Egyptian movie star: ‘Arabs are not terrorists’

Updated 12:15 PM EST, Sat January 5, 2013

Story highlights

Khaled El Nabawy is an acclaimed Egyptian movie star

He stars in recent Hollywood production, "The Citizen"

El Nabawy was one of the first prominent voices in Egypt to support the revolution

The actor-turned-activist took Sean Penn to Tahrir Square

(CNN) —  

He is a superstar in Arab cinema and has acted alongside Hollywood names such as Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Orlando Bloom in worldwide blockbusters.

Now, acclaimed Egyptian movie star Khaled El Nabawy is raring to conquer new heights, starring in gripping drama “The Citizen,” his first lead role in a Hollywood film.

The movie, released last year, has a story line based on the September 11 attacks in the United States. El Nabawy’s character, Ibrahim Jarrah, is a newly arrived immigrant from Lebanon, who finds himself wrongly accused of being involved in the terrorist attacks.

“The guy didn’t do anything except he was infatuated by the American dream,” says El Nabawy of his character in “The Citizen.”

“This is why he won the green card lottery but [it is] his bad luck that he arrived one day before 9/11 to New York. He loves America and he’s educated, he is cultured, he is helpful and it’s a great message through ‘The Citizen’ that gives hope. It talks about the cooperation that can happen instead of creating revenge between each other.”

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This is the third time in the Egyptian actor’s career that he has landed a role in a major Hollywood production. His two previous outings include a smaller part in Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” while in 2010 El Nabawy played an Iraqi scientist in “Fair Game,” a thriller based on former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir “Fair Game: My Life As A Spy, My Betrayal By The White House.”

“What’s common between the three parts – ‘Kingdom of Heaven,’ ‘Fair Game’ and ‘The Citizen’ – is that you try to tell people the truth,” says El Nabawy. “Arabs are not terrorists; Arabs are kind people, normal people and you cannot portray Arabs through the 15 people who have done 9/11.”

El Nabawy, who was discovered by one of Arab cinema’s most celebrated directors, the late Youssef Chahine, says he is determined to accurately portray North Africans and Middle Easterners to the rest of the world.

“Of course it is a responsibility, not only towards Arabs [but] toward the other, toward the Americans, toward the West, because I always believe that we know about the West more than the West knows about us,” he says.

El Nabawy adds: “I feel that our responsibility is to tell the West the truth about us.”

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Passionate about his country, El Nabawy was one of the first prominent voices in Egypt to come out in support of the 2011 revolution that resulted in the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak.

“What I saw in Tahrir Square, I saw a great nation itself,” says El Nabawy, his face lighting up as he recalls his countrymen’s uprising.

“I am very happy to be among them – it’s an honor to be among the Egyptians who paid their life to get their country its dignity and pride back. I am the one who is happy and I’m one of them.

“I have the same desire. It needed all of us to achieve our goal, which is the democracy, which is the change and which is [that] we want our country back, we want our beloved back, we want Egypt.”

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The actor-turned-activist also took “Fair Game” co-star and friend Sean Penn to visit the landmark square “to show the world that an American artist with an Egyptian artist can walk on the streets.” It was all part of his initiative, “Come to Egypt,” aimed at encouraging people to visit the North African country and experience its rich history and culture.

“I extend you an invitation: Egyptians are waiting for you to celebrate with them their new era,” says El Nabawy. “Come to Egypt and you will have a great smile on the Egyptian faces. They are very helpful, they are very kind, they have a great sense of humor.”

An ambassador for Egypt to the world, El Nabawy says he is hopeful about his country’s future.

“I’m very optimistic because of the Egyptians,” he says. “They have a determined will of getting their country back and of giving their country its position – giving their country what it deserves.”