As far as Arab representation in western media is concerned, it has been a pretty remarkable year.
No longer cooping them in shawarma stands or having them terrorise audiences with incomprehensible consonants and Kalashnikovs, the western mainstream seems to have embraced more layered and truthful depictions of Arabs in the region and diaspora.
Mo Amer released his semi-autobiographical comedy series Mo on Netflix, while also starring in a superhero film opposite Dwayne Johnson. The coveted Un Certain Regard award for Best Performancoe was won by a French-Tunisian actor portraying a contraband gas smuggler in Tunis, whereas a film about the Nakba was released on Netflix and is an official submission for the 2023 Oscars.
Here are some of this year’s landmark moments for Arab representation in popular media.
Mo Amer will remember this year fondly. After proving his on-screen charisma in the award-winning 2019 Hulu series Ramy as well as his two Netflix specials, Amer released his own comedy series Mo in August.
The show was praised as a “major moment for Palestinian representation” even before its release. It was a hit immediately, both for its comedy as well as its sharp depiction of the hardships asylum seekers in the US face, including scenes with the country's Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.
The series is based on Amer’s life as a Palestinian immigrant growing up in Houston, Texas.
Speaking at the Red Sea International Film Festival recently, Amer said he spent 20 years trying to narrow down the story he wanted to tell. “I spent all that time thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, which is what made the show so timely and timeless,” he says. “This show will live on forever.”
The semi-autobiographical series tells the story of Mo Najjar, a Palestinian refugee adapting to his new world in Texas, as he embarks on the path to US citizenship.
Born in Kuwait, Amer fled to the US with his family in 1990, before finally obtaining US citizenship in 2009. “A Palestinian experience in America, or anywhere really, that is put out on the biggest global platform on planet Earth is so spectacular,” he said.
“To tell a Palestinian story that’s real, that’s grounded, that’s from Houston and shows the city as a character, is so special. I’ve never seen anything like that so that’s what keeps me going, telling stories that are so unique, but yet very global. That’s not just for us, but for everybody.”
Amer also starred in Black Adam this year.
Set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Kahndaq, the latest DC blockbuster tells the story of Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam. After using his superpowers for revenge, Adam is imprisoned for 5,000 years. Once he’s set free in the modern version of Kahndaq, Adam uses his immense powers blithely, until the Justice Society of America’s gang of superheroes tries to get him under control.
This is where Amer’s character Karim comes in, as he is the brother of archaeologist Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), who wakes Adam up from his forced slumber.
“It was emotional for me to walk on set and see a fictionalised Middle East being essentially war-torn. It was surreal. It was tough emotionally because I know that my people, and people from all backgrounds, have gone through this,” Amer told The National in October.
Another milestone for Palestinian representation came recently with the release of Farha on Netflix.
Darin J Sallam’s first feature film, Farha is set in Palestine in 1948, during the catastrophe that is referred to today as the Nakba. The term, which translates to calamity, signifies a time between 1947 to 1949, when more than 500 Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed and in excess of 700,000 people were forcibly displaced.
Sallam told The National last year that Farha was inspired by the real-life experience of one refugee, Raddiyeh. Her story, the Jordanian-Palestinian filmmaker points out, travelled to her across a generation and the Levant.
“She was a girl who lived in Palestine during the Nakba,” Sallam tells The National. “Her father locked her in the pantry [to protect her]. Her stepmother then let her out later and they both survived, making it to Syria. The father disappeared. After Raddiyeh went to Syria, she met a little girl and told her the story. That little girl was my mother.”
This is not a spoiler, as Raddiyeh’s story is not replicated beat-by-beat in Farha, which made its worldwide debut in September 2021 during the Toronto International Film Festival and had its regional premiere that same year during the Red Sea International Film Festival.
The film was released on Netflix earlier this month, marking a global reach for the film.
For a series to hit three seasons is no easy feat, and Ramy has managed to outdo itself with every iteration.
