Photo-Illustration: Photos: Getty, Hulu
In “Freedom,” the tenth episode of the 20th season of Project Runway, designer Rami Kashoú makes a dress. In and of itself, this is not remarkable; that is the point of the show, on which Kashoú has appeared many times (including multiple all-stars seasons) and made many dresses. This one, a shimmery confluence of metallic silvers and grays that wraps around model Mimi’s body, earns the descriptor “high-fashion beauty queen” from judge Elaine Welteroth and lands Kashoú in the top tier of contestants for this challenge. The judges’ praise of the dress isn’t necessarily remarkable either; Kashoú’s technical skill is obvious in this meticulously constructed garment. What is extraordinary, though — not just for Project Runway specifically but as a moment airing on American TV in general — is how Kashoú explains the concept of “freedom” that inspired him.
“Where I come from, as a Palestinian living under military occupation, we don’t have the freedom of movement,” Kashoú says. “I’m unable to visit my birthplace, Jerusalem. There are always obstacles and checkpoints in the way. But in this particular design, I wanted freedom of flow, freedom of movement.” The camera cuts to judges Welteroth and Brandon Maxwell, their faces blank as the designer describes his inspiration. None of the judges asks him questions about his personal story as they do for the other contestants. In his first appearance on Project Runway in 2007, Kashoú didn’t speak so much about his heritage; he was known as the draping king beloved by magazine editor Nina Garcia. But in this latest go-around, Kashoú centered where he was born, where he grew up, and his desire for free movement for Palestinians as a core component of his aesthetic. It became an inextricable element of his story and an exceptional thing to discuss in a reality-TV setting — a geopolitical reality that most series won’t touch. And in not editing Kashoú’s words, Project Runway accomplished something American television has until recently largely declined to do: Put a face on, give a voice to, and honor the singular difficulties of the Palestinian experience.
News coverage of the latest Israel-Hamas war that began on October 7 — with more than 1,200 Israelis killed and 240 kidnapped in a surprise attack by Hamas and more than 13,000 Palestinians killed by widespread Israeli bombing, the military invasion of Gaza, and assaults and raids in the West Bank (Hamas released 58 hostages in exchange for 39 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel during a four-day ceasefire this weekend) — may be the most attention American television has ever paid to the technically stateless Palestinian people. Narrative TV shows all but ignore the conflict. Before 9/11, the Middle East did not really exist in the landscape of scripted American TV; afterward, series like 24, Homeland, Special Ops: Lioness, and The Terminal List often depicted the region through a nationalist, if not Islamophobic, lens. Non-American characters were inherently deceitful and barbarous, and aggressive military action was the only way to defend the land of the free and the home of the brave. These shows used the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, decades of animosity between the U.S. and Iran, and the Syrian civil war as narrative backdrops but rarely mentioned the relationship between Israel and Palestine, in particular Palestinians living under occupation.
For the most part, American TV reflects American policies and ideals; think of how a show like 24 normalizes the use of torture as a valid interrogation tool, how The Diplomat presents Americans as the only cool heads in international negotiations, or how Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing convinced a generation of wonks that they were saving American institutions with their bureaucratic optimism and sincerity. Unwavering support of the Israeli government is ingrained in the U.S. political status quo despite the various citations Israel has received from the United Nations and other international agencies for its treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. When Netflix imports the popular Israeli series Fauda, which presents the Israel Defense Forces as heroes tragically pressed into abusing Palestinian citizens in order to protect their country from terrorists, the decision underlines decades of U.S. policy. And because there have historically been so few opportunities on American TV for writers of Middle Eastern and North African heritage to create from their points of view, Fauda and its kind tell only one side of a conflict, in which the myriad limitations imposed upon Palestinians are both practical and justified.
But as the era of Peak TV has allowed for more diverse voices and American policymakers have registered the growing support among U.S. activists for the state of Palestine, Palestinians on American TV have made inroads from “Yes, they exist” to “They exist, and this is what they’re living through.” In the Netflix comedy Mo, Palestinian American comedian, actor, and former refugee Mo Amer plays a version of himself, discussing how his ancestors were forcibly displaced during the 1948 Nakba and how his immediate family struggles to find a sense of home in Houston. Mo is co-created by Egyptian American Ramy Youssef, whose Hulu series Ramy co-stars iconic Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass as Ramy’s mother, Maysa, a member of the Palestinian diaspora.
