I remember the moment I got the call to audition for The Band’s Visit. Within minutes, I was on my living room floor, covered in my own panic-induced sweat. As a Middle Eastern actor struggling to break through in New York City, opportunities like these never happened. Typically, I’d either audition for a one-dimensional “terrorist’ role or try to fill the “any ethnicity” network call that seemed to fill a diversity quotient. Here was a three-dimensional, compassionate Middle Eastern character — in a musical that had rumblings of Broadway aspirations. But I also had doubts.
Let me go back further. I was a 5th grader in Berkeley, Cal., during the 9/11 attacks. Overnight, my heritage was despised. I struggled through middle school. My peers ostracized me. I remember the first time I was called “terrorist” during basketball practice; I went home in tears. It was just the beginning. By eighth grade, I made a choice: I wouldn’t be Middle Eastern. I changed school districts, shortened my name to Ari and survived high school by pretending that I was someone else, from somewhere else.
It started with changing the way I talked and dressed, but quickly evolved. I spent hours trying to contort the shape of my nose in a mirror, wondering which angles and what degree of nostril flexing might make my race ambiguous. I avoided being seen with my Yemenite-Israeli father in public — excluding him and myself from any activities that could out me. This included my high school graduation. As painful as that was, the alternative was to be linked to an identity that felt suffocating and limiting.
In college at NYU, I continued to hide my ethnicity. After four years of training, I showcased myself in the real world, but did so through monologues written for African-American and Latino characters. There was no sense that I could have a career as a Middle Eastern actor.
Three years after graduating college, I got the breakdown for The Band’s Visit. I knew in my gut that this audition was different. I had never seen a mainstream production so compassionately depicting Middle Eastern characters. I wanted the part of Haled more than anything.
But I was simultaneously scared of outing myself as a Middle Eastern person in such a public way. Would participating in this show limit my career prospects? It turned out, I didn’t need to worry. I was rejected by the creative team the first six times I auditioned. Nine months after my first audition, I was called in for the seventh time. By then I knew the team so well that I looked around the room and said, “We’re family, right?”
What I learned during my audition process was that if I was going to get the role, I would have to shrink the distance I had put between this character and myself. Early on, I just put on an accent and played the character from the surface. I had distanced myself so much from my Middle Eastern identity that I had trouble connecting to the core of this character. By the final audition, I let the cultural elements be secondary, and let the humanity come first. And slowly, through this sensitive, funny, romantic character, I started to embrace myself as a Middle Eastern man.
As we began the run at The Atlantic Theatre, an off-Broadway venue in New York City, I was shocked by the reactions I heard from audience members. A couple of women called me sexy. Sexy?, I thought. I had never in a million years imagined that reaction to my role in a Middle Eastern play. And gradually, my sense of self changed. My sense of pride changed. And when we moved to Broadway and our reach widened, my sense of my role in the world changed.
As I look back on the pain of growing up Middle Eastern in America, I am grateful to have gone through those struggles. It has imbued me with a mission.
As an actor, you have very little control over what jobs you get. But I consider it some sort of cosmic intervention that my first high-profile job strengthened my own identity and enabled me to truly matter. I get approached by Arab and Israeli kids alike who are seeking role models — connected to this story of disparate strangers sharing their ordinary hopes and dreams over the course of one evening, without reference to politics. They thank me for representing them. They tell me how transformative The Band’s Visit has been for them. This is the power of theatre and art at its best — building bridges for peace and understanding.
If you are a kid out there struggling with your identity, know that you are not alone. I hope this story gives you some hope, and might help you embrace any part of your identity that you struggle with. Know that the thing you might be ashamed of may be leading you to your greatest purpose.