“Little America” star: “White people are scared because they will become the minority”

“The Son” is one of the eight installments in the new Apple TV+ show “Little America” – an anthology series about the immigrant experience executive-produced by Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, and Alan Yang. The episode opens in the Syrian village of Qardha where Rafiq (Haaz Sleiman) is forced to leave home when his father Bassam (Igal Naor) teaches his son a painful lesson after catching him kissing a man. Rafiq flees to Damascus, where he befriends Zain (Adam Ali), a young gay man who loves Kelly Clarkson and ultimately advises Rafiq about seeking asylum in the West.

“The Son,” which is inspired by a true story, resonates with Sleiman, an openly gay Arab who moved to America after growing up in Lebanon. The actor gives a sensitive, affecting performance that captures the fears and desires that many gay Arabs face as they navigate traditional Arab culture and the lure of American/Western culture. As Rafiq goes from being a dutiful son to someone isolated and afraid and ultimately hopeful, Sleiman makes Rafiq’s rollercoaster of emotions palpable. His concerns about being gay and visible to others influence his moments of desire in Qardha. He may be embarrassed by Zain’s flamboyant behavior in the streets and cafes of Damascus, but he is also inspired by him. Rafiq enjoys Zain’s company because Zain brings out Rafiq’s authentic side and makes him feel safe. And Sleiman’s emotions are downright infectious when Rafiq enters his first gay club and comes to feels “at home.”

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The actor, who is also starring in “Breaking Fast”— a gay rom-com that’s about to hit the festival circuit — chatted with Salon via WhatsApp from Lebanon, where he was visiting his family, about making “The Son,” being a gay Arab, and what America and American culture represents.

I’m curious, given that “The Son” is inspired by a true story, if you were able to talk with the real Rafiq about his experiences — and yours — as gay Arabs?
No, I did not. I got a bio about him and a little write-up explaining his story. “The Son” was dramatized a bit, but most of it is true to what happened. I wondered why I didn’t talk to him. I felt [the script] was so strong, and relatable, and universal. That’s what attracted me to it. They didn’t demonize the father or play up Arab stereotypes. That was moving to me. There are similarities to my story. My father emotionally set me on fire, but over time, he actually did love me. He told me he loved me and would defend me.

In what ways is your experience as a gay Arab similar to Rafiq’s story?
There’s tradition, culture, and religion, and you have all these different aspects that affect us and our parents — how and why they raise us the way they do. It’s the patriarchal aspect. It’s how much of a man you are. If you have any feminine qualities, the feminine has to be suppressed; to cry is to show weakness. That’s the bigger umbrella that tradition, culture, and religion fall under. That’s a global thing. It’s shameful for a guy to dress like a woman, as Zain in “Little America” does. That’s a form of patriarchy that not just gay men but straight men also, suffer from.

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My father never knew how to express his emotions because of his upbringing — because men never show their emotional/feminine side. I believe we all have masculine/feminine sides, and the proportions differ for all of us. But you have to nurture them — and we don’t nurture them. Even men staying at home is looked down upon in America, where there is gay marriage and women’s rights. We don’t have equal pay yet, but women are more respected. This is ingrained, and centuries in the making. It’s a slow process, and being aware of that made me see the truth of it all and not believe the lies and noise you have growing up in the Arab or Western world. It’s not gay/straight, but masculine/feminine. Gay men have strong feminine energy and that’s my favorite thing about being gay. But you don’t have to be gay to have that.

In the queer community a lot of gay men don’t want to be associated with effeminate men. People are embarrassed. But it is shocking that gay guys are offended by guys who appear very effeminate. I lived in Lebanon in the 1980s and I thought effeminate guys were interesting.

Rafiq is embarrassed by Zain’s flamboyant behavior in public. What can you say about “hiding” vs. being visible and attitudes about homosexuality in the Middle East?
I lived that. That’s why I was perfect for the part. I have similar experiences, where I had to hide and not share [my true self] with my mother and siblings, and even my best friend from age six, who was actually gay. Later in our 30s, he and I talked, and it was: Look at all these years we wasted! The fear is debilitating and its crippling; you think you will be abandoned by your family and your world will fall apart, and it did.

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In smaller villages, people are more conservative, and morally more intense and rigid, so it’s important how you behave and come across. Because of that, Rafiq had to be extra cautious. But he’s human, and desperate, and he gives into his desires. You can get emotionally and psychologically sick. I related to him and experienced that as a kid. I felt so isolated and lonely, and I felt I couldn’t share who I am with anyone. I felt I was not seen, that I didn’t matter, that something was wrong with me. But no matter how much I tried to change, you cannot fight nature, and I kept losing to what’s natural.

