May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, a cause for celebration of these many diverse communities. But far too often, many who champion this month have belied and ignored specific groups within this collective, often presenting a limited scope of who counts as “Asian” or “Asian American” in this collective consciousness.
Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, South Asians, Central Asians, and Southeast Asians would often find themselves on the outskirts of these celebratory gestures during this month, and while the recognition has certainly been improving, there remains a long way to go for it.
Another significant group far too often ignored is that of West Asians, or as you might know them through the Orientalist term colonialists hoisted on us, “Middle Eastern” people. “Middle Eastern” remains a key part of our vernacular and will likely remain so for a while, but with the advent of more organizations using the acronym “SWANA” (Southwest Asian and North African) and “West Asian,” we are reclaiming our West Asian heritage that colonization attempted to separate us from. We have far more cultural ties and shared commonalities with the rest of Asia than what European colonizers may believe, and the more we can assert that, the better.
In the celebratory spirit of AANHPI Heritage Month, here is an alphabetical list of prominent and upcoming West Asians in the entertainment space you should know. Ranging from Yemen, Palestine, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Armenia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, these actors, singers, directors, writers, and artists have done so much to increase our visibility in media in bold, anti-Orientalist, and innovative ways.
While most of the people on this list are American, I’ve included those who aren’t as well, as they have similarly done a tremendous amount to increase our visibility and presence in media. This list is of course not encompassing of all the great West Asian talent out there, both known and unknown. Undoubtedly, the tremendous work they’ve already accomplished will make it easier for other West Asian and West Asian Americans in media to rise up, including more artists from the countries mentioned above as well as Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Oman, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere in West Asia.
1. Hiam Abbass
It feels fitting that Hiam Abbass should open this list. She is a Palestinian screen icon of TV and film, starring in dozens of films in SWANA and the West, working with directors as famous as Steven Spielberg and Denis Villeneuve, and finding even more acclaim in the hit shows Succession and Ramy. She has done so much for Palestinian and West Asian representation throughout her career, and we will always stan.
Born and raised in Kuwait, Kuwaiti American writer Chelsea Abdullah grew up on tales of Arabic folklore, all of which she incorporated into her stunning debut novel, The Stardust Thief. She’s taking the literary world by storm, reclaiming Arab narratives in fantasy that have for too long been kept from the community. We can’t wait to read the rest of the Sandsea Trilogy!
3. Omid Abtahi
Born in Tehran, Iran, Omid Abtahi has acted across genre shows and film, particularly standing out as Salim in the Starz series American Gods, based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, and is a recurring star as Dr. Peshing on The Mandalorian. He is also a prolific voice actor, voicing Hawkman in the animated DC film Justice Society: World War II and Ahmed in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. With all these various roles, Abtahi has established himself as an Iranian genre king.
Born to parents of Lebanese, Egyptian, Irish, and Polish descent, Ahmed grew up in Dearborn, Michigan surrounded by social activism and his Arab community that inspired his work. Writing for Marvel, he has headlined the titles Black Bolt, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and The Magnificent Ms. Marvel, and will soon be writing Daredevil. In Ms. Marvel, he co-created and introduced, with Jordanian-American artist Sara Alfageeh, one of the company’s first Arab American and Lebanese American superhero, Fadi Fadlalah, AKA Amulet. He also has creator-owned work in the series Abbott, Dragon, and Starsigns, and has received nominations for Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and Eisner Awards, winning the latter two. Through his tireless work, he has broken barriers for SWANA people in comics and superhero media, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
Born to an Iranian mother and Ghanian father, Agyeman wears her West Asian heritage proudly (and literally!) on her sleeve with a tattoo of the Farsi word “raha” meaning “freedom.” Starring as the Doctor’s first ever Black woman companion on Doctor Who as Martha Jones, Agyeman broke historic barriers in the sci-fi space, even as racists bombarded her with horrific abuse. Martha stands tall as a fantastic companion despite it all, and Agyeman has gone on to have a successful screen presence in hit shows like Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, Sense8, New Amsterdam, Dreamland, and much more.
