A History of Arabs and the Oscars

Who was the first Arab to win an Oscar? See a timeline of the Arabs who have been recognized by the Academy Awards and those that changed the movie industry

Design compiled by Adam Dakinoo

by Maan Jalal

Culture 4 March 2018

Arabs and storytelling are hard to separate. The oral and written word, performance and storytelling have all played an active part in how Arabs exist within narratives and as storytellers. Over the last 123 years though, storytelling has changed dramatically with the introduction of film. It seems only fair that as natural storytellers, the Arabs and the Arab narrative would not only find its way in cinemas but also into the universal mainstream. But it hasn’t.

As disappointing as that seems, it’s more frustrating that when we do see representations of ourselves in the media they are inaccurate, whitewashed or embellished. This can make it easy for us to disregard or forget our potential and our influence in the movie industry.

The 90th Academy Awards are only a week away. From the fictional stories that define what it means to be human to the factual and devastating truths of history, this year the Oscars are celebrating a diverse range of films. This year two Arab films are nominated for Academy Awards. The Insult directed by Ziad Doueiri is nominated for Best Foreign Film while The Last Men in Aleppo directed by Firas Fayyad is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Both films are political in tone and context which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the space many Arabs occupy in the media and their everyday lives. But it got us thinking what is the history between Arabs and the Academy Awards?

Who were the first Arabs nominated for Academy Awards? Did Arabs help change the movie industry? If so, how? What we discovered was interesting.

Arabs have been recognized by the Academy Awards for longer than we thought. Arabs helped pioneer many facets of entertainment and storytelling, not specifically because they were Arabs but because they were talented. A point of view we wish was more relevant today.

From movie making, art direction, fashion, acting, music and even as subject matter, we’ve created a timeline for you to look through and meet for yourself the Arabs and the Arab stories that were recognized as nominees and winners by the most esteemed establishment in the film world.


The very first Academy Awards were held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel as a private dinner with about 270 people in attendance on May 16.


Emile Kuri was a Lebanese set decorator born in Mexico. He was the first Arab to be nominated for an Academy Award for the film Silver Queen.


Emile Kuri won the Oscar for the Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration for film The Heiress. This makes him the first Arab to ever win An Academy Award.

Emile Kuri with Oscar at the 22nd Academy Awards.

Watch a clip from The Heiress below


Emile Kuri is nominated for his third Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration in the film Carrie starring screen and stage legend Sir Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones.


Emile Kuri wins the Oscar for be Art Direction for the classic film 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. He was Also nominated in the same year for best Art Direction for the film Executive Suite.

A hilarious clip from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas


Youssef Chahine’s universally acclaimed film Cairo Station was the first Arab and the first African film to be officially sent as a submission to the Academy Awards in 1959. Although it wasn’t selected for a nomination, Cairo Station is universally considered as a real work of art and represents a milestone in Arab film history. Photo: Youssef Chahine by Laurnce Surde.

Learn more about Cairo Station in the short video below


Emile Kuri nominated for Best Art Direction for the film The Absent Minded Professor.

Did you know...

On working with Walt Disney, Kuri said, “Working with Walt Disney was like working in another world. He was the most fascinating and dedicated man I knew. Although Walt was a perfectionist, he was sentimental, too. I can remember when we would view the ‘dailies’ of The Parent Trap. I’d glance at Walt and there would be tears running down his cheeks. Of course, I cried along with him. I’m sentimental, too.”


Egyptian actor Omar Sharif is the first Arab to ever be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in iconic film Lawrence of Arabia.

Although he didn’t win the Oscar that year, Omar Sharif won three Golden Globes for his roles in Lawrence of Arabia and for Doctor Zhivago (1965). He was also honoured in the 2016 Oscars in that year’s memoriam section after his death in 2015.

Omar Sahrif with good friend and co-star Peter O’Toole at the 35th Academy Awards


Emile Kuri is nominated for his seventh Academy Award, for Best Art Direction in the iconic film Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.


Battle of Algiers directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Brahim Hadjadj and Jean Martin is an Italian-Algerian film that is the only film in Oscar history to ever be nominated in two separate non-consecutive years. In 1966 it was nominated for Best Foreign Film and in 1968 for best Screenplay and Direction.

Did you know...

