Why is everyone talking about Riz Ahmed?

Star Wars and The Night Of actor Riz Ahmed has penned a much-shared essay about being typecast as a terrorist

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If you’ve spent any portion of today on social media, you may have seen Riz Ahmed trending. 

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Who? 

If Riz Ahmed’s name is new to you, we guarantee it won’t be for much longer. The British actor has long been putting in the sorts of performances that get talked about on awards circuits, from his breakout role in The Road to Guantanamo to turns in Four Lions, Ill Manors and Nightcrawler. But this year, his star has soared – a lead role in HBO’s The Night Of (currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic) will be followed up by a major part in Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.

OK, he’s having a ‘moment’ – but why is he trending today?

Ahmed has written an essay, published today in the Guardian, titled Typecast as a Terrorist. It comes in at 3,000 words and is extracted from The Good Immigrant – a book of essays about race and immigration in the UK, penned by a selection of 21 British black, Asian and minority ethnic writers.

3,000 words is a lot! What is the essay about?

Reading it in full (right here) is worth your while but if you’re at work and you’re after a quick run through, look no further… 

In his piece, Ahmed details his experiences of being cast as a radical Muslim at airports in the era post-9/11. This experience is at odds with the sort of characters Ahmed strives to portray – an individual “whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race”.

He calls this “the Promised Land” or stage three in the way ethnic minorities are portrayed. Stage one is “the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner” with stage two “the subversive portrayal, taking place on ‘ethnic’ terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes.” 

In relation to all three, Ahmed talks about the necklace – a necklace of labels which, he says, as a minority you are handed to hang around your neck, “neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.”

Stage one tightens the necklace, stage two loosens it. In stage three – the Promised Land – there is no necklace.

I thought you mentioned airports?

We digress – but the necklace analogy reoccurs throughout the piece. Ahmed’s first film – Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo, which won a prize at the Berlin film festival – gave him the sort of stage two role he was craving. It loosened the necklace – but his flight back ended with an incident at Luton Airport where, according to Ahmed, “British intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked me.” 

He writes: “It turned out that what those special branch officers did was illegal. I was asked by activist lawyers if I wanted to sue, but instead I wrote an account of the incident and sent it to a few journalists. A story about the illegal detention of the actors from a film about illegal detention turned out to be too good to ignore. I was glad to shed some light on this depressing state of affairs.”

Was that the only time this happened?

Yes and no.

While Ahmed mentions no further instances of such an aggressive nature, he details how he soon turned his attention to America in pursuit of more stage three roles – and found himself stopped at airports “again And again. And again.”

He writes: “the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels – never as “just a bloke called Dave”. The post 9/11 Necklace tightens around your neck.

“I had so far managed to avoid this in the audition room, but now I faced the same threat at US airports. 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. I spent the flight sweating in defiance of air-conditioning, wondering what would await me.”

For a while the interrogations affected his ability to win roles…

“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. But when you have always moulded your identity to your environment and had your necklace picked out by others, it’s not easy. I couldn’t see myself as “just a bloke”. I failed at every single audition I went up for.”

What changed?

According to Ahmed, “it dawned on me that these searches were a fictional role-play taking place in a bubble, rather than an assessment of my worth. This was the way to see it. And it turns out this is also the way to see auditions. The protocol lost its chokehold on me, and I started getting roles again. One big job secured me a proper US visa, and soon I was getting waved through without protocol. I began inching towards the promised land.”

Does he still get stopped?

Yes. While his US immigration experience has become smoother the more successful he’s become, he adds, “I still get stopped before boarding a plane at Heathrow every time I fly to the US.”

But he adds: “now I find it hilarious rather than bruising”.

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Read Ahmed’s full essay here. His story will also be published in The Good Immigrant.