Magical Nadeeda, and Why Misrepresentation Matters
Please keep in mind that what you are about to read is triggering, so TRIGGER WARNING.
For context, I just got finished with a procedure at the hospital, and my right arm is not functioning but I dragged myself to the god damn virtual screening and panel about the United States of Al because I had to see what these people had to say for themselves.
I want to be clear that I was NOT invited to this. If you follow my personal account, or Blingistan, you can probably guess why I would definitely not be invited to this. I received the flyer from my maternal aunt who was formally invited. I posted about it on Blingistan’s stories, so us ghareeb mardum, everyday folk, could attend. Quite a few of you cuties didn’t RSVP in time, so when I received the link for the zoom call, I shared it abundantly.
What’s up with the Met Gala type security? It’s a fucking television show screening not Guantanamo Bay. Isn’t this supposed to be a public forum where people, specifically Afghans, all over the world, could have a chance to voice their concerns? If I misunderstood the premise and this was all just a social media campaign to pre-emptively diffuse any would be grievances about the project and get influencers only in the Afghan diaspora of the US and Canada to post stories about, then fine, I misunderstood. But if it was actually supposed to be what was advertised, a screening and panel for Afghans to see what this show was about and express their concerns, then why make it at a time that was inconvenient if not impossible to attend for people living anywhere outside of North America?
Just in case the diaspora has forgotten where their homeland is, Afghanistan was not even awake when this panel happened. We, on the West Coast have a 11:30 hour time difference with Afghanistan. Not to mention the millions of Afghans who live outside of Afghanistan, in Europe, Australia, Russia, you name it. Furthermore, all of my acquaintances who have participated in translating for the Americans, don’t live in either Afghanistan (fear for their life) nor America (denied their SIV’s) and often flee to the neighbouring ‘stan’ countries, who were also rocking a cool 4 am call time.
I knew this Q&A would go badly from what I was seeing the producers and writers posting on Instagram/Twitter about, but it was much, much worse than I could’ve imagined.
I didn’t know Reza Aslan was an executive producer until I saw the flyer for this panel. I also didn’t know that the team was compromised of two white lead writers, two Iranians, and four Afghans (I thought it was just the four Afghans + Chuck Lorre, for the amount of defensive shouts and screams I heard from the creators of the show: “But we have AFGHANS on the team!”).
While it comes as no surprise that whites would have the Caucasity to make a whole show about some shit that ain’t none of their damn business, the Iranian presence on the team evokes an eerie, neo-colonial vibe that somehow manages to feel a shade more insidious.
To the Iranians on the production team: Why do you think you could tell this story? What is your relationship to Afghanistan and Afghans? What did your parents and community teach you about Afghanistan? Are you familiar with the treatment Afghans face in Iran and abroad just simply for being Afghan? I am talking about the beheadings, rapes, and false imprisonments, the not even being allowed to own a SIM card in Iran because they’re Afghans, to the positioning of Iran as exclusively synonymous to Persia in the diaspora and all the model minority archetypes that that community plays into. I have loved ones who have lived in Iran who have been literally tortured for being Afghan, and far worse that I will not go into here.
My experiences with Iranians in the diaspora, as I have not had the pleasure to go to Iran yet, are not literal torture but have their own forms of insidiousness. “Why do you speak my language with such a janky accent?” A 30-year-old Iranian once told me in the back of a black cab in London. “Look at your country and look at ours. You don’t need to be so proud to be Afghan.” A 20-something Iranian man told me at a party in Paris.
With Blingistan, and in my own personal life, I have met many wonderful Iranians- but do you know what conversation we have almost immediately? How their people treat my people, and usually it’s words of reassurance: “I was taught to love Afghans by my parents. I grew up around Afghans and I am so sorry about how Iranians treat you and your people. I will always defend my Afghan brothers and sisters.”
