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Film and TV

Non-binary Muslim writer ‘heartbroken’ after queer refugee story is banned from 11 countries

Josh Milton January 20, 2020
Non-binary, Muslim drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi

Non-binary, Muslim drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi sees queerness as a part of their faith. (glamrou/Instagram)

The season finale of Apple TV Plus’ Little America, which spotlights gay Muslim refugees, has been banned across 10 Arabian counties as well as Russia.

Titled “The Son”, the episode features actor Haaz Sleiman and Adam Ali as the two leads and explores the true story of a gay Syrian refugee seeking asylum in the States.

But one of the episode’s writers, non-binary drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi, has expressed their “heartbreak” over the show being stonewalled.

Little America season finale banned in 10 Arabian countries, as well as Russia. 

Based on the true story of Shadi Ismail, a gay man who fled from the Middle Eastern country to escape prosecution, his story, like the other instalments of Little America, was first chronicled by Epic Magazine.

Al-Kadhi explained to PinkNews that the episode’s erasure from the Middle East strips its impact from those who need to see it the most in the region; LGBT+ people.

While being a writer who is themselves a queer person of colour converting the struggles, textures and victories of their community to a watchable medium comes with its own challenges.

PinkNews: You and co-writer Stephen Dunn’s Little America episode tells the true story of a gay Syrian refugee trying to find asylum in America. Why did you decide to tell this person’s story and why now in particular?

Amrou Al-Kadhi: We were so excited to be given the platform to tell this story – it’s based on a true one – because not only is there very limited representation of queer Arabs, immigrants in particular have been dehumanised into statistics and horror stories by the media.

We felt it would be political to avoid overt politics, and just to tell a human story that viewers, no matter what political beliefs, could empathise with.

We were extremely keen to avoid the narrative that an immigrant ‘escapes scary brown Arab land and comes to happy white American land’, and we really wanted to mine the complexities of the Middle East – it’s majestic culture – while also exploring its homophobia without judgement.

I think what makes me sad is the fact that under Trump’s current immigration laws, Rafiq, the protagonist, would not be allowed to live freely in America – he would be killed.

There are countless other Rafiq’s right now whose lives are threatened because of the current global politics, and what we wanted to do was give them a voice.

What are you hoping people take away from the Little America episode?

I want people to empathise. To see that they are no different to these people who have been deemed to be ‘other’.

Both Stephen Dunn [the show’s co-writer] and I were rejected by family and have had to build our own homes – this is what connected us to the story so much, and we wanted to show viewers that feeling of queer people building their own homes and families as they go along.

I also want people to experience the Middle East without any Western narratives of terrorism.

The Middle East I know is electric, full of family, ritual, collectivity and joy.

We wanted to rejoice in that, as it’s so seldom seen on screen, as well as investigate the other issues that go on.

How did you feel when you found out that the episode was blanket banned across 11 countries?

I was really heartbroken. It was another blow, as the episode almost didn’t happen.

All our cast is queer and Muslim, and some were not allowed into America because of Trump’s travel ban. The shoot had to be cancelled.

But thankfully, Apple and all the producers supported us moving the shoot to Canada so that we could make this happen.

It’s the reality of telling stories like this – it’s just that much harder, and it felt eerily close to the subject mattter; as we were telling a queer Muslim story of immigration, our queer Muslim immigrant cast were forbidden to tell it.

I know lots of queer Arabs and Muslims currently living in the Middle East who feel terrified of expressing themselves, and was desperately hoping that this episode could act like some kind of balm or source of home and comfort for them.

It really saddens me to think that they don’t have access to the episode – we are exploring every option possible to get it to them.

Were you surprised by the news?

No. It pains me to say, but I knew we wouldn’t come this far without major set backs like this.

It’s the grim reality of trying to tell queer Arab stories in this global climate of far right Nationalism. They don’t make it easy – which is why it’s all the more important we fight like hell to tell them.

Have you encountered similar setbacks when trying to tell the truths about queer people of colour in your other writing?

To be honest, getting work COMMISSIONED as a queer person of colour is 10 times harder than if you’re a white straight writer.

For some reason, commissioners expect 100 times more of your work to justify spending the money on it – if it’s a comedy, every line has to be genius; if it’s a drama, they want it to be full of earth-shattering trauma.

I have so much work not make it across the finish line because commissioners – who are nearly always white – somehow don’t fully ‘understand’ the work or it doesn’t meet their expectations, while I’ve seen average content by white talent sail through.

I think people expect work by QTIPOC+ to be that much stronger if it’s going to find an audience – so getting to make anything feels like a triumph in itself.

I wish commissioners would trust us to tell the stories we want to tell within our own framework, rather than trying to pigeonhole our work through an existing rubric – which is more often than not, white and straight.

Queer Syrians have lost their homeland, livelihoods and even hope due to countless violence and war. To any queer Syrians reading this, what message would you give them?

As an Iraqi, I know what it’s like for your homeland to disappear.

All I can give you is my solidarity, and my promise that I will work night and day to tell stories that helps shine a light on our experiences so that the West can wake up to what the f**k it has done to the Middle East.

We will prevail.

More: amrou al-kadhi, Apple TV Plus, Little America, Syria

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