Where to being with Iranian American screen icon Shohreh Aghdashloo? Born in Iran pre-revolution, she was a star in her home country, including in such films as The Report by Abbas Kiarostami, and Desiderium by Ali Hatami. Forced to flee to the U.S. post revolution, she starred in her playwright husband Houshang Touzie’s plays, but found difficulty in getting film and TV roles due to racism against Iranians and other West Asians. But she eventually broke through with her role opposite Ben Kinglsey in House of Sand in Fog, earning her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She went on to star in various other films, including The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, Star Trek Beyond, A Simple Wedding, and much more. In TV, she has starred in House of Saddam as the dictator’s wife Sajida Talfah, which earned her the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, The Expanse as Chrisjen Avasarala, Elementary, and much more, with an upcoming role in The Batman spinoff The Penguin. With her lovely and distinctive trademark voice, she has forayed into voice acting, playing Enforcer Grayson in Netflix’s Arcane and as Roshan in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Mirage. A pioneer and icon for West Asians in Hollywood, Shohreh Aghdashloo has made her mark as cinematic legend.
The Afghan and Filipino American Senzel Ahmady made history for (finally!) being the first West Asian actress to play the SWANA Princess Jasmine in a North American production of the Aladdin musical. The first SWANA actress in general to play Jasmine of course was Hiba Elchike in an Australian production. Starring in the tour of the iconic musical, this is Ahmady’s first lead performance, and she constantly knocks it out of the park with her tremendous voice and acting, even while fasting and breaking fast during Ramadan! Iconic behavior from someone playing an iconic role.
Born to a Palestinian father and a German mother, Lexi Alexander has a long career as a stuntwoman (Mortal Kombat) and director (Punisher: War Zone), directing numerous films and episodes of TV with a keen sense for action. Directing episodes of Supergirl and Arrow, she has also left a mark on the Arrowverse. A longtime advocate against gender and anti-Arab discrimination in Hollywood and a longtime advocate for Palestine, Alexander has always worked to ensure that she and other Arabs in Hollywood will be heard.
Sara Alfageeh is a Jordanian American comics artist whose work beautifully encompasses the range of SWANA cultures, particularly in her and Nadia Shammas’ masterpiece graphic novel, Squire. Alfageeh has also worked with Nadia on an Avatar: The Last Airbender comic, Matcha Makers, Once Upon an Eid, and co-created Fadi Fadlalah, AKA Amulet, Marvel’s first Arab American and Lebanese American superhero with Saladin Ahmed. Through her independent and IP work, Alfageeh is breaking barriers for so many other West Asian, North African, and Muslim creators in the comics space.
Born in Lebanon to Palestinian and Egyptian parents, and an American and French citizen, Yasmine Al Massri has starred and guest starred in various TV roles, prominently recently voice acting in Castlevania as Morana and Quantico as Nimah Amin. She stands boldly as a Palestinian in her various roles, bringing much needed representation for her community.
11. Mo Amer
Mohammed “Mo” Amer is a Palestinian American comedian and actor whose moving and hilarious hit Netflix series Mo is based on his and his family’s experiences as Palestinian refugees in the U.S. With a breakout role in Ramy on Hulu, starring in Black Adam, and with multiple Netflix comedy specials, Amer has broken significant barriers in Palestinian representation for others to follow.
12. Tala Ashe
Born in Tehran, Iran as Talaeyeh Ashrafi and migrating to Ohio with her family as an infant, Tala Ashe broke barriers for West Asian and Muslim representation in her starring role as Zari Tarazi (or Tomaz) in The CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow across the show’s latter five seasons. She will soon be a recurring star on the upcoming Max series The Girls on the Bus as an “an offbeat yet accessible progressive” candidate the featured election reporters follow around. She was part of the cast of Sanaz Toosi’s Pulitzer-winning off-Broadway play English last year, cementing herself as a stage star as well as TV star. We can’t wait to see what else this Iranian American icon does.
