Dina Shihabi: Actor

Dina, now an acclaimed actress with shows on Amazon and Hulu, initially set out to become a professional dancer, despite trying to quit ballet as a child. In this episode, she talks about the critical moments that propelled her acting career forward and the rewards of pushing the envelope.

This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher and Dana Ballout, with editorial support by Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamed Khreizat, and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Original sting composed by Ramzi Bashour. al empire is a Kerning Cultures Network production. Search ‘Kerning Cultures Network’ to hear other podcasts like this one, and follow @kerningcultures on Instagram to stay in touch!

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Transcript

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[AD BREAK]

DANA: Hey guys. I’m Dana Ballout

HEBAH: And I’m Hebah Fisher

DANA: And this is Al Empire.

[AL EMPIRE INTRO STING] 

DANA: Today, we’re sitting down with the amazing actress Dina Shihabi. She’s acted in the TV series Jack Ryan, on Amazon. She’s in Hulu’s comedy series, Ramy, and in the second season of the Netflix sci-fi show, Altered Carbon. She’s Saudi, Palestinian, Norwegian, German and Haitian. And, we were also friends in high school. 

HEBAH: Dana you went to a high school with a lot of famous people… which highschool did you go to? [laughs]

DANA: [laughs] it’s actually – yeah, it’s true! I think a lot of people ended up doing good things in their life. I went to the American Community School, in Beirut. My whole life – from first grade to twelfth grade.

So you know what’s amazing is that Dina and I ended up living less than ten minutes away from each other in L.A and I hadn’t seen her gorgeous face in over a decade so I was super excited. She came over to my apartment one afternoon a day after she had just been nominated for a Critics choice award in the category of Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Jack Ryan. And, this is a big deal. So I’m really excited I got to share in the celebration with her. 

Some of what you’ll hear is us referring to that show, so if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you go watch it. So, here we go. 

Okay, so tell me what you had for breakfast. 

DINA: I’m – oh my god. I’m going to sound like such an annoying actor right now.

DANA: Do it. Is it avocado toast?

DINA: No, I wish! Actually that’s my favourite thing. No, I’m doing this cleanse that I started today. 

DANA: Okay. 

DINA: From Owl in Venice, O-W-L. And… I had bone broth. 

DANA: No stop, Dina!

DINA: I know! And then I had like a matcha green situation after! I know. By the way, I was like, vegan for like a couple of years. Like just over like, two years probably… until recently because I was like, crazy iron deficient. So anyway, so that’s why I had bone broth. So it’s not just for vanity it’s for like my – 

DANA: For your anemia –

DINA: Anemia.

DANA: So tell me first Dina…. 

DINA: I’m so excited! I’m so happy to look at you!  

DANA: OK. Tell me about where you were born and what your childhood was like.

DINA: I was born in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. My childhood was, I mean, pretty normal. I… because we were in Riyadh, we spent a lot of time indoors and like, at people’s houses and in each other’s gardens and like, I really grew up like, loving football, soccer. And I remember being like, taken from the football field because at one point girls couldn’t play sports in school. And so – and like, taken to our ballet class and I was like, so pissed off about it which is so funny because years later like, dance is my favorite thing but what I was first taken to at that age and like, I quit as soon as I could. I was very upset about it. I didn’t like it. 

DANA: What were you like as a child? If, your – let’s say – Mother were to describe you what would she say?

DINA: She would say that I day-dreamed a lot. I just spent a lot of time like, staring out in thought. I was relatively quiet. I wasn’t, like hugely… I remember being shy and like, hiding in the bathroom and I was really young at school. I just, I would get overwhelmed when it was like a lot of people which is so weird for me to think about because the older I got the more social I became, and I feel like I really am a social creature in so many ways. 

DANA: When did you start getting into the creatives, like dancing or acting?

