The Long Read: As my acting job developed, I was no longer cast as a radical Muslim except at the airport

To begin with, auditions schooled me to get through airports. In the end, it was the other way around. Im an actor. Since I was a girl I have had to play different characters, negotiating the cultural hopes of a Pakistani family, Brit-Asian rudeboy culture, and a scholarship to private school. The fluidity of my own personal identity on any generated date was further compounded by the changing labels assigned to Asians in general.

As children in the 1980 s, when my brother and I were stopped near our residence by a skinhead who decided to applied a knife to my brothers throat, we were pitch-black. A decade subsequently, the spear to my throat was held by another Paki, a label we wore with swagger in the Brit-Asian youth and gang culture of the 1990 s. The next time I encountered myself as helplessly cornered, it was in a windowless area at Luton airport. My limb was in a distressing wrist-lock and my collar pinned to the wall by British intelligence officers. It was post 9/11, and I was now named a Muslim.

As a minority , no sooner do you memorize to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than its to take away you and swapped for another. The jewellery of your struggles is forever on lend, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels.You are periodically handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor oblige, both choking and decorative.

Part of the reason I became an actor was the promise that I might be able to help elongate these pendants, and that the teenage version of myself might breath much easier as a result.

If the films I re-enacted as a kid could humanise monstrosities and aliens, maybe there was hope for us. But depictings of ethnic minorities wreaked in stages, I realised, so Id have to strap in for a long ride.

Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype the minicab driver/ terrorist/ cornershop owned. It tightens the necklace.

Stage two is the subversive depicting, taking place on ethnic terrain but is an attempt to challenge existing stereotypes. It slackens the necklace.

And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a attribute whose narration is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror believe , nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my call is likely to be be Dave. In this residence, “were not receiving” necklace.

I started playing professionally during the post-9/ 11 boom for stage-one stereotypes, but I shunned them at the behest of my 18 -year-old self. Luckily, there was also a minuscule pinpoint of theatre two stuff taking influence, subverting those same stereotypes, and I managed to get in on the act.

My first movie was in this mode, Michael Winterbottoms The Road to Guantnamo. It told the story of a group of friends from Birmingham “whos” illegally jailed and tortured in the US detainment camp. When it acquired a prestigious accolade at the Berlin film festival, we were euphoric. For those who find it, the inpatients led from orange jumpsuits to human beings.

But airport security did not get the memo. Returning to the glamour of Luton Airport after our gala winning, ironically appointed British intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked area where they insulted, menaced, and then criticized me.

What kinda film you realise? Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle? an officer bellowed, twisting my arm to the point of snapping.

The question is ruffling not only because it endangers artistic idiom, but because it intimates our security services dont fairly grasp the nature of the fear menace we all face. A prepare show outlining Al-Qaidas penchant for theatrical strikes may have been taken a bit literally.

It turned out that what those special branch officers did was illegal. I was asked by activist solicitors if I wanted to sue, but instead I wrote an account of the accident and communicated it to a few journalists. A storey about the illegal detention of the actors from a movie about illegal detention turned out to be too good to ignore. I was glad to molted some light on this depressing state of affairs.

Ahmed
Ahmed( left) in The Road to Guantnamo. Image: Allstar/ FilmFour/ Sportsphoto Ltd

I went on to write a song inspired by the incident, titled Post 9/11 Blues. It was full of sage admonition, such as: Were all supposes so watch your back/ I farted and got arrested for a substance assault. The song got the attention of Chris Morris, who shed me in Four Lions.

In the end, having my arm roughly torn off by people whose salary I compensate led to me inquiring loads of stagecoach two work loosening the pendant. It felt good, but what about stage 3, the Promised Land?

It turned out that there was no clear pathway for an actor of colour in the UK to go to stage 3 to performance only a bloke. Creators all said they wanted to work with me, but they had nothing I could feasibly act in. The stories that needed to be told in the multicultural mid-2 000 s were just about the all-white mid-1 700 s, it seemed. I heard rumors that the Promised Land was not in Britain at all, but in Hollywood.

The reason for this is simple. America utilizes its narratives to export a illusion of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the superstition we export is an all-white nature of lords and ladies. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the story it exportations is of a racial melting-pot, everyone solving violations and pushing immigrants side by side.

So America was where I thoughts. But it would not be an easy journey.

You see, the drawbacks of the audition area and the airport inquisition chamber are the same. They are the locations where the risk of being rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial fuzz can be a deal-breaker, where you are realise, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels never as exactly a bloke called Dave. The berth 9/11 Necklace stiffens around your neck.

