In this scene from the show, Al (center) attempts to orchestrate a reunion between Riley and his ex-wife. Image from “United States of Al,” CBS.

As President Joe Biden’s administration struggles to meet its self-imposed deadline of September 11, 2021 to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, Hollywood is offering its own painless, bloodless version of an end to America’s longest war. Since CBS’s new sitcom, United States of Al premiered on April 1, 2021, the Afghan American diaspora and social media have been abuzz. Some within the Afghan American community are elated to finally see a likeable Afghan lead in a popular American television show. He goes by Al, short for Awalmir, and represents a sharp contrast to the usual casting of Arabs and Muslims as villains in the prolific and pervasive Hollywood War on Terror entertainment genre.

Yet many in the Afghan diaspora are concerned that the first mainstream Afghan character to emerge on a major American television network is a dutiful interpreter for the US Army in a war that has displaced millions of Afghans since 2001. United States of Al serves as another example of US military and war propaganda in the entertainment industry. At a time when countless Afghans—even many who like Al served the US military—are denied entry, or worse, die en route in overcrowded boats and treacherous seas to escape a war-ravaged Afghanistan, United States of Al perpetuates neocolonial representations of Afghans and Afghanistan. It sanitizes the brutal realities and costs of war at a time when most coverage of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan conveniently glosses over the devastating human consequences of almost 20 years of occupation.

United States of Al is being aired amidst a wave of reports that shed light on the failures and lies of the US war in Afghanistan, including its extensive network of prisons, torture and rendition programs and the misappropriation of funds. In its timing, marketing and content, the show is an extension of the United States’s attempt to gracefully absolve itself from responsibility for the war’s human devastation, reinforcing the idea that the United States has always been a force of humanitarianism and unequivocal good in the country. In fact, the show’s trailer is featured on the front page of the website No One Left Behind—founded by General David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan—which seeks to aid applicants of Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). The organization has been referenced continuously by the show’s creator Reza Aslan as part of the show’s promotion. The advisors for United States of Al include military war veterans as well as public policy practitioners, whose work was featured in a recent profile “Advancing Policy through Pop Culture.” These are Afghan and Iraqi translators and interpreters who worked for the US military and who now seek refuge in the United States due to threats to their lives by the Taliban and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). United States of Al portrays the US exit from Afghanistan as seamlessly and gracefully as Al’s exit from his own country and his subsequent reunification in a small Ohio town with Riley, the marine for whom he interpreted. Its creators promote the show as a story about the friendship and humorous cross-cultural clashes between the former soldier and interpreter as they navigate life in the aftermath of war. Complete with a hearty laugh track, the show tries to neatly resolve in a 22-minute episodic sitcom format what the American psyche cannot resolve or reckon with, namely the legacy of US militarism abroad and its ensuing human and financial fallout at home and globally.

 

Erasing the Wounds of War

 

There is a long history of American sitcoms shaping public sentiment around the key domestic and international issues of the day with varying levels of nuance, including the Vietnam War, racism, the civil rights movement, women’s rights and class struggle. Along the same lines, media representations of Afghanistan play a key role in dehumanizing Afghans and diminishing the value and grievability of Afghan life.[1] The pilot episode starts with Al’s arrival at an Ohio airport where he is met with a warm welcome by Riley and Riley’s sister Lizzie, whom we later learn lost her fiancé in the war. The three main characters have all been damaged by war. Yet, despite some discussion about grief, loss and PTSD, the show avoids seriously engaging with the brutal nature of these realities.

Al adapts to his new surroundings with a seamlessness that does not accurately represent the struggles around assimilation and integration that newly arrived immigrants experience, especially former interpreters for US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Al adapts to his new surroundings with a seamlessness that does not accurately represent the struggles around assimilation and integration that newly arrived immigrants experience, especially former interpreters for US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show paints a post-war utopia for the viewer, in which both the interpreter and the marine can heal if they just stick together as friends.

Al’s smooth integration into Riley’s life also promotes the image of the resilient and morally altruistic immigrant. This one-dimensional figure, however, is never afforded the benefit of being emotionally complex, or in short, a real human being. Al immediately knows how to strike the right balance between being socially adept yet obedient and quickly becomes a therapeutic figure in the lives of his host family. He takes on the role of counselor to Riley and his ex-wife, even attempting to orchestrate their reunion, and mediates their disputes while introducing them to digestible nuggets of Afghan culture, such as the values of respect and hospitality. On his second day of living with the family, he consoles Lizzie as she battles with her grief over the death of her fiancé in battle. Like the “noble savage” figure, Al assuages the white characters’ guilt and trauma by imparting his wisdom and moral goodness while at the same time reifying his ancestral country as barbaric, lawless and savage and his adopted country as a site of liberation, freedom, justice and equality. Afghanistan is portrayed as an alien land in which violence and war are such a normal part of everyday life that the only way the American viewer could fathom it is through humor. In one scene in Episode 5 (Homesick/Deghyat), Al explains to Lizzie why he does not have a girlfriend, stating, “I could never tell anyone where I lived because the Taliban were hunting me.” Lizzie replies, “Yeah…dating’s hard.” A laugh track follows. In another scene, Al tells Riley’s ex-wife that Riley did not try hard to preserve their marriage because “He was probably exhausted from war…it’s a lot of walking.”

