Filmmakers Shatter Arab Stereotypes in Hollywood 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.
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Filmmakers Shatter Arab Stereotypes in Hollywood

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Filmmakers Shatter Arab Stereotypes in Hollywood

Filmmakers Shatter Arab Stereotypes in Hollywood

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Here's one part of our coverage of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. MORNING EDITION has been exploring how Muslims in America have seen their lives change since 9/11. Today, two Arab-Americans in Hollywood.

MONTAGNE: Sayed Badreya is one. He's an actor. You might have caught him in the movie The Insider.

(Soundbite of movie, The Insider)

Mr. SAYED BADREYA (Actor): (As Hezbollah Head Gunman) (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) You think I'm going to karate him to death with his notepad?

Mr. BADREYA: (As Hezbollah Head Gunman) (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Yes, doing all that shouting is Sayed Badreya portraying a Hezbollah gunman. In the movie Three Kings he plays an Iraqi tank commander who shoots at his own men, typical of the parts he's landed over a couple of decades in Hollywood, which range from hijacking a plane to holding a knife to a hostage's throat. Until September 11th that is, when 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 AmericanEast.

It's a movie about a family man, played by Sayed Badreya, who opens an authentic Middle Eastern restaurant with his best friend who's Jewish. This Arab-American can be quite tender, as in this scene where he discovers his son is reluctant to enter the mosque.

Mr. BADREYA: (As Character in AmericanEast) Mohammed, what is it? You don't want to pray with us? You want to talk about it?

Mr. RICHARD CHAGOURY (Actor): (As Mohammed Marzake) Did Muslims really kill all those people on the Twin Towers?

Mr. BADREYA: (Character in AmericanEast) Listen to me, (unintelligible). There are good Muslims and bad Muslims, like all other religions. The one who flew those planes were bad and ignorant of Islam.

Mr. CHAGOURY: (As Mohammed Marzake) Who's a good Muslim?

Mr. BADREYA: (Character in AmericanEast) Mohammed Ali is a good Muslim.

Mr. CHAGOURY: (Mohammed Marzake) He's a black guy. Not an Egyptian.

Mr. BADREYA: (Character in AmericanEast) Your dad is a Muslim and Egyptian. Don't you count me?

MONTAGNE: Actor Sayed Badreya came into our studios, along with director Hesham Issawi, to talk not so much about their movie but about Hollywood as the prism through which Muslims mostly see America.

Sayed Badreya remembers growing up in the Egyptian city of Port Said, where the bombs rained down during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, where garbage lined the streets and drug dealers worked the corners.

Mr. BADREYA: I grew up in a very tough neighborhood where they sell hashish. The neighborhood had a cinema, so that was my escape; every time I used to escape and watch a movie. There we used to have double features, one Arabic movie and one American movie, so I got to know America when I was really small.

MONTAGNE: And, Hesham Issawi, did you too see movies as a kid, these big American Hollywood movies?

Mr. HESHAM ISSAWI (Director, AmericanEast): Oh yeah. I grew up in Cairo. We saw, you know, Scarface. We saw, you know, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. This was America for us. We didn't know anything. I mean America for us was a bunch of rich white guys and blonde women, basically. You know, (unintelligible) MacGyver.

I grew up in the ‘80s, and that was - Dallas, for example, I remember very clearly watching. And, you know, Dallas, when they played in Egypt, I mean literally the streets were empty. It was played on Thursday, and everybody sit at nine o'clock in the evening, and everybody sit and watch. And JR got killed and (unintelligible)…

MONTAGNE: Who killed JR?

Mr. ISSAWI: Yeah, who killed JR.

MONTAGNE: That was a big subject of discussion in Cairo?

Mr. ISSAWI: Oh, my God, yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody would have to sit on the dinner and talk, who killed JR? This is how America was being portrayed, so as a kid you believe in that.

MONTAGNE: Hesham Issawi came to America as a student in 1990. He got interested in making documentaries. Sayed Badreya arrived in the late ‘70s for film school in New York. There, his struggling immigrant story intersected with his struggling actor story, and Badreya found himself rooming with another hopeful - Woody Harrelson.

