Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’

Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’
Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter is one of the most acclaimed Arab actors in the world. Supplied
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Updated 29 July 2021

Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’

Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’
  • The BAFTA-nominated actor on the frustrations of typecasting and the joys of ‘Baghdad Central’

DUBAI: The road to success is rockier than most care to admit. Even years past that first big break, the life of an actor is often a stop-and-start existence, with work drying up when you need it most.

In 2011, Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter —now one of the most acclaimed Arab actors in the world having secured a BAFTA nomination in 2021 for his starring role in “Baghdad Central” — was experiencing one of those lulls. The big roles weren’t coming and it was affecting him more than he let on.

It had only been two years since he starred opposite George Clooney in “The Men who Stare at Goats,” and here he was, a family to take care of, wondering whether he should continue pursuing his dream or give up acting entirely.  




Waleed Zuaiter with George Clooney and Ewan McGregor in 'The Men Who Stare at Goats.' (Alamy)

It was then that he got a call from the creators of a new series called “Homeland.” 

“I remember, ‘Homeland’ came around (at a time when) we couldn't pay our rent. It's as simple as that,” Zuaiter tells Arab News. 

They wanted him to play a terrorist. It was something he really didn’t want to do. 

Earlier in his life, Zuaiter had never imagined he would be viewed as an outsider in America. Born in the US, he moved with his family to Kuwait and at the age of five, growing up in the Gulf, he had no concept of himself as ‘different’ in any way, attending an American school with a diverse array of friends and interests.

“I never grew up with real racism. (Kuwait) was a small country. My dad's best friend was Sudanese, and so I had no concept of a separation between races. I had friends from all over, and we were listening to hard rock and heavy metal like AC/DC and Iron Maiden,” says Zuaiter. 




Waleed Zuaiter in Chicago Justice (2017). Supplied

Zuaiter had a sense of himself, but the dream of becoming an actor meant to him — as it does to most actors — the ability to become anyone. It wasn’t until he got into the industry that he realized that ‘becoming anyone’ wasn’t really on the cards for Arabs — that they tended to be put into a very small box, even if it’s sometimes a box made with the best of intentions. 

“When I came into acting, I didn't see it as, ‘I'm originally Arab, I have an Arabic name, I should only be up for Arab roles.’ But that's kind of how the industry works here. Even if you're like me, and you don't speak with an accent, and you're American. The industry thought, ‘Oh, this is a very hot topic, there's material that's coming out. Let's look for the people that can bring authenticity to it.’ There was a good intention there, but what winds up happening is you get pigeonholed. That was very frustrating for me,” says Zuaiter.

“I just wanted to make movies like Jon Favreau’s ‘Swingers.’ Those are the kinds of roles and stories that I'm interested in playing. But the TV roles I was offered were terrorists.”

Zuaiter took the role in “Homeland,” and while the experience ended up being a positive one, as Zuaiter was able to imbue the menacing role with nuance, depth and humanity, in a space that allowed him to do that, it wasn’t where he ultimately wanted to be. The producers were so impressed that they asked him to come back as another character. This time, he refused. He knew what he needed next, and it was a story that came from the Arab world rather than gazing at it from afar.




Waleed Zuaiter in Omar (2013). Supplied

So Zuaiter got in touch with an old friend, Hany Abu Assad, the acclaimed Palestinian director behind “Paradise Now,” whom he had met years earlier.

“A mutual friend said to me, ‘You should get in touch with Hany, because he's written something that's really, really great.’ I called him, and he said ‘Yes, and I actually wrote a role for you in this.’” 

Zuaiter would end up doing more than lending his acting talents. He got together his Palestinian family and friends and they made the film — 2013’s “Omar” — using their own capital. The film earned an Oscar-nomination, one of only two Palestinian feature-length films in history to have been nominated. 

“Essentially, I raised the whole budget, I brought on my brothers, and they helped bring in some other investors. Hany had that same ambition of ‘Let's get our own people to invest in us.’ And that’s what we did,” Zuaiter explains. “Around 95 percent of the investment for Omar was Palestinian private equity, with another 5 percent from Dubai. And we're very thankful for it. It was rewarding on so many levels.”

