Every Friday afternoon, for most of my adult life, I found myself in a mosque. For half an hour, in the middle of a working day, Muslims gather for Friday prayers – this is the time to pray, to find community and to re-energize spiritually. I have always looked forward to this brief moment of the week and the much needed break for reflection it offers. While religious culture (and the industry of religion) is in the throes of trouble, this has always been a religious experience that I have enjoyed.
About a year ago, as I was coming out of prayers, a middle-aged man firmly grabbed me by the arm. I didn’t know who he was, and before I could ask, he started screaming.
“You are the comedian,” he exclaimed. “I saw you on Colbert. Machallah, habibi! I heard you were doing a show. Finally someone will make us look good. Everything about us there is so bad. They don’t know who we are! Make us proud, habibi. We’re counting on you. You are the first.”
Maybe it was because of where we were, but he had that look in his eyes – like I was the answer to his prayers, like my show could fix something. And all I could think of was that it probably won’t.
We are in a landscape obsessed with the first. “First” is a demarcation that is enthusiastically attached to anyone or anything that is marginalized or unexplored, as if we are in college and rushing to hit the grassroots – the first LGBT this, the first Asian to be nominated for that, the first Latinx to be seen eating a sandwich at this place usually reserved for the Hollywood elite. As a creator in this category, the idea of being a premiere raised a lot of questions for me.
My Hulu show is often described as the first look at an “average Muslim family”. I think what people are trying to say is that we are not ISIS, but the term doesn’t really make sense. We would never say “average Christian family”. We asked a lot of questions: “Are they Catholics? Protestant? Do they live in the North or in the South?
In America, statistically, the average Muslim family would be a family of black Muslims – who make up the largest group of Muslims in the United States. As an Arab designer, I show a Muslim Arab family. But, since this is the “first Muslim show”, is it also my responsibility to delve into their intrigues? If I don’t, is it an act of erasure and violence?
Does “first” imply high quality? Is it just a qualification used to rush to produce something? Is the primacy of a project the only thing on the table? Does our fetishization of the “first” simply stem from capitalist social values? Is it all about the money?
I don’t know the answers to many of these questions, but ultimately my choice was to do the show I was uniquely qualified for. In the plethora of Muslim experiences, mine is only one, and I have chosen to focus entirely on that and that only. I chose to do a show that isn’t obsessed with checkboxes. A show that feels the sole responsibility of telling an honest story from a singular point of view. A show that hopefully has room to develop – and therefore organically encompass other facets and storylines of what it might mean to be a Muslim in America.
Ultimately, the innuendo of being the first is that you could be the last – so you better put it all in there. Operating to be a first is not the way to do something. You can feel that something knows it’s the first one, and it’s usually not very pleasant. It’s stuck, it’s rushed, and it tries to be everything for everyone. It’s not fair to the creators, it’s not fair to the communities represented and, more importantly, it doesn’t make great television. I hope that a show like mine can get Hollywood to become obsessed with seconds and thirds, because we need other Muslim stories as well.
I don’t know what the man from the mosque thinks about my show, if he saw it. He probably thinks there is too much sex or that I haven’t shown the right kind of Muslim. But here’s what I would say to him: When we first tested our pilot, the audience thought it was a story about terrorism – because it started in a mosque with people speaking Arabic. . People used to see a mosque and then see something explode. On my show you see a mosque and then I do something really stupid on a date.
It’s a first.
This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.