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.
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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, 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.
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.
Arab Americans claiming Malek as one of their own, for many Coptic Egyptians, was another example of forcing an undesired identity upon them...
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.
Khaled A Beydoun is an associate professor of law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, and affiliated faculty at the UC-Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.