The experience would embolden Zuaiter, allowing him to enter the next phase of his career, working across genres and continents until he was finally able to land the biggest role of his career, the lead in a prestige TV drama that portrayed Iraq as Hollywood never had before — “Baghdad Central,” now streaming on Starzplay Arabia. 




Still from Baghdad Central (2020). Supplied

“What did this show give me? It gave me a voice. I learned to trust myself. I learned so much about the craft, so much about responsibility. For the first time, I had a real, genuine voice from the very first rehearsals, and I learned how to wield it. And to do that playing an Arab hero — not a terrorist — was such an honor, especially because we very rarely get to see it,” he says. 

Zuaiter was also struck by the show’s ability to not only amplify the voices of those that are so often marginalized, but to do so while also making the Iraqi characters’ American and British foils three-dimensional as well, giving the show a richness that it would not otherwise have had.  

The experience helped turn Zuaiter into the leader that he never knew he could be, both on screen and off. He has now founded a production company with his wife Joana, whom he credits with saving his career again and again, called FlipNarrative. 




Waleed and Joana Zuaiter at the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2021. Getty Images

“So much of our identity as a company is the embodiment of who we are. Our mission is to amplify the voice of underrepresented and historically misrepresented voices around the world, starting with a focus on stories coming out of the Middle East,” Zuaiter says. “We’re a global mission-based company, because we realize there’s a global audience out there and we have always felt like insider-outsiders, allowing us to bridge those borders and make those connections.” 

FlipNarrative has already announced six projects from across the Arab world. But first Zuaiter’s tackling another dream, a pure actor’s dream — playing someone totally outside his own lived reality. As the villain in the upcoming second season of British crime drama “Gangs of London” he won’t be an Arab at all, he’ll be playing a Georgian. It’s an experience he’s already reveling in. 

“I just want to expand the types of roles that I play. I want a sense of play. They said, ‘Listen, if you want to play him as Palestinian, we can do that’. I said, ‘No, I played enough Palestinian gangsters. I would love to play a Georgian gangster, That's exactly why I'm an actor,’” he says. “Hopefully, there’ll be more of those roles. I just want to be free.”


British-Egyptian actor cast as Princess Diana’s beau Dodi Fayed in ‘The Crown’

Emmy-winning Netflix series “The Crown” has cast British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla. (AFP)
Emmy-winning Netflix series “The Crown” has cast British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla. (AFP)
Updated 25 September 2021

British-Egyptian actor cast as Princess Diana’s beau Dodi Fayed in ‘The Crown’

Emmy-winning Netflix series “The Crown” has cast British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla. (AFP)

DUBAI: Emmy-winning Netflix series “The Crown” has cast British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla to play Egyptian department store heir and film producer Dodi Al-Fayed, who had a brief relationship with the UK’s Princess Diana before their deaths in 1997.

Actor Salim Daw has been cast as Dodi’s father, billionaire and former Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed.

Princess Diana became romantically involved with Dodi in the summer of 1997. Their brief union caused a paparazzi frenzy that ended when the pair died in a car crash just months after they started their relationship.

Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki will over the role  of Diana from Emma Corrin, who played a young version of the princess in Season 4.


Gigi Hadid, Dua Lipa hit the Versace runway in Milan

Gigi Hadid walked the runway at the Versace show in Milan this weekend. (Getty Images)
Gigi Hadid walked the runway at the Versace show in Milan this weekend. (Getty Images)
Updated 25 September 2021

Gigi Hadid, Dua Lipa hit the Versace runway in Milan

Gigi Hadid walked the runway at the Versace show in Milan this weekend. (Getty Images)

DUBAI/MILAN: Donatella Versace pumped energy into Milan Fashion week with a star-studded runway and guest list — with the likes of US-Palestinian model Gigi Hadid and British-Albanian pop superstar Dua Lipa hitting the catwalk in a number of sultry looks.

The collection was strong on the fashion house’s identifying markers: Bright colors, safety pins and lusciously silky foulards.

British singer and emerging fashion icon Dua Lipa opened the runway show in a skin-baring black suit held together with colored safety pins as her song “Physical” blasted through the venue and closed it in a liquidy fuchsia skirt and corset, The Associated Press reported.