DINA: Well, I went to my first ballet class when I was six or seven and I stayed in ballet reluctantly – I tried to quit so many times – but my mother had this fear that I would blame her, that I would regret quitting and then blame her later in life, which is what happened. [laughs] 

Because, finally when I was like, 11 or 12, I was really into tennis and I just wanted to play tennis all day and play football all day. But ballet just felt so lame to me, and I just really didn’t appreciate it. And I did like, very traditional ballet and had to do the exams and all that stuff and I just found it, just so boring. So I finally quit when I was… in fourth grade. And then when I was in… it must have been seventh grade or sixth grade, I got taken to a dance class. This woman Sharmila Kante in Dubai. And I walked in, and within five minutes I remember thinking, I’m going to become a dancer.  It was so quick. And this is I like, hadn’t danced in a few years, but there was something about walk into that classroom, the dance teacher – it felt like some sort of fate or magic had brought me there. And I went home that night and I practiced and I practiced every day in my room for hours. I was obsessed and I did not miss a class, I think, unless I was deathly ill and even like, when I was injured I would go and sit and watch class like, that’s how dedicated I was. I would only leave town when she was on holiday like, I was obsessed like, I never missed… I would skip school to take her extra classes in the morning. At that – it was immediate like, an immediate moment. I remember that night after that first dance class I went into my parents room and said that I was gonna become a professional dancer and my dad was like, “that’s never gonna happen.” And my mom says that she said, “I know my daughter, like, this is real.” And it was so real. Within a year  I was dancing. I was really bad when I started, too. And then within a year, I was dancing professionally with her. And that was when I was like just right right before I turned 13. And then I danced with her until I graduated from high school. And then that’s how I got into the arts and then acting was just something that in high school was like the only thing I found enjoyable in school like that and like, English and Psychology and Math like, everything else was boring to me. 

DANA: So I want to talk about your dance teacher, and dance in general. And I want to know what it was for you, and what it meant to you, and what are the things that she taught you that you carry with you.

DINA: Everything. I really believe that I am the person I am and the artist I am because of how she not only trained me as a dancer but as an individual. She held a really high standard of commitment and high – and, and hard work and a daily showing up and committing. I can not do something everyday that’s really not – like, I can’t go one day without writing or thinking about acting or doing something for it. And that really is, I think when you’re trained as a dancer, you can’t skip a day of dance. It’s just impossible. And she really pushed us and I was so… validated by how hard I worked and how committed I was. And so that’s just the only way I know how to work.

And also I just think dance – I think if everyone can grow up dancing, it’s the best gift you can give to your child because that connection to your body… especially growing up in Dubai, where you know, our culture isn’t very comfortable with female sexuality and female like, like, the female body and connection to that, and owning that, and having a command of that and a sensuality… Even though when you look back, like that so naturally part of our tradition. And so for that to have been lost, that connection? Is, I think, really detrimental to our culture.

And so to grow up with like, you know, being able to like, move and dance like, hip hop and like, move my body in a way that if I hadn’t done that I would have been ashamed of… I think really gave me an ability to… own that part of me. Like, and not have shame when it comes to… like, sex and sensuality and those decisions and being an artist I really think it’s given me a freedom that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. 

DANA: What was it like both in your family and then in society, when you would say, I’m a dancer or I’m an actress, or this is actually what I want to be and spend my time doing?

DINA: Yeah it was… It took a second for my dad to get around it. My older brother has never seen me dance. He – it was really hard for him, which I really think – and he’s so proud of me now – He was here and he was there at my premiere he’s been so supportive of me and an amazing, like, he came to visit me on set and was just like, the most proud ever. But growing up that pressure on like older brothers to like control your sisters is so real and so intense. It’s almost like I can’t even blame him for it. Because if you don’t hold that standard with your sister and beat up guys she talks to or like, you know, “don’t call her a slut if she is you know dancing and dressing in a certain way,” then you’re not a man… that’s really like, being a man is measured from like, how much you control your sister. It’s this really toxic thing that we do with men and so then they’re not able to actually experience their sensitivity and their sensuality and their connection to women and so, it was really hard for him and I’m sure it was hard with his friend group and you know what I mean? Because of the way people would probably talk about me and I would hear. And you know my parents told me like, since then of like, things that my parents friends would say to them and like my, you know, my dad would have friends approach and be like, “you can’t let your daughter do that.” And, in the beginning, my dad wasn’t crazy about it. I remember getting a national commercial for Nivea when I was first starting out as a dancer and it was this huge thing, it would’ve been so cool. And my dad said, no. He was like, “absolutely not. Do I want my daughter’s face like, around Dubai?” And it’s so funny now because like, my face is all over the world. But – and but, but, I get that because it’s not just him, it’s the culture is so loud around you. And people are not shy to tell you what they think and they’re really – and it’s… he was, he was protecting me. And he kind of needed to because people to my face – like any time I would tell someone I was a dancer – their first reaction would be like, “what? Like, what. Why? that’s so weird.” And then they would just assume I was really stupid. And they would be like well you’re just pretty and stupid. So like what else are you going do, you know? And no one took it seriously until they would see me dance. And really the minute people saw me dance all of those judgments went away. And so I learned really quickly that until people see you walk the walk or see you do what you do and if you do it well and you do it with like, so much love like, that’s infectious. People can’t argue with that – even if they don’t completely agree with it.