Mahyad Tousi, the other Iranian on the production team admitted how he had Afghan lineage “something that I don’t get to claim often”- oh yeah? Want to elaborate? Could it be due to the anti-Afghan sentiments prevalent in Iran and its diasporas? Only in a group of Afghans do you feel comfortable claiming your Afghan heritage?
I am not saying Tousi or Aslan are racists, I don’t know them nor their work well enough to make any kind of judgement on that, what I am speaking about is cultural biases- implicit biases that are embedded into one’s community. Why should Afghans trust anyone but themselves to tell their story (as tense and traumatic and complex as it is) let alone a people with such a fraught and violent political history in relation to us? Especially when these people are working in conjunction with Americans, the very people who have been militarily occupying Afghanistan for two decades now (what they claim in public, we know they have been working on destabilising our country for nearly five decades).
As an Iranian writing on Afghanistan, how many protests have you gone to denouncing the beheading, torching and senseless killings of Afghans in Iran? How hard have you gone for there to be a change in actions within your own community in the diaspora let alone in your home country? Curious that you forewent a story about Iranians. Did you fear a backlash from Iranians that would be more united and filled with fervour than the one coming from our traumatised and disbanded community? Because we are easy prey? Or is it because you are so ignorant of Afghan culture that you feel confident that you can tell stories about it without being bogged down with such annoyances as nuance, authenticity and complexity?
Listening to the Q&A section of this panel felt like reading the defensive ass Twitter posts this production team was crafting throughout Nowruz. The panellists were literally begging and pleading for us to “please, trust” them and to “give the show a chance” while doing no conceivable work to earn that trust. It is unfair to them for any of us to come to our own conclusions about the show without viewing multiple episodes, because in just a minute and a half trailer, we saw quite enough. These are our people, our stories, our country that has been destroyed by American imperialism, how dare you beseech us to accept your propagandist rhetoric? And then get angry when we can critically think?
All the questions were conspicuously soft to the point of seeming scripted because just in the past three weeks of knowing this show exists, I have heard from at the bare minimum 200+ Afghans the world over (yes, including in Afghanistan) through Blingistan who vehemently object to the conceits of this show, and barely a cough was made in the direction of these sentiments by any of the “callers.”
My personal gripes with the show are less about the lead Afghan character being played by an Indian actor (while that is completely unnecessary, we have Afghan actors), and more about how the show is naked bootlicking American imperialist propaganda on a level that negates any joy one might take in seeing Afghan representation.
The questions being asked in this virtual panel were nothing more than khayamaali, ass kissing, where neoliberal Afghans were crying, thanking their new god, Reza Aslan for making a show that “showed us.” How low have we fallen to be thanking our oppressors for a show that neither represents us nor tries to? Any of the more serious questions asked were met with very little more than “that’s a good point.” No accountability. And if things got heated – “Well look over here there are our four token Afghan writers who said we could!” Like clockwork. But are they Afghans or self-identifying Afghan-Americans? There is a difference.
I am so sorry, because it seems like I will continue having to repeat myself until the day I die. I have an American accent in English, I graduated high school in Kabul. I may share a blood line with some of these writers and can speak English as well as them, but that is it. They do not speak for me, nor for all the 30+ million Afghans on this earth. Having four token Afghans and two Iranians at a writing table headed by two white people doesn’t absolve you of accountability, nor should it be used as a tool to silence other Afghans who have genuine, valid concerns.
What’s up with all the respectability politics? How many Afghans spoke at the Q&A and nearly gave themselves a hernia thanking our oppressors for the bread crumbs that have fallen at the feet of their table. At a certain point, one of the audience members went as far to tell the lie that the “majority” of people who took offence to the trailer “were not Afghan,” effectively erasing and gaslighting hundreds of thousands of Afghans who DO NOT feel comfortable with this show.
Some edgy Afghan diaspora kids think it’s cute to tease- “oh the diaspora doesn’t give a shit about dying Afghans but cares about a silly TV show”. While I am always (always!) ready to legitimately drag the diaspora for their ridiculousness, this is not one of those times.