While Al adjusts to life in Ohio with occasional cultural misunderstandings, the reality for SIV applicants is much more chaotic. As of December 2020, more than 17,000 former translators were still awaiting a response to their 14-step applications. For those who do make it to the United States, SIV applicants, like many immigrant families, struggle to feel a sense of community and confront many barriers upon resettling, including Islamophobia, discrimination and lack of employment. In a recently aired episode “Fundraiser/Baspana Towlawal,” Al makes a speech to veterans and police officers where he acknowledges the tragedy of these pending applications. Al tells the audience that the interpreters who were the eyes and ears of US soldiers face death threats as do their family members. Al says he was one of the lucky ones because he knew a hero like Riley who saved his life through pushing his application to the front of the line, granting him entry into the United States. Al proceeds to sing Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” to express his gratitude to Riley with a charisma and self-deprecating self-awareness that makes him stand out—he receives applause, laughter and cheers from the audience.

The show seems to suggest that SIVs deserve entry and protection because they are people like Al.[2] But Al represents an exception and an unrealistic example of immigrant life, especially in the way he so effortlessly belongs within and endears himself to the dominant culture only weeks after arrival in the United States. Al embodies the resilient refugee, the good immigrant, who assimilates without issue and does not complain. In doing so, the show reproduces what has become a common sense idea in the American consciousness that the United States must save Afghans from themselves through either militarized intervention or resettlement of those displaced by war. The problem with this portrayal is that it creates an impossible standard for recently arrived refugees to meet, especially those displaced by the ravages of war. It expects newcomers to provide digestible forms of cultural knowledge to the host society while at the same time participating in the dehumanizing discourse of their people. United States of Al is one of many narratives that contribute to a broader discourse that forecloses narratives in which refugees make mistakes, refuse to culturally assimilate and speak out about the injustice of the US immigration system and war machine, narratives that reflect the stories of our own immigrant families and those of many in the diaspora.

In addition to glossing over the realities of post-war life for Special Immigrant Visa interpreters, the show also reinforces existing imaginaries of Afghanistan as a land of warlords, corruption and unbridled violence.
In addition to glossing over the realities of post-war life for SIV interpreters, the show also reinforces existing imaginaries of Afghanistan as a land of warlords, corruption and unbridled violence. Al never hesitates to entertain and reinforce Lizzie and Riley’s beliefs about his home country. Take, for example, the encounter in the pilot episode that Al and Riley have with a police officer who stops Al for driving too slowly on a highway. Over a laugh track, Al offers a roll of cash to the officer to buy him off—reproducing the idea that Afghans are corrupt. After Riley steps in and apologizes to the officer, they are let off with a friendly warning. This exchange also, then, situates US law enforcement as rational and just, which as decades of historically documented police brutality show, is far from the truth.

Beyond the bad, bland jokes, the sitcom continues to reify the trope of Afghans as sexually repressed and misogynistic. In Episode 3 (Shorts/Neykar), Al gets into a car to start his test to acquire a driver’s license and his eyes pan over to the test administrator who is a white female wearing shorts. Al seems disoriented by the administrator’s bare legs. His eyes widen and he begins to sweat. A full-blown panic attack follows. Al loses control of the car and crashes. At dinner, Al tells Riley’s family that Afghan culture sees women as jewels who need to be protected. When Al and Lizzie discuss his views in Lizzie’s room (which Al hesitates to enter), he once again explains he is experiencing major culture shock. Lizzie responds that she too is disoriented by his culture. Al retakes the test and although he passes, he finds himself shocked yet again when he encounters a car wash with bikini-clad women.

While Al’s experience might reflect aspects of the cultural disorientation felt by some immigrants, it is a tired story that has consistently been used in the American imaginary to paint Afghan men as misogynistic, sexually repressed and unable to control their primal instincts around the female body. Whereas Afghan culture is portrayed as inherently misogynistic, American society is presented as inherently progressive when it comes to women’s rights. Several episodes, however, feature both Al and Riley bonding over highly misogynistic comments about Riley’s ex-wife and Lizzie, describing them as no longer “marriage material” or “expired.” In a time when the #MeToo Movement has revealed the depths of US misogyny, the show “outsources patriarchy” as something that happens elsewhere.[3] Sexual violence and misogyny do exist in Afghanistan, but United States of Al perpetuates dangerous stereotypes while eliding America’s own social and political failures.

 

The Uses of Cultural Authenticity by the Military-Entertainment Complex

 

The representation of Afghans as barbaric and savage is not new. Media and literary representations have long been key to justifying military interventions in Afghanistan and elsewhere for US and British audiences. What makes United States of Al a particularly insidious form of military propaganda is how it weaponizes a discourse of cultural authenticity and inclusion to shield itself from critique. The show and its producers have drawn on select aspects of Afghan culture by, for example, translating the episode titles into Pashto, showing Al occasionally speaking the language and featuring familiar Afghan foods and customs. At a premiere screening event that we were invited to attend, as members of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association (AAAWA), the producers repeatedly emphasized their dedication to cultural equity and inclusion through working with three Afghan Americans and the Iranian American religious scholar Reza Aslan, along with two white screenwriters.