I was like, ah, if only I could do more of that. And then the more and more I did it the more, it just like, opened doors and it was like, it just… like this series of everything happening of New York and then the teachers I met and then I got into Juilliard and I got into NYU’s grad acting program without a bachelor’s degree. Like all these crazy things happened that were just like, beacons of light of like, “you’re going in the right direction.” And so I just kept going, and now I’m here.  

But yeah… and now looking back it feels like everything happened for a reason. And it kind of feels like acting chose me. Like, it kind of felt like I needed – because I hated my voice – that was a huge part of why I never thought I’d be an actor. I was made fun of, made fun for my voice a lot growing up. 

DANA: Why? 

DINA: Because it was really, really high pitched. I don’t know if you remember that. And, I have a weird voice like that something that now I just know about myself and accept but, it’s always, I think about it every time I meet someone I’m like, they’re gonna hear my voice. Like even, now when I was driving to you and you called me I was like, my voice. It’s like a weird thing I have. I know, it’s so strange and… I just was like, I have the weirdest voice like, I’ll never become an actor. And so dance for me was a way to express myself without using my voice. And then something like because of a series of events I suddenly was like kind of forced into situations where I’d have to act more. 

[AD BREAK]

HEBAH So when we left off, Dina was telling us that the stars were aligning for her to become an actress. 

DANA: What was your first acting audition like?

DINA My first acting audition for professional job? I remember auditioning for a pilot that was actually about a girl who was also a dancer. And I like, got relatively far and then choked when I was like, in my callback or whatever because I was just like, I get stage fright. And now I like have a better handle on myself and like, know how to work with it. But back then like, if I would get really nervous like, I would just like freeze. And I remember like freezing and kind of just like not – I remember like going to my last audition and you had to do a scene which I did well in and then you had to like dance – I remember my first dance audition was in a huge room and suddenly I was like in a tiny audition room and I don’t think I was told that I was gonna be small and I prepared this whole routine where I was dancing all around the room and then I was suddenly like tiny box and I just like… my brain just couldn’t work fast enough to figure out what the hell to do. So I remember just standing there and like, moving my arms like flailing my arms around which was like, not my best, like, I was an amazing dancer and like literally I must have looked like I’d never danced in my life because I just didn’t move my body and just flailed my arms around and I remember – it’s funny ‘cause years later, I’ve auditioned for that woman a lot and she likes me but I’ve never told her like, you know, I had this one experience with you and I’ve like never spoken to her about it and I kind of want to be like, do you remember that? But it’s because that was when I was like 19 or something or whatever. And then years later when I was like, 25 I walked back in to audition with her and I don’t think she would’ve put two and two together.

DANA: So I want to get to Jack Ryan. Is it your biggest gig yet. 

DINA: Yes, yes, yeah. 

DANA: I watched it all and I loved it. But I want to talk about like, how that even happened. Did your agent call you and tell you there was this role? And how did you audition? What was it like, until the moment that you found out that you got the role?