To think we live in a vacuum is cognitive dissonance- the audience of United States of Al are the same people whose tax money fund the killing of our people in Afghanistan. If you keep feeding them misleading, cartoonishly over-simplified narratives that continue to normalise and justify colonial occupation, what do you think that does but sustain the status quo within the West’s Orientalised imagination of “the Middle East” (Middle East who? We border China) that is the lifeblood of the manufactured consent for the war machine that’s been rolling for the past two decades now? This is textbook propaganda in direct support of the killing of our people.
And no, you are not going to get a pat on the back for casting an Afghan sister, father and mother when the star of the show, the literal titular character, is not Afghan. And honestly, it’s bullshit to say there were not enough Afghan actors who “had the chops” to play this role. There are. Look harder. As someone who has spent a decent part of their life with Afghans in Afghanistan, I can tell you we definitely have plenty of bache-e-film’s* to star in this show.
Conversely, though, what’s also bullshit is the racism and colourism within the community that goes on full display when they say the actor who plays Al couldn’t be Afghan. I am the same colour skin as “Al” during winter months (and darker during the summer) does that mean I am not Afghan? We Afghans come in so many different ways, that this particular take, to me, is both problematic and missing the larger picture. While I feel that they absolutely could have and should have cast an Afghan as Al and I remain unimpressed with their non-answer as to why they didn’t, I will concede the actor visually can pass as an Afghan. The accent? Bad. But what about the hundreds of times Afghans have been portrayed by Iranians who either couldn’t be bothered to learn (or else wouldn't “stoop” to code-switching to) Dari instead of Farsi. Again, while maybe valid in its own right, it seems beside the point. Why are you focusing on the accent instead of the fucking overarching American imperialist propaganda being shoved down our throats?
You can carry more than one thought in your head at a time. You can joke and also educate. I don’t know if the premise of this show can allow for either. In an ideal world, a TV show about Afghanistan could be used as a platform to educate the masses, both Westerners and Afghans in the diaspora, about the history of Western interference and colonial occupation in Afghanistan. But ours, unfortunately, is not an ideal world.
All the people defending this show with Afghan blood running through their veins were not alive when Afghanistan was used as a proxy battleground in a Cold War effort by the US to topple the USSR. Who are the Taliban? American funded militias. Speed up to today and the abominable peace talks between the American government, their slaves, the current Afghan government, and their test tube baby, the Taliban- so y’all fought a war for 21 years on the backs of Afghan women “needing liberation” from the Taliban bogeymen you created only to hand them a space to take over our country again? Of course, Al would never tell you these things, but to an Afghan audience it is a big fat elephant in the That 70’s Show set room.
Erasing and revising our history is what continues to get us in trouble. Like I’ve said before, just because your family loved the monarchy doesn’t mean 80% of Afghanistan agreed wholeheartedly. I don’t believe the various institutions and pedagogical apparatuses of the West have the capacity to communicate the true history of Afghanistan, when all they have ever been were instruments of miseducation and propaganda. I have the knowledge and understanding of Afghan history that I do from years of sitting in Afghanistan as a kid, as a teenager, as an adult, cultivating my thoughts amongst the people who lived through it, not the people who fled.
What I have noticed with the Afghan diaspora throughout the world is that their definition of Afghanyaat (their Afghan-ness) is 100% founded on the self-identification of their family. If their family was elite, rich, Pashtun, Muslim monarchists, so are these diaspora children and thus, so, typically, is their vague, imagined construction of what it “objectively” means to be Afghan. Unfortunately, millions of Afghans don’t identify with those markers, and that’s okay, but it must be recognised. For example, Pakhto is not the only language spoken in Afghanistan, and to start the first episode’s first thirty seconds with this line made my stomach tighten.
How embarrassing that instead of a community standing together to discuss the rampant American imperialist propaganda in this show, we instead gaslight and undermine each other. I am sick of the neoliberal Afghans in the West who are only concerned with the over-simplification of our identity so that it’s palatable to white audiences, who think that this crippled caricature of representation is somehow helpful. I am Afghan all day long, not just when it suits me, not solely for the White/Western gaze, and I am pretty damn sure I am not an anomaly.