I had so far managed to avoid this in the audition area, but now I faced the same threat at US airports. It didnt assist that The Road to Guantnamo had left my passport stomped 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 the fuck is await me.

When I property, the polouse analyse me shared my skin colour. I wondered whether this was a good signaling or if he was one of the legendarily patriotic Cuban border detectives I had been hearing, determined to assess how star-spangled I was with a thumb up the anus.

He looked at my passport, then at me, frowned and drew a big P over my in-migration placard. I immediately thought it stood for Paki.

Protocol!

I was produced down a long hallway, without interpretation, before is transformed into a line-up room that appeared instantly familiar.

Ahmed
Ahmed( centre) in the film Four Lions, a wit about British homegrown jihadis. Picture: Everett Collection/ REX

Apart from a Chinese family and a South American aviator duelling the humiliation with his spotless dres, the holding pen was filled with 20 slight discrepancies of my own face, all staring at me kind of like a Bollywood remake of Being John Malkovich. It was a remember: you are a form, whose look says concepts before your opening opens; you are a signifier before you are a person; you are back at theatre one.

The holding pen likewise had that familiar audition chamber fear. Everyone is apprehensive, but the prospect of solidarity is weakened by rivalry. In such a situation, youre all fighting to graduate out of a reductive torment and into some recognition of your unique personhood. In one way or another you are all saying: Im not like the rest of them.

The fresh-faced desk detective was no older than 23. By the time I was called up to audition for him, my spiel to explain the passport extinguishes was ready. Id picture a letter from the movies farmer, Id say award-winning film, and Id twinkle a glistening new DVD. But the girl questioning me seemed more nervous than I was. He had apparently been to the same Beware Bloodthirsty Actors forum as the intelligence officers at Luton.

Step back from the counter!

I was bounced up the series for a proper interrogation by a dangerously fatty man and his moustache. I sat and awaited, practising my pipelines. When the interrogation came, it was more of a automobile gate-crash than my Slumdog Millionaire audition.

Oh yeah? Afghanistan? What kinda movie saw you doing there?

The question fire through me with a chill. It prompted me of the questions I faced at Luton airport, but too of the issue I ask myself all the time.Was I adding to the catalogue of stage one, two, or three? Was it a film my 18 -year-old self wanted? Would it build the necklace looser or tighter?

I thought about the right way to answer him. The Road to Guantnamo was a documentary-drama, but maybe saying I was in a documentary about Guantnamo Bay wouldnt be wise. Drama should do. I said: Erm, its an award-winning drama announced The Road to Guantnamo.

There was a long stillnes. He conjured an eyebrow. I offered up the DVD. It had a photo of me handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit on its covering. I immediately regretted it. Longer silence. Second eyebrow goes up. He leaned in.

Do you know anyone who wants to do harm to the United States?

I shook my intelligence and formed Hugh Grant interferences, going a gosh! in there somewhere. He assimilated my action before holding up a volume from my luggage. It was Mohsin Hamids novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Whats this notebook?

I justified, but he wasnt certainly listening. He distributed a state-of-the-art knowledge protocol by Googling me, which rendered a word clipping about the Luton airport happen. Fuck. My middle sank. This was it. No Hollywood for me. I was never is about to be Brad Pitt. I wasnt even is about to be Apu from the fucking Simpsons. What was I pondering?

When, after an agonising three hours, I was curved through, I couldnt believe it. I seemed alleviated, grateful, lucky and then suddenly incensed. On the way out past my lookalikes, I demonstrated a loud, As-salaam aliekum . No one leapt to revert the accost. Perhaps they lacked the safety net of a convincing gosh!

Ahmed
Ahmed plays the primary reputation Changez in The Willing Fundamentalist. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

I met a sidekick in Manhattan for dinner, apologising for being 3 hours belatedly, and zoned out while they explored astrology. Person at the dinner turning now to me.

Youre such a terrorist, she said.

I blinked. What the fuck? My look screwed itself into the show I bid Id plucked instead of mewling apologetically at the border officers.

What the fuck is that supposed to mean?

My friend put her arm on mine and squeezed.

Riz, she asked if youre a Sagittarius.

I withdrew. Baffled faces pinned me with concern.

Right. Sorry. Yeah. Yes I am, I said.

A same form of the same happening happened again soon after. And again. And again. And again. I flourished belligerent.