DINA: It still makes me smile when I think about it all because I… before I got the job, I was like, working sort of. I was two years out of school. I had done like, a few things but it didn’t really feel like I was going anywhere. And I was really scared and so I started writing and I was applying to AFIs – writing pro like, film program – because I thought, you know like, I can’t like, I can’t, you know, wait around for something to happen, I’m gonna make this happen. And then I remember I got sent actually a play that I fell in love with and they were auditioning for it in New York. I was… I’d just moved to L.A. four months before and so I fly myself out and I – on the plane – get an email from my agent with Jack Ryan audition. I remember reading the description and having this feeling in my stomach like, I know – like, I knew the woman – like, I knew that character, I just knew her. And I remember it was like 20 pages – the audition for the play – and so I wanted to like wake up and be really focused on the play, and know words, and be really in the right emotional state and whatever.

And I was like, I haven’t got the script yet and, and so I kind of looked over it and I was like you know what, I understand. I like, understood the scenes and we did one take of the scenes. And so I taped them and the next morning my agent emailed and she was like “these are amazing.” And then I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t get that play that I flew to New York for. I didn’t even get a callback. And so I remember leaving York and being like neither one is gonna happen. And so I go back to L.A. and I remember asking my manager, I was like, what happened with Jack Ryan? Like I just had this weird feeling about it and my agent e-mailed back being like, the casting director says that you might be too young for it.or something. She’s waiting to hear from everyone. Three months later I got a call. So for three months I don’t hear anything so I’m like, I didn’t get it. Three months later I get a call, saying that they want to see me for a test on Monday and it’s between me and two other girls. And then I go in for that test and there was one extra scene and it was in the room with like, the producers. We just… we did it and I left, and I remember emailing my agents and I was like, that’s the best audition I’ve ever done in my life like, if I don’t get this like I’m quitting, basically. And then we didn’t hear for two weeks. But we every day we heard, “we’re waiting on approval, waiting on approval, or auditioning people in London.” Like this whole thing. And then when I got the part, I found out that I had – like they wanted – I was the choice for that part from that first tape in New York months before. I remind myself that a lot because there are so many jobs that I’ve even auditioned for since then, that I’ve desperately wanted and I haven’t got in… but when it’s yours it’s yours.

DANA: I wanted to talk about Jack Ryan, the storyline, and I’m sure you thought of this when, when you read the script… it’s like, it’s cliché on so many levels – like Arabs being terrorists, you know? But how did you, like, especially as an Arab and someone that knows that some of  – you know, you don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes – but you read the script and then what do you think? And what made you also fall in love with this kind of role?

DINA: Well… I am very wary of things that are terrorist plots because I have no interest in continuing to build on the fear people have of Arabs. It’s just… it’s actually really dangerous. They say that TV shows have had more of an effect on American fear of Arabs than anything else. And so that’s something that I – like, that keeps me up at night, you know? And something that I’m very sensitive towards. Like, the first thing I did when I sat down on my new agents, I was like, I don’t want to tell stories that are one sided and really dangerous… dangerous in that way, and they’re like, “absolutely.” And I don’t think that this was. I mean, yes, it’s a story with a terrorist story line and it does end with like, the white man saving the day. But that is the point of view of the story – it’s called Jack Ryan. So Jack Ryan is going to save the day. So if you’re coming into and you’re like, “no but the Arabs should win!” Like it’s just not… it’s just not the story that I signed up for and that’s fine. There’s a place for that, you know what I mean? 

But what was special about the story and what was really important to the creators was that the Arab side wasn’t these like, evil mustache twirling female victim characters – archetypes. That it was real people and that you really got to see why they became who they were and what sparked me knowing that was reading the pilot and it’s starting out in Lebanon and it’s starting out with these kids and seeing this family and just people living their life and seeing their whole world destroyed at such a young age and so you’re growing up with this trauma. And that’s such a reality. And that is something that we don’t talk about – that when people do decide to, you know, like make their life’s mission too like, make the decisions like Ali – Ali Suliman’s character – does in the thing, it doesn’t come out of nowhere, it’s because of years and years and years of oppression and tragedy and trauma and suffering. And that’s important because it’s important for the world to know that we all have a responsibility and we are all responsible for the things that happen around the world they don’t just like, happen in a vacuum. So that, telling that story was important and interesting to me and I thought like, oh wow, we haven’t done this yet. And that is actually saying something and especially like the track of his character in Paris and seeing how you’re ostracized in that community for being Arab,]that’s such a real thing that happens today. Like, when people are surprised when things happen in Paris I’m like, have you not ever paid attention to like, actually how people are treated? And it’s just… it’s a result – like things happen because of something and it doesn’t excuse those things, you’d hope that people make better decisions and usually, you know, you’d hope that people do. But it’s – you can really see why certain things exist. 

