What I Learned Trying to Write a Muslim-American Cop Show for HBO

The author and Dave Eggers wanted to create a three-dimensional, fully human character with an interesting job who just happened to be Muslim. Was television ready?

It started with a discussion about the New York Police Department. The author Dave Eggers and I had known each other for a few years, and we began talking about an encouraging trend: The NYPD, which hadn't been so consistently friendly to Muslims after 9/11, was making efforts to reach out to the Muslim community, with the help of its 1500 Muslim-American officers.

What if, we thought, there were a television show about a Muslim-American cop? The goal we had in mind was to create a three-dimensional, fully human character who had an interesting job, an engaging and chaotic family—all the messiness and the complexity of normal life, in other words—and who just happened to be Muslim.

We weren’t interested in creating CSI: Dearborn or Law and Order: Special Muslims Unit, but we thought that attempting to capture the evolution of multicultural communities and depicting everyday Muslim-American life might be best achieved via a vehicle that had its own standalone appeal: the detective show. We also knew that for many people, the perception of America’s dynamic Arab and Muslim-American communities is an outdated DeLorean, stuck somewhere between 1979 and 2001. (The time machine is driven by a bearded villain shouting “Allahu Akbar,” while drinking a Coke Zero in one hand and holding a rough draft of “The Muslim Agenda” in the other.)

Even though Muslims have lived on the North American continent since the 1500s, nearly 62 percent of Americans say they don’t know one. In 1996, Muhammad Ali lit the torch for America in the Atlanta Olympics. But in an analysis published in the American Sociological Review, sociologist Christopher Bail states that anti-Muslim bigots “not only exerted powerful influence on media discourse about Muslims in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, but ultimately became some of the most influential mainstream groups in the field. By 2008, these fringe organizations not only permeated the mainstream but also forged vast social networks that consolidated their capacity to create cultural change.”

The inflammatory rhetoric that followed the brutal attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month only highlighted this depressing reality. Some mainstream outlets and personalities sought out “moderate Muslims”—as if they were mythical creatures like unicorns—to vociferously condemn and apologize for the criminal misdeeds of violent extremists. In some cases, these "moderate" Muslims were even blamed for global terrorist attacks committed by a tiny minority, which rationalizes its hate and barbarity with a perverse understanding of Islam.

In using the cop-drama model, we wanted to subvert and reorient both the framing and the pop cultural depictions of American Muslims, which often create a harmful and limiting binary of “good Muslim and bad Muslim.” The “good Muslim” is usually a lonely token, often with a nice jawline and light caramel skin tone, who advances national security objectives, and fights an army of radicalized Muslim Orcs ready to declare violent jihad against America.

But what would happen if, instead of a token, we had a plurality? And they had last names, diverse ethnic communities, personalities, lame jokes, intrusive mothers, annoying but loving families, significant others, hobbies that weren’t inherently criminal, an ability to converse without violent outbursts, and so forth?

* * *

In 2001, I was a 20-year-old senior at UC Berkeley, and it was hard enough just trying to decide on a major. After the Twin Towers fell, I transformed into an accidental activist thanks to my being on the board of the Muslim Student Association, and apparently became an unofficial cultural ambassador for Muslim communities worldwide.

Being a post-9/11 Muslim means having to be a walking Wikipedia on all things “Muslimy,” which necessitates having expertise in Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, Sharia, Arabic, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, the Iron Sheikh, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hakeem Olajuwon, Hamas, Hummus, Fatah, Fatwas, Salman Rushdie, Salman Khan (the Bollywood actor), the Khan Academy (the online education service), and everything in between.

In other words, it’s exhausting.

During this period, I was also enrolled in celebrated author Ishmael Reed’s short-story class. A few weeks after the terror attacks, Ishmael pulled me aside and told me I had to write 20 pages of a play for him to pass the class. As an African American, he understood that Muslim Americans were going to get a “hazing,” in his words, but one of the positive ways of fighting back was through storytelling and culture—that’s how “his people” and other minorities did it before us.

It’s true. The current story of Islamophobia in America is simply a remake. In the past, the antagonists have been (and occasionally still are) Jews, Catholics, LGBT persons, Japanese Americans and African Americans. This time, Muslims got the part without auditioning.

Minorities in America have often been either marginalized or completely excised from the American narrative because their stories were told to them by others. At best, they emerge as endearing and ass-kicking sidekicks: the Sulus, Hajji Babas, and Tontos. So it seemed like the only way to truly emerge as the protagonist was to pick up the pen and bum rush the show, in the immortal words of Public Enemy.