One officer asked if I had had any military training. My school had a cadet-force program that I was swiftly expelled from, but I only answered yes without expanding. I was asked if I had travelled to Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan recently.

All except Iraq, but if it helps Ive too been to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, I smiled.

Childish perhaps, but the situation itself is infantilising. Feigning obliviousness to an officers impression and refusing to pander to it was my exclusively defence.

But the satire reeled on.

Twice when applying for a US work visa I was subjected to a Area 221 G a interminable background check against a global database of terrorists which virtually lost me the jobs.

I appreciated the email communication between the state department and my attorney: Hey Bill, looking at your patron Mr Ahmed jolly British-sounding name, huh? Saw his Pole 9/11 Blues song, whats with the I nature Osama routine?

Fair enough, you are able to conceive. Search him. Gaze at his ethnic profile and his passport stamps and his dangerously humorous rap lyrics. But since I had been let into the US and seen safe precisely the previous month, another spiel this month was obviously fruitless.

In the end, I was always let in, so these airfield auditions were technically a success. But they involved the experience of being typecast, and when that happens enough, you internalise the character written for you by others. Now, like an over-eager procedure actor, I was struggling to break character.


I tried not to absorb all the signs telling me I was a suspect. I tried not to buy into the narration nature 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, its not easy. I couldnt ensure myself as only a bloke. I miscarried at every single audition I croaked up for.

Rehearsing a scene plots a role into you. But sometimes if you over-rehearse it without uncovering any new entail in it, they are able to unexpectedly forget your routes. You realise that you are on a stagecoach , not in the real world. The situations emotional power and your submerging in it disappears.

And so it dawned on me that these huntings were a fictional role-play taking place in a bubble, rather than an evaluation of my worth. This was the way to see it. And it turns out this is also the way to see auditions. The etiquette lost its chokehold on me, and I started get capacities again. One large-scale position self-assured me a proper US visa, and soon I was going brandished through without the protocol. I began inching towards the Promised Land.

Riz
Riz Ahmed in The Night Of. Photo: HBO

Now, both at auditions and airfields, I find myself on the right side of the same velvet lasso by which I was once clothes-lined. But this isnt a success story. I experience most of my fellow Malkoviches still arched back, backbones crouched to snapping as they try to limbo under that line. These daytimes its likely that no one resembles me in the waiting area for the purposes of an playing audition, and the same is true-blue of everyone being curved through with me at US immigration. In both rooms, my exception testifies the rule.

Dont get me wrong: although my US airfield event is smoother, I still get stopped before boarding a plane at Heathrow every time I operate to the US. But now I find it humorous rather than bruise. Easy for me to laugh with my job visa and strategically distributed gosh !, perhaps. But its also easy in order to be allowed to giggle, because the more I wander, the more stupid the methods used become.

Heathrow airport draws its staff from the nearby Asian suburb of Hounslow and Southall. My random collection flying to LA was so dependable that as I started advancing more, I went through a six-month unfold of being scoured by the same middle-aged Sikh guy. I instinctively started calling him Uncle, as is the custom for Asian elders. He started announcing me beta , or son, as he went through my luggage apologetically. It was heart-warming, but strayed dangerously close to incest each time he had to frisk my crotch.

How are you, son?

Im er, ooh, er, good. Uncle.

As Ive jaunted more, Ive likewise done more film occupation, increasing the chances of being recognised by the young Asian staff at Heathrow. I have had my films quoted back at me by someone rifling through my underpants, and been asked for selfies by someone swabbing me for explosives.

The last-place minor who searched me, a young Muslim boy with an immaculate line-beard and goatee, was specially apologetic.

Sorry bro. If it obliges “youre feeling” any better, they scour me before I hover too.

We tittered , not because he was joking, but because he was deadly serious. It was the perfect encapsulation of the minoritys shifting and segmented self, was necessary to internalise the limitations imposed on us simply to get by, on the wrong side of the velvet line even when( maybe especially when) youre on the right side of it. We cracked pranks and bumped fists.

As I left, he called after me with a few questions. Bro, what kinda cinema you doing next?

I looked at the ID badge fix from a cord around his neck. I told him that I hoped it would be one he liked.

This essay is extracted from The Good Immigrant, a journal of essays about race and migration in the UK by 21 British pitch-black, Asian and minority ethnic columnists, edited by Nikesh Shukla and boasting contributions from Bim Adewunmi, Salena Godden, Musa Okwonga, Coco Khan, Himesh Patel and more.

To order a photocopy for 12.29, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or announce 0330 333 6846

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