And then… with Haneen – the character I played – she’s a hero. And she’s the heart of the show and you never, you very rarely see women in roles like that on TV, let alone Arab Muslim women. And so, to me, I thought that was incredible. And I felt a lot of pressure. I didn’t sleep much shooting this show. I was really like, nervous the whole time because I felt like, one, I had to learn a completely new dialect which Arabs hold no prisoners when it comes to that. Because like, we’re so judgmental of each other. And so that’s something that I was very, very, very conscious of. And I really hope I did it justice. And like worked on it for months every day until –

DANA: You had to learn the Syrian accent. 

DINA: Yeah. And I worked on it like for hours a day for the first few months, few weeks of the shoot, and then I continued to work on it every day with the dialect coach until we wrapped. We literally met every day even on weekends because I was so concerned and I was really bad at it at the beginning. And so by the time I started filming, I wanted it to feel like second nature. So we would talk in a Syrian dialect so that I wasn’t just learning the lines, but that I actually had words in the back of my mind so that I could add things and change things and feel more fluid with it. Which was his idea, because I was like, no just teach me the script I want to get the script perfect. And he was like, “no, it’s not going to feel real unless it actually is coming out of you authentically. And so I left Jack Ryan speaking like, Syrian! I – honestly I think I still speak that way! Because I can’t not think in that way because it was so drilled into my brain.

So that’s Shadi al-Khelou – our dialect coach’s – fault, but he did an amazing job everyone in the show has a specific accent to where they’re from. So my husband in the show is from Lebanon and so he speaks in a Lebanese accent in the whole show. And I thought that was really cool. 

Because usually when you watch shows, that are American TV shows, like the people aren’t even Arab…  they’re like, learned Arabic for that role and they’re terrible. But it was really important to me to be – if I’m a major part of something – to set the tone of what the Arabic would sound like and what it would be.

DANA: Well I think what I liked so much about the show was that everyone that played Arabs were – everyone was, like I hadn’t seen so many Arabs. 

DINA: Authentic, I know! And that’s, that’s the casting director April Webster. She found incredible Arab talent from around the world. A lot of our cast was from London and New York and L.A. And one of my children, my son, was from Lebanon. A lot of our cast was from Morocco, Paris… like, she searched far and wide to find like, the most authentic people and she really did. 

DANA: Yeah! 

DINA: And the creators it was really important to them for this to feel like really, really real. So they really had a high standard for that. Because I feel the same way, like, I watch it and I’m like there’s – everyone is Arab… like everyone – and it’s such a cool feeling because that’s rare.

DANA: It was crazy because I’m watching this Amazon series called Jack Ryan, but in so many ways I felt like I was watching like, an Arab soap opera. [laughs] 

DINA: Right! Well that’s what’s, that’s what’s amazing is that like, I remember seeing someone like, on Twitter like, “this is so annoying, like 90 percent of this show is in Arabic. Like without subtitles!” And I was like, no there are subtitles. But like, I just love it. That was like, my favorite thing. I screenshot it because it made me really happy. Because I was like, yeah it’s actually like – it’s kind of like watching Narcos – like you’re watching a show that is mostly in Arabic or at least half an hour, it’s like 50 percent in Arabic, which is huge. That’s so cool to me.

DANA: Yeah. I love that part. I mean I loved the show in general. And even though I went into it thinking urgh, another, you know, Arabs being terrorists… but I actually loved how they told that side of the story. 