I used to work in documentary films, and I quit specifically because of the kowtowing and lateral violence I was asked to participate in to further my career. I quit after damn near losing my mind. Having been on similar teams, I understand that this particular team, and countless teams like it, regardless of any good intentions of any single individual within them, will still, through the intellectually flattening tyranny of groupthink and uncritical subservience to centring White/Western audiences, effectively engage in a sort of multilateral erasure disguised as representation. One central organisational point that yields this effect is highlighting only the voices who are thrilled that they are being represented, who naively trust the machine to get it right, who are so delighted that their personal story is being told at all that they are more willing to overlook how it may be weaponised against the personal experiences of so many others on the global “team” of Afghans as a whole.
The one part of this show that I actually could tolerate, was Al. He was (mostly by virtue of the actor playing him, but also in moments of decent joke-writing) endearing and heart-warming, sure, but he is not a three dimensional person. I would typify his character as a “Magical Nadeeda,” a hybridization of “Nadeeda” and the “Magical Negro.” In Dari, “Nadeeda” means, literally, someone who hasn’t seen, basically someone who doesn’t know anything. It is usually used as a derogatory comment loosely synonymous to say, “country bumpkin.” The Magical Negro is an archetype used in film and literature studies to describe a supporting character (typically Black or otherwise racially “Other” to whiteness) used (typically superficially) as a soothsayer or guru figure for the benefit of white main characters and their primary story arcs. So a Magical Nadeeda embodies the Magical Negro trope within the stylisation of the Nadeeda: casually dropping pearls of sage Eastern wisdom as if by accident from under a veneer of naïve, childlike innocence, paradoxically at once both naive and yet somehow mystically enlightened despite his simplicity.
Although, the show is named after Al, his position in the narrative remains that of a sidekick providing comic relief to the white “straight man” (as it does for most POC characters in white sitcoms), in this case playing the foil to the American soldier for whom he translated. This All-American, mass murdering, walking White Saviour cliché is portrayed as “gruff yet relatable,” a real “no nonsense” type of guy, a “straight shooter” who “doesn’t hold back” and “tells it like it is.” He drinks heavily, is out of touch with his emotions, has alienated his fiancé (there is a lot of subtext here but I won't get into that, you can for now, research stats on how the wives of former soldiers feel) and is in an emotional rut that can only be cured by the sassy yet ultimately palatable, non-threatening snark of his doting, servile brown Sancho Panza, our buddy Al, wide-eyed, innocent Al, who, while woefully ignorant to all the wonders of the West (Vegas! Costco!), approaches everything with good-natured curiosity and gullible optimism while managing, between his guileless guffaws, and head scratching bewilderment, to effortlessly dispense fortune cookie-esqe truisms that can magically catalyse emotional growth in other characters to resolve whatever plot contrivances pop up. He can ooh and aah at the “civilised”, “developed” world while rattling off bite-size “folksy” “old world” antidotes to the “uptight” secular “intellectuality” of the whites.
Yet for all his highly consumable wisdom, Al is careful to never let actual history sully the good mood. For example, Al exclaims how the roads are so beautifully paved without adding how the roads in his wataan* were once just as beautiful before the Americans helped bomb it to smithereens- something that if Al was a real, 3D character from Afghanistan, would be more wont to mention.
And I understand this show is a sitcom but… do you think a translator who has finished six years of working with the Americans would be this jovial 24 hours a day? Would he be just a 2D character kowtowing to the white’s whims? No. He would have real PTSD, real trauma from war, real grief and heartache from having to leave his family. Why even frame this story within the sitcom format, which is so innately resistant to the nuance needed to delve into the depths of this darkness? I haven’t fought in war, but I have lived in Kabul, an active war zone and I still have PTSD flashbacks that I cannot control. Let that sink in. How traumatised, then, would Al’s character be? Pretty traumatised, I’d say, to a degree where he couldn’t congenially educate whites every twenty seconds, at the very least.
