The actor, who was born into a British Pakistani Muslim family living in London, explains how his ethnicity has been typecast and recoded, as he moved from the London youth scene to Oxford’s prestigious Christ Church to mainstream Hollywood success. But like most Muslims living in a post-9/11 world, Ahmed faced intensified scrutiny not just in these disparate worlds, but at the borders between them. His essay focuses on airport security and the numerous times, pre- and post-stardom, that he’s been typecast as a terrorist. He begins by recalling the first time he was “helplessly cornered” in “a windowless room at Luton airport”: “My arm was in a painful wrist-lock and my collar pinned to the wall by British intelligence officers.”
After acting in his first film, The Road to Guantánamo, about a group of friends who were illegally detained and tortured, Ahmed was manhandled on his own British soil. Upon his return from the Berlin film festival, “British intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked me. ‘What kinda film you making? Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?’ an officer screamed, twisting my arm to the point of snapping.” Instead of suing, Ahmed chose to speak to the press, in the hopes of shedding light on this new post-9/11 reality. Unfortunately, Ahmed’s increased visibility hardly exempted him from overenthusiastic policing: “It didn’t help that The Road to Guantánamo had left my passport stamped with an Axis of Evil world tour—shooting in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran within six months,” he writes.
Ahmed draws a connection between the audition room, a place where Muslim actors are few and far between, and the airport interrogation room, a space they’re all too familiar with. In both rooms, three-dimensional human beings become two-dimensional types—or more accurately, stereotypes. “They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level.”
He gives a lengthy description of a flight to the U.S. and how he spent the entire journey in fear of his likely interrogation. The inevitable holding pen “was filled with 20 slight variations of my own face…it was a reminder: you are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens; you are a signifier before you are a person.” The audition allegory extends to the holding pen, where nervous travelers compete “to graduate out of a reductive purgatory and into some recognition of your unique personhood.” Potential solidarity gives way to an attempt to distance yourself from the rest of the pack.
Ahmed quips that when the interrogation came, “it was more of a car crash than my Slumdog Millionaire audition.” He immediately regrets showing the officer a DVD copy of The Road to Guantánamo, which features a picture of the actor handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit on its cover. He’s questioned on his reading material—Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist—and asked if he knows anyone who wants to do harm to the United States.
Ahmed writes, “A similar version of the same thing happened again soon after. And again. And again. And again.” While his numerous “airport auditions” were all technically a success, they started to wear away at Ahmed’s sense of self, as he internalized the role that he had unwittingly been cast to play in a panic-ridden, Islamophobic America. “I tried not to ingest all the signs telling me I was a suspect. I tried not to buy into the story world of this ‘protocol’ or its stage-one stereotype of who I was.” Ahmed explains. But try as he might, “I couldn’t see myself as ‘just a bloke.’ I failed at every single audition I went up for.”
As a non-white actor, Ahmed articulates the struggle of seeking out rich roles in a world and an industry that reduces minority artists to pops of color. This is the story of his attempt to break free of the fetters of diversity casting to “the Promised Land,” a career milestone where an actor may finally “play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race.” Ahmed has arguably entered into this artistic utopia with The Night Of, where his portrayal of accused killer Nasir Khan carried the show to a good deal of critical acclaim and drew an impressive number of viewers for an HBO miniseries.
These days, Ahmed’s U.S. airport experience is smoother, though he stresses that “I still get stopped before boarding a plane at Heathrow every time I fly to the U.S.” His “random selection” flying into L.A. was so reliable that he recalls a six-month stretch of being searched by the same middle-aged Sikh guy every trip: “I instinctively started calling him Uncle, as is the custom for Asian elders. He started calling me ‘beta,’ or son, as he went through my luggage apologetically. It was heart-warming, but veered dangerously close to incest every time he had to frisk my crotch.” As his celebrity grows, Ahmed is increasingly lauded by the same staff who surveil him. “I have had my films quoted back at me by someone rifling through my underpants, and been asked for selfies by someone swabbing me for explosives.” Ahmed closes on a portrait of one of these millennial staff members: “The last kid who searched me, a young Muslim boy with an immaculate line-beard and goatee, was particularly apologetic. ‘Sorry bro. If it makes you feel any better, they search me before I fly too.’”
Ahmed’s essay is excerpted from The Good Immigrant, a book of essays about race and immigration in the U.K. It comes on the heels of a string of complaints from Muslim Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. “I fully understand and respect security with the way the world is, but to be detained at U.S. immigration every damn time really really sucks,” Khan tweeted in August after being pulled aside at the Los Angeles airport. His tweet echoed sentiments he voiced in 2012, when he spoke about being targeted: “Yes, it always happens. Whenever I start feeling arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America,” he joked. “The immigration guys kick the star out of stardom.”