13. Nazanin Boniadi
Born in Tehran, Iran, and becoming a political refugee in London with her parents as an infant, Boniadi has had always had political advocacy for the rights or Iranian people embedded into her life and acting practice. Starring across a range of film and TV roles, she has recently been starring in Amazon’s The Lord of The Rings: The Rings of Power as Bronwyn, bringing positive West Asian representation to a franchise that, like many others, has often used Orientalist depictions of our peoples for its villains. Through this, Boniadi has broken barriers for Iranians in this popular form of media.
14. May Calamawy
Palestinian-Egyptian actress May Calamawy has seen a meteoric rise in recent years, making her a certifiable Hollywood star. Starring as the titular Ramy’s sister Dena, she struck out in the show to warner the attention of Moon Knight director Mohammed Diab to star there as the female lead, Layla El-Faouly, AKA Scarlet Scarab, and make history as the MCU’s first Arab American superhero, who is now getting adapted into the comics. And she inspired a hilarious meme for SWANA people online! She has also forayed into voice acting as Fawzia on Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. But even more significantly, Calamawy will star as the female lead in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Gladiator 2, alongside Paul Mescal. A tremendous talent who deserves every success she receives and more, Calamawy is breaking significant barriers for Palestinians actors in western media.
15. D’Arcy Carden
Fun fact! Janet of The Good Place is West Asian!!! Her father is of Turkish origin, who had immigrated to California as a child. A delightful presence in literally anything she’s in, Carden is a standout performer. Also starring in hits like Barry and A League of Their Own, she’s cemented herself as a TV star.
Jackie Cox made history on the drag scene as the first contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race of Iranian origin. A hilarious and delightful presence with so many heartwarming scenes on the show, she’s a pioneer for West Asian representation in this entertainment scene. A lifelong nerd and Star Trek fan, she has also hosted panels at Star Trek: Mission Chicago!
17. Cherien Dabis
Born to Palestinian and Jordanian parents in Nebraska, Cherien (pronounced “Shereen”) Dabis has been a longtime director and actress, directing the 2009 independent award winning Amreeka, which chronicles the lives of a Palestinian refugee family in the U.S. More recently she has starred on Mo and directed an episode of the hit Hulu series Only Murders in the Building that earned her an Emmy nomination for directing. She is making her mark in Hollywood for other Palestinian creators to follow.
Iranian American David Dastmalchian has had a meteoric rise in Hollywood, mainly in genre films, from a small role in The Dark Knight, to starring in the first two Ant-Man films, The Suicide Squad as Polka-Dot Man, and voicing Calendar Man in the two Batman: The Long Halloween films. He also holds the distinction of being the only SWANA actor to star in Dune, even if his role couldn’t save it from its cultural appropriation and Orientalism. He’s a character actor that is appearing everywhere at this point, and we couldn’t be happier about it!
19. Yasmeen Fletcher
Born in Orange County to a Lebanese mother and American father, Yasmeen Fletcher is one of Hollywood’s only prominent young West Asian actors, having starred in the MCU’S Ms. Marvel as Nakia. She also previously starred on Disney’s Andi Mack. We can’t wait to see what else this new Lebanese American star has in the works going forward.
20. Azita Ghanizada
Born in Kabul, Afghanistan and having sought political asylum in the U.S. with her family as an infant, Afghan American actress and advocate Azita Ghanizada has made it her mission to break barriers for SWANA people in Hollywood and have our stories told. She is also an advocate for women in Afghanistan suffering under the Taliban’s oppression. Founding the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC), Ghanizada tirelessly aims to have SWANA voices in the entertainment sphere that has excluded us for far too long. Starring in various TV shows and in the 2022 stage adaptation of The Kite Runner, Ghanizada is a pioneer for Afghan and other West Asians in entertainment.
