Last week I idly started a fantasy casting blog/twitter thingie which not only provided many happy hours of procrastination but also threw up loads of names that I’d never considered before. But the really interesting result was what happened when I asked for suggestions for the character of Dr Walid.
I got many suggestions for many fine actors, amongst them Ben Kingsley, and the one thing they all had in common was they were all ethnically Asian(1), Arabic or Middle Eastern. Hooray for diversity I hear you say and hurrah indeed were it not for the fact that Dr Walid is neither ethnically Asian, Arabic or Middle Eastern.
Here is the passage where Peter first meets our illustrious Cryptopathologist.
I was introduced to Abdul Haqq Walid, a spry, gingery man in his fifties who spoke with a soft Highland accent. (Rivers of London, p67)
Dr Walid is a white Scot from Oban, his family are observant members of the Church of Scotland, and he converted to Islam when studying medicine at Edinburgh. I often refer to him as ‘Gastroenterology’s answer to Cat Stevens,’ after Yusif Islam who likewise converted in the late 1970s and like Walid he took an Arabic name when he did so.
Readers read books much faster than writers write them and can miss details as they go. Obviously many readers read the name Abdul Haqq Walid and immediately superimposed Ben Kingsley on the character before they’d even finished the sentence. They did this because western culture has a hard time separating Islam, the religion, from a bundle of distinct ethnicities (Asian, Middle Eastern and Arab).
So now a quick digression followed by some waffle.
My favourite TV drama example of this kind of stupidity comes in The State Within by Lizzie Mickery and Dan Percival during which the US Government decides to lock up or deport (I forget which) all British Muslims. Now leaving aside the constitutionality of such a move – how the fuck would they know of which British passport holders are Muslims? Religion is not specified on the passport and that information is not gathered for any British (or as far as I know US) form of identification.
There’s a scene where a British Muslim couple nervously approach a checkpoint, we know they are Muslim because they’re Asian and nervous, but how would the officer’s at the checkpoint know they were Muslims. By their ethnicity – they could have been Hindi’s, Jains, Christians, Sihks, Jews or, god forbid, atheists. By their names? Many Asian Muslims have Arabic names but many do not, many non-Muslims have Arabic names – my son for example – you run across many non-Muslims with Arabic names especially if they or their parents are from West Africa.
None of this is raised by any of the characters in the TV series because for the writers and production crew Islam was an ethnicity not a globe spanning religion. Once the US Government had made the decision to deport them they’d be easy to spot – no worries.
I can't help wondering that I could have avoided the confusion if I had written the sentence as... I was introduced to a spry, gingery Scot called Abdul Haqq Walid. Would the whole gingery Scot stereotype have overcome the Muslim as ethnic group stereotype? I can't tell and that's the problem.
You see I deliberately made Dr Walid a convert in part to work against that stereotype (in other part because he insisted on looking like Robin Cook in my imagination) so should I have hammered the point home a bit harder? