Posted by Guest on June 19, 2017 in Blog

Alia_Shawkat.pngBy Sarah Decker

"I used to be less outspoken. But as a woman, an Arab-American, and a member of the LGBTQ community, I have to use whatever voice I have. There's no more delicacy in being quiet.”

This is how Alia Shawkat explains her newfound sense personal agency, telling Out Magazine that she has recently come to terms with using her voice as a queer Arab American. She feels that this agency is reflected in her career as an actress and artist.

The daughter of an Irish-Norwegian mother and Iraqi father, Shawkat was raised by her parents in Palm Springs, California. Her father immigrated to the United States from Baghdad as a 21-year-old with just $200 in his pocket and later met Shawkat’s mother, a law school dropout. They started a business together and raised three children. 

At age six, after watching the children’s sketch comedy show All That, Shawkat defiantly told her parents “I can do that” and decided to pursue acting. Her mother, whose own father had been the famous actor Paul Burke, took head shots and sent them to modeling and acting agencies. Yet all of the agents responded by describing Shawkat as “too ethnic” for any of the available roles. 

When Shawkat finally did break into the acting world, it happened fast. She landed a Barbie commercial as her first job at age nine and then just a few days later she won a part (along with her father) in Three Kings, the David O. Russell film starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

However Shawkat’s big break—perhaps the role she is most known for—is her character, the unknowable teenager Maeby Funke, in the off-kilter comedy Arrested Development. Her masterfully dealt sassiness and emotional range won her much acclaim, including the Young Artist Award for her supporting role on the series. Shawkat, who is now 28, filmed the pilot episode when she was just 14. She is more recently known for her starring role in “Search Party,” a buzz-worthy dark comedy series on TBS. 

Given her maternal grandfather’s acting career in several hit television crime series, Shawkat’s mother warned her about fame describing it as “a powerful drug” that has produced a sense of wariness in Shawkat’s approach to her success. To ground herself, she looks to her Arab heritage.

Shawkat often speaks fondly of her father in interviews, describing him as a man whose focus has always been centered by a desire to work hard and take care of his family. Shawkat attributes these traits to Iraqi culture, which she describes as “extremely beautiful.” She often tells interviewers that she is very proud to be Arab and desires to become more connected to that aspect of her background. Part of this desire has materialized in her relationship with her paternal grandmother, Bibi, who has recently begun teaching her how to cook beloved Iraqi dishes like Maqluba and Dolma.

Adamant about incorporating her Arab American identity into her acting career, Shawkat often describes the importance of showing more about Arab American culture through comedy. She played the role of Salma in Cherien Dabis’s “Amreeka” (2009), a film about a family that immigrated from Palestine, the problems they deal with, and the relationships they build in America. Although Shawkat has played many Arab American characters, she would like to pursue acting in Arab American comedies that don’t deal with heavy, political topics, to help humanize the characters and allow viewers to connect. 

Although she does not describe herself as an activist, the recent Trump administration has driven Shawkat to become more politically engaged. During the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards, as Shawkat presented, she issued a greeting to the audience in Arabic, Assalamu alaikum. She continued, stating that “like many of our nominees here tonight, we represent people who have come from other cultures, and that’s a real fact,”—a subtle reference to Kellyanne Conway’s viral “alternative facts” quote. The day before the Awards, Shawkat protested Trump’s executive orders at the Los Angeles International Airport, holding signs to help welcome refugees and foreign-born arrivals.

In addition to the impact of Trump’s policies on her identity as an Arab American, Shawkat feels that her identity as a bisexual woman also influences her perspective on politics, her art, and her acting career. She describes herself as selective about the movies she chooses, telling Women’s Wear Daily, “I look for a character that is not too afflicted by a male’s purpose, and has her own story, and wants and goals and all that; a character that is not filled in with answers from another character.” Given that June is both Immigrant Heritage Month and LGBTQ Pride Month, Shawkat’s story is a critical example of the ways in which intersectionality can challenge our perspectives, shape our identities, and inspire our agency as individuals.

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.


Sarah Decker is a 2017 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.