Ishmael was sincerely curious about the Muslim-American experience. He said he’d never really heard or seen our stories on the page or the big screen. He encouraged me to write a classic family drama, but with a Pakistani-American family as its protagonists. Considering that I’d never written a play before and this was, after all, a short-story writing class, I begged him to reconsider. He replied that I owed him 20 pages by the end of the semester or he’d fail me. With that encouraging, loving nudge, my first play, The Domestic Crusaders, was born. I started it on my 21st birthday and finished on my 23rd. It’s about a day in the life of six Muslim-American characters from three different generations who reconvene at the family house to celebrate the youngest son’s birthday. In 2004, the play premiered at a Bay Area South-Asian restaurant, Mehran. The next summer it was performed in a showcase at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and San Jose State University.

Four years later, I was trying to raise funds and generate publicity for the play’s premiere in New York at the Nuyorican’s Poets Cafe on September 11, 2009. But being a Bay-Area resident and the son of South Asians, I was initially mocked by most members of my community for not having embraced the holy trinity of occupations:

  1. Doctor
  2. Engineer
  3. Dubious businessman who somehow makes a lot of money

Also, being a resident of the Bay Area—populated primarily by dot coms, venture capitalists, and entrepreneur wannabes—there’s often a dearth of artistic and creative support unless your business card is adorned with the words “Google” or “Facebook.”

This is where Dave comes in. His publishing house, McSweeney’s, is located in San Francisco. I was a fan of his books, politics, and charitable advocacy and had a strong spidey-sense he would dig what I was doing. On a whim, I drove out to San Francisco from Fremont to attend a reading he was doing at the Arab American Cultural Center. I introduced myself to Dave during the book signings. Randomly, an elderly Arab-American uncle walked up, stared me right in the face, interrupted our conversation and asked, “Who are you? What do you do?”

“Um, I’m a solo attorney right now," I replied. "Well, I’m trying. I just started. I’m trying to defend some families from being foreclosed by big banks."

Dave whipped around. He asked me about the work I was doing and invited me to McSweeney’s the next day. After a 30-minute conversation, he asked me to write a 15,000-word feature cover story for an upcoming special issue of McSweeney’s entitled Panorama. The resulting story, Could it Be That the Best Chance to Save a Young Family from Foreclosure is a 28-Year-Old Pakistani American Playwright-Slash-Attorney Who Learned Bankruptcy Law On The Internet?, was selected as one of the best nonfiction stories of 2010 by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, and led me to several interested literary agents and some writing gigs. McSweeney’s would also go on to publish The Domestic Crusaders in 2010 as its first play. (Thank you, random elderly Arab-American uncle for interrupting our conversation.)

* * *

Dave and I formed a genuine friendship and began collaborating on several projects. We share similar eccentricities and unorthodox career paths. I left law to produce my play and jump-start my odd writing/commentary career, and he used his paycheck from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to start 826 Valencia, a non-profit organization with several national chapters dedicated to supporting young people with creative writing skills. We also belong to the same school of “Wear Not Ties With Sports Jackets” and “Jeans Are an Acceptable Substitute for Dress Pants,” and serve as its main proselytizers.

Given my ethnic background, I originally assumed we’d make our show about a young Pakistani-American detective, thereby giving me a shameless excuse to mainstream biryani. Instead, we decided we should focus on characters from Yemen, a country that mainly registered on the American radar thanks to drone casualties and it being the epicenter of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Currently, Yemen is mainly portrayed in the media as a hotbed of unrest, beleaguered by violent extremists, the enduring American war on terror, Shia militias, separatists, sectarianism, Saudi and Iranian proxy fighting, and the continued meddling of former dictator/President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Recently, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his staff resigned after signing a tentative peace deal with Shia Houthi rebels who stormed the capital, Sana’a, and captured the presidential palace. In America, we see the sensationalism and hear about the ongoing “crisis,” but rarely do we hear about the Yemeni people and the diverse diaspora living in the United States, especially in California.

Dave and I wanted a Bay Area-centric show that would show the rich diversity of our region. We wanted the aromatic smells of the Tenderloin; the upscale shopping on Union Street; the Yemeni-owned liquor stores of downtown Oakland; the mosques of Berkeley and San Francisco frequented by white converts, black Americans, and Pakistani-Americans selling haleem and bean pies; the mom-and-pop stores selling Afghan-American bolani and pallow; the burned-out idealists at the public defender’s office; the old-guard Irish-Catholic cops in the SFPD—and we wanted to mash them all up into a realistic, entertaining, and engaging mosaic that revealed the vibrant colors of our region’s character.

