Dark-Skinned, Good Guy

So here's this Arab actor talking to me in Hebrew about his role as a Saudi soldier in Peter Berg's The Kingdom— which ought to be enough cultural confusion to throw anyone, let alone someone just cruising onto the radar of an industry not known for casting Middle Eastern actors in cuddly roles. Tall, slender, and elegant in a charcoal-gray leather jacket, with neatly trimmed chin stubble, Ashraf Barhom is an Israeli Arab making his Hollywood debut as the righteous Saudi Arabian who sets an example of personal and professional heroism for FBI sabotage expert Jamie Foxx.

Barhom's unfussy, immensely moving performance as Col. Faris Al Ghazi, a Saudi handler who teams up with Foxx to flush out the perpetrators of a massive bomb attack on an American compound, is easily the best thing about a thriller that hovers dangerously near suicide-bomber porn. With a prominent gap between his teeth that invites labeling as sinister, Barhom was cast after Berg saw him play a terrorist leader in Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now.

Al Ghazi is a devout Muslim, a family man, and a professional whose dignity and monosyllabic wry humor discourage any patronage from the Americans and any pressure from fellow Arabs who identify with the bombers. "He's a fighter who looks people straight in the eye, who fights for what he believes in, sticks to the goals he's set for himself, and is faithful to his country and his professional work," Barhom says. "He's a well-constructed character, sympathetic rather than weak or frightening. A lot of that had to do with Peter Berg, who really wanted to understand my mentality as an Arab, and who was very open to suggestion and improvisation."

Endearingly, Barhom had never heard of Foxx before joining the cast of The Kingdom. The long shoot in Arizona marked his first extended trip away from home and coincided with Israel's most recent war with Lebanon. But whether by temperament, religious conviction — he's a devout Christian who peppers his speech with thanks to God and refers to Jesus as "my savior" — or very good manners, Barhom seems serenely inoculated against stress and conflict. We talk about having grown up within a stone's throw of each other near the Israeli tourist town of Nahariya in the Galilee. Barhom's mother was inclined toward the arts and encouraged her only son (he has three sisters) to express himself through acting. And just as well, for at school, the actor says, grinning, "I expressed myself through hyperactivity and disruption. I wanted to play rather than study." He got through high school somehow, but at Haifa University, Barhom had no career path. "I was looking for an easy profession, and I saw that theater required very little psychometric testing."

For Barhom, who worked first in Arab theater, then with Israel's prestigious Kameri theater company, the stage remains primary — "a place where I can measure where I stand as an actor." He has ambitious plans to work with promising Jewish and Arab kids and adults on a new production of Romeo and Juliet that he's writing himself. "People see the play as opera and a love story," he says, "but it's much more than that. It has many layers of questions about existence and the roots of conflict between cultures." His refusal to be drawn into political discussion — even with an anxious liberal Jew like me, who wants to know just how hard it was to grow up as an Arab in a Jewish state, or whether he faces discrimination as an Arab actor in Israeli companies, or whether other Arabs criticize him for joining the enemy — may be the strategic diplomacy of a newcomer in an industry heavily populated by Jews. Or maybe it's just the sincere response of a man unwilling to be typed as an ethnic victim. "I had everything I needed growing up," says Barhom, who feels very much a part of the increasingly lively and sophisticated Israeli arts scene. He recently wrapped a movie there about Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon, in which he plays a Christian Phalangist.

Art, he believes, is the place where people can meet as individuals and come together. "When we attach ourselves to national identities, then we enter into a cycle of conflict," Barhom says. "I didn't choose where I was born or who to be or what people would call me. I'm a hybrid, from a cultural perspective, but I don't think in these terms. I'm more simple than that. I'm a mammal who will live 70 years, more or less, who believes in God and likes his life."

 
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