Five years ago, an actor of Middle Eastern descent arrived at a studio test for a major cable TV show that was looking to diversify its cast and was asked by the casting director what percentage Latino he was. “I’m not Latino,” he replied. “I’m Egyptian.” Without apologizing, the casting director said: “We can’t move you forward, unfortunately, because that’s not diverse.”
The actor told Deadline: “It was stated as factual, as if that is the normal trend in the business. Which is weird because everywhere else I’m never considered white — definitely not by U.S. Customs when I cross the border and get randomly selected and held back for two to four hours.”
A year later, in its 2017 negotiations for a new film and TV contract, SAG-AFTRA won recognition of Middle Eastern North African (MENA) performers as a diverse ethnic category for inclusion in its casting data report. And in September, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued new inclusion standards for Oscar eligibility in the Best Picture category, MENA was included as a qualifying category as well.
Actor Assaf Cohen, a former SAG-AFTRA national board member who played a key role in achieving that recognition in those negotiations, told the story of his Egyptian friend during a panel discussion last week as part of the union’s weeklong Stop the Hate summit. “You may have been surprised if you are of Middle Eastern North African descent to have found out you were not considered diverse or ethnic,” he said during the discussion. “And I remember this was something that came up for me too. And I was kind of shocked.”
You can view the full panel discussion above.
Actress Azita Ghanizada, who founded the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition in 2016, worked with Cohen and other MENA performers to win that recognition during the union’s 2017 contract negotiations. “We as a group,” she said, “did not have a seat at any table in regards to diversity and inclusion until we lobbied to create the category at SAG-AFTRA, which has ended up having major ripple effect across all entertainment, including most recently being included in the Academy’s hiring standards and practices.”
Said actress Yasmine Al Massri: “I would like to bring a different perspective on what MENA is. It’s very important to fight, to have the right to have access to audition for projects in town. But we’re not White, and we’re not Black. We have been discriminated against in Hollywood because of what we represent in terms of content. Our personal experiences, our cultures, our religions, our perspective on what’s happening around the world, our voice in telling our stories.
“Whenever there’s a story being told about this part of the world, there’s always a White writer in the room with a White showrunner with a White producer, deciding that they know how to tell the story better. So when you audition as an actor, you have very little left. You just have your face to put on the narrative that’s been chosen for you. And that’s how we have to fight as actors who come from this part of the world.”
Al Massri, who was born in Lebanon, questioned the very nature of lumping people together who come from a vast region as diverse as the Middle East and North Africa. “We all want to work; we want to be happy and be positive and be against hate and against racism. It’s our job to educate the town about who we are and what we represent. We cannot accept being called MENA without explaining what this stands for. But I have no idea what it means. There’s so much difference between Lebanon and Egypt and Morocco and Tunisia. People consider us the same because we have the skin color, or because Islam is a majority religion in our countries. But what is it that connects us? What is it that puts us in the same basket? It’s a long conversation.
“The only reason why we’re having this conversation now is because there isn’t enough work for people like us in Hollywood,” she said. “Let’s be honest. Let’s talk business. Hollywood did not care about our parts of the world because we are not a market. There is something called the Latino market; there’s something called the Asian market, and when I say Asian market, I mean China – a lot of money is invested in this sector. There is something called India; it’s a huge market for Hollywood. Now, how do we become relevant for Hollywood to get more work? We want to talk about the solution, right? We need more content. There are so many stories to tell.
“And although we are not important, in numbers, for Hollywood, we are very important and relevant for Hollywood in terms of content, because most of the complexities in the political American life today come from our parts of the world: the war in Iraq; the 9/11 connection to what terrorism and Islam means. Palestine, Israel, Lebanon. But America’s relation with our part of the world has been mainly political and it’s been mainly built on conflicts. How do we flip that negative narrative into something positive? And how can we create a space for our stories so that we all have jobs? So that an Iranian actor doesn’t have to freak out about playing an Arab character because he doesn’t speak Arabic. It’s unfair to put each other in this position; it’s disrespectful. There’s so much art, so many stories that each one of us have to offer to America to change this negative connotation to what the Middle East is, to what Islam is. So the solution going forward is content. Content, content. We need to invest in content.”
“I have been working in this space of trying to advance MENA story tellers and performers for a long time,” said actress/writer Maha Chehlaoui, program director for The Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity, “and honestly, it never dawned on me that there was even a lack of category, in part that’s because I have a stronger theater background. But doing the work of naming things is so incredibly important, but it’s a very contradictory thing where this categorization and naming is also kind of an act of white supremacy, right? And, at the same time we have to figure out how to get named in order to be seen – in order to participate in the industry. I can’t speak to how that’s changed numerically, but I can say the ability to name and measure is crucial.”