Due to its contentious pro-Algerian politics, Battle of Algiers wasn’t released in France until 1971. Battle of Algiers is also placed as the 120th movie to watch in Empire magazine’s iconic Top 500 Greatest Movies of All Time list.

Starring Jean Martin and Brahim Hadjadj, Battle of Algiers sees a former French Resistance fighter sent to Algeria in the 1050s to crush the uprising of the Algerians fighting for independence from the French. There he faces Ali la Pointe the leader of the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale, where they have to face and brutally fight each other.

Did you know...

Many historians have identified Battle of Algiers as one of the first to films to depict North Africans as complex and fully-developed characters. Instead of them being used as part of the scenery, in Battle of Algiers they were depicted as real people.


French-Algerian film Z became the first ever Arab film to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay. Costa-Gavras and starring Yves Montand, Irene Papas and Jean-Louis Trintigant Z follows the murder of a prominent leftist while an investigator tries to uncover the truth as government officials attempt to cover up their part in the assassination.

Did you know...

Filmed in Algeria, the producers of Z refused the Golden Globe the film was awarded for Best Foreign Language Film because they expected to receive a nomination as Best Motion Picture – Drama.

Did you know...

Actor Jacques Perrin who played the role of the photojournalist was co-producer of Z and was instrumental in making sure that the film was shot in Algiers. Z was also Algeria’s official submission to the 1970’s Academy Awards.

Watch the trailer for Z below

At the 42nd Academy Awards Fouad Said an Egyptian American producer, cinematographer and filmmaker was awarded a Scientific or Technical Award for inventing, design and introducing the Cinemobile.

Did you know...

The Cinemobile is a mobile movie studio that Fouad Said developed on the set of the TV show I Spy. The Cinemobile proved to be hugely influential in the TV and movie industry.

Fouad Said, recognized that transporting equipment to production sites was a time consuming and difficult process. The custom conversion van he developed enabled the easy transportation of all vital set equipment, reducing manpower needed to transport all the necessary production equipment. The Cinemobile also reduced the complexity of filming overseas.


Emile Kuri is nominated for best Art Direction for his work on the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson. This is Emile Kuri’s eighth Oscar nomination.


Peter Blatty, the child of Lebanese immigrants, wins an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Exorcist a huge box office hit based on his novel of the same name.

Did you know...

Stephen King, the master of horror King praised Peter Blatty for writing The Exorcist calling it “the great horror novel of our time”.

Peter Blatty thanks his parents at the 46th Academy Awards

Did you know...

When Peter Blatty sold the rights to his novel he stayed on as one of the producers of the film. This gave him enough wielding power against the studio to convince them that his choice to direct the film, William Friedkin would be a better fit then the list of directors the studio had in mind.


The Message, a historical drama about the life of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), directed by Syrian American Moustapha Akkad, was nominated for Best original score composed by French composer and conductor Maurice Jarre.

Did you know...

The Message was made in both English and Arabic with two different casts as Moustapha Akkad felt that dubbing the English version into Arabic would not do the film justice. Scenes were shot back to back in both languages.


Lebanese American actor, singer, and songwriter Paul Jabara wins the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Donna Summer’s Last Dance from the movie Thank God, It’s Friday was written by him.

Did you know...

Last Dance became a huge commercial and critical success. It also received Best Original Song at the Golden Globes and the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

Paul Jabara’s speech at the 51st Academy Awards


Algerian film La Bal (The Ball) was nominated for best Foreign Film at the 56th Academy Awards.

Did you know...

The Italian-Franco-Algerian film directed by Ettore Scola has no dialogue and depicts  a fifty-year story of French society through ballroom dancing in France.


Actor F. Murray Abraham, whose father is Syrian/Syriac, wins Oscar for Best Actor for his role as the classical composer and conductor Antonio Salieri in the period drama Amadeus.

Did you know...

F. Murray Abraham’s father, Frederick Abraham was from an Assyrian Christian family, from Syria while his mother, Josephine (Stello) Abraham, was the daughter of Italian immigrants.

F. Murray Abraham’s speech at the 57st Academy Awards

Did you know...

For the role of Antonio Salieri. F. Murray Abraham learned to read and conduct music.


Callie Khouri, of Syrian and Lebanese decent, wins the Oscar for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for the iconic film Thelma & Louise.

Did you know...

