It is no secret that Arab representation in Western media has been executed terribly. For decades, Arabs (those who come from Arabic-speaking countries) have been portrayed as barbaric and inhumane in the narratives of Western media. Until recently, there were very few efforts to dismantle such stereotypical portrayals. However, with the emergence of shows and movies, like Ramy on Hulu or FBI on CBS, Arabs are finally placed at the forefront and shown in a realistic and non-offensive light. And in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s newest show, Moon Knight, the representation is no different.
Moon Knight follows Steven Grant, a timid gift shop employee navigating a world filled with Egyptian mythology, strange voices in his head, and the ability to transform into a mercenary that hones power from a moon god. Led by the consistently brilliant Oscar Isaac and supported by the excellent performances of Ethan Hawke and May Calamawy, it is a delightfully chaotic and tonally different series that is being raved about by critics and fans alike. However, the standout aspect of the show, in my opinion, is the representation of both Arab culture and characters.
This is a result of the work of Mohamed Diab, the Egyptian director and creator of the series. Diab is the first Arab filmmaker to lead a Marvel Cinematic Universe project. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Diab opened up about how adamant he was about portraying Egypt and its people as accurately as possible:
“A big part of our pitch was avoiding the orientalist look, which always dehumanizes us…It shows us as exotic, where women are submissive and men are evil. And it wasn’t only about representation of the people, but of the place itself” (Diab, 2022).
A big part of Diab’s vision was having the female lead of his series be an Egyptian woman. He successfully found that in May Calamawy, an actress of Egyptian and Palestinian descent. With her role as archaeologist Layla El-Faouly, Calamaway is both the first Arab actress and Arab lead character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the overall first being Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese actor with a minor role in Eternals). Although first introduced in the second episode of the series, Calamawy’s character Layla immediately establishes herself as adventurous, intelligent, and resilient, as seen through her navigation of the busy streets of London in a fashionable motorcycle and her swift wit and fighting skills.
In an interview with Empire, Calamawy opened up about being a beacon for Arab representation:
“It’s a huge sense of pride for me just to play an Egyptian woman… And then being an Arab—I want it to be more that she’s Arab, not just Egyptian, and to represent people from the Middle East is huge. I didn’t have this growing up, and to think that I can be, and we can be, part of a project that’s really expansive for people from there means a lot. I felt a sense of pride” (Calamawy, 2022).
As seen through May Calamawy and Mohamed Diab’s work on Moon Knight, accurate representation depends on both non-stereotypical characterizations of Arab characters and the inclusion of Arab filmmakers and writers in production. By characterizing Layla as an audacious Egyptian woman who has a love for history, Egyptian mythology, and archaeology, Diab dismantles the preexisting stereotype of Arab women being submissive and oppressed that Western media has crafted. Additionally, by showcasing the exterior of Egypt as it appears without a yellow and orange tint, Diab further deconstructs orientalist and stereotypical portrayals of the Arab world.
Despite not having good Arab representation for decades, modern shows like Moon Knight are steps in the right direction. Arabs are finally shown in their true form—clever, capable, cunning, valiant, and multi-dimensional individuals. Moon Knight not only proves that Arabs have a place in television, films, and multi-billion dollar franchises but at the forefront as leads as well.