DINA: Oh thank you. I mean, I felt that too. And one thing is like, they really – like the creators are really special – and it was really important to them to humanize and like have like, real people on the other side and for it not to be good versus evil to it… for it to be really like, certain set of circumstances versus another set of circumstances and, like, what people do with that. 

DANA: I wanted to talk to you about this one scene in Jack Ryan where, it’s like you know, the intimate parts. Or… is that, was that – as an Arab woman – ever difficult for you? Just because of where we come from, there is such a stigma around sex and sexuality and doing that kind of bedroom scene – do you carry some of that with you?

DINA: Yeah. And honestly in that moment like, she’s making a decision to leave her husband and she’s suddenly feeling so unsafe, and in a relationship she felt so safe and he saved her life, and suddenly she is in a moment where she doesn’t recognize him and she feels scared. And she’s scared for herself and scared for her family so that fear and like, the guilt and shame and all of those feelings that she’s feeling in that moment, like I actually felt like that scene like I met Haneen. Like I felt like me and Haneen became one person because that isn’t something that we get to like express, as Arab women. Like, to really like, to really show like, this is how ashamed I am in that moment, this is how terrified I am and like to really shiver and to really have like, that look on my face at the end… like those were as much Dina as they were Haneen, like I wasn’t acting. And so, I felt like it was an opportunity to really bring that part of our world.

DANA: Do you think as a Saudi actress there are some things that are specifically challenging for you in your career and in whatever role that you take on?

DINA: Well I think there is a challenge when there’s so little representation of just Arab actors, actresses in general that when you are doing well, there is sometimes like a pressure of like, you’re representing everyone… which is never my goal because I – it’s, one, it’s impossible and two, that doesn’t interest me – like I, my goal is not to represent everyone but actually to just like, tell stories as honestly as I can and like, touch people and hopefully change people’s impressions of who we are and just let them know that we’re human and hopefully me being as honest as I can it’s just a reflection of the fact that like, I can be where I’m from and be who I am and that I exist and that the character I portray exist. But, that sometimes like, I will stay up at night being like, I’m upsetting people like, because there’s always a part of me that is like, still attached that people pleasing thing, that I’m letting go of more and more. But there’s a part of me that’s like I really want to make like, you proud and like, the people I grew up with proud and my family proud. And then when I don’t or I challenge that, which is something that I can’t help but do because I always pick what is important for the character before what is important for me, Dina. I don’t care about like I don’t – I try and take like, my ego out of it and my place in the world out of it as much as I can – and just like really try and make decisions like, that are I think the most powerful and most intimate and most like, revealing of the character and so that always has a risk factor because you’re not going to keep everyone happy and sometimes when I’m making decisions that are challenging for people there’s like a feeling of like, oh, everyone’s going to give up on me and like, think that I’ve let them down, you know? And as opposed to like, I’m actually doing this because I feel like we need… we deserve a chance to be as free and as like, true to characters as anyone else does. Like why should we hold ourselves back in like, portraying people in the way that we want to just because of where we come from? Like that’s – that’s what I’m always trying to like tread the line of. And I always err on the side of like, I’m just gonna go for it, because I think we deserve that, even if we come from a culture that’s more constricted you know? And just has, you know, different ideas of what is right and wrong for women. I feel like… I don’t know. I feel like abiding by those rules is just enabling them to never change. And I think you kind of have to take like, 50 steps forward and scare people in order to like, move the needle forward… Yeah. 

DANA: Yeah. I love that. I want to go back to the comment where you said that sometimes you didn’t want to tell people where you’re from. Is it – Is it a thing? When you meet people, when they talk to you – is it like, is that part of your identity like a thing?

DINA: Well… it’s interesting because I’m – so I’m a Saudi Palestinian Norwegian German and Haitian – I’m half Arab and then half European and Haitian. But, because I’m Arab and in an industry where like Arab roles now are suddenly coming out which is awesome and I think it’s like, all my Arab friends are working really. It’s like a really good time for us. That part of me was highlighted, and I speak the language and honestly my identity is really wrapped up in being Arab because that’s where I grew up, so my mannerisms, my culture, my world like, my friends – like I really do feel Arab. But, I’m also very European. I’ve spent every summer of my whole life in Europe like I, in a way I feel like I come out like, I present myself to the world in a more European way than I do anything else. I don’t know why, but maybe that’s just you know I’m definitely a mixture… is what I’m trying to say. 

