What the Rami Malek Oscar Win Revealed About Arabs
By Meriam Raouf
Arabs have been stuck in the center of a swirling diaspora of all other kinds of other people, and by virtue of that, have no idea how to relate to their own ethnic identity. That has been deemed unanimously obvious by our reaction to Rami Malek’s unexpected Oscar success.
An Arab hasn’t won in 55 years, and back then, I think it was a lot less confusing to understand yourself as an Arab. Since that time we’ve deviated from the caucuses, and fallen out of popular favor. We once were; or believed ourselves to be, undetectable by white people as different from them. There were, after all, populations like Armenia; Kim K’s ethnicity, and Turkey that was sandwiched in the middle of the fictional lands of Caucasia, and Agrabah.
A few years ago if I were to ask my dad about our ethnicity, he’d ask me if I thought Italians were white. “I don’t know, Dad.” “Well, because Sicilians are also descendants of the caucuses.” Over the years I ran out of the energy of describing to my dad the difference between being “technically white” and being White™.
It didn’t seem to matter at JFK, when, on a trip back from Egypt, the machine put a red X over my mother’s name, and the mumbling employee mumbled her into the non-US citizens’ line. Infuriated, I asked the TSA employee why we had been waiting 90 minutes with our blue passports. “Well, it could be that you entered your name in slightly differently when booking your ticket?” The sage advice of the truly apathetic. “Since when does typing in ‘Mohammed?’ on a computer get you through JFK faster?”My mom looked at me reproachfully, and I nabbed our passports back and headed to the carousel. That day, TSA turned me into a hysterical woman and turned our Jesus into a household threat, and no one seemed to bring up the Caucuses. But I ran out of the energy to yell that at my dad over the years. I just realized maybe he didn’t see what we were to this country, and maybe I didn’t want to disappoint him.
A few years and emoji skin-tone debates later, my dad seemed to finally get it. That there would be a privilege not had by his kids, but earned by his money. That there would be people who dismissed our whole culture as something between snake-charming and Wakanda. And most recently, that this disrespect had ignited into full-blown hatred in the part of the country that didn’t know Jesus was in the Quran too. The MAGA hats in a sea of red. You could yell “Muslim” instantly and create an angry mob; chasing a non-existent angry mob.
I think his whole generation started to see it; the denial grew numb. They never thought they were white, but rather, capable of buying white privilege. And living in a suburban bubble, I could see how they could feel that. They were not exposed to the daily confrontations that I was exposed to in New York.
People yelling at my white boyfriend on the train. A homeless guy pointing a lighter and an aerosol spray at him like a schizophrenic, racist dragon. I always wondered if the people yelling at us didn’t like to see me; often assumed half-black, half-white, with a white person. Or did it have nothing to do with that altogether?
I found myself wrestling with the riddles of being racially ambiguous, calculating threats and differentiating them with bullets aimed at other people. Being racially ambiguous has been like being in a bar fight where you’re not sure if people are fighting with you or meant to hit someone next to you.
My parents didn’t have any of that. My mom’s slightly fairer, and my dad makes a good living as a physician. “Daddy’s rich, and ma is good looking,” never had so much meaning. They don’t identify with things the same way. They never grew up with the race being the dividing factor. Egyptians look diverse, and they are far more divided by class and reputation.
Those discrepancies have now been pinpointed into one singular spot in our pop culture memory, Rami Malek winning that damn Oscar. Egyptians took to Facebook, criticizing him for mentioning his Egyptian heritage, saying that he’s not a real Egyptian, only posing as one.
Egyptian expats like my parents celebrate his win but forgetting all of the freedoms required to get there. I wondered if any of the people celebrating this win would allow their son to take up a career as precarious as this. Would they be upset if their Egyptian son kissed his white girlfriend on-screen? How many Rami Maleks had been entirely talked out of their passions by guilt and fear?
A third contingent, Egyptian-Americans; like myself, welled with pride. Someone had gotten through. He had been to racist audition after racist audition. He persevered through every “a’zouma”. Every performance deemed inappropriate by his family, now lauded, because an “all-too-white” institution has approved, and guaranteed him a real career. He has succeeded past where we thought we were capable.
Egypt is simultaneously rife with the same thing that makes Parisian stubbornly obsess over Frenchness and the shame that makes Saudi Arabia able to engulf us culturally. You both want to be an Egyptian, and believe Donald Trump when he calls it a shithole.