Callie Khouri wrote the early drafts for the film longhand at home and would transcribe the pages on her computer at work at night. Her plan was to direct the film herself, on a low budget with a documentary feel to it.

Thelma & Louise stars Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon who are two friends on an adventure on the open road being hunted by the police. The film was a huge critical and commercial hit, receiving six Academy Award nominations. Thelma & Louise is considered a classic and a landmark of feminist film. In 2016, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Did you know...

The movie is credited for launching Brad Pitt’s career who at the time was a remotely unknown actor.

Callie Khouri’s speech was pretty funny at the 64th Academy Awards


Algerian director Rachid Bouchare’s film Dust of Life was nominated for Best Foreign Film as an entry from Algeria. The movie is based on a true story, about a group of young boys planning an escape from a reeducation camp in Vietnam after the US withdrawal and the fall of the country to communist forces in 1975.


Lebanese-French composer Gabriel Yared wins Best Original Score for the film The English Patient starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche.

Did you know...

Gabriel Yared wasn’t the most gifted musician growing up and taught himself music. He was always very interested in reading music. In 1971, he abandoned studying law and moved to Paris where he attended musical composition courses.

Watch Gabriel Yared receive the Oscar at the 69th Academy Awards


Gabriel Yared is nominated for a second year in a row for Best Original Music score this time for The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law.


Halle Berry won her first Oscar for Monster’s Ball in a dazzling dress by Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab.

Watch Halle Berry’s dramatic win at the the 74th Academy Awards

Did you know...

After Elie Saab’s wine-hued gown with a sheer embroidered bodice was worn by Halle Berry on the night of her win, it put him on the map and opened the door for a number of Arab fashion designers on the mainstream stage such as Reem Acra, Zuhair Murad and Georges Hobeika.


Gabriel Yared is nominated for Best Original Music score for the third time in his career from the film Cold Mountain starring Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger and Jude Law.


Palestinian film Paradise Now is nominated for Best Foreign Film. The film is directed by Hany Abu Assad and tells the story of two childhood friends Said and Khaled who live in Nablus and have been recruited to be suicide attackers in Tel Aviv.

Watch the trailer for Paradise Now below


Director Rachid Bouchared is nomicated for his second Oscar for Best Foreign Film for Days of Glory co-written by him and Olivier Lorelle.

Did you know...

Rachid Bouchareb became a member of the ‘Official Competition’ jury at the 61st Cannes International Film Festival in the following year.

The film follows four North African men when they enlist in the French army to liberate that country from Nazi oppression but have to also fight against French discrimination.

Did you know...

The main four actors Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila who are all of North African descent, had no idea of France’s discrimination against foreign soldiers serving in the French army during World War 2 until they did this movie.

Watch the trailer for Days of Glory below


Written and directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Ajami is nominated for Best Foreign Film. Ajami is a religiously mixed community of Muslims and Christians in Tel Aviv. The film explores five different stories within that neighbourhood.

Did you know...

It took Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (pictured above) seven years to make Ajami.

Watch the trailer for Ajami below

Did you know...

The characters in the Ajami are played by non-professional actors. Arab characters spoke Arabic among themselves, Jewish characters spoke Hebrew among themselves, while scenes that included both Arab and Jewish characters used both languages as they would be in real life.


Outside the Law gets Rachid Bouchareb a third Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in his career.

Did you know...

The drama about the Algerian struggle for independence from France after WWII, was heavily criticised by French conservatives who claimed that it is historically incorrect. There were even people protesting at the premier of the film at the Cannes Film Festival. However the producers of the film defend the film stating that Rachid Buchareb had met many Algerian families and investigated the time period before writing the script.

The film is set between 1945 and 1962, following the lives of three Algerian brothers living in France. The film is set against the backdrop of the Algerian independence movement as well as the Algerian War and how those events shape the brothers lives.

Watch the trailer for Outside the Law below

Did you know...

Outside the Law is a follow up to Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory which was nominated for the same award in 2007.

Also in 2010 Incendies is nominated for Best Foreign Film. the film is directed by Denis Villeneuve and co written by Lebanese Canadian Wajdi Mouawad who originally wrote the film as a play. The mystery drama starring Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin follows the journey of twins who travel to the Middle East to after their mother’s death to discover their family history connected to a bloody civil war.