And so the Arab thing is interesting because we come from a part of the world that’s in conflict a lot of the time and like in ways is still growing and so… moving to America, my – it was like, kind of, I was scared to tell people that I was like, Palestinian, let’s say, because I was like nerve – and like I’m admitting that and I’m not, I’m not proud that I was scared to say that, but growing up you’re told that if you say you’re a Palestinian in America like, you will be like, seen in a certain way. And like, be discriminated against. And so I was very scared of that. And like there were, there have been moments where I have been and I’ve said that and people have reacted in a bad way because of what’s going on in, you know, Palestine. 

And so that’s something I just like stopped saying… and then I would just say I was from Dubai, to be honest. And then with Saudi. There was a moment a couple of months ago where like being Saudi was like the coolest thing ever. And then now with everything happening, like I say I’m Saudi and people like, look at me different and don’t like it. Which is sad because it’s like – it’s evolving. Like that part of the region is evolving and Saudi Arabia is evolving and to judge a person on like, you know, their part of the world or they’re their identity or where they’re from, is something we all do, I think, without really like knowing how to stop that. But it’s also so limiting. And it stops you from really getting to know someone, and it stops you from actually seeing the beauty of our culture. Like the fact that I exist and I’m from Saudi Arabia and from Palestine and from Dubai and I grew up there and is – I think like that should be like, focused on as well, as well as like the hard things – you know what I mean? Because I am a product of where we came from. Like, I wouldn’t be here, and successful if I wasn’t, you know, raised and born there. 

It really had an effect on me and an impact on me. And I am, like, I am not who I am despite where I came from. I am who I am because of where I come from. And that’s something that I constantly try and tell people because they’re like, “wow like you really escaped.” I’m like no, nope, I didn’t escape. I didn’t run away like, in the middle of the night like, in a van. Like, you know what I mean? Like, I’m like I’m very like, my parents know what I’m doing like, they’re amazing. I was talking to my mom on my way here. Like my dad was to yesterday like, they’re so proud of me and like I’ve challenged them, don’t get me wrong. Yet, they’re like, still so proud of me and stand behind me and love me so deeply. Like, I am who I am because of them. And I am who I am because of my brothers and because of like the world we came from.

DANA: I like this question. What would you want – hopefully it’s a very very very very very long time from now – but what would you want the first two lines of your obituary to say?

DINA: Oh man… Like, she lived with a lot of love and abandon, I guess! [laughs] Like just like, yeah… that she like, loved deeply. I think that’s maybe the most important. So yeah, maybe she loved deeply and like, had a lot of fun. [laughs] 

DANA: Anything else you think is important to add that I haven’t asked you? 

DINA: No, I’m just – I’m like, just this is so amazing to talk to you! Because it’s, it’s such a beautiful thing when like, life brings you full circle like back to someone from your childhood. It’s really cool. So thank you.

DANA: Dina is the lead of a play called Powerstrip so if you’re in New York, catch her on stage between October 5 and November 17 at the Lincoln Center. The show Altered Carbon is coming out in the new year on Netflix. And in between all of this, Dina is also writing a TV show with her Palestinian co-writer Rolla Selbak.

HEBAH: This episode was produced by Dana Ballout and myself, Hebah Fisher, with editorial support by Linah Mohammad and Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. Our original sting was composed by Ramzi Bashour, and Al Empire is produced by the Kerning Cultures Network. A huge thank you, of course, to Dina, for giving us her time for this interview. All of our guests are extremely busy people, and so it means a lot to us that they trusted us with their time. Thank you, Dina. 

And next week on Al Empire…  

ANDRE: We sold the company to e-bay for a fraction of the initial offer… for a hundred and forty million. You know, that was in 2001 and just 12 years before that, I was under the bombs of Beirut. 

HEBAH: That’s in 1 week. 

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