As the child of Egyptian immigrants to the United States, Amin El Gamal faced bullying, discrimination and Islamophobia growing up. But despite the difficulties, he came out on top. Now he's starring in the reboot of the popular American TV series Prison Break.
Previously, El Gamal has had roles in popular TV series like The Newsroom, Shameless, Transparent and The Librarians, among numerous others in short films and independent productions.
In Prison Break: Resurrection, El Gamal plays Cyclops, a shady Yemeni villain with links to terrorists. The series began airing earlier this month. But as El Gamal notes, the character "could not be further away from" who he is in real life.
As an Arab Muslim in Hollywood, El Gamal knows all too well the challenges of typecasting, especially for people who come from his background. But he sees the role of Cyclops as an important opportunity to share his perspective, calling it a "delicious acting challenge."
"Though it may not have all turned out exactly the way I imagined, I wouldn’t be talking to you today if I’d turned it down," he tells StepFeed. "I will likely not be playing anything like this character again, but I am grateful for the opportunity to do what I love and for the platform it has given me to speak out about things I care deeply about."
Arab, Muslim and Gay in the U.S.
You see El Gamal's identity checks several boxes that face difficulties in the U.S. Not only is he Arab and Muslim, he is also gay. While American politicians and right-wing commentators often attempt to pit Islam against the LGBTQ+ community, El Gamal lives at the intersection of these two groups.
"Nowhere in the Qu’ran is homosexuality explicitly forbidden. As with misogyny and other forms of hate, people have used and abused religion as a tool to maintain control and power," El Gamal says.
"Over the centuries, the intolerance we associate with Islam has come from shifting cultural and political forces, not the religion itself," he said, adding that he believes a lot more work needs to be done in the Muslim community, around the world and in the U.S., to be "more tolerant of LGBT people, but meeting hatred with hatred is never productive."
"To be totally honest, while I enjoy speaking my truth and trying to be the role model I wish I had, it gets awfully tiresome to be constantly recognized for what I am instead of who I am and what I’m capable of. I feel it’s my responsibility to speak out and to break the legacy of Muslim American silence, but I do worry that I may be limiting the way the world sees me to these identity categories," El Gamal says.
Growing up, El Gamal didn't always face an easy time in American society, particularly due to his identity.
"People would ask my parents if they were 'training your kids to be fighters,' my dad was wrongfully overlooked for promotions, I was told by my best childhood friend that 'Egyptians are worse than dogs,' and my brother was bullied mercilessly," he says.
"On top of that, I felt different because of my gender identity and, at times, totally unloveable," he adds, explaining that in the end, all of this made him into the empathetic person he is today. It also led him to find a refuge in art and theater.
Fortunately, despite their initial misgivings, El Gamal's parents supported his passion for acting.
"My parents were initially resistant to me going into the arts," he explains.
"That said, they were smart and they saw that my talents and passions were going to be unstoppable. So ultimately, they’ve been supportive and I’m grateful for that."
Egyptian roots run deep
Both of El Gamal's parents moved to the U.S. from Cairo in the 1970s. His mother's family escaped political persecution and his father came on a scholarship to pursue an engineering degree.
Growing up, the family traveled to Egypt on many occasions and Egyptian Arabic was Gamal's first language.
"I remember going to pre-school for the first time and being terrified that I wouldn’t understand anyone. Luckily, I picked English up quickly and, ironically, my Arabic now is much worse than my English," El Gamal explains.
On his visits to Egypt, El Gamal enjoyed eating "way too much wara’ aaneb, moloukheya, and koshary" at relatives' homes. Some of his first memories of swimming are as a baby wearing floaties in the Red Sea.
Acting also comes from El Gamal's Egyptian roots. His grandmother, on his mom's side, came from Egypt's historic aristocracy and acted in a film alongside the Arab world's most legendary star.
"[My grandmother] was highly educated in British schools and even starred in a film called The Chant of Hope opposite Om Kalthoum in 1937," he says, adding that his grandma's comedic personality, "still inspires" him.
El Gamal enjoys watching Egyptian cinema on occasion. The films of Adel Emam "amuse" him and he thought the recent international sensation Crash was fantastic. As for Arab music?
"I've been digging the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila. They’re super rad," he says.
And what would he say to young Arabs who dream of acting?
"Get the best training you can and never stop putting yourself out there. Everyone’s path is different in this profession and you can really only find yours by having the courage to take that first step."