ‘back to your roots’ style immersion trips. These trips bring young second and third generation Egyptians living abroad back to Egypt to gain a sense of their motherland by seeing the reality of Egypt’s cultural and political sites, tackling Egypt’s public image crisis.
What is it to be an Egyptian like me? Well, if the Western media is anything to go by, it’s hardly something to be proud of. A cursory Google search of the word ‘Egypt’ confirms this crisis, with headlines like ‘embracing authoritarianism’, ‘Egypt’s failed revolution’ and ‘human rights in Egypt’. Dive further and you will learn, not about Egypt’s vibrant and rich history or new development initiatives, but of the reports of violence against women and the incidents of terrorism.
No wonder then that Malek, in his speech, spoke of the uncertainty he felt growing up.
“I think about what it would have been like to tell little bubba Rami that one day this would happen to him and I think his little curly haired mind would be blown.
That kid was struggling with his identity, he was trying to figure himself out…”
In the industry in which Malek has risen to stardom, the Arab has historically been the subject of fear and mistrust, or to say the very least, mockery. Scholar Jack Sheehan’s book, Reel Bad Arabs, outlines the horrendous portrayal of the Arab on the Western screen. Since the days of black and white cinema or later, the Arab and the desert from which he only every seems to come, is shrouded in mystery, as likely to embrace you as he is to slit your throat.
The Hollywood depction of ‘Arab barbarism’ is echoed in the opening theme song of Disney’s animated version of Alladin, where the merchant sings, "They’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”, and again in this doozy of a scene from Brian De Palma’s 1990 film, Bonfire of the Vanities:
"We were going into Mecca, see, and the plane is full of Arabs, with these animals – goats, sheep, chickens. I mean, they don’t go anywhere without their godamn animals. We had to put plastic in the cabins, you know, they urinate, they defecate."
In the face of ongoing anti-Arab representation, Malek is proud of being an Arab, and he has given expression to this repeatedly in interviews, and, most tellingly, in his Oscar speech.
“I am the son of immigrants from Egypt, I’m a first generation American… I may not have been the obvious choice but I guess it worked out.”
And in this interview, where he spoke of his Egyptian descent in broken Arabic:
“My mother and father are from Egypt, my mother is from Cairo and my father from Upper Egypt.”
The Egyptian relationship with its expats is fraught: on the one hand, there is a sense of resentment for those who have left and who may never return, losing in the process, their values and their heritage. This is something I’ve felt when haggling too earnestly on the street, as is often the habit in Cairo. I betrayed my Australian citizenship and was called ‘stingy’ for wanting a better deal. Foreigners, the clerk supposed, should pay more.
There has always been this aching sense of nostalgia for a country inherited, but not inhabited, observed, but not always experienced
On the other hand, there is the sense of connection which many Egyptians have for their homeland, which sees us leave and return with frequent trips, or to say the least, maintain our patriotism in spite of geographical distance.
For me, there has always been this aching sense of nostalgia for a country inherited, but not inhabited, observed, but not always experienced. I love being Egyptian though I’ve only lived there, collectively, for around eight months in my 28 years. I hold on tight to the warmth of our hospitality, the sharp edge in our humour, and the sense of brotherhood, of community. I follow Egyptian news and popular-culture assiduously. Fully aware of her challenges, I’m unwilling to let go.
This is the secret to Rami Malek’s success with Egyptians: he speaks to the past as well as the very real challenges of the present. With his repeated references to country, he offers the hope for an exciting future for our people.
Daniel Nour is an Australian-Egyptian journalist and writer. His work centres on the migrant experience in Australia. He is a member of Sweatshop, a Western Sydney based literacy movement devoted to empowering marginalised communities. He tweets @daniel_nour and his work is visible at danielnour.com.