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Watch Out, Hollywood; The Copts Are Making Their Way In

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Rutgers chapter.

November 2, 2018, will be the day ingrained in my memory for years to come. On that day, history will be made for Copts and Egyptians across the country who have, for years, felt underrepresented in the media industry. On the day that has been marked on my calendar for months, Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek, officially hits theaters. Never before has an Egyptian American been featured on this big screen. Malek will become the first Copt to star in a film produced by the American film industry.

To clarify, Copts (the plural for Coptic) is a religious minority emanating from Egypt. After migrating from their homeland, Copts are densely populated on the east coast—specifically the tri-state area and Florida— as well as in California, Texas, and Tennessee. In the United States, contrary to Egypt, the majority of the American-Egyptian population is predominantly Coptic. They comprise roughly between 0.06% to 0.3% of the United States population; Egyptians, as a whole, make up an even larger percentage of the United States population.

Although Rami Malek is the first Egyptian-American to star in a big-budget Hollywood film, he is not the only Copt in the industry. The upcoming live-action Aladdin film stars another Coptic actor, Mena Massoud—the second actor in Hollywood of Coptic/Egyptian descent. Massoud holds the lead role of Aladdin in the film to be released in May of 2019; this performance will be his official break-out role in the industry.

Although there are over one million people of Egyptian descent in the United States and Canada, there is a tokenistic representation of the group of people in the media. For this reason, the presence of Rami Malek and Mena Massoud in the media is substantial for the culture. Similar to many Copts in the Northeastern region, Malek’s parents are immigrants from Egypt who came to the United States to maximize the opportunity for their kids and he faced pressures to steer away from an unconventional occupation like acting.

Coming from a similar background, I realize that a large part of the problem is the lack of representation of the Egyptian/Coptic culture in television; it makes it seem nearly impossible to work in an industry where there are no representatives of one’s own culture. In the same way that it is more difficult for a Latino to be in the NBA, it is more difficult for a North African or Middle Eastern to work in film and television. A lack of proper representation of a culture catalyzes the effects of discouraging people of certain cultures to work in the industry. It goes in a cycle: no representation then fewer people are motivated. The fewer motivated people, then less representation. It takes someone courageous enough to break this cycle, ignore all the factors against them, and strive to procure an occupation in the industry.

Malek’s role in the new film proves to be monumental because of the high caliber of the movie; this movie is highly anticipated by millions of people, not only Copts or Egyptians. One of the greatest bands of all time finally gets a movie that is long overdue and the film is obtaining vast amounts of press for this very reason. Malek’s historical role is, in fact, historical because he represents such an iconic figure in music history—Freddie Mercury is declared one of the best vocalists of all time. Not only does this movie represent the full biography of the legendary singer, but it also includes the participation from the Queen band members that worked with Mercury, thus increasing the caliber of the film.

The significance of Malek’s and Massoud’s presence in the industry illustrates the progressive nature of Hollywood and the film industry is undergoing. Both actors finally transcended the stereotypical roles Middle Eastern and North African actors and actresses were automatically given—the role of the terrorist or the pharaoh—and, although this progression seems unsubstantial, it will eventually get larger and larger. Eventually, actors and actresses will finally break free from the role restraints Hollywood places on the cultures.

As a Coptic American, I find it exceptionally difficult to personally connect with Hollywood actors; there are a minuscule number of Copts in the industry. With two prominent figures of the culture in the eyes of Hollywood—although long overdue— individuals from the culture have someone to look up to and admire. Their presence will open doors for more Copts, Egyptians, North Africans, and Middle Easterns. Bohemian Rhapsody and Aladdin are significant for the content, but, for people of similar cultures as the leads, these films provide comfort, and pride, and inspiration. That is what makes these films and Hollywood moves so special and historical. It finally feels that our culture is being recognized and validated by the media—a feeling that many Copts, Egyptians, North Africans, and Middle Easterns have never felt.  

Hey, I'm Jessie Eshak. I'm a MENA American with goals to pursue a career in film and television. My passion to the improve the poor representation of Middle-Eastern and North Africans in entertainment in front of the camera and behind it.
Keoni Nguyen is a former undergrad student at Rutgers University and the former Co-Campus Correspondent of Her Campus Rutgers (2018-2019).