Mr. BADREYA: He showed me America, the other side of America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ISSAWI: The wild America.

Mr. BADREYA: The wild America.

MONTAGNE: The infidel…

Mr. ISSAWI: Right.

Mr. BADREYA: The infidel America.

MONTAGNE: …side of America.

Mr. BADREYA: So I was infidel for a while. I was infidel. And, you know, after I got married and, you know, have kids, I start being a good Muslim.

MONTAGNE: A good mosque-going Muslim who had some explaining to do about all those roles perpetuating a negative stereotype.

Mr. BADREYA: You know, I get a lot of people unhappy with my work to do a terrorist movie. But, you know, I'm an actor. I do what the director - I'm not writing the story. So I decided that I would create a film company. And I get together with Hesham and we started that journey.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk then about the movie AmericanEast. Hesham Issawi, you got together to make this movie since 9/11. The conventional wisdom is that 9/11 was a uniformly horrible event for Arabs and Muslims...

Mr. ISSAWI: Right.

MONTAGNE: in the U.S. Do you think that's true?

Mr. ISSAWI: Well, for Arab and Muslim, yeah, of course it is. But also it made people more aware. I mean, really, Americans start to ask questions, start to want to know. People are more curious after 9/11 about Muslims and Middle Eastern, and especially about Islam. They ask a lot of questions. You know, who are the Muslims? Why women wear scarves? How they pray? All that stuff, yeah.

And also for artists, you know, for - I mean as a storyteller, yeah, it did open the door to tell lots of stories.


Mr. BADREYA: I think 9/11 - people forget that as Arab-American, we get hit twice by being sad and guilty. You get sad as an American and you get guilty as an Arab-American because you see the name Mohammed(ph), you see, you know, Osama. He sees all this name and all this Islam and you get - Islam, it gets to be hijacked by people represented the wrong way.

But on the other hand, my son was who was like almost 11 years old, he said: Dad, you know, before 9/11 when I say Muslim in the school nobody knows about it. Now after 9/11 they know our religion called Islam.

So we get benefits. So we had a good opportunity, me and Hesham, to tell our stories, our Arab-American story, which never been done by Arab-American, you know. It's always by Hollywood. Which Hollywood, you know, they're not mean people, they're just ignorant of our story. They don't know who we are, you know. And when I came here 1986, '85 to work in Hollywood, the language used to be gibberish, you know...

MONTAGNE: You mean literally it would be faux Arabic?

Mr. BADREYA: Yeah, will be non Arabic. I mean lot of Israeli or Mexican or a lot of Iranian will go on the screen and say badijidwadababa(ph) whatever, and it was like, what? And so we started educate Hollywood in the language.

MONTAGNE: You're making this movie to, in a sense, bring more complexity to the view of Muslims in America. What about America's image problem in the Muslim world?

Mr. ISSAWI: Oh, it's terrible. It's horrible. I'm serious, it's just horrible. I mean that's a sad part that Americans don't realize. And you know what? I lived in this country 17 years. I didn't know if American cares. See, Americans, they don't travel. They need to go outside and look. If you live outside of America, you're going to see different America. It's different. It has a dark side. And it's sad because when we grow up, America was so beautiful as kids. It's not. It is not. It's so different nowadays.

Mr. BADREYA: And one of the important things that they say something about this film. It's making our dream come true. I mean somehow this kid from a ghetto in Egypt be able to make a movie in Hollywood, and I wouldn't be able to do it in Egypt. So there's still a bright side to America.

MONTAGNE: Sayed Badreya, Hesham Issawi, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. BADREYA: Thank you.

Mr. ISSAWI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Sayed Badreya is the star and Hesham Issawi the director of the movie AmericanEast, which also stars Tony Shalhoub and features Alfre Woodard. It just finished shooting here in L.A.

INSKEEP: And to watch a scene from their first collaboration, go to and you'll see a black comedy short called T for Terrorist.

Tomorrow, we join two young women as they spend the day with friends talking about politics, pop music, and growing up Muslim in America.

(Soundbite of music)


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