Season three kicked off two years after where the previous instalment trailed off. In the second season finale, Ramy (Ramy Youssef) got together with his ex and cousin Amani (Rosaline Elbay) the night before his wedding to Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo). Ramy still went through with the nuptials, only to tell Zainab about his indiscretion almost immediately. After being subsequently rejected by both Zainab and Amani, Ramy finished the season heartbroken and alone.
Ramy has just about been able to move beyond his life-altering decisions, though it’s apparent that there’s still a fragility and yearning to the character as he seeks to better himself.
As its lead actor, co-creator, co-writer, showrunner, executive producer and occasional director, Youssef has always ensured the show consistently stays true to its main theme and message. Season three is no different, as Ramy repeatedly has to contend with his Muslim faith and spiritual journey being in conflict with his life in America.
According to our review of the season’s first episode, Harry Potter: “Youssef has always had an unerring talent for making Ramy a universal story that’s also authentic to his experiences. But there’s an artistry, emotion, and confidence to its return that feels different to the show’s previous outings.
“Which makes it all the more depressing that Youssef recently suggested its next and fourth season could potentially mark Ramy’s conclusion. Especially since, with Harry Potter, it really feels as though Ramy is only just hitting its stride."
Harka is one of several top-tier Arab films that has had the festival circuit in buzz. The film has swept several coveted awards since its premiere at Cannes Film Festival this year. French-Tunisian actor Adam Bessa won the Best Performance Certain Un Regard award at the festival, then another Best Actor trophy at the Red Sea International Film Festival. Harka filmmaker Lotfy Nathan, meanwhile, picked up the award for Best Director at the same festival.
Mirroring the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010, the film Harka tells an all-too-common story of bitter isolation and hopelessness. The plot follows Ali, a young Tunisian selling contraband gas on the black market, whose dreams of a better life come crashing down following the death of his father.
To prepare for the part, Bessa, aged 30, had to isolate in an apartment in Tunis for three weeks and nurse a loneliness that became “a form of schizophrenia".
“I was wondering, reading the script, what it would be like to be hungover at 50°C, while you have to stand in the sun. You see how people around live and how things are,” he told The National. “The contrasts must be hell in your head.”
Though some artistic licence is taken, The Swimmers is based on the true story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini, two teenaged sisters who escaped war in Syria for Europe in the hope of making it to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Directed by Egyptian-Welsh director Sally El-Hosaini (My Brother the Devil), the film was released on Netflix in November. It stars Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa. The Swimmers also features Syrian actress Kinda Alloush, German actor Matthias Schweighofer and British actor James Krishna Floyd.
The film, which shines light on the continued refugee crisis, was chosen to open the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022. In fact, several strong Arab films were featured at the Toronto festival, spanning several categories. Erige Sehiri's beautifully shot Under the Fig Trees was only one of many on a list spanning Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and the Arab diaspora.
Two Palestinian films, including A Gaza Weekend and Alan, also had their premiere at the festival, exploring themes of occupation, borders and human experiences in profoundly different ways.
The debut feature from Iraqi filmmaker Ahmed Yassin Aldaradji was made in response to the way Iraqis are represented in Hollywood. In fact, it was the Clint Eastwood-directed, Bradley Cooper-starring action flick American Sniper that spurred Aldaradji to make the film, which won the Golden Yusr for Best Feature Film at the Red Sea International Film Festival.
In Hanging Gardens, Aldaradji applies the name of the enigmatic and lush ancient wonder to a landfill in Baghdad, laying the grounds for a grisly and emotive metaphor for contemporary Iraq.
Among them were Algerian-born filmmaker Rachid Hami’s second feature, Pour la France (For My Country), which tells the story of a young police officer of Algerian origin who loses his life during an initiation ritual for the prestigious Saint-Cyr French military school.
Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan’s Nezouh — the Arabic title referring to the displacement of souls and people — also won the Armani Beauty Audience Awards at the festival. The film is set against the backdrop of conflict in Damascus, and follows a girl, Zeina, aged 14, and her family, who are left reeling when a bomb rips through the roof of their building.