Singer Dua Lipa opened the Versace show in an all-black look. (Getty Images)

In between, she was joined by Naomi Campbell, brightly clad in a hot-pink suit and orange shirt, Gigi Hadid in a snug latex black dress with just a silky flash of turquoise and pink, and Madonna’s daughter Lourdes Leon Ciccone, in a metallic silvery dress.

Black suits and dresses with tiny flashes of color in pins and foulards that peeked from hemlines and slits formed the beginning of the show. Toward the end, the colors grew ever more bold until they burst into a vivid palette of pink, aquamarine, seafoam green, acid green and yellow.

Gigi Hadid walked the runway at the Versace show in Milan this weekend. (Getty Images)

“The foulard is a fundamental component of Versace’s heritage and character,” Versace said in the show notes. “This season (it) turns everything on its head, it is no longer fluid or dreamy, the scarf is provocative, sexy, wound tight.”

Menswear was more relaxed, with floral suits, sportier varsity jackets with mesh tops, or bright leather jackets paired with tight T-shirts and jeans.

Front-row guests at the show included Milan’s own fashion influencer-turned-entrepreneur Chiara Ferragni and her husband, the singer Fedez, US influencer-turned-actress Addison Rae and actress Bella Thorne with her Italian beau, singer Benjamin Mascolo.

Meanwhile, Italian fashion house Prada returned to the live runway for the first time since February 2020, when the creative partnership between Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons was announced.

The collection was dotted with trains, corsets and evening gowns as Simons bemoaned the “irreality” of an evening gown “however beautiful,” as many gowns have spent the pandemic hanging in closets.

“These clothes can become complicated — evening dresses, historical costume. We want to make it uncomplicated, easy, that feels modern,” Simons said.


The Comedy Club in Jeddah is back in business 

The Comedy Club in Jeddah is back in business 
Updated 25 September 2021

The Comedy Club in Jeddah is back in business 

The Comedy Club in Jeddah is back in business 
  • For almost 500 days, the club was left empty because of government regulations to fight COVID-19

JEDDAH: After a prolonged interruption due to the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic, The Comedy Club in Jeddah is back in business, and fans are flocking to it for some comic relief.
For almost 500 days, the club was left empty because of the pandemic and government regulations to fight COVID-19, preventing all live shows and mass gatherings that could put people at risk. But with restrictions easing, more people are aware of the rules and regulations and the decline in daily cases, and the club is back in full swing.
“The General Entertainment Authority reached out to us to return comedy shows, and we are one of the activities of the summer season festival in Jeddah,” Majed Al-Amoudi, comedian and content manager at The Comedy Club, told Arab News. “We perform live shows four days a week now: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.”
Al-Amoudi explained that because the shows are primarily theatrical, the pandemic significantly affected the ability to operate, and everything was put on indefinite hold. However, as with everything going digital nowadays, he said the club managed to provide entertaining content on its YouTube channel.

“The Comedy Club channel (has) a lot of programs like ‘Althalothiyat’ where we host famous people or influencers, but now, we are back to theater and going live.”
He said the club is planning for future events after the summer season is finished on Sept. 25. “We will return to our regular programing and we have major projects in the works with different parties, both in the government and private sectors, but can’t reveal at the moment.”
Mohammed Saleh, a 40-year-old private sector worker, said: “It feels good to be back in the theater. The comedians are brilliant and every month I would look forward to attending a show. 
“Watching shows on YouTube can only provide some relief; the live atmosphere is something else. The night is filled with laughter to almost tears, and that’s what you want in a comedy show, belly laughs and tears,” he added.

With plans for bigger and better shows in the works, Al-Amoudi highlighted that the club was sponsored by the GEA and received special attention from its governor, Turki Al-Sheikh, for three years, with the GEA the primary sponsor of the club during the Jeddah and Sharqiya seasons in 2019.
Founded in 2012, it was initially called the Jeddah Comedy Club. Located in Al-Shallal Theme Park, it hosts theatrical shows, stand-up comedy, improvisation, and musical nights. “We also perform theatricals and sketches, we write, edit, act it, and perform it all,” Al-Amoudi said.
He revealed that he is also on the hunt for female comics as part of the club’s future expansion. “We are always looking for female comedians, or even girls who want to be professional stand-up comedians, so that we can give them courses and prepare them for the entertainment world. We are talent hunting throughout the Kingdom for sure.
“Vision 2030 supports all arts in various fields and supports the development of the youth of the country. Of course, all our goals are in line with Vision 2030, and it is great supporter for us,” he added.