In other words, the show’s production checks all the right boxes of liberal ideals of cultural representation and the rehumanization of the “Other” but forecloses any debate about the imperial imaginaries that inform the show’s worldmaking. Rather than addressing such critiques, at this screening the production team promoted the show’s premiere as a big moment for Afghans in America because Al is a positive and loveable figure and a departure from stereotypes of Afghans as dangerous or terrorists. It is no small feat for Afghan Americans to be part of such a prominent media production: Several of the writers have worked tirelessly for decades to place Afghan culture within mainstream media. But a culturally diverse production team falls short if the characters they invent, the worlds they build and the dialogue they write continue to deny Afghans their complex humanity.

How and why did a show that traffics in such colonial, Orientalist, Islamophobic and misogynist stereotypes of Afghanistan get produced? While we do not know the ins and outs of the production dynamics, part of the answer lies in the ways in which media portrayals of Afghanistan are both discursively and financially tethered to empire and the US military industrial complex. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when the British first invaded Afghanistan, the dehumanization of Afghans began with colonial literature and reverberated to the halls of policymakers and military strategists. Shortly following the October 2001 US intervention, American films like Lions and Lambs, Restrepo and Charlie Wilson’s War, shows like Homeland and books such as Three Cups of Tea and Kabul Beauty School continued to present Afghan lives as in need of civilizing at best or disposable at worst. These cultural productions also present US military interventions as rooted in humanitarian or national security concerns and were released during key turning points in the US war in Afghanistan.

The denial of humanity to Afghans has had deadly consequences. When Afghans are not seen as real people with families, concerns, lives, relationships, flaws and everything in between they are more easily written off as marginal considerations when it comes to the development of military strategies and tactics.

When Afghans are not seen as real people with families, concerns, lives, relationships, flaws and everything in between they are more easily written off as marginal considerations when it comes to the development of military strategies and tactics.
This blindness and othering has justified the loss of Afghan life, which continues to be seen by conservatives and liberals alike as merely an “unfortunate fallout” of “US military strategy” rather than preventable deaths that result from prolonged occupation. According to Brown University’s “Costs of War” initiative, the US-led intervention in Afghanistan has thus far cost 157,000 lives, which includes 43,000 Afghan civilians, 2,298 US soldiers and 64,000 local Afghan military and police. In addition, 3.6 million people have been displaced as refugees.

United States of Al suffers from a distinctly American amnesia around the brutal realities of war, making it difficult for the viewer to fully grasp the trauma that civilians, military personnel and interpreters suffer. Rehashing the same dangerous stereotypes of despotism and barbarism precludes the fundamental agency, creativity and intellect of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Far beyond the archetypal Hollywood alignment of forces of good (the US military) versus bad (Islamic extremists and terrorists), Afghanistan is populated by diverse peoples with complex stories facing numerous challenges. Many Afghan human rights activists, journalists and media makers risk their lives every day while working to lay the foundations for democracy and human rights, including the Network for Afghan Women, the People’s Peace Movement, the Roshnayi Movement and the Balkh Peace Movement. [4] They are subjected to threats, physical attacks and death for challenging local and international warlords, yet there are no special visas to the United States for them and their stories are hardly recognized in the American imperial imaginary.

While United States of Al is only one story and cannot represent the full breadth of Afghan life, it does little to shift dominant war narratives around Afghanistan. The interpreter-soldier relationship in the aftermath of war should be explored in depth, but it requires confronting the realities of the Forever War in Afghanistan and its resulting global refugee crisis. To do so, creators must start centering the complicated stories of those working for self-determination, peace and justice instead of shrouding the costs of war in laughter.

 

 

[Wazhmah Osman is assistant professor of Media and Communication Studies at Temple University and author of Television and the Afghan Culture Wars: Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists (University of Illinois Press, 2020). Helena Zeweri is assistant professor of Global Studies at the University of Virginia. Seelai Karzai is an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon.]

 


 

Endnotes

[1] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable (New York: Verso Books, 2009). Thomas Gregory, “Potential Lives, Impossible Deaths: Afghanistan, Civilian Casualties, and the Politics of Intelligibility,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 14/3 (2012).

[2] In a post-episode PSA, the two actors from United States of Al released this video in support of the No One Left Behind organization run by Gen. Petraeus, and acknowledged that not everyone is as lucky as Al, but did not expand further: https://twitter.com/USofAlCBS/status/1390471190771240960

[3] Inderpal Grewal, “Outsourcing Patriarchy: Feminist Encounters, Transnational Mediations, and the Crime of ‘Honour Killings.’” International Feminist Journal of Politics 15/1 (2013).

[4] Wazhmah Osman, Television and the Afghan Culture Wars: Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2020).

 

How to cite this article:

Wazhmah Osman, Helena Zeweri, Seelai Karzai "The Fog of the Forever War with a Laugh Track in “United States of Al”," Middle East Report Online, May 26, 2021.
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