Fans of HBO's The Night Of are sometimes surprised that Riz Ahmed, who plays the afflicted Pakistani-American college student Nasir "Naz" Khan, is British. It's a testament to his immersive acting skill, one that he has spent years cultivating and putting through the audition grind. Ahmed's star is on the rise, and for an actor of color, that often means having the opportunity to play roles that go beyond racial stereotypes. In real life, however, there is a singular situation in which he is continuously typecast as a national security threat — at the airport.
In a remarkable essay published in The Guardian, Ahmed detailed his experience at airports as a brown person.
In his effort to avoid roles of the "two-dimensional stereotype" of people of color, the British-Pakistani actor went for the "subversive portrayal" of ethnic minorities. His first film, The Road to Guantanamo about the illegal imprisonment and torture of a group of British Muslim friends in the infamous detention center, won a prestigious award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
"We were euphoric," he wrote of the win. "For those who saw it, the inmates went from orange jumpsuits to human beings."
But not so at the airport. Ahmed arrived at London's Luton Airport from Berlin, "British intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked me," he wrote. "'What kinda film you making? Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?' an officer screamed, twisting my arm to the point of snapping." Acclamation of his thespian talents did not exempt him from being seen as a terrorist.
When Ahmed traveled to the U.S. for work, there was little difference. He was placed in a holding area for three agonizing hours where an officer asked him, among other things, "Do you know anyone who wants to do harm to the United States?"
As Ahmed's roles propel him into more famous territory, he travels more, and the more he travels, "the more ridiculous the [frisking] procedures become."
Ahmed recalled the last airport officer who frisked him, a young Muslim man who was particularly contrite about having to. "'Sorry bro,'" he recalled his apology. "'If it makes you feel any better, they search me before I fly too.'"
We laughed, not because he was joking, but because he was deadly serious. It was the perfect encapsulation of the minority's shifting and divided self, forced to internalise the limitations imposed on us just to get by, on the wrong side of the velvet rope even when (maybe especially when) you're on the right side of it. We cracked jokes and bumped fists.
The essay was part of a collection of personal stories by prominent ethnic minorities in the U.K., published in the book The Good Immigrant.
Ahmed's story has been shared widely on social media, and many have tweeted their praise at the actor — to which he responded in jest: