Hugh Fitzgerald: Sunday Night at the Oscars (Part One)

Rami Malek, the son of Egyptian immigrants, won the Oscar for Best Actor last night. Arab websites were both ecstatic about his win, and curiously silent about Malek’s background. Here is the story as Al Jazeera covered it:

The actor of Egyptian descent said his win for the role of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was ‘monumental moment’….

Malek speculated about what he would have made of the honor as a child.

“I think his curly-haired mind would have been blown,” he said. “That kid was struggling with his identity, trying to figure himself out.”

He lauded Bohemian Rhapsody for telling the story of a gay man and an immigrant who lived his life as “unapologetically himself.”.

Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar to parents from India, moved to England with his family as a teenager.

Malek noted that he himself is the son of immigrants, from Egypt,and a first-generation American. He gave a shout-out to his mother – “I love you, lady” – and regretted that his father was not alive.

My dad didn’t get to see me do any of this, but I think he’s looking down on me right now,” said Malek, who gained attention in the television series Mr Robot….

Malek was asked about what the role meant, especially on an Oscar night that celebrated diversity in movies ranging from Roma to Black Panther.

“I grew up in a world where I never thought I was going to play the lead on Mr Robot because I never saw anyone in a lead role that looked like me,” Malek said.

I never thought I could play Freddie Mercury until I realised his [birth] name was Farrokh Bulsara.”…

Growing emotional when he called the award “beyond any expectation” that he or his family could have had, he said it was proof that “anything is possible”.

Fellow Egyptians and fans around the world were quick to congratulate Malek on his win.

Twitter users posted their heartfelt wishes and appreciation for Malek’s remarks, which he delivered in his acceptance speech….

Rami Malek is paving the way for Egyptians and any kind of middle easterners you can be great in anything you do if you put the work in to it, don’t let the fact that you came from a third world country stop you.”

Repeatedly Al Jazeera referred to Rami Malek’s Egyptian background: “The actor of Egyptian descent”; “the son of immigrants, from Egypt”; “Fellow Egyptians”; “Rami Malek is paving the way for Egyptians.”

Al Jazeera, however, carefully left out any mention of what is surely of most significance in Rami Malek’s background: he is a Coptic Christian. It may even be that his family came to America in order to escape from mistreatment by Muslims, and from the general atmosphere of fear which so many Copts must endure. Al Jazeera’s writers and editors no doubt hope that readers will simply assume that Rami Malek is Muslim; their silence is telling.

And also telling is how they covered the story of Freddie Mercury, the frontman with Queen about whom Malek notes that “I never thought I could play Freddie Mercury until I realized his [birth] name was Farrokh Bulsara.” That’s all Al Jazeera chose to report about Freddie Mercury.

But Mercury belonged, and Malek belongs, to peoples who suffered similarly from the arrival of Islam. Mercury was a Parsee (Persian), a descendant of those Zoroastrians who migrated to India from Persia during the Arab invasion of 636–651 AD to escape persecution, and possible death, from the Muslim conquerors. According to his parents, Freddie Mercury was very proud of his Parsee ancestry, though he did not often speak of it. Al Jazeera doesn’t mention Mercury’s background at all, save for giving his birth name as “Farokh Bulsara.” Al Jazeerathus leads many to assume that Freddie Mercury was Muslim at birth — how many would recognize that name as Parsee? — with “Farokh” taken to be  a variant of “Farouk,” a common first and last name among Arabs that means “the Redeemer.”

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