21. Bella Hadid
Bella and her sister Gigi are two of the most prominent Palestinian Americans in fashion and entertainment, scoring various luxury deals and brands to represent, even when their advocacy for Palestine would see them unjustly sidelined. Bella in particular is an ambassador of Swarovski, a global brand. She has also recently forayed into acting, most prominently in Ramy Season 3 as Steve’s love interest Lena.
22. Gigi Hadid
Gigi Hadid is a famous model, as stated before, and is now a host of Netflix’s Next in Fashion with Tan France. With their successes, the Hadid sisters are taking the entertainment space by storm.
23. Aiysha Hart
Born to a Saudi father and British mother, Aiysha Hart has starred in a variety of British roles. She has worked with Riz Ahmed on his film Mogul Mowgli, and with Nida Manzoor in her acclaimed We Are Lady Parts. She’s a delight whenever she’s on screen, bringing much valued Arab and Southwest Asian representation in the process.
24. Salma Hayek
Acclaimed Mexican American actress Salma Hayek has always been proud of her Lebanese roots through her father, proudly stating “I am a Mexican Arab in America.” She has starred in an array of roles through the years, from her Oscar-nominated titular role in Frida, as well as roles in 30 Rock, House of Gucci, to her recent role in Eternals, and much more. She has also forayed into voice acting as the iconic Kitty Softpaws in Puss in Boots and its acclaimed sequel, The Last Wish.
25. Razane Jammal
Lebanese British actress Razane Jammal has starred in an array of Arabic language roles, and it was her recent roles on two Netflix series that led her to wider acclaim. First was her foray into horror in the Egyptian horror series Paranormal, and then as Lyta Hall in the acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, The Sandman. She’s an electrifying presence whenever she’s on screen, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.
26. Mitra Jouhari
Iranian American actress and voice actress, writer, and comedian Mitra Jouhari has written across an array of shows, including Big Mouth, Miracle Workers, and The President Show. She has also guest-starred on Abbott Elementary as Sahar, and voice acts on Digman! and the new Clone High as Cleopatra. She’s made a lot of waves in the comedy space and will surely continue to do so.
27. Ramin Karimloo
Iranian Canadian Ramin Karimloo may just be the most famous West Asian and overall SWANA star in musical theater. Audiences know him mainly as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera in London’s West End and in the 2011 filmed version at the Royal Albert Hall. He has also acted in film and TV, and we hope to see him in more in those spaces. With his impressive voice and acting ability, he’s not one to miss if he’s in your area to perform.
28. Kathreen Khavari
Iranian-American actress, voice actress, producer, and writer Kathreen Khavari has broken tremendous barriers for West Asians in animation. She was one of the first voice actresses for Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, voicing the superhero in the Marvel Rising series, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, and much more. She has also voiced Salma in Craig of the Creek, Badyah in Dead End: Paranormal Park, and Twitch in Transformers: Earthspark. A stellar talent and personality, Khavari will surely continue to break barriers in this space and more.
29. Mousa Kraish
Born in Palestine and raised in Brooklyn, Palestinian American actor and director Mousa Kraish starred along Omid Abtahi in American Gods as The Jinn, and has had roles in a variety of TV shows. He was also recently featured on History of the World: Part II as a Palestinian Ambassador.
30. Nadine Labaki
Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki grew up in civil war torn Lebanon, and has made the inequities in her home country a key part of her art. This is most evident in her 2018 magnum opus film Capernaum, which received widespread priase and accolades, including a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars. This made Labaki the first Arab woman director to have a nomination at the ceremony. Hopefully she’s the first of many.
31. Lee Majdoub
Lebanese Canadian actor Lee Majdoub acted in various TV roles before receiving his big break as Agent Stone in the Sonic the Hedgehog films, starring alongside comedy legend Jim Carrey. He is now the star of the upcoming game Assassin’s Creed Mirage as Iraqi assassin Basim Ibn Is’haq, alongside Shohreh Aghdashloo as his Persian mentor Roshan.
