Being an “Arab” extra on Sex and the City

May 17, 2010

Sects and the City


I had almost forgotten I’d sent in an application when the e-mail message appeared, like Mr. Big, out of nowhere. “Hi, Moustafa,” it began, as if we were old friends. “Thank you for e-mailing us regarding your interest in working on ‘Sex and the City 2.’ ”

No way. Last August, I half-jokingly answered an e-mail message posted on a list-serv requesting “lots of Middle Eastern men and women” as extras for the second “Sex and the City” movie (opening this week). Although I must have been one of the very few in the tri-state area to possess all the talents requested in the e-mail (legal to work, Middle Eastern and between 18 and 70 years old), I still never thought I would be selected. Two months later, I got the call.

“The scene we want you to be in shoots next week,” read the e-mail message. “The 4 main girls will be in the scene & there will be about 150 Background Performers.” Fantastic! Like many men, I pretend to know nothing about “Sex and the City.” (“Is it ‘Sex in the City’ or ‘Sex and the City’?” I’ve been known to ask, disingenuously.) But who didn’t think that Carrie and Mr. Big should have just gotten over it and gotten on with it? Who didn’t get teary over Samantha’s breast cancer?

The shoot would take two 10-to-12-hour days and be full of “all super hot, fashionable, V.I.P. types.” The setting was “a Hot Hookah Club/Lounge in the Middle East. Think Dubai, 100+ degrees. Very chic & wealthy International crowd.” The men were to dress “in suits (lightweight, summer fabrics), or shirt/slacks, dress shoes. NO SNEAKERS!” The women were to look “elegant, chic & fashionable. High-end designer brands. . . .”

This was all superhot, superfashionable and superintimidating. I’m a professor. I have a professor’s wardrobe. Twelve-year-olds on the subway have more fashion intelligence than I do. What was I going to wear?

While combing through my closet, I rationalized my participation. I was curious to see how “Sex and the City” would represent us Arabs. It’s not as if this intelligent series usually had much to say about international affairs, Carrie’s relationship with Aleksandr Petrovsky notwithstanding. For once maybe Arabs would be portrayed as more than just sinister terrorists or hyperpatriotic Americans. But honestly, it was the glamour that drew me in.

When I arrived, I saw that everyone really was beautiful. And the extras weren’t all Arabs. There were Russian women with bee-stung lips, rail-thin Africans with closely cropped hair. One Egyptian woman from New Jersey (I’m Egyptian, too) was given a dress with a low-cut back and told to wear it backward, giving her an incredibly plunging neckline. Men went into wardrobe wearing business attire but came out in leather outfits and track suits. I was sporting my best beige linen suit from, well, H&M. Two people from wardrobe took a long look at me, one cocking his head to the side. “He’s fine, I guess. Expat table.” That didn’t sound good. It sounded off-camera.

The bus to the studio was late, so on this wintry October morning, 200 extras, primped for the hottest nightclub in the desert, walked three industrial blocks in stilettos and pointy shoes to the film set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We were put into position and told to look as if we were having fun, but not to make a sound or drink our drinks. (“It’s called acting!” one assistant director reminded us.) And then the belly dancers were called in.

I know. How can a movie be set in the Middle East without belly dancers? It would be like Bond without the gadgets, or “Gossip Girl” without all the black people (oh, wait). There were also waiters crisscrossing the room in Aladdin-like costumes, an Arab dude doing really bad karaoke and a group of swarthy men leering lasciviously at the four main characters before sending them drinks.

The scene was all gyrating midriffs, funny ethnics and lecherous Mediterraneans. I suppose I was more disappointed than surprised. By 1 a.m., the assistant director called, “Check the gate,” and we were done for the night, but to me the words suggested the way the entertainment industry lets some things in and keeps others out. Perhaps I’d reinforced the very stereotypes I hoped I might help diminish.

I got home well after 2 a.m., realizing that maybe I was an English professor and not a movie actor after all. The only line going through my head was Conrad’s, from “Heart of Darkness”: “The glamour’s off!”

It could have been worse. I could have been a Middle Eastern extra on “24.”

Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America.”


One thought on “Being an “Arab” extra on Sex and the City

  1. Loved your review of your experience being an extra. Lots of wait and little go. American’s don’t realize that Middle Eastern culture consider belly dancers to be low on the totem pole. They think it’s every M.E. girl’s dream, next to being married, to be a big star belly dancer. For many years, belly dancers were about the only representatives of Middle Eastern culture we had besides terrorists. As usual, the USA has stolen belly dancing and made it our own. If you aren’t familiar, belly dancing is HUGE in the USA. It has it’s own economy. We have thousands of dancers, teachers, contests, big venue performances and your favorite middle eastern restaurant weekend performers, belly dance fairs, an exercise belly dance TV show called “Shimmy”, and the ability to purchase any type of belly dance style DVD there is. Belly Dance is mainstream in the USA. We consider it to be an ancient art form that should be protected, respected and remembered. It also can be done by a woman or man of any body size. It is the great uniter. Prior to this in our Puritanical culture, any women dancing with her stomach and back exposed and hips moving around was on her way to removing her clothing. So, in the beginning there was a big emphasis on separating belly dancing and stripping. Thus, the emphasis on it being an ancient art form.

    Anyway, back to SATC. Any place the four girls went there were always men learing at them and sending drinks from any race. The emphasis was that they should be desirable and not 18 years old.

    I have heard horrible reviews about this movie so I will wait until it is on HBO or something. But I will look for your white linen suit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s