Middle Eastern actors face substantial barriers in the film industry

Although the North American film industry has been recently evolving toward being more inclusive, there is still a long way to go, especially for Middle Eastern actors. Vancouver-based actors Hani Mefti, Panta Mosleh and Mostafa Shaker discuss the daily challenges they face in their acting careers.

The number of auditions and callbacks Middle Eastern actors get are significantly lower than others from racialized communities, Egyptian actor Mostafa Shaker declares. He says Middle Eastern actors have fewer acting opportunities, not only because they are insufficiently represented in movies and TV shows, but also because they are not appropriately depicted.

Distorted representation

Shaker says Middle Eastern roles often portray negative clichés as the people in the writers’ room are rarely from that region.

Panta Mosleh has appeared in shows such as Flash, Arrow and Supernatural. | Photo courtesy of Panta Mosleh

“The other day, I auditioned for a Middle Eastern role and it was a terrorist. They didn’t even bother to write in the script what Arabic they wanted. They just want the Arabic language, because that still symbolizes terrorism”, he points out.

Syrian actor Hani Mefti also attests to these stereotypical depictions of Middle Eastern people, stating that the casting directors often choose Indian and Pakistani actors to play Middle Eastern roles.

“They think we all have darker skin, full beards, representing that one cliché of Middle Eastern people,” Mefti says.

Iranian actress Panta Mosleh points out that the Middle East is an extremely diverse region, where people come in a “ray of colors”.

“In Iran, we have people that are Black and others that look East Asian because if you go way back in history, the region was taken over by Mongolia,” Mosleh explains.

She adds that the depiction of Middle Eastern people is distorted regarding the languages required for the roles.

“They assume that the only language spoken there is Arabic, but there are many others such as Farsi, Kurdish, Turkish, or Hebrew”, she illustrates.

Hani Mefti has appeared in several shows such as Arrow, Prison Break and iZombie. | Photo by Noah Asanias

Mefti hopes North American film directors will soon be better educated about this part of the world, as they are starting to be for other racialized communities.

“It’s like thinking of all Asians in one box. Imagine Disney gave the role of Mulan to a Filipino girl: that would cause a huge controversy! So then, why is that okay for us?”

This stereotypical way of seeing Middle Eastern people closes the door for many actors like Mefti, who is certain of being rejected for roles because of his lighter skin tone.

“Walking the line is difficult because I will never be enough for the casting directors – not white enough… but also not Middle Eastern enough,” he shares.

And when Middle Eastern actors are finally chosen, it’s almost always actors from Egypt or other North African countries.

“They are afraid to cast somebody from countries that are politically controversial, like Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria, because people might not watch the movie,” he states.

Conforming to white standards

Hoping to book more roles, Iranian actress Panta Mosleh straightened, waved and lightened her hair in order to appear more white. Recently, she decided to go back to her natural, dark, curly hair, which seems to have negatively impacted her acting career.

Fully trained abroad and in Vancouver, Mostafa Shaker has never landed any major roles. | Photo courtesy of Mostafa Shaker

“Since I started to have my natural hair again, I have booked the least, even though I have auditioned the most. Now I’m wondering, should I go back to doing the ‘TV hair’ and matching the look the industry wants? Or should I honor my identity and be who I am?” Mosleh shares.

On a similar note, Mefti explains that a couple years back he changed his acting name to Henry, but quickly returned to his original name.

“Every actor dreams of the time they see their name on the screen. But when I saw it, I felt like it was someone else’s name,” he says. “I should be proud of my name and my culture because that makes me who I am!”

All three actors concur that these barriers have been emotionally challenging, but they remain hopeful.

Mefti encourages other Middle Eastern actors to refuse stereotypical roles in order to stop the distorted narratives.

“When you put your foot down and say ‘I’m not going to do this for you,’ that’s when things will change,” he stresses.

Mosleh feels if not enough roles exist for Middle Eastern actors, then they should create opportunities themselves. She has therefore directed several short films and is currently developing a series called Pass the Salt; projects in which she often appears in leading roles.

Shaker agrees the resilience of his community will persevere in this industry and encourages his fellow actors to keep going: “Hang in there. Change is coming. It’s just a matter of time,” he says.