Even so, she said, “I think there is an unhealthy attachment to incremental change, which may be why the change you hope to see is not happening rapidly enough. I am not a fan of incremental change. I was recently wrist-slapped in to being happy with a very small change. So while this is a moment where I think people are more willing to hear difficult things named, I think there’s a lot of training that needs to be undone about how long it takes for things to happen. The other thing is that when things become measurable, they can also become disheartening, because now you’re actually able to put a number to what you have long suspected and so then you will start to see a rise in representation. And then it will become about the conversation and about opening people’s eyes even wider to the systemic nature of this issue, so that it’s not just a lack of representation onscreen, not just a lack of representation in the writers’ rooms where I’m currently working, it’s not just a lack of representation among executive producers and beyond that, there’s a question of the internalization of all of this within our own artists and creators. So all of these things contribute to why we’re not seeing the changes as rapidly as we want to. You would think you could just say ‘Look at this; this is a freaking mess,’ and that people would galvanize to change. Unfortunately, if that were the case, this would be a very different country than the one we’re in right now.”
“I don’t know that I’ve quite seen the change-over that I would like to see,” said Ghanizada, who moderated the panel, “but to be in the conversation at all is so valuable because it gives us the space to build off of what we are building, and even though it doesn’t happen overnight, I look towards our Black brothers and sisters in the arts and our Asian brothers and sisters in the arts and look at the change, and the incremental change, that they’ve had to do and how they’ve had to uplift each other, and so I feel some sense of hope in that space.”
Actor Omid Abtahi cautioned against taking authenticity in casting too far. “Honestly, when I hear about authentic casting, it puts the fear in me,” he said. “To what extent are you trying to be authentic? You’ve got to establish a baseline, but if you take my resume and you filter out to just the roles that I’ve been authentically cast in, you could probably count on one hand how many parts I was authentically cast in. Then you can go further: I’m Iranian. So if I can’t play Arabs, can I play Iranians? No, my Farsi isn’t that good; I sound like I grew up in America. When I hear phrases like that, I get scared. Because it’s putting me further and further in to a box. I’m already in a box based on my skin color. I don’t know what the solution is, but for me it’s been like this for me for every role. If I can bring more positives to that role than negatives, then that’s my baseline.”
He recalled early on in his career auditioning for a role that required him to speak Arabic. “I had four pages of Arabic. And you know how when you first start as an actor, you’re willing to twist your body in every shape and form to become whatever and whoever to get those first initial parts? And so this was early on in my career and literally in that audition, I lost where I was in my pages and I started speaking gibberish. It was so humiliating, I’ll never forget it. A lot of my favorite roles are the roles that I’m nothing like. In American Gods, I got to play a gay Muslim Arab and I don’t identify with any of those things. And that’s what makes that role one of my favorite roles. So yeah, I do feel a sense of fear, like if I’m not allowed to play those kind of roles then, it’s just gonna make it harder and harder to make a living as a working actor, honestly.”
Assaf Cohen agreed. “You know, when I hear authentic casting, I feel torn,” he said. “There’s a part of me that fears well, if they’re going to be so authentic, I myself, a first-generation American, Jewish of Arab descent, you know, family coming from Yemen, but. I’m not this character. I’m not this. So they’re not gonna want me or they’re not, regardless how good my performance is, there’s gonna be someone who says well, he’s got a Jewish last name so he can’t play Arab. What we think an Arab looks like is a whole separate matter, of course, because it’s a huge region and people can be very, very dark, to very, very pale and everything in the middle. And they say, ‘How could he play Jewish, because he’s got brown skin. The Jews are all Caucasian, Ashkenazi, right? Wrong.
“But regardless, it creates that set of anxiety within me. And that is counter by my desire to see more representation of people who are not getting opportunities. So I feel that. As actors, we want to portray characters that many, many times are nothing like us. And when I think about some of my most favorite characters, I would say almost always my favorite characters are nothing like me; never mind national background, but at least character-wise, essence-wise. And I get worried that the more we try to be precise and accurate for the most noble reasons, the more there’s a potential backside where we are gonna potentially miss out on some wonderful opportunities. For me, there’s no reason why Yasmine couldn’t play a Jewish woman. Absolutely. You could play Lebanese or Syrian or East Indian as far as I’m concerned. If you’re in the ballpark and you have the skills and the talent, if you need to speak fluently in a certain language and that’s a skill set, if you have the feel and you capture the performance and you are believable, then I’m comfortable with that.
“I remember talking to a friend of mine who’s Puerto Rican who got really, really close to a major, major role but then was cut off at a certain point, and the reason they told him was that they want to go Dominican and he’s Puerto Rican, so that’s not accurate. And you see equivalents in all the different categories” ‘You’re Nigerian, how can you play Kenyan?’ Or you’re North Korean and they’re looking to go South Korean or vice versa. At some point, everybody has a different comfort level of how accurate you want to be. But for me, as long as you’re in the ballpark, I’m okay with that.”