Watch the trailer for Incendies below

Did you know...

The Middle Eastern country where the film takes place was deliberately unnamed. People have noticed though that the word “Palestine” is visible on a window in one of the scenes. However that doesn’t fit into the Christian-Muslim conflict in the film  which would seem more feasible in Lebanon, the birthplace of the playwright Wajdi Mouawad, whose original play was adapted for the screen.


Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad is nominated for a second time in the Best Foreign Film category for the film Omar. The film is about Omar, played by Adam Bakri  a baker turned Palestinian freedom fighter intent on marrying his Nadia played by Leem Lubany who he visits by climbing the West Bank barrier. Omar’s life takes a massive when her agrees to work as an informant after being tricked into an admission of guilt by association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s attack and killing.

Did you know...

Hany Abu-Assad not only directed the film but also wrote the script. According to him, he wrote the structure of the film in just one night and four days to wrote the actual screenplay.

Watch the trailer for Omar below

2014 also saw The Square becomes Egypt’s first documentary ever nominated for Best Documentary feature at the Oscars. The film is directed by Egyptian-American documentary film director Jehane Noujaim (pictured above).

Watch the trailer for The Square below

Did you know...

The Square is both the first crowd-sourced film to be nominated for an Oscar as well as the first film released by Netflix to receive a nomination.

Also in 2014, Karama Has No Walls nominated for Best Short Subject Documentary directed by Sara Ishaq. This is the first nomination for a Yemenie director in Oscar history.



The documentary film is set amidst Yemen’s 2011 uprising and depicts the nature of the Yemeni revolution and the violations of human rights that took place on Friday, March 18th 2011.

Did you know...

Although Sara Ishaq was born in Edinburgh, her family moved back to Sana’a, Yemen when she was two-years-old where she remained until the age of 17. Then she returned to Edinburgh to complete her education and only returned almost a decade later to create Karama Has No Walls.

Watch the trailer for Karam Has No Walls below


Ave Maria is nominated for best Live Action Short Film. Written by Basil Khalil and Daniel Yáñez Khalil and directed by Basil Khalil, Ave Maria centers around five nuns living in the West Bank wilderness whose silent routine is disturbed when an Israeli settler family breaks down right outside the nun’s convent just as Sabbath comes into effect.

Watch the trailer for Ave Maria below

Did you know...

Although Sara Ishaq was born in Edinburgh, her family moved back to Sana’a, Yemen when she was two-years-old where she remained until the age of 17. Then she returned to Edinburgh to complete her education and only returned almost a decade later to create Karama Has No Walls.

Also this year, Theeb directed by Naji Abu Nowar is the first Jordianian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Film.

Did you know...

Director Naji Abu Nowar and writer Bassel Ghandour both spent a whole year living in the desert with the Bedouins to understand their customs and lifestyle in order to represent them more realistically in the film.


Theeb is a coming of age story, a young Bedouin boy embarks on a perilous desert journey to guide a British officer to his secret destination in the Ottoman province of Hijaz during World War I.

Watch the trailer for Karam Has No Walls below


The White Helmets Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel wins Best Documentary Short Subject. The documentary shows how a group of civilians who act as first responders risk their lives to rescue victims from the rubble as airstrikes pound on civilian targets in Syria.

Did you know...

This is Netflix’s first Academy Award winning documentary.


The Insult, directed Ziad Doueiri and co-written by him and Joelle Touma, is nominated for Best Foreign Film, making it Lebanon’s first ever Oscar nomination.

Ziad Doueiri is a Lebanese-born cinematographer, film director and writer. Other than The Insult he’s also  best known for his award winning film West Beirut. Inspired by the 1975 Lebanese civil war, The Insult shows the incredible aftermath of when an heated emotional exchange between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee escalates. The men end up in a court case that gets national attention.

Watch the trailer for The Insult below

Feras Fayyad’s documentary Last Men in Aleppo is nominated for Best Documentary Feature making it the first Syrian produced and directed film nominated for Oscar.

Written and directed by Feras Fayyad, Last Men in Aleppo is about the Syrian Civil War. It focuses on the lives of three White Helmets founders, Khaled Omar Harrah, Subhi Alhussen and Mahmoud as they struggle with the choice of fleeing their country or staying to fight for it.

Watch the trailer for Last men in Aleppo below

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