We briefly flirted with the idea of making our story into a movie but realized we couldn’t find a rational excuse to have the main character fight alongside superheroes, Optimus Prime, or Jennifer Lawrence, thereby dooming the project’s financial viability. However, we were encouraged by the rich, layered storytelling that’s emerged on cable television in the past decade. Artists have been given the creative freedom to create dense, meaningful novels in the visual form with complex characters, mature subject matter, and multiple storylines.

Our initial pitch, to HBO, consisted of some notes we drafted at 2 a.m. about an eccentric young detective named Mujaddid, nicknamed MJ—a brilliant UC Berkeley engineering graduate who decided to become a cop after 9/11. He grew up in Yemen but loved ‘80s Hollywood action movies, and we thought it’d be a good reversal of the violent Muslim stereotype to make him absolutely terrible with a gun. We wanted the show to start on a close up of MJ firing a revolver, cracking his neck like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon—except, in MJ’s case, the results would be far from badass.

HBO was intrigued and gave us a contract to write a pilot. We were pleasantly surprised, but then we read that the statistical likelihood of a pilot script making it to TV was about 5 percent, and we laughed out loud. We made a vow to write a real, unfiltered pilot without compromising our vision. The problem was, neither of us had ever written a TV show before. I deemed it wise to “invest” time in “research” by watching lots of it.

The TV pilot is a strange, intimidating beast to conquer. In one hour, you have to create an entertaining, self-contained episode within your new universe, in which you introduce characters, themes and the enticing seeds of future, intersecting storylines that will propel a 12-episode narrative arc. I Googled “Best TV Pilots” and proceeded to watch as many as I could on Netflix. This included the premieres of Lost, Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men and many other fine shows. I took copious notes, auditing the pilot if you will, trying to break down the formula. Alas, this required investing more time in “research.” I also Googled “How To Write a TV Pilot.” Quickly, we realized we were too stubborn, ornery, and odd to comply with any strict formula or guidelines, so we decided to craft our MJ in our own “unique” manner.

Deluded by our optimism, we began to write at the McSweeney’s crib, assuming we’d crank out 30 pages of script in a day. Our average ended up being only three-and-a-half pages per session. The routine consisted of me driving across the Bay Bridge from Fremont, getting stuck in traffic, and arriving around 4 p.m. We’d start each writing session by walking around the Mission District to brainstorm ideas. This resulted in us talking about anything and everything except the pilot. Then we’d return to the offices with the intention of writing, but Dave would be assaulted by the McSweeney’s chaos—or we’d get hungry and step out to eat. Eventually, we decided it would be best to trade pages over email instead.

We agreed about 92 percent of the time in terms of plot, character and dialogue. Dave is a righteous dude. Despite his stature, he treated me like an equal and entertained my suggestions with an open, generous spirit. He also refused to move forward without me when some Hollywood execs initially mistook me for the third stunt double in Slumdog Millionaire. Seriously, the first time I met our HBO liaison in a Los Angeles burger joint, he straight up said to me, “Our team has, collectively, over a hundred years of experience in television. No one—and I mean no one—has ever heard of you. So, who are you again and what have you written?” (I might have embellished that line of dialogue.) I gave him my life story, discussed my previous writings, threw in some baseball references, won him over—barely—and then he rewarded me with a plate of tasty sardines and fries.

* * *

Legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously said that in Hollywood, when it comes to making a hit, “Nobody knows nothing.” After my brief experience working on MJ, I agree with him. The industry draws mainly on successful trends, formulas, and easily digestible talking points that can be publicized to international markets hitting all four demographic quadrants. The Hollywood concept of an elevator pitch is basically the game “mash up,” where you describe your entire TV show or movie by juxtaposing two unrelated things. For example, this is how I’d pitch the movie Noah: “Prophet Gladiator meets the Bible with a CGI Flood.” Here’s Exodus: Gods and Kings: “Prophet Batman versus Pharaoh with a CGI Red Sea.” Another one for Edge of Tomorrow: “Action-hero Tom Cruise meets Groundhog Day with CGI Aliens.”

