Chicago -- Amr El-Bayoumi began his life as a successful but overworked lawyer on the East Coast when he was asked by friends to fly to Los Angeles to enjoy a party with other law firm colleagues.
El-Bayoumi had booked a flight on American Airlines 77 to travel to LA, but as he prepared to leave his mother intervened, complaining about him working too hard, losing weight and not taking care of his health. That evening, on Sept. 10, 2001, El-Bayoumi cancelled his flight, saving his life.
He is also working on producing his own movie short about the experience called “CloseCall,” which tells the story of his close escape. Leaving from Washington DC for Los Angeles, American Airlines Flight 77 was intentionally crashed by hijackers into the US Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 64 passengers and crew, and 125 Pentagon employees.
“Me as an Egyptian-American Muslim almost died on 9/11 had it not been for my mom, thankfully. I had been working as a lawyer, completely burnt out, and I was going to fly to visit a friend in LA,” El-Bayoumi said during an interview with Arab News on the Ray Hanania Radio show on Wednesday.
“But my mom saw me after having lost a lot of weight, not sleeping and the usual lawyer stuff. And I told her, ‘I am going to visit Jim tomorrow’ and she said, ‘No you are not.’ She stopped me there and said you are not going. And the next morning was 9/11. So that plane I was supposed to go on was American Airlines Flight 77. That is the seed of my film called ‘CloseCall’.”
El-Bayoumi said that it was the reason why he left the legal industry to become an actor, although he has had to carefully accept and reject roles; he said that he will not perpetuate anti-Arab or anti-Muslim stereotypes.
“There are two kinds of issues to identify. There is representation of Arab artists in mainstream roles, which is something that we are seeing more of. It is increasing but not nearly as much as it should be, such as Rami Malek playing the lead singer in Queen. And the other part is how Arabs are portrayed as characters, Arabs or Muslims . . . Really what we are seeing is a very narrow representation of Arabs and Muslims when they do appear as characters in mainstream film and TV. And that typically is in the context of terrorism,” El- Bayoumi said.
“We lose on all fronts. We are represented in a narrow box as ugly or brutal or lesser or savage or violent terrorists. And when it comes to our own stories, ‘Gods of Egypt’ and ‘Aladdin’ recently, which got some press about how the producers regret not casting Arab actors. We don’t get to play those roles or we are absent.”
Citing recent studies, El-Bayoumi said: “Between 2017 and 2019 only 1.6 percent of almost 9,000 speaking characters were Muslim compared to the world population of 24 percent. Either we are missing, or we don’t tell our own stories, or we are in this box of the ugly terrorists. So, I have encountered that several times and I have seen an evolution of this ugly terrorist character, just this bloodthirsty, ‘I want to destroy Western civilization.’ And I have also noticed a feeble attempt at humanizing or showing balance, where the main character is a bloodthirsty Taliban guy bent on destroying the entire world violently but he has a soft spot for his daughter.”
El-Bayoumi said that he has turned down many acting roles based on violence and terrorism and “ugly stereotypes . . . layers of racism . . . and the one-dimensional Arab stereotypes” that Hollywood tries to script for movies involving Arabs and Muslims.
It was a struggle at first, El-Bayoumi conceded, but his acting career grew. He studied acting in London and then moved to New York where he did some work on TV series, and then to Los Angeles. He now lives between Washington D.C. and New York City, where he pursues acting roles that meet his vision while developing his own scripts and stories.
El-Bayoumi is performing in the new 10-episode Apple series “Dear Edward,” a story about a falafel truck driver. The character is based on The New York Times best-selling novel by Ann Napolitano, which explores the life of a 12-year-old boy who survives a devastating commercial plane crash that kills every other passenger on the flight, including members of his family.
He has also appeared in several TV productions, including the popular NBC Series “Law & Order,” the CBS Series “The Code,” and in “El Mahal” (The Store), a film that has won multiple awards, including best foreign language short at the Marina Del Rey Film Festival.
El-Bayoumi said that he is comfortable in acting, noting his path was paved by many Egyptian actors who led the way in defining powerful Hollywood film images. Among the most famous are Omar Sharif, Sayed Badreya, Rami Malek and Ahmad Ahmad, who is also the country's leading Arab-American comedian.
He said that Arab Americans can redefine how they are portrayed and stereotyped in Hollywood, which casts them in narrow roles contextualized by violence and terrorism, by telling their own stories and changing the context in which Arabs and Muslims are portrayed.
“My problem with that fundamentally is that the context remains violence and terrorism. And with the 7,000 different kinds of narratives, it still comes back to that context. I refuse to reinforce in the viewers’ mind that it is just an inherent Arab or Muslim trait. It is absurd. It is ludicrous. No one people have this kind of trait. It is how it is portrayed and then how people are taught to hate,” he said.
“I welcome the chance to be able to expose these issues and to offer my support to fellow Arabs and Muslims who want to become artists. Maybe because I was a lawyer for 20 years and becoming an actor is really to me such a pleasure, I go out of my way to support anyone, especially Arabs and Muslims that are interested in being artists and being involved and writing their own stories. That is really my ultimate message to younger and older generations. We have to tell our own stories. We can’t wait for Hollywood. It’s a business.”
The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern EST on the US Arab Radio Network sponsored by Arab News on WNZK AM 690 radio in Greater Detroit including parts of Ohio, and WDMV AM 700 radio in Washington DC including parts of Virginia and Maryland. The show is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Chicago at 12 noon on WNWI AM 1080.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.