32. Sepideh Moafi
Born in West Germany in a refugee camp to Iranian asylum-seekers and subsequently raised in the U.S., Sepideh Moafi is a rising Iranian-American TV star. She was a recurring star on The L Word: Generation Q, and is now starring on Class of ’09 as Hour Nazari.
33. Arian Moayed
Iranian American actor Arian Moayed has seen a meteoric rise in recent years. After guest starring on various TV roles, he rose to audiences’ wider attention as Stewy Hosseini on Succession. He has also recently been in the MCU as Agent Cleary in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Ms. Marvel. You can also find him starring in You Hurt My Feelings now out in theaters, and on Broadway starring opposite Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House.
34. Mike Mosallam
Lebanese American, and queer and Muslim, director, writer, and producer Mike Mosallem has made waves in in film and TV. Particularly with his groundbreaking 2020 film Breaking Fast, which featured a gay Muslim Ramadan love story. He also served as an Executive Creative Consultant on Season 2 of Ramy.
35. Juliette Motamed
Iranian British actress Juliette Motamed made waves for West Asian and Muslim representation by starring as Aiysha on Nida Manzoor’s masterpiece series We Are Lady Parts. She also recently starred in Magic Mike’s Last Dance as Hannah.
36. Laith Nakli
Born in the UK to Syrian parents, Syrian American actor Laith Nakli acted in a variety of film and TV roles before his big break as Uncle Naseem on Ramy, showcasing his incredible dramatic and comedic range. He also recently starred on Ms. Marvel as Sheikh Abdullah, perfectly capturing the spirit of the beloved imam from the comics.
37. Sophia Nomvete
Born in the UK to Iranian and South African parents, Sophia Nomvete was the breakout star of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power as Dwarven Princess Disa. Bold, ambitious, comedic, and riveting to watch with an *outstanding* voice to boot, Princess Disa is an amazing Black and West Asian role model on screen. We can’t wait for Season 2!
38. Nasim Pedrad
Iranian American comedian, actress, and writer Nasim Pedrad broke barriers for Iranians and West Asians in comedy with her starring on Saturday Night Live from 2009-2014. She has also starred on New Girl, guest-starred on ER, The Mindy Project, and more recently has voiced Jedi Master Zia Zanna on Young Jedi Adventures. She also had her own, albeit short-lived, series on TBS, Chad.
39. Zain Al Rafeea
The heart of Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea was living on the streets of Beirut before Labaki found him to star in her film. With no previous acting experience, he mesmerized audiences worldwide with his portrayal of the main character, named for him, Zain. He has since resettled in Norway, and recently cameoed in Chloé Zhao’s MCU film Eternals.
40. Darin J. Sallam
Palestinian Jordanian director Darin J. Sallam’s Farha was a groundbreaking story about the Nakba, i.e. “Catastrophe” in Arabic, which saw, and continues to see, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Zionist forces. Streaming on Netflix, Farha offers a heartbreaking and visceral look into the Nakba, hopefully inspiring more Palestinians to tell their stories of the calamity they and their families face.
41. Andy Serkis
Acclaimed Iraqi-Armenian-British actor and director Andrew Clement Sarkisian, i.e. Andy Serkis, is an acclaimed genre king. Born to an Iraqi-British mother and Iraqi-Armenian father, Serkis has always been connected to his heritage, particularly in how he was able to visit Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as a child. Starring in a huge variety of roles, including as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies, Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes film series, Alfred in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, Lino Roy in Andor, and directing hits like Venom: Let There be Carnage, Serkis has established himself as an Iraqi and Armenian icon of cinema.
42. Sarah Shahi
Iranian American Sarah Shahi has starred in a variety of iconic TV roles — including The Sopranos, The L Word, and Person of Interest — before landing her big superhero break in one of the last hurrahs of the DCEU, Black Adam, as Ardrianna Tomaz. In this role, she was able to convey the strength that so many SWANA women have had to take on, and she was certainly one the film’s high points. She currently stars in Netflix’s hit drama series, Sex/Life.