In hindsight, we believe HBO wanted MJ to be “Homeland–meets-The Cosby Show,” but we can’t be sure. They definitely didn’t want “The Wire with Muslims” and they told us that from the beginning. They had no interest in re-treading old ground and we had no interest in duplicating someone else’s narrative. What we did know was that we didn’t want MJ to explore the similar “find the terrorist” national-security terrain of Homeland and 24. Both of those shows had already excelled in that genre.

After we turned in the second draft of our script, HBO asked us, “Is MJ primarily a cop drama or a family drama? Is it a comedy or a serious examination of modern American Muslim life in all its complexity?” Honestly, we answered all of the above and then some. Despite our best efforts, Dave and I couldn’t create the elevator pitch to placate the Hollywood Gods (“Yemenis Meet NYPD Blue but in the Bay Area!” “Muslims on the Streets of San Francisco!”) After a while, we realized we didn’t want to create a simple pitch. MJ was an unusual creation for unusual times that deliberately upended formulaic conventions. Although HBO continued to support us and requested a third draft, we thought it’d be best to request the rights to our beloved Frankenstein and mold the rest of it according to our mad whims.

Just to briefly highlight the paucity of color and Muslim talent involved in Hollywood’s creative process, I also had a brief conversation two years ago about joining the staff of a different TV show centered around Muslims and the Middle East. The producer said, “We looked around our writing staff, and we realized we’re nine white men. None of us are Muslim. So, maybe we should have a Muslim on this staff.” Perhaps this awareness is a sign of progress. After reading their pilot script, I passed, but that’s a tale for another essay.

Back to MJ—although Dave’s hair might fool you, believe it or not, neither of us are Yemeni. It was critical, though, that we make the story as real and authentic as possible. We wrote three drafts of the script under the brilliant and dedicated consultancy of Mokhtar Alkhanshali and Ashwak Hauter, two young, Yemeni-American Bay Area residents. They read every script, provided critical feedback, and gave us invaluable cultural specifics. They also connected us with the hospitable and warm Yemeni-American community, who generously gave us tours of mosques, shops, and convenience stores. We were also offered exquisite qat, a shrub chewed religiously in Yemen but illegal here in the States. (For the record, Dave and I did not chew.) We’d also like to thank the SFPD at the Fillmore station for inviting us to the precinct, answering our questions, and giving us behind-the-scenes insight to their daily life.

HBO was a very kind and generous creative partner. We couldn’t have asked for a better TV house to nurture our show. Unfortunately, we wrote this during the zeitgeist of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and our MJ was, and remains, a realistic, humanistic entity that, for better or worse, doesn’t fit within the confines of popular genre TV. MJ enters a volatile world where some of the same simplistic questions asked after 9/11 are being asked again: Do Muslims hate the West? Where are the moderate Muslims? Are Islam and the West compatible? And so forth. Mainstream politicians are actually suggesting that there are “no go zones” in the West populated by unsavory Muslims and that Sharia law is a real threat to America.

The vast majority of American Muslims and the wealth of their diverse experiences have been reduced to stock characters in predictable narratives. However, we’ve also witnessed America embracing its first Pakistani-American Muslim comic book superhero, Ms Marvel, who has become a monster hit among young women, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. Its co-creator, Willow Wilson, is a white convert to Islam who wears the hijab. Keith Ellison, an African American, is a popular Congressman from Minnesota and was the first Muslim elected official. My friend Hasan Minhaj is killing it on The Daily Show as their newest on-air correspondent.

These people and characters aren’t anomalies. They resonate with audiences because they’re interesting, engaging, and refreshing—and they just happen to be Muslim. At the end of the day, people just want entertaining, riveting stories populated by memorable and relatable characters.

(My personal belief is that if all else fails we can make a zombie version of MJ, because America loves zombies. The Muslim zombies would start fighting about whether or not they could eat non-halal meat and if fasting were still mandatory even in their decaying, post-mortem state. After an intense civil war, they'd realize they need strength in numbers and team up with their dysfunctional monotheistic-zombie cousins, The Jews. The series writes itself.)

But because there are still so few three-dimensional depictions of American Muslims out there, we wanted to publish the first half of our MJ script, which is available to read at the McSweeney’s website. In an age of sensationalism and hyperbole, of grotesque caricatures and fearful ignorance, our hope is that MJ and fictional storytelling—a kind that isn’t apologetic and doesn’t serve merely as propaganda—can add much-needed color and complexity to the story of American Muslims, so often painted only in black and white (and occasionally brown).