When does it not pay to be Muslim?

Here's a revolutionary concept: how about a TV character happens to be a Muslim and the plot revolve

So Lowe's, the US-based chain of retail home improvement and appliance stores, has decided to pull its advertising from the reality TV show All-American Muslim. Most of us aren't stupefied with shock. Its not like we don't know anti-Muslim bigotry is now acceptable beyond the ranks of Tea Party conventions, but for it to be just so blatant still has a sting to it. Who could have predicted that a TV show portraying the lives of five ordinary Muslim families could produce this tornado in a tea cup. For many Muslims, it confirmed what we'd all secretly been hoping was just acute paranoia: that just being Muslim these days is a political issue.

Following pressure from the stormy Florida Family Association, which referred to the TLC (The Learning Channel) show as "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values," Lowe's decided it was not commercially viable to be associated with anything related to Muslims. Even pretty normal ones, apparently.

But it was their seemingly innocuous statement which got my knickers in a twist:

Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views.

(sound of screeching record)

You what?

"This topic" is, in fact, the lives of regular Muslims. You know the ones -- the guy who drives your bus, the woman who treated your sick child, your neighbour, your colleague at work. People have strong "political and societal views" about these folk? On what basis exactly might that be?

For those who haven't caught the series -- and you're missing out if you have -- the genius of the show is its decision to showcase the true range of what it means to be a Muslim, even within this small snap-shot of the Muslim community, in the form of its Arab-American variant. From sassy hijab wearing Nawal, to peroxide blonde aspiring nightclub owner Bazzy, via Mike Jaffar, the deputy chief sheriff, through to the all-American high school football coach Fouad, the show is the first honest representation of what regular Muslims are like. Which is just like the rest of us, it would seem. Or to quote Debbie Almontaser: All-American muslim is as American "as apple galette: different crust on the outside, same gooey filling".

So the suggestion that Nawal's preparation for her baby's birth, or Fouad's management of his team's fasting during Ramadan, or scenes of Shadia hanging out at a country music concert because she's a muslim and she likes country music -- is somehow something people have "strong political views" about, needs to be outed for the downright bigotry it is.

Recent research at Cambridge University looking at the overarchingly negative portrayal of Muslims in the media concludes that "Muslims deserve a better press than they have been given in the past decade". The problems is that when Muslims do get a fair portrayal, even that is apparently political.

But let's give credit where credit is due. At least the US media actually has a show portraying the lives of regular Muslims.

In the UK, the most recent portrayals include the most cringe-worthy and facile plots, from secret gay lovers (one imaginatively called "Christian"!) on Eastenders, to the tyrannical Pakistani father who beats his English wife in West is West. The writer Yasmin Alibhai Brown rightly asks:

Where is the soulful, female Muslim singer, the wily, kebab-millionaire, the two-timing Pakistani cricketer, the Arab heartthrob? They do all exist, but these roles are not written into scripts.

Oh sure, if you're nutty, fanatical and cantankerous, the channels will be more than happy to feature your disjointed rant -- but the reality is regular Muslims are plain absent from British screens. I have yet to see a woman in a headscarf on any mainstream film or programme where her identity was not reduced to a caricatured plot about Islam being dangerous/oppressive/threatening. In fact, the bulk of daytime TV seems to be spin offs of 24 all set in Iraqistan where a veiled Muslim women is being beaten, forced into something, or somehow degraded by a freakishly long-bearded generic Arab shouting "Allahu akbar".

Here's a revolutionary concept: how about she just happens to be a Muslim and the plot revolves around, say, her job within a busy hospital A&E? It worked for ER! Despite Muslims being statistically overrepresented in the medical profession, it took until 2011 for Casualty to introduce us to the peripheral character of Omar Nasri -- not a doctor, but a paramedic.

Muslim actor friends of mine often joke that they seem to have had a lot more employment after 9/11 -- the question is, playing who, or what? Most of them have gained notoriety playing terrorists from the North of England. They cringe as they tell me these are the only parts on offer. A Somali actor friend recently made the difficult decision to turn down the part of a Somali pirate in a Tom Hanks feature film, on the grounds that he didn't want to add to the negative portrayal of Somalis.

And I did say actors -- not actresses -- as the parts which feature Muslim women rarely tend to be played by Muslim women. This is partly to do with the fact that few Muslim women are to be found in the acting industry, or the media more broadly. The struggle any budding Muslim actress might face reminded me of a statement by Asian American broadcaster, Jan Yanihero, featured in the documentary Miss-Representation. Recounting growing up in America, she stated that she never saw anyone on TV who looked like her and so never imagined it possible that she could work in the media. Preceding her testimonial were the profound words of Marie Wilson, the founding president of the White House Project: "you can't be what you can't see."

While the issue of female visibility in the media has thankfully got some attention (apparently saturation point is around 33 per cent visibility), I often note how rarely Muslim women are called upon to contribute to mainstream discussions; even when, as in the Arab revolutions, they are frontline activists in the struggle for change. In a recent Guardian article, Chitra Nagarajan is quoted as saying, on the topic of the absence of women -- particularly black and ethnic-minority women -- from current affairs programmes:

When I was doing my count, it was the early months of the year, when revolutions were happening in the Middle East and north Africa, but very rarely did you actually see a woman from any of those countries speak.

You occasionally saw the men speak, but never the women, which I think ties into the whole idea of black women's vulnerability and invisibility. So black women never speak for themselves - other people speak for them, and over their heads - when it comes to their rights. And the image you see of them is as weak, vulnerable and not being really important agents for change.

Muslim women so very seldom speak for themselves; I don't recall the last British Muslim woman I saw on Newsnight or BBC Question Time. Deliberate policy or not (and I'll venture it is a not), young Muslim women often ask me whether it is even feasible for them to seek a career in the media. It is difficult to be optimistic when I have no concrete examples to show them.

All the more so when, as the Cambridge study confirms, so-called "moderate Muslims" -- those who might get air-time -- often are praised in a way which implies they are good because they aren't fully Muslim. So how can young Muslims aspire to be engaged in an industry which reflects back to them the idea that to be accepted, you must compromise your identity?

Muslims who just get on with their lives aren't seen as newsworthy, and when the focus is on a violent subset of the Muslim community, there is the danger that the majority suffer guilt by association. The proof is in the pudding. What's actually politically contentious in All-American Muslim is its potential to dispel some of the hysteria built up around the Muslim community and show us up, warts and all -- as regular people, with regular problems.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist, currently undertaking a Phd in Oriental Studies at Oxford. Her blog can be found here.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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