What We Are Reading Today: Along Came Google: A History of Library Digitization

What We Are Reading Today: Along Came Google: A History of Library Digitization
Updated 24 September 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Along Came Google: A History of Library Digitization

What We Are Reading Today: Along Came Google: A History of Library Digitization

Authors: Deanna Marcum and Roger C. Schonfeld

Libraries have long talked about providing comprehensive access to information for everyone. But when Google announced in 2004 that it planned to digitize books to make the world’s knowledge accessible to all, questions were raised about the roles and responsibilities of libraries, the rights of authors and publishers, and whether a powerful corporation should be the conveyor of such a fundamental public good. Along Came Google traces the history of Google’s book digitization project and its implications for us today.
Deanna Marcum and Roger Schonfeld draw on in-depth interviews with those who both embraced and resisted Google’s plans, from librarians and technologists to university leaders, tech executives, and the heads of leading publishing houses. They look at earlier digital initiatives to provide open access to knowledge,
and describe how Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page made the case for a universal digital library and drew on their company’s considerable financial resources to make it a reality.


Vatican Museums, Uffizi team up to confirm a Raphael is real

Vatican Museums, Uffizi team up to confirm a Raphael is real
Updated 24 September 2021

Vatican Museums, Uffizi team up to confirm a Raphael is real

Vatican Museums, Uffizi team up to confirm a Raphael is real
  • “Saints Peter and Paul by Raphael and Fra Bartlomeo. An homage to the Patrons of Rome,” marks the first exhibit for the Vatican Museums in over a year
  • The nearly life-sized paintings of Saints Peter and Paul are normally kept outside public view in the Papal Audience Apartment of the Apostolic Palace

VATICAN CITY: Two of the world’s most important art museums, the Vatican Museums and the Uffizi Galleries, joined forces for the first time on Friday.
The museums inaugurated a small exhibit of rarely seen works by two Renaissance masters that confirmed a painting long suspected of being by Raphael was indeed his work.
“Saints Peter and Paul by Raphael and Fra Bartlomeo. An homage to the Patrons of Rome,” marks the first exhibit for the Vatican Museums in over a year thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns that shuttered galleries precisely at the time that Italy was commemorating the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death with a series of shows.
The nearly life-sized paintings of Saints Peter and Paul are normally kept outside public view in the Papal Audience Apartment of the Apostolic Palace. But they have been restored and are being displayed for the first time alongside their preparatory sketches, usually held in Florence by the Uffizi Galleries, that the Florentine master Fra Bartolemeo made around 1513 after he was commissioned to paint the saints for a Rome church.
Fra Bartolomeo finished the painting of St. Paul, but because of an artistic crisis, never finished St. Peter. The restoration and research done in preparation for the exhibit confirmed that Raphael — long believed to have finished his friend’s commission — indeed completed the work, the Vatican Museums’ director, Barbara Jatta, told a press conference Friday alongside her Uffizi counterpart, Eike Schmidt.
“It’s not the moment for big shows ... but a small show allows us to enter more into the works themselves,” Jatta said.
While the Uffizi and Vatican Museums often exchange pieces for special exhibits, Schmidt and Jatta said this was the first time the two institutions had joined up to mount a show and catalogue together, with each museum restoring and offering new research into the pieces being exhibited and drawing on their respective patron groups to fund it.
“This is in a certain sense a novelty and its really beautiful to get out of the pandemic with this,” Schmidt said. Jatta added she foresaw future collaborative projects as well.
The exhibit, in a small gallery of the Vatican Museums’ picture gallery, is included in regular museum tickets, which because of COVID regulations must be reserved online in advance, while visitors to the museum must show a health pass to get in the door.