In 2022, Youssef moved production of his show to Israel and the Palestinian territories for the season-three episode “Egyptian Cigarettes,” in which Ramy travels to East Jerusalem to hook up with a Palestinian woman he met on a dating app. He has to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint — complete with rows of bars keeping Palestinians in line, soldiers checking IDs and travel papers, and a sniper in a panopticon-style station surveying it all from above. Directed by award-winning Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir and co-starring Palestinian actors Yara Jarrar and Wadia Jazmawi, the episode uses Ramy to explore American ignorance of life under Israeli occupation (“This wall is not on the map,” Ramy complains to his cabdriver at the base of the cement-and-barbed-wire barrier that slices East Jerusalem in half), while illustrating the human toll such subjugation takes. As Ramy waits for hours at the checkpoint alongside Palestinians of all ages and faiths, we feel the tediousness and tension of being forced to explain one’s movements over and over. As he talks to his paramour, Rasha (Jarrar), in her apartment, a wall of windows show the sprawling height of the wall that runs through her neighborhood.
Even if Palestinians like Rasha and the cabdriver have learned to live with the blockades and checkpoints, that doesn’t diminish the cruelty of inhibited movement. The episode incorporates a subplot in which Ramy’s uncle Naseem is detained at the airport by the IDF and sent back to New York, while Khaled (Jazmawi), a boy who steals Ramy’s jacket, is dragged out of his home by soldiers and imprisoned. Six episodes later, we learn Khaled’s months of captivity have become an international news story. “We have a job to keep our country safe, and there are a lot of people who want nothing more than to see us suffer,” an IDF agent tells Naseem. “Egyptian Cigarettes” doesn’t explicitly villainize that character, nor does it undermine how Israel is considered by many of its Jewish citizens as “a place for Jews to rest,” as Ramy’s Israeli business partner, Ayala (Smadi Wolfman), tells him. But by demonstrating how these physical barriers affect Palestinian childhoods, families, careers, religious access, and romantic opportunities, Ramy foregrounds how the Israeli government denies Palestinians a sense of ownership over their own lives.
On Project Runway, Kashoú also talks about the existential impact of that physical truncation, using his Palestinian identity as motivation in various challenges and connecting his childhood with design in metaphorical and evocative ways. In the episode “Toying With Fashion,” in which the contestants create an outfit by repurposing toys from FAO Schwarz, Kashoú scoops up many of the store’s kites and explains in a talking-head interview that “growing up in Palestine, kites for me were a sign of joy and hope … Living under military aggression and curfews and dark times, really, for me it’s symbolic of keeping your head up and looking for the brighter side of things.” Kashoú gets teary during the judging when he explains how the kites were a “splash of color in the middle of the sky” symbolizing mobility and liberty as he grew up in the occupied West Bank’s Ramallah. He returns to that unrestrained feeling for creative impetus in the later episode “Freedom.” “Being told that I have full freedom to do whatever I want, as a Palestinian, it’s quite big because that’s something that we are, on a daily basis, deprived of,” he says during another onscreen interview. “It literally is about the Palestinian Dream.”
Rami and Ramy are different men born in different parts of the world who work in different creative fields. But “Egyptian Cigarettes” and Kashoú’s appearance on Project Runway this year similarly center the daily Palestinian experience and emphasize — with wistfulness and dignity — how the constraints faced in Gaza (which Human Rights Watch described in 2022 as an “open-air prison”) and the West Bank (where there are more than 600 physical obstacles blocking where Palestinians can go) infringe upon human rights. They depict an imbalanced reality that takes on a grim new relevance as violence has spread throughout the Palestinian territories. “It’s a political issue. It’s complicated,” Ayala tells Ramy as he agonizes over Khaled’s arrest toward the end of Ramy’s third season. That vagueness could apply to how American TV had previously avoided engaging with the Palestinian viewpoint. On these two shows, though, we see — as Youssef told me regarding the inspiration behind “Egyptian Cigarettes” — “the way someone experiences a border,” and how that curtailment changes you.