While series like Hulu’s “Ramy” and Netflix’s “Mo” bring authentic Middle Eastern-American stories to the screen, Middle Eastern representation remains rare in mainstream American theaters. Playwright Kareem Fahmy, a Canadian-American of Egyptian descent, plays a leading role in the movement to amplify Middle Eastern voices in American theater – on and off stage.
Fahmy’s “Dodi & Diana,” a marriage drama set in Paris during the 25th anniversary of the deaths of Princess Diana and her Egyptian lover Dodi Fayed, runs through October 29 at HERE Arts Center in Soho. This season, eight productions of Fahmy’s plays are premiering nationwide, bringing a Middle Eastern-American perspective on issues like immigration and sexual identity to theaters in cities including Chicago and Philadelphia.
Fahmy is the co-founder of the New York-based Middle Eastern American Writers Lab, and of Maia Directors, a consultancy advocating for theater professionals of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian descent. Last year, he launched the BIPOC Director Database, a public spreadsheet of directors identifying as Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
From his Hamilton Heights home, Fahmy talked about finding identity after leaving a physical therapy career in Quebec in 2003 to pursue theater directing and playwriting in New York City.
Take me to when you first moved to New York.
It was just a couple of years after 9/11. I wasn’t aware, coming from Canada, there was still so much inflammation and sensitivity around me being a person in the world. My identity as an Arab person or a Muslim person or Middle Eastern person was never the first thing people noticed about me in Canada. But coming to New York it was immediately a subject of curiosity and interest ... and sometimes suspicion.
I love New York, I love New Yorkers. I love the energy of the city which is why I decided to remain. I didn’t come here artistically thinking I will tell stories about my identity. But gradually I felt if I didn’t, others will take my story and stories from our community and not tell them in the best way.
Did theater bring you closer to your Egyptian roots?
Our household was very Egyptian, somewhat assimilated, somewhat not. I wasn’t disconnected from my background but I didn’t have a sense of deep curiosity about learning more. I worked on a project for almost seven years inspired by how certain members of my family came from Egypt to Canada. I traveled to Egypt to work on that project and subsequently did another project based on real stories of Egyptian people in the gay community. Being an artist has opened so much of my eyes to so much of my own cultural background, cultural history and cultural knowledge.
When was the last time you visited Egypt?
It’s been about five years.
How did you stay connected to your Egyptian heritage here?
My own artistic practice. I don’t have a community of fellow Egyptians but sometimes I do because of my projects. Rosaline Elbay (“Dodi & Diana” actor), whom I didn’t know before, was born and raised in Egypt. We are working together on the project where parts of it are deeply rooted in her Egyptian heritage. It’s those types of connections that pull me back into the community.
Who is your audience?
There’s a lot of curiosity from the younger community of Middle Eastern artists. People are hungry to see their stories reflected. I’m trying to create work for a larger audience than Middle Eastern audiences. Theater is community-building. In communities of color, there’s an emphasis on creating work by our community, for our community. It’s a necessary thing but there’s a need for those stories to propagate out to a wider audience because our community is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented.
Your play “A Distinct Society” is set during the Muslim ban. How did your perspective on America and your place in it change after becoming a U.S. citizen two years ago?
I was very resistant to become an American citizen. It’s a byproduct of growing up in Canada, where we have multiculturalism as part of the DNA of the country. As a child, I felt I was embraced for being different, for being from a Middle Eastern background. I’ve never felt that way by America at large. Becoming a part of that country was complicated for me.
I’m very proud to be a citizen and I’ve made my career in this country.
You once said, “I think we’ll be in a much better place when we have a Middle Eastern version of ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ Something where it’s truly a romantic comedy.” Would you write one? Is Dodi & Diana that?
Sounds like something I said. “Dodi & Diana” is rooted in the history of Dodi Fayed and it’s a story about this contemporary marriage. Yes, it’s between a white man and Middle Eastern woman, but it’s not about race or identity, it’s more about marriage. I’m excited to show the humanity of these characters first and not foreground their identity and the problems of politics.
You’ve been named a “Rising Leader of Color” and an “Artist of Color.” Have you experienced tokenism in theater?
All the time. It’s a double-edged sword. I’ve been privileged by those opportunities but it’s a continual uphill battle to be seen as an artist first and not as an artist of color first. I want to be judged by the same standards as everybody else.
When organizations are saying, “We want to support you, Kareem,” I’m saying, “Why? Because it makes you look good or because you’re actually interested in my work?” The field has a long way to go to dismantle tokenism and box-ticking as I call it.
New York is home to Broadway, the hub of American theater. Was being on Broadway ever a dream of yours?
I want to bring “Dodi & Diana” on Broadway.
Where do you see yourself in the next decade?
New York is a seductive city. Once you’re here, it’s like where else could I possibly go? But I want to have a career and life that brings me all over the place. I’m starting to develop projects in Canada. I’m working on podcast projects and television projects. Southern California is also seductive. But at heart, I am a theater artist and New York is the heart of theater. My heart is here. My home is here.
Will we see the Middle Eastern version of “Crazy Rich Asians” in one of those projects?
Maybe, yeah, we’ll see what happens.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.