“The Son” has Rafiq suffer abuse for being a gay Arab. What observations do you have about attitudes about homosexuality in the Middle East?
Of course, there is less physical abuse now because people are evolving. I know and am aware that abuse existed a lot. Some gays would be imprisoned and thrown off buildings. I heard about a Christian family where an uncle found out his nephew was gay, and he was thrown into the highway and they waited for him to get hit by a car! Religion plays a role depending on how you interpret the Bible, the Koran, or the Talmud.

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In my family, my siblings would mock me, but I was physically strong. My friend, from when I was six, was my Zain. I always defended him when he was bullied. He was never physically abused by his family. But in the 1980s, it was pretty bad. In America now, a lot of gay youth commit suicide. There is still fear of rejection, shame, and abuse. I was afraid how my brother would react when he learned I was gay. What would I do if he hit me?

I came out for me. Fans around the world have thanked me for the way I came out and said I made them feel powerful and not apologize for the way I am. I’m glad I’m inspiring young queer people across the globe and giving them a role model. Madonna did that for me in an indirect way. But seeing a gay man I can identify with does it more. With social media it’s better, but there are still gay folks in hiding and afraid, and that’s easy to forget. I’m ready to break out and change the conversation and challenge the world that we live in.

There are both microaggressions and macroaggressions leveled at Rafiq in “The Son.” Can you talk about discrimination you’ve experienced as an out gay Arab actor?
It’s an interesting business. You’re not in control of things, which is why people produce their own work. I’m in an interesting place in that I feel I’m a better actor now, with my confidence in place. But that’s not enough. The studio and directors will look at you and say, “He’s not famous enough.” That I came out and said, “I’m a total bottom,” might turn off executives. I didn’t care. Coming out made me a better actor. And I don’t regret it.

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What do you think “The Son” says about America?
I think the show is a reminder that it is a land of immigrants, and Americans should be kinder to each other because we call come from a different part of the world, different continents, different religions, backgrounds, and ethnicities. The show is reminder that these immigrants are fleeing persecution, trying to get a better life — the American Dream. It reconnects us to the humanity of that journey of the American immigrant and what the nation is really based upon. It reminds us about that in a beautiful way and the truth of that. Even when an immigrant moves to America for a better life, it’s not sweet and perfect.

America is not what the world thinks it is. Just because you get to America it doesn’t mean that’s it. The work starts in America. That happened to me. It was a process to understand the country and culture. You get ideas from film, and TV, and the news, and it’s not an accurate depiction of the nation and country and people. It’s not black and white in America. I’ve been living in the U.S. since 1997. The episode shows that it isn’t what we all think it is. It’s “Little America” not “Great America.” It’s showing just one aspect; a fuller image of what America is for immigrants. White people are scared because they will become the minority. Evolution is happening, and you can’t stop it. Gay marriage is evolution. You can try to stop it, but it’s happening. The younger generation is less racist and homophobic.

What can you say about the influence and impact of American culture in the Middle East? Zain mimics Sally Field in “Steel Magnolias,” and he loves Kelly Clarkson. You grew up loving Madonna. How are these cultural touchstones circulated in the Middle East?
It’s huge. One of the biggest influences in the Arab world has been and was American movies and music. Hollywood has a huge influence and it’s so powerful. Politically, they understood the power. I grew up watching “I Love Lucy,” “Married with Children,” and “Three’s Company.” And I wanted to be an actor after watching “Star Wars,” but as a queer person growing up not being accepted, and being oppressed, these movies and TV shows — like “Steel Magnolias” for Zain — have a bigger impact. That’s your only way, to see strong women who can be vulnerable. We are not allowed to be. That makes it more precious. The first two guys I saw kissing was in Madonna’s “Truth or Dare,” and that gave me hope. I thought: That’s happening. I should be OK. I thought I was doomed and had no future. That’s the power of films. It can save lives. You can see yourself and it’s hopeful. We can breathe, and be ourselves, and be free and authentic. Storytelling is lifesaving and empowering. All the possibilities change when you are exposed to them. I admire the Jewish culture, where families go to the theater, and museums, and read books together. I didn’t have that growing up.

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I love the way Rafiq responds when he enters a gay club for the first time. What were your impressions when you entered a gay club for the first time?
I was frightened! I thought I was in hell. Men are kissing and dancing. I was terrified and confused. I was not used to seeing what I wanted to see. All these years that I was taught that this is not right, and I’m a terrible person, and this is something that will hurt me and then to be in that space, marinating and drowning in it — it was terrifying and exhilarating; it was both feelings multiplied by a million. To see the drag queens, sparkle and glitter, and lights and costumes . . . it was overwhelming. You think: Am I gay enough? Will I be accepted? Will I be as free as them? I felt I was never part of any group, and that feeling — that you don’t belong in the queer community — can damage you. There was that fear: Are they going to make fun of me? Will I be accepted? I felt self-conscious. These are my people, but they don’t look like they are my people.

All eight episodes of “Little America,” including  “The Son,” will be released on Apple TV+ on Friday, Jan. 17.

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