Actor Khalid Abdalla Recasts The Arab Voice

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Khalid Abdalla looks out over Cairo.

Not Just A City In Egypt: British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla is filming his latest project in the streets of downtown Cairo. He is producing and starring in In the Last Days of the City, a film that tells the stories of a young generation of Arab artists. Zero Productions hide caption

itoggle caption Zero Productions

British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla jokingly calls his recent films — about Sept. 11, Afghanistan and Iraq — his "war on terror" trilogy. Abdalla played a hijacker in United 93, an Afghan immigrant in The Kite Runner, and now, a conflicted Iraqi in Green Zone.

But for his next project, the 30-year-old star is turning away from Hollywood and using the foothold he's gained in the West to help produce and star in his first independent Arab film.

"The failure of people to be able to understand things to do with the Middle East is in some ways a failure of the arts world," he says.

So he's decided to guide his career to change that.

Khalid Abdalla (as Amir) and Ali Danish Bakhtyari in 'The Kite Runner.' i

Abdalla, left, plays Amir, an Afghan immigrant, in The Kite Runner, a film based on Khaled Hosseini's novel. Amir returns to Afghanistan to help out a friend whose son (Ali Danish Bakhtyari) is in trouble. Phil Bray/Dreamworks Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Bray/Dreamworks Pictures
Khalid Abdalla (as Amir) and Ali Danish Bakhtyari in 'The Kite Runner.'

Abdalla, left, plays Amir, an Afghan immigrant, in The Kite Runner, a film based on Khaled Hosseini's novel. Amir returns to Afghanistan to help out a friend whose son (Ali Danish Bakhtyari) is in trouble.

Phil Bray/Dreamworks Pictures

'A Bit Left-Field'

Abdalla's latest project is called In the Last Days of the City, and it sets out to capture the spirit of bohemian Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad through the stories of a generation of young people trying to find their voice under the weight of authoritarian governments and the rise of religious fundamentalism.

He learned about the film when he received an unsolicited script from Tamer El-Said, a first-time feature film director from Egypt. Cressida Trew, Abdalla's girlfriend and fellow actor, says she urged him to forget about it.

"It was going to be a huge time commitment, with almost no money at all, miles away," she says. "In terms of what you'd consider to be a sensible, financially oriented, ambitious career decision this is kind of a bit left-field."

But Abdalla was excited to read a script that for once didn't focus on Arabs in the context of war or politics. The film was about young artists — not too different from Abdalla himself — and was set on the streets of Cairo, his parents' hometown.

Abdalla says it's pretty hard to jump into a taxi or walk down a Cairo street without thinking: "I wish I had a camera with me." The film would be shot on the streets of the city by a crew drawn from Lebanon, Iraq and Britain.

In order to tell the story on their own terms, Abdalla and director Tamer El-Said had to raise funds for the project and work outside the Egyptian studio system.

Mainstream Arab cinema is a bit like Bollywood, Abdalla explains, featuring slapstick comedy and melodramatic sequences that often fail to mirror the struggles of daily life in a complex city like Cairo.

"The problem with mainstream cinema is that it doesn't give me room to exist," El-Said says. "It doesn't give me my space. It doesn't give me any other solution. It doesn't make me work."

"It's almost like it's impolite to its audience," Abdalla adds.

Khalid Abdalla i

"The failure of people to be able to understand things to do with the Middle East is in some ways a failure of the arts world," says Abdalla, pictured above, filming on location in Cairo. Zero Productions hide caption

itoggle caption Zero Productions
Khalid Abdalla

"The failure of people to be able to understand things to do with the Middle East is in some ways a failure of the arts world," says Abdalla, pictured above, filming on location in Cairo.

Zero Productions

'I Love Them Both Equally.'

Abdalla — with his international profile and experience — joined forces with El-Said to form their own production company, Zero Productions. They hope it will become an avenue for future independent filmmaking in the region. Its offices are on the seventh floor of an apartment building, tucked behind a synagogue in the grand, French-inspired part of the city, once home to Cairo's intelligentsia.

The production office walls are lined with posters for classic Arab films and the staff is comprised of a mix of Europeans and Arabs exchanging ideas — and languages — over fully-equipped Apple workstations. They discuss different approaches to filmmaking in a mix of fluent — and not-so-fluent — Arabic, English and French.

Along with sharing languages, the office is about building a new professional network that stretches beyond Egypt — and Abdalla says their first film is an extension of that spirit.

With one foot in the door in Hollywood, he's now trying to kick open another door for Arab filmmakers, though he says he sometimes struggles to find his own balance.

"I won't allow either part of me to tell me that I shouldn't love the other part," he says. "I love them both, and I love them both equally. It saddens me when ... people from one part of me don't love the other part of me, and vice versa."

He hopes In the Last Days of the City will premiere at an international film festival — and, above all — find a global audience for stories that go beyond the confines of the Green Zone.

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