Sects and the City
By MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI
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.”