I know plenty of people in Afghanistan who worked for the Americans and never got their visas to come to America- in fact were denied multiple times and left in limbo. Yet the white soldier who “vouched” for Al’s visa apparently filled out the necessary paperwork at his local tavern, reportedly so drunk that he forgot how to spell “Afghanistan” (“to be fair it has H’s where it shouldn’t”, fuck you, Afghanistan has Americans in it where it shouldn’t) and yet everything seemed to work out OK. Even if we take at face value that this is a story of one of the few interpreters “lucky” enough to make it to the US, the gravity and the rarity of that position is all but completely ignored.
And I understand that I must “trust” the production team of this show to continue telling this story in further episodes but are they not going to address the fact that they shot this series from the POV of a Pashtun translator? Did you know that the bulk of translators in Afghanistan working for the Americans are of our other ethnic groups? Hazara, Tajik, Aimaq, Uzbek, and many others risk their lives twofold by not only working for the Americans, but also having to be embedded in in ethnocentrically Pashtun controlled parts of Afghanistan where they are not welcome, and are just as lost as the Americans they are protecting.
I spoke to two translator acquaintances of mine before this screening and both were disgusted by the premise of the show. One was so taken aback all he could do was laugh and say “chi bugoyem”*. You give the whites enough time and they will make you feel sub-human on so many levels you won’t be able to tell which way is up. None of my translator acquaintances would risk breaking their contracts (more on this later) or anonymity to come to the panel, understandably. Did the panel rely on this? Most likely.
Most translators for the Americans are not given any type of protective gear when they are out at war, yet in all the flashback scenes, Al is conveniently given a helmet and a bullet proof vest. Again, even if we take at face value that Al is one of the “lucky” ones who is given protective gear, the fact that the more common reality of translators in Afghanistan is erased here feels like (within the general pattern of the entire show) an intentional choice. Instead of addressing the reality and using this platform to educate and bring change, the show buries reality, and presents a sanitized version of it.
Every single translator that worked for the Americans signed contracts binding them to not speak about any of their work during their time in the American military. One of my translator acquaintances said that the only time Afghan translators are allowed to speak to the media is when the Americans themselves pull you by the ear to do this or that minstrel show (“kash kada az gooshet”). So, what does that mean for United States of Al? To put it plainly, we can only conclude that the “intel” used at this writer’s table was not only provided and approved by US military consultants, but, more realistically, was designed by the US military with the overt intention of propagandizing their agenda.
We Afghans have been distorted through the Western lens, used as pawns for war, to justify war, to continue war, to start wars, and now we are doing that ourselves through this sitcom’s narratives. This is the very definition of neo-colonialism. We have been colonised to the point where we are now doing the work of the oppressors for them. Congratulations, Afghanistan, The United States of Al is a triumph of representation: the bleak representation of the sad fact that we have lost all forms of our ghairat*.
Addendum: Since the time of writing this piece I have been informed that the show’s concept was actually written by a Black/Korean Veteran, Dylan Park, about his time with an Iraqi translator, who pitched the entire show to CBS- who “loved it” yet never called him back. You can read his story here.
Addendum: As of 21h PST 23/03/21, I have been informed that some of the writers on this show support the persecution of our Hazara people. Openly, publicly on Twitter. I am at a loss for words. This comes just hours after a friend of mine told me about some anti-LGBT posts one of the writers made. Homophobia and anti-Hazara sentiments should not be tolerated ANYWHERE. I did not see the anti-LGBT posts, however I have seen the anti-Hazara posts. It is abominable to read with my own eyes that the Pashtun writers on this sitcom are anti-Hazara, and pro-genocide. I am appalled, and disgusting. How much lower will you fall?
bache-e-film: the star of the film, literally, “boy of the film”; usually used colloquially to describe (or tease) a man who is cool and confident and acts like a star
chi bugoyem: “what should I say?”