It’s hard to believe that Hollywood has yet to capitalise on the wealth of stories available in the Arab diaspora. Identity, racism, love and belonging are just a few of the themes that Arab youth are entrenched in today — and they’re all script-writing gold.
For years, Middle Eastern kids have seen themselves reflected back only as terrorists or cardboard characters. Now, Saudi director Aymen Khoja is working to change that, starting with his latest film The Arabian Warrior, which had its world premiere in Dubai on Monday.
The bilingual feature, out in the UAE tomorrow, tells the tale of 20-year-old Anmar (British-Egyptian actor Amir Al Masry), a Saudi university student who is torn between tradition and football. Studying in Los Angeles, Anmar dreams of being the next Messi or Ronaldo. But unlike his friends, he still lives at home with his parents: an ailing mother who speaks only Arabic, and a perpetually irate father (Ayman Samman) who rules with an iron fist. His father wants him to go back to Saudi Arabia to finish his studies as soon as the semester is done.
“That’s the challenge — whether he follows temptation, or goes through with the moral decision of becoming an architect like his father,” says Al Masry.
Anmar goes up against deep-rooted American racism, too. He’s antagonised by fellow student Parker, whose preferred nickname for Anmar is “terror Arab”. Anmar’s support system is made up of goofy best friend Ben, love interest Ana, and his two teammates, James and Suarez, who are both people of colour. For Al Masry, the trio’s bond added another layer of authenticity to the film.
“[Minorities] are the easiest people to integrate with and they know where you’ve come from, they know your background, even the struggles you’ve gone through. They probably have strict parents like Anmar does, so they can relate,” he says.
More than anything, Al Masry wants people to look at Anmar and see an Arab role model, rather than just another stereotype.
“We want to see relatable characters. We want to see people who we can go, ‘Ah, yeah, when I grow up, I want to be the next footballer. I don’t want to go down that typical path.’ And I feel like a lot of Arabs are itching to go down that creative path,” he explains.
“I do hope that it creates a message that you have to have stubbornness to get what you want, you have to have thick skin. Especially as an Arab, there’s still a lot of prejudice, unfortunately. You have to persevere through that, and hopefully, one day, someone will give you a shot.”
Director Khoja sticks to a universal formula, but injects it with nuance. The central hero must overcome his inner turmoil and external obstacles to decide whether people’s expectations of him are more important than his own dreams. In many ways, the coming-of-age drama is akin to Bend it Like Beckham, only with less comedy and a sharper focus on today’s political climate.
Khoja, one half of the writing team, avoids the pitfall of the white saviour complex, too: Anmar’s trainer, Coach Roberts (Patrick Fabian), plays only a peripheral part in guiding him through his story.
“The soccer and the coach were just there to take us into the journey, which is about the father and the son, the racism and acceptance,” says Khoja.
Though the father-son duo are from Saudi Arabia, both are played by stellar Egyptian actors, who have had run-ins with Hollywood. Al Masry appeared in
The Night Manager and Rosewater (his upcoming projects include TV series Jack Ryan with John Krasinski), while Samman featured in American Sniper. Khoja has had to field several questions about the lack of Saudi actors in the film. For him, it was simply about who stood out most during auditions: “I didn’t care about the nationality — I cared about quality. I’m not saying Saudis are bad; Saudis are great. But when you’re working with Amir, he’s just such a talent,” says Khoja.
OMAR SHARIF: THE ULTIMATE MENTOR
Al Masry’s onscreen performance is indeed a masterclass in simmering passion. The young actor was shaped by a phone call from late legend Omar Sharif on his 18th birthday. Sharif, an icon of the big screen, was known as the single greatest crossover actor to come out of Egyptian cinema, starring in films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Funny Girl (1968).
“He’s an anomaly,” says Al Masry. “No one will ever do what he did, no one will ever emulate what he did. He did it at a time where people didn’t even consider [it]. Right now, there’s a bit of a wave.”
In Greece for his 18th birthday, Al Masry received a phone call from his father, who was in Paris.
“My dad, who has no social inhibitions whatsoever, said, ‘Hi, I’m close to Omar Sharif, you want to say hi?’ I was like, ‘Dad, what do you mean? Are you kidding me?’”
After the call (“He was really, really sweet,” recalls Al Masry), Al Masry’s father urged him to come to France to try to meet with Sharif in person. They drove to the actor’s hotel and, speaking to the reception staff, claimed that Sharif would be expecting them. A five-minute meet-and-greet turned into an hour and a half of talking and invaluable advice for Al Masry.
“One of the things that resonated with me was the fact that he said, ‘Go start in your country. There’s a lot of luck in this industry, but go to your country first, go to Egypt, because they’re the people who are going to be most loyal to you,’” says Al Masry.
Later, Sharif would skip his own movie premiere and invite Al Masry to take his place instead. Al Masry sat next to the writer and director, which led to him being cast in his first role in Ramadan Mabrouk Abul-Alamein Hamouda.
Ten years later, Al Masry is breaking new ground as Anmar — an instantly relatable Arab character, struggling to see eye-to-eye with his parents while remaining true to his upbringing.
“I think that’s what people like us need to see. People like myself, I want to be watching more Omar Sharifs onscreen,” says Al Masry.
“Even at home, I had to prove to my dad that I didn’t want to go through that typical route of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. As soon as he approved, as soon as I got my first role, he was like, ‘I’m going to be your manager now. I want you to smile more,’” adds Al Masry, laughing. “He’s my unofficial manager now — he’s my manager away from my manager.”
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The Arabian Warrior releases in the UAE on March 15.