43. Yara Shahidi
Yara Shahidi’s Iranian father, Afshin Shahidi, and her mother Keri Salter Shahidi brought up Yara to be proud of her Iranian heritage. Starring on the hit series Black-ish and Grown-ish as Zoey Johnson, and starring as Tinker Bell in Peter Pan & Wendy, Yara is known to audiences worldwide. She is also an ardent social activist, campaigning for various causes affecting marginalized people in the U.S.
44. Nadia Shammas
Palestinian American Nadia Shammas has resoundingly broken barriers for Palestinian and Arab writers in comics. With their own independent work like the stunning low fantasy and Harvey award winning graphic novel Squire, co-created with Sara Alfageeh, and horror graphic novel Where Black Stars Rise, to writing Talia Al-Ghul for DC (finally an Arab person writing the Al-Ghuls!!!) and other characters for Marvel, including the extraordinary Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin with artist Nabi H. Ali, Nadia is breaking barriers left and right. If you haven’t read any of her work yet, you’re severely missing out on one of the best writers in comics working today.
45. Alia Shawkat
Iraqi American actress and director is best known to audience for her role as Maeby Fünke on the hit comedy series Arrested Development. She has also starred in Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka, led the series Search Party, and worked in a range of film and TV roles.
46. Dina Shihabi
Born in Saudi Arabia to parents of Saudi, Palestinian, Norweigian, German, and Haitian origin, actress Dina Shihabi had her start in dance, and was once known as the “dancing queen” of the United Arab Emirates. She has starred in various TV shows in the last several years, including Ramy, Netflix’s Altered Carbon and Archive 81, and will soon be starring in the Showtime series Ghosts of Beirut.
47. Haaz Sleiman
Born and raised in Lebanon and then coming to the U.S. when he was 21, Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman had his breakout role as Tarek in the 2007 film The Visitor. He is the star of Mike Mosallem’s Breaking Fast, and was in Eternals as Phastos’ spouse Ben. In these roles, Sleiman, who is himself gay, has made landmark breakthroughs for queer Arab representation in Hollywood.
48. Shayan Sobhian
Iranian-American actor and musician Shayan Sobhian broke barriers alongside his TV sister Tala Ashe as Zari’s younger brother Behrad on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. A heartfelt, compassionate, and hilarious musician whose personality matches much of Shayan’s, he was a wonderfully refreshing character to see on screen. He also starred in his friend Max Mooney’s independent film, Does Bigfoot Dream of Flowers, as Jesse, and continues to compose his own music. We can’t wait to see what else he does in his career.
49. Jade Thirlwall
Yemeni-Egyptian-British singer and actress Jade Thirlwall has broken remarkable barriers for Arab representation in pop music. As one of the members of girl group Little Mix, she and her group members won the 2011 X-Factor, and they have had a top-selling discography making them one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. Having been in an array of reality shows, Thirlwall has recently debuted in acting, playing herself in the British series Mood. She has also recently signed with RCA Records for her solo career.
50. Sanaz Toossi
Iranian American playwright Sanaz Toosi wrote a stunning masterwork in her play English, co-produced with the Atlantic Theater Company. English won various awards, including the 2023 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Drama. With her stellar and heartfelt debut, she relayed the experiences that so many Iranian and other immigrants to the U.S. must endure with sincerity, heart, and piercing wit. We can’t wait to see more from her.
Bonus: Nida Manzoor!
I was overjoyed to discover during our interview that Pakistani-British director and writer Nida Manzoor has Iraqi heritage through her grandfather, making her West Asian as well as South Asian! An icon for both communities, Manzoor’s revolutionary work with her projects We Are Lady Parts and Polite Society have allowed SWANASA and Muslim audiences to feel seen in a way they never have before. Witty, hilarious, heartfelt, with her own distinct voice at the center, Manzoor is breaking barriers in a way many of us haven’t even thought possible, and we’re so grateful for it and to see what else she does.