When I close my eyes, I can envision the silhouette of my younger self sitting in a crevice between my grandmother’s legs and her very Egyptian golden sofa, which held one too many pillows on its belly. I sip Ahmed Tea as she flicks through the Arabic channels – the only television I knew that had so many choices. She’d land on a movie, usually something classic, and we’d watch it together. I’d ask questions like, “Teta, who is that man?” and she’d respond, “Abdel Halim Hafez… He’s so handsome.” Every once in a while, she’d check in to see if I actually understood what was going on in the movie. I sometimes had to assume the plot, but I could feel the passion, and that satisfied me. Between the breathtaking panoramas of Middle Eastern landscapes, the melody of powerful vocals dancing on the chords of a soft guitar, and the up-close shots of faces that looked like mine, I was drawn into the world of Arab cinema.
As a young adult pursuing filmmaking, I appreciate all the films my grandparents introduced me to. They showed me that Arabs and Muslims can hold a powerful place in the creative world. However, as I look around my producing lectures or dramatic literature classes, I stand alone. I attend one of the most prestigious film schools in America (NYU) which has a large international student body – so where is everyone? Why does it feel like I am walking alone on this journey?
Muslims & Compelling Narratives
My simultaneous consumption of Arab cinema, largely influenced by Egyptian cinema and American cinema which often excludes individuals like me, has occasionally created conflicting interests in my pursuits. Even in my childhood I recognized the contrasting nature of these cultures, and I believe it is this disparity that makes it challenging to merge the two seamlessly today.
Did you know that around 90% of the Egyptian population identifies as Muslim, as stated by the U.S. Department of State?
Growing up watching 20th-century Egyptian movies, just like me, meant missing out on any on-screen intimacy (a simple kiss would astonish me.) This contrasted sharply with Western culture, where I could casually watch adult content on TV late at night. Even on channels like Disney, I would stare at passionate on-screen kisses. As I grew older and started questioning adults about my confusion, they would explain that people like us couldn’t pursue a career in the film industry because it conflicted with our cultural and religious values. Joining Hollywood would require sacrificing our generational integrity. However, I continued to witness fellow Arabs shine on the big screen while staying true to themselves. My feelings of bewilderment was an understatement.
Did you know that around 90% of the Egyptian population identifies as Muslim, as stated by the U.S. Department of State? This fact sheds light on the intriguing phenomenon of censorship in Egyptian films, where nudity, intimacy, cursing, and suggestive themes were carefully avoided. By adhering to these cultural sensitivities and the values of the Muslim community, Egyptian cinema experienced a golden age of prosperity. During this vibrant period, Muslim creatives had the freedom to unleash their talents, taking on roles as producers, directors, writers, and actors. As an Arab-American, I find myself faced with a more complex struggle in the world of cinema, where the interplay between cultures adds an extra layer of challenge.
Muslims breaking stereotypes
It is only recently that Muslim filmmakers have blossomed in the media and established a path away from stereotypes such as the terrorist, abusive husband, and damsel in distress stereotype. While I’ve subconsciously loved to film my whole life, I would never have found my passion had I not seen modern pioneers opening space for our community.
Marked as a controversial show in the Muslim community, Hulu’s hit show Ramy is solid proof that our stories matter. I’ve heard so many back-and-forth conversations regarding whether Ramy properly represents the community. There is criticism in regard to the themes of the show, and yet there is praise for the inclusion of relatable Muslim-American experiences. I was fortunate enough to watch the show’s creator, Ramy Youssef, and comedian Hassan Minhaj speak on a panel about a variety of topics, including the future of the show. When asked about a woman-leading show, Ramy hopes that there will be a future Muslim female filmmaker who will make that happen. I recall the moment he said this as I nodded to myself and thought, “That’s going to be me (Inshallah).”
creating change we want to see
In the Muslim community, there exists a prevailing stigma surrounding the entertainment industry. It often seems as if engaging with Hollywood necessitates abandoning our cultural and religious values. While I can appreciate this perspective, it stems from an unrealistic expectation. By embracing Muslim producers, directors, actors, writers, and other creative roles, we gain entry into a realm where we hold the reins. Consider the stark contrast between old Hollywood and the industry we witness today—an undeniable progression. We wield the power to step forward and share our narratives with the world. Relying on a White male producer to champion our stories is an impractical expectation; the responsibility lies squarely on our shoulders.
You possess the extraordinary ability to shape narratives and influence the world through your passion.
The medium of film possesses unparalleled power as a global communication tool. As we strive for Muslims to occupy decision-making roles within production companies, our generation will finally witness the convergence of Muslim and American identities on screen. While a career in film may not be suitable for everyone, it is essential for young Muslims who yearn for a more transformative artistic realm. You possess the extraordinary ability to shape narratives and influence the world through your passion. Our community often imposes a narrative of conformity upon our children, urging them to pursue conventional paths like medicine or embody an idealized version of a Muslim individual. However, true change and meaningful conversations are seldom sparked by conformity. Muslims have profound stories to tell, and we refuse to be mere extras in the tapestry of America; we are the protagonists, and narration is our powerful tool.
During my recent semester’s final day in a producing class, my professor assured us that each and every one of us possesses the inherent capabilities to thrive in the industry, and his words resonate deeply within me. Although the representation of female Muslims on screen remains limited, we will gradually shatter the glass ceiling, steadily progressing towards a more inclusive landscape.