Is Chuck Lorre’s ‘United States of Al’ really racist? 'This isn't a political show'

We speak with a combat interpreter, a US soldier and two of the series’ Afghan writers to find out

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 12: Pilot  Riley (Parker Young), a marine combat veteran is struggling to adjust to civilian life in Ohio and the interpreter, Al (Adhir Kalyan), who served with his unit in Afghanistan has just arrived to start a new life in America, on the series premiere of United States of Al, Thursday, April 1 (9:30-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Dean Norris, Elizabeth Alderfer, Kelli Goss and Farrah Mackenzie also star.  Pictured: Adhir Kalyan as Al, Dean Norris as Art. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images)

Qismat Amin’s adjustment to life in America wasn’t easy but, by his own account, it could have been much worse. For the Afghan former combat interpreter, 29, the truly hellish part was what came in the years before he arrived in San Francisco in 2017.

Amin was laid off by his employer, the US military, in 2013, when the Obama administration sought to wind down American forces in Afghanistan. He had served alongside US soldiers for three years, starting at the age of 19, but then spent much of his twenties inside his house in the southern Afghan city of Jalalabad, with the door locked. Fighters from the terrorist group ISIS, which at that time was only just emerging in Afghanistan, had his name on a list of targets. They wanted him to confess to his “crime” of collaborating with the US military.

Amin could feel a clock ticking. "I was scared to death," he tells me.

His only way out was a special immigrant visa (SIV), issued by the US to combat interpreters to relocate. But the SIV process is notoriously labyrinthine and opaque. Applications take years, and many interpreters and their families have been killed by the Taliban or ISIS while waiting for bureaucratic machinery in Washington to churn. At least three were killed in Jalalabad while Amin waited.

Amin was somewhat fortunate, however, because he had an American ally: one of the soldiers he worked with was an Army Ranger captain named Matthew Ball, who was by then studying at Stanford University’s law school in California. Ball and his fellow students drummed up as much support for Amin’s application as they could.

After a three-year wait, Amin received his SIV in late 2016. By then, Ball had raised thousands of dollars, and used some of it to purchase his friend’s plane ticket.

Army Capt. Matthew Ball, right, hugs his former interpreter Qismat Amin, as Amin arrives from Afghanistan, at San Francisco International Airport Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in San Francisco. Ball welcomed Amin to the United States after buying him a plane ticket to ensure he would get in quickly amid concerns the Trump administration may expand its travel ban to Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

For the first six months he was in America, Amin lived with Ball and his wife Giselle in a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Palo Alto area. Ball remembers how difficult Amin found the process of adjusting to his new life. But Amin remembers arriving at San Francisco Airport as the best day of his life.

Press photographers were present. The moment was even covered in the global media. "US Army officer brings Afghan interpreter to live with him," read a headline on the BBC.

That, today, is essentially the tagline for new sitcom United States of Al, which premiered on American network CBS last week.

What is 'United States of Al'?

The series stars Adhir Kalyan as Awalmir, the titular "Al", an Afghan interpreter who moves in with Riley, a US Marine veteran with whom he served, in Cleveland, Ohio. Produced by Chuck Lorre, the "king of sitcoms" behind hit shows The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, United States of Al is a typical output of its genre, featuring a wacky ensemble cast, slapstick humour and an accompanying laughter track to remind audiences what's funny.

Situational comedies are a time-honoured formula in American television and it’s a formula that works. Or, at least, it has for a long time. But, when the first trailer for Lorre’s new show was released last month, there was backlash, as critics accused the producers, writers and even the actors themselves of making light of war, playing into racist stereotypes of Afghans and even cultural appropriation.

To those familiar with the war in Afghanistan – especially how deadly it has become since the start of this year – United States of Al was always going to be jarring. Simply Just hearing the word "Afghanistan" followed by laughter is jarring enough, but it is made worse when those laughs are applied to jokes that ostensibly exist to humanise Afghans. Afghanistan is "not the Moon", Awalmir says in one clip. "We have Wi-Fi." Cue the laughs.

Teaser clips from the first episode showed more scenes that seemed only to caricature Afghan culture for American audiences. Riley tells his sister about “pacha”, a Middle Eastern dish that includes boiled sheep’s feet. Cue the laughs. Awalmir is pulled over by a police officer and tries to bribe him because, back in Afghanistan, that is apparently what you do with police officers. Cue the laughs.

The cynical, but easy, takeaway from those clips is: Afghanistan exists. This is its culture. These are its broken politics and corruption problems. All of that is foreign to Americans. Cue the laughs.

'This isn't a political show'

Among the most outraged critics were many journalists – in particular, Afghan-American journalists. I am among them.

In the 10 days leading up to United States of Al's premiere on April 1, it was clear the series' producers were on a defensive footing. One of them is Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American academic who has become a famous commentator on US news networks, eloquently defending the interests of the Muslim-American community.

“Maybe learn a little about the show, its creators, its producers, its four Afghan writers, its plot and pretty much everything else before you announce your opinion on it,” he wrote on Twitter.

