‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ Highlights Positive Representations of Egyptians in Media
Ever since Disney Plus’s Moon Knight offered what they perceived as an accurate image of their country, both modern and historical, thousands of Egyptians brought discussions of culturally sensitive media representations to the forefront of everyday conversations. Mohamed Diab, the series’ lead director and executive producer, had helmed the project and intentionally championed the involvement of Egyptian creatives like actress Mai Calamawy and composer Hesham Nazih.
Inspired by this new wave of representation of Egypt in Western media, an event titled ‘Walk Like an Egyptian: Media and Myth in Contemporary US Representations’ took place at the Tahrir Oriental Hall of the American University in Cairo (AUC) on Tuesday, 28 July, 2022.
The central theme of the event was the representation of Egypt in popular and mainstream media, criticizing the more archaic works of the past with Orientalist undertones and encouraging ones and creatives that truly act as a substantive mirror of reality.
Generally, representations of the Middle East that immediately come to mind include ‘Desert Nights’ (1929), ‘Thief of Bagdad’ (1940), Elizabeth Taylor’s ever-controversial ‘Cleopatra’ (1963), and the more recent ‘Gods of Egypt’ (2016), which are all widely considered to be offensive.
The host, visiting Fulbright scholar Thomas Simsarian Dolan, who was temporarily a part of the AUC History Department, was well-informed on the topic of Arab and Egyptian representation in United States media. He solely moderated the three panels of the evening: ‘Egypt on Screen’, ‘Writing New Media’, and ‘Making Moon Knight’.
Dolan displaying earlier depictions of the Middle East in US media. Photo Credit: Sara Ahmed
Audiences were listening closely as speakers partook in conversations of identity, exploring what it means to be part-Egyptian. The undeniable attentiveness expanded as panelists focused less on the constantly repeated mantras of more representation and dialed more sober contemplations on the speakers’ own perception of their identity and how that translates into what Dolan calls “a more nuanced representation.”
PANEL 1: COMEDY, QUESTIONABLE HOBBIES, AND THE WORLD OF MAI’S VAULT
The first panel, which aimed to tackle how actors represent Egypt either intentionally or unintentionally, originally included Mai Abdelal, known more widely as the comedic social media content creator Mai’s Vault, and Amin El Gamal, chairman of the MENA Committee of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, who was unfortunately unable to attend.
Dolan with Mai Abdelal, also known as Mai’s Vault via Zoom. Photo Credit: Sara Ahmed
Before “falling into content creation,” Abdelal and her mother, ‘Mama Wafaa’, were not keen on the realm of comedy. In fact, they had what Abdelal refers to as a “business hobby” where they bought Egyptian-inspired hieroglyphic jewelry and sold it in the US.
As their silly banter and day-to-day interactions on social media gained more traction, Abdelal discovered that social media content creation, which centers largely around everyday life, made her happy and showed her that comedy is a way of self-representation, of creating something of significance for her community, and a medium for delivering a message.
“I love creating comedy content because it’s so natural to who I am, and when you deliver a message and make people laugh while you’re doing it, they receive this message so much more,” she beamed.
Abdelal describes the various challenges and barriers to entry she faces as an Egyptian social media influencer, striving to break into more cinematic comedy fields. “Getting people to take [her] seriously” for mainstream jobs, due to the relative newness of social media, her minority status in the United States, or simply being a woman are core issues Abdelal continues to face.
PANEL 2: IDENTITY, WHITENESS, AND ANCESTRAL LEGACY
The second panel tackled the shift in the mediums of representation to new media forms like graphic novels – such as the Ms. Marvel 2019 comic book reboot by Saladin Ahmed – and varying Audible (Amazon audiobook application) series, featured Malaka Gharib and Denmo Ibrahim.
Gharib is a journalist, cartoonist, and graphic novelist born to an Egyptian father and a Filipina mother. Her graphic memoir ‘I Was Their American Dream’ (2019) won the 2020 Arab American Book Award. On the other hand, Ibrahim is an American playwright of Egyptian descent as well as a children’s book author, and actor. Her theater work includes ‘Baba’ (2014), ‘Dream Thief’ (2020), and ‘The Day Naguib Mahfouz Was Stabbed In The Neck And Almost Died a.k.a. The Selkie Play’ (2020).