Does anyone remember Ali Osman from EastEnders circa the late 1980s? British soap’s first Muslim? No? Probably because he wasn’t a Muslim per se, but just another character built to soapland spec: gobshite, gambler, husband in an interracial marriage, father to a baby that died a cot death. Inclusive storylines! Now there’s a novelty. I’m not sayingCoronation Street’s new Muslim family – the Nazirs – are doomed to suffer from all this hype or, worse, turn out to be as permanently irritating as the Masood clan over on EastEnders, but here are six cliches the scriptwriters should avoid when writing about Muslims for teatime telly:
1. Know what year it is
In my mind, Corrie has always been lodged in some chintzy postwar/pre-internet neverland where, like Cheers, everyone knows your name and the Yellow Pages is still cutting edge. Which is fine and good but no excuse to get the details messily mixed up. Find a year to set the new characters in, preferably the one we’re in, and stick to it. Think Citizen Khan’s on point, 21st-century creation Alia: hijabi princess with a bad attitude. Don’t think the show’s plastic-wrapped sofas, Mr Khan’s suit, topi, vintage Mercedes and sense of humour – all pasted in from the 1970s.
2. Don’t bore on about arranged marriages
I wanted to break it gently but this one’s worth shouting about: being forced into archaic, loveless marriages, smuggling spoons in their pants, in order to get help at Heathrow isn’t a majority experience for British Muslims in 2014. It’s a dramatic plot – classic damsel in distress vibes here – but it’s not a commonly lived reality. Sorry. The bigger problem for said Muslims is finding someone to marry full stop. Someone good enough, or good-looking enough, or funny and smart enough to spend the rest of their life with. It’s almost as if it’s universally relatable. Even with the help of parents making introductions, hitting up their networks, spouse-shopping for their kids at every given social gathering, the Muslim marriage thing has shifted a few gears. Net result: it’s complicated.
3. Identity struggles are passe
Double yawn. Any soap character still “battling” that very 80s concept of how to square being British and Muslim, both east and west, flailing about in the second-gen angst of it all, needs to get a grip. Identity is fluid. Nobody born past 1994 is likely to consider this a soul-crushing dilemma. We didn’t have Hanif Kureishi, Gurinder Chadha and Ali freaking Osman in order to still be here, wrestling internal non-conflicts.
4. Don’t try to represent an entire community through one family
And don’t keep banging on about “the community”, that mythical, monolithic, culturally arrested beast that is likely used as an excuse for a soap matriarch to hand-wring about, say, what “the community will think” about her gay son when the real issue is: she can’t work out what to think about her gay son. If Ali Nazir is popping into the Rovers for a quick OJ (how very culturally sensitive if not slightly awkward given that I’d bet Ali is a whisky man anyway), chances are he’s Corrie community now anyway.
5. Don’t try to sell them through their food
“Ooh! This curry/samosa/ethnic food thing is delicious, Mrs Nazir” isn’t a line Rita needs to say to make us understand that she’s cool with times changing. Rita’s been an “exotic dancer”. She’s been stalked, almost killed, made homeless and was once kidnapped by a loan shark on her wedding day. I think she’ll be OK with a Muslim family without the soft sell of lightly spiced pilau rice.
6. Maybe cast a Muslim to play a Muslim?
No big deal, just a thought. We might finally have entered a time when a disparate bunch of vaguely brown actors weren’t just chucked together in the hope that they looked a) remotely related or b) had a clue and could do away with the layers of research and advisers we’re promised have been consulted for the stealth arrival of the Nazirs.