Filmmakers Shatter Arab Stereotypes in Hollywood

Hesham Issawi and Sayed Badreya i i

hide captionDirector Hesham Issawi, left, and actor, writer and producer Sayed Badreya collaborated on the film American East, which just completed shooting in Los Angeles.

Emad Ashfery
Hesham Issawi and Sayed Badreya

Director Hesham Issawi, left, and actor, writer and producer Sayed Badreya collaborated on the film American East, which just completed shooting in Los Angeles.

Emad Ashfery
Sayed Badreya in 'T for Terrorist'

hide captionIn T for Terrorist, a short film about Arab stereotypes, Sayed Badreya plays an actor who in turn portrays a terrorist.

Zoom In Focus Production
Richard Chagoury and Sayed Badreya i i

hide captionRichard Chagoury, left, and Sayed Badreya in a scene from American East. The film also stars Tony Shalhoub and features Alfre Woodard.

Satir Gonalez
Richard Chagoury and Sayed Badreya

Richard Chagoury, left, and Sayed Badreya in a scene from American East. The film also stars Tony Shalhoub and features Alfre Woodard.

Satir Gonalez

For a couple of decades in Hollywood, Sayed Badreya played stereotypical Arab bad-guy roles: a hijacker, a Hezbollah gunman and a murderous Iraqi tank commander.

But after the Sept. 11 attacks, he realized it was time to tell a story more like his own.

Director Hesham Issawi had the same idea, and the two got together to make American East. It's a movie about a family man, played by Badreya, who opens an authentic Middle Eastern restaurant with his best friend, who's Jewish.

Badreya remembers growing up in Port Said, Egypt, where the bombs rained down during the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars with Israel, where garbage lined the streets and drug dealers worked the corners.

"I grew up in a very tough neighborhood where they sold hashish, but it had a cinema… I used to escape and watch movies," Badreya says.

Badreya arrived in the late 1970s and went to film school in New York. He ended up rooming with another hopeful: actor Woody Harrelson, who showed him what Issawi calls "the wild America."

"So I was [an] infidel for a while…" Badreya says, laughing. "And after I get married and have kids, I start being a good Muslim."

But Badreya had some explaining to do about all those roles perpetuating a negative stereotype. He says he got a lot of criticism for playing a terrorist, "but you know I'm an actor... I'm not writing the story."

He decided to create a film company with Issawi, who came to America as a student in 1990 and got interested in making documentaries.

Issawi says people have been more curious about Islam since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"They ask a lot of questions: why women wear scarves. Also for artists as a storyteller it opened a lot of doors to tell stories," he says.

Badreya says he and Issawi "had a good opportunity to tell [an] Arab-American story" in American East.

It just finished shooting in Los Angeles, and Badreya says it's a dream come true. "Somehow this guy from [the] ghetto in Egypt [is] making a movie. So there's still a bright side to America."

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