I was, frankly, shocked to learn the series had Afghan writers on staff.

The first of these hired by the producers was Fahim Anwar, 37, a stand-up comic born and raised in the US Pacific north-west. His comedy career started after university, when he drove from town to town to perform stand-up sets. He also published one-man sketches on YouTube. The most famous was 2007's Afghan Wedding, in which Anwar advises non-Afghans what to expect at a traditional wedding party (tacky facial hair, excessive cologne and hair gel, and camp dance moves). It amassed more than a million views, and made Anwar a hit with the Afghan diaspora.

Since then, Anwar has been told frequently by people who recognise him to “do more Afghan stuff”, but he never really did. He didn’t have to, as he went on to become a formidable stand-up comic, headlining at major comedy clubs and counting superstar podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan among his friends.

Afghan culture may have midwifed Anwar’s career in Hollywood, but he explains that the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the politics driving it are very distant to him. Growing up, his cultural connection to the country may have even been a little burdensome; as a child, his parents attempted to teach him Persian, their native language, but he resisted. He was more interested in simply living his American life.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 01: Actor Fahim Anwar attends the "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" world premiere at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater on March 1, 2016 in New York City.   Michael Loccisano/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Michael loccisano / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Now, he is not only "doing more Afghan stuff", but is cited by United States of Al producers as a prophylactic against anti-Afghan racism.

But for Anwar, that does not mean he has some special duty to be politically aware. “I’m not brought on for political insight. I’m there for jokes.

“And this isn’t a political show. I think people want this to be one, but the politics is just the set piece that the sitcom lives in.”

Should we be offended?

Anwar's lack of knowledge or interest in the war doesn't make him any less Afghan, nor does it take away his right to write an Afghan character. Afghanistan is a country that has been exploded over half a century, with millions of its people expelled and scattered around the world. For so many Afghans like Anwar, that identity is something foisted upon you by your parents. Its politics are injected into your life from a chapter of history in which you did not exist. Afghan-ness is a story from another world, and it loses its weight as it passes into yours. It's the set piece. And as long as you have to live with it, why not laugh about it? Maybe at least some of the caricaturing of Afghan culture in United States of Al isn't white Americans making fun of Afghans, but Afghan-Americans making fun of Afghans.

Is that racist?

Even so, "the characters just seem too flat", Ball tells me, after viewing the trailer. The reality of his and Amin's life together was much more complicated.

This one-dimensionality is down to the techniques through which sitcoms are put together, Anwar explains. “If this was HBO, you could get really nuanced with the Afghan experience. With a sitcom, you just can’t.”

In this image provided by CBS, Adhir Kalyan as Al appears in a scene from "United States of Al." (Erik Voake/CBS via AP)

To my surprise, however, as Ball narrated to me some of his favourite memories with Amin during their time living together, his anecdotes had sitcom humour written all over them, even when the context was heavy. For example, he tells me of a time that Amin stood at a crosswalk for several minutes because he did not understand how it worked. He waited for an American couple to show up and cross the street so he could see how they did it.

On a different occasion, Amin and some other Afghan friends drove to Lake Tahoe to see the mountains. When they had to use the bathroom, they pulled over and relieved themselves at the side of the motorway. A police officer stopped and gave them a warning, making a snide comment about how they ought to "go back to their home country". When Amin recounted this story to Ball upon their return, Ball and his wife were appalled at the officer's behaviour. Amin, however, was delighted with the professionalism, relieved that he was not pressed for a bribe. It's a moment right out of United States of Al, but it was real, and I laughed.

'I was humiliated'

About a week before the premiere, the producers and writers held an advanced screening of the series for a group of Afghan and Afghan-American journalists, followed by a question-and-answer session during which several accusations and insults were hurled at the writers and the lead character. One of the journalists described Kalyan’s portrayal of Awalmir, and by extension the writers’ design of him, as being akin to a “smiling monkey”. Another said he was “like a lap dog”.

In addition to Anwar, one of the series’ other Afghan writers who was present at the Q&A was Habib Zahori. He was hired to reflect a view more in touch with Afghanistan itself, as he was formerly an interpreter and journalist there. Zahori spoke to me from his house in Ottawa, Canada, where he has lived for the past two years.

Any iteration of a show about Afghanistan or Muslims, someone will have a problem with it

“I was humiliated, I felt so ashamed and so embarrassed,” Zahori says of the Q&A. “When you are saying that the story I wrote is in the service of American imperialism, how is that different from calling a black person an Uncle Tom? I didn’t expect that from our community.”

The “lap dog” comment cut particularly deep. Zahori recounted to me an incident in the writers’ room when one of the staff had written a joke into the series where someone says “you dog” to Awalmir, meant as a compliment. Zahori and the other Afghan writers immediately nixed it from the script, explaining that, in their culture, there is no worse insult than being called a dog.

It is especially insulting when it is a response to the subservience Awalmir’s character projects. If he seems that way, that is because, as Zahori points out, that is how Afghans are taught to be when they are guests in someone’s home.

Awalmir's strange accent has also been questioned. Zahori flips the script on this. "What does an Afghan sound like?" In Zahori's family, each of his siblings learnt English from different sources and speak it with a different brogue.

As Anwar puts it: “Any iteration of a show about Afghanistan or Muslims, someone will have a problem with it.”

Would it have helped if they had cast an Afghan actor instead of Kalyan, a South African of Indian descent? The truth is, Zahori explains, there simply aren't any Afghans in Hollywood who have experience operating in the sitcom genre. Plus, he asks, what does an Afghan look like anyway? Afghanistan is a country with dozens of ethnic groups, so it is genuinely a very difficult question to answer. Zahori's point was clear: to suggest that Kalyan doesn't look or sound the part is, in a way, actually quite racist.

An opportunity for the Afghan diaspora?

Anwar emphasises the show is still very much a work in progress and there are achievements that ought not to be diminished. After all, it is the first time a sitcom with so much clout has been centred on an Afghan, and four Afghans have never been found together in a writers’ room before.

But isn't that asking for too little? Anwar does not necessarily believe so. "Think about how new we [Afghans] are to the table. Think about the head start that other minorities have had. There are some growing pains we have to have."

So, if this one works out, then one day we might get our HBO series.

Both Zahori and Anwar agree it ultimately misses the point to expect United States of Al to be a series about an Afghan. It's about an Afghan and Americans, and about how the friendship between Awalmir and Riley can bridge the divide between those two worlds.

This premise is best encapsulated in a moment in the first episode, when Awalmir and Riley sit in Riley’s garage and go quiet. It is the first time since Awalmir’s arrival in America that the two get a moment alone to reflect on the shared traumas they endured in Afghanistan. Riley misses being a soldier. “I’m not good at anything here (in America),” he says. Awalmir, the consummate good houseguest, consoles him, reminding him what he is capable of. And the viewer gets a keen sense that he has brought his responsibility of being Riley’s cultural interpreter to America with him. Awalmir knows Riley, perhaps better than America does.

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 13: Pilot  Riley (Parker Young), a marine combat veteran is struggling to adjust to civilian life in Ohio and the interpreter, Al (Adhir Kalyan), who served with his unit in Afghanistan has just arrived to start a new life in America, on the series premiere of United States of Al, Thursday, April 1 (9:30-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Dean Norris, Elizabeth Alderfer, Kelli Goss and Farrah Mackenzie also star.  Pictured: Kelli Goss as Vanessa, Adhir Kalyan as Al.  (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images)

For Ball, that kind of bond resonates deeply in his relationship with Amin. “Qismat knows me in some ways better than my own wife. He has seen me in situations nobody here understands. He is my brother.”

Does the focus on Riley’s trauma distract from the fact that Awalmir must also have his own emotional baggage? Probably. But, as Zahori explains, in a series for US audiences, that is inevitably where the writers must begin.

Awalmir, like the Afghans who wrote him, has the huge challenge of trying to win over America. And that means he has the undue burden of having to be likeable before he can be deep.

“Of course we want to get into all of the sadness and pain of Awalmir’s experience,” says Zahori. “But do you want the show to be cancelled in season one?”

Raising awareness

With time, the writers hope to introduce many more Afghan characters into the story – Awalmir’s family, other Afghans he meets in America and so on. They will feature in what sitcoms are known as B plots, secondary threads that provide room for all the nuance the overarching story may lack.

Viewers will, the writers hope, start to become sensitised to Awalmir's true plight, the way they are sympathetic to Riley. It is a tragic reality that one must come before the other, and the other cannot come soon enough. There are still thousands of Afghan interpreters waiting for their own SIVs, and the ones who made it to the US, like Amin, have to live with that reality every day. They need American audiences to know how important their cause is, and if United States of Al can help with that, even at the cost of playing into the cynical reality of Hollywood, then perhaps some good will come of it.

Amin’s brother, who also served as a US Army interpreter, is still back in Jalalabad. He has been waiting for his own SIV for four years now. The security situation at home is deteriorating by the day. Hundreds of interpreters and their family members have been assassinated during the war, including Feda Mohammad, who formerly worked for the British Army, and was shot by the Taliban repeatedly at point-blank range in Paktia province this January. Taliban supporters posted Mohammad’s photo online shortly afterwards, with a caption boasting that he died “like a dog”.

Amin's brother sometimes asks him for help. But Amin is, frankly, at a loss for what to do. He's only one Afghan trying to make his own way in the system. All he can do is continue to maintain contact, more for his own sanity. What's left back home is his B plot.

That is a feeling with which Zahori is intimately familiar. Every night, before he goes to bed, he checks his WhatsApp, his Facebook and his Instagram, to watch his family’s lives in Afghanistan unfold and also just to check that everyone is still alive. It’s a ritual that he wants to write into Awalmir’s character in some future episode, when the time is right and when the audience is ready.