Movies, Pop Culture

“Ali’s Wedding” reminds me how life-changing it is to see stories like mine onscreen

Nine times out of ten, Muslims on TV are just a side character.

Ali’s Wedding opens on a sight familiar to the seasoned romantic comedy viewer: a man in a tux has commandeered a vehicle that does not belong to him in order to reach the airport “before it’s too late.” Too late for what? We’ll find out, but it probably has to do with love, as the majority of this movie does. The scene is not unusual save the man himself. As you may have guessed, this fine fellow is Ali. He is our protagonist and for me, this is a big deal.

Ali is (much like Osamah Sami, the actor portraying him and whose story the film is based on) an Iraqi-born Australian-bred Muslim man. In a Western context, it is relatively unusual to see a Muslim protagonist of any background.  

Ali, an Iraqi-Australian man's, father, kisses him on the cheek followed by a light slap.
Via [Image description: Ali, an Iraqi-Australian man’s, father, kisses him on the cheek followed by a light slap.]
In American cinema at least, the trope that young immigrants or children of immigrants and Muslims (because, according to the rule of these tropes, Muslims are automatically foreign) is one of a restless and exclusive duality, always. According to these stories, every immigrant child in a Western land is yearning to shed the restrictive mores of their homeland in favor of the freedom of America or England or Australia. Everyone wants to be Western, no questions asked, and to hell with where they and their parents came from.

This character’s narrative will probably go as follows (and because I am American, this is coming from a primarily American immigrant context): nine times out of ten, they are a side character.

If they are Muslim, their name will probably be Mohammad turned Mo, or Laila. Laila is a first-generation American. Laila’s parents want her to go into medicine and become a doctor, preferably something very specialized. Laila does not want to go into medicine. It is her dream to do something creative instead, like writing or acting or painting. Laila’s parents are strict.

If Laila is in a relationship, it is with a white man who is kept a secret. He and their other white friends encourage Laila to reject her parents’ archaic beliefs and background and to live her truth.

I have nothing against Laila. It used to be a relief to see Laila on the screen because it is better than nothing. “Oh my gosh,” I would think, “look! A Muslim! On a fictional TV show! And they’re not a terrorist!” But the more I sought out these stories, stories that I paid attention to, the more I noticed these tropes, and when every Muslim immigrant child on screen is Laila, we have a problem.

This is the story of immigrant children that movies and TV shows have repeated time and time again.

While the representation of immigrant children on screen alone is something I am always excited to be excited to see, when the same story is told over and over again, there is a problem, especially when that story continually poses culture and religion as the enemy.

This story fuels a Western centric notion of what is desirable. White boys and girls are desirable. Short skirts are desirable. Lack of romantic and sexual inhibition is desirable. Anything and everything that signifies a one-dimensional understanding of where these characters come from is undesirable and usually embodied to an exaggeration by this character’s parents.

In Ali’s Wedding, main character Ali’s dilemma is not inherently with his Muslim faith or his Iraqi culture. There are moments when the sentiment is expressed, surely, that, for instance, dating would be easier if the main couple were not Muslim, or if they weren’t part of the tight-knit community they are. But the answer is neither a rejection of this faith nor of the community. When Ali is stressed, he reads the Qur’an of his own accord. Even when no one is watching, he speaks with God, be it in Arabic of English.

In the trope of the immigrant child, the child would not engage in these activities unless they were being made to. Their choice is the Western world exclusively. But this is not the case with Ali, and it’s not the case with me.

I, like many other immigrant children, have experienced that feeling of inadequacy when it comes to being American and when it comes being Pakistani. I have worried that maybe I really am not as good of a Muslim as I would be if I were raised somewhere else. But the answer, for me, has never been to throw away these parts of me. I couldn’t if I wanted to, and at this point in life, I really don’t want to.

In my opinion, there is no one right way to be anything or anyone, and this extends to culture and religion. What this film does, though, is present a character that is more in line with the immigrants and Muslims that I know and love and identify with.

For this brown Muslim child Pakistani-American, this is a relief.

An Arab Muslim community having dinner at a mosque rejoice.
Via [Image description: An Arab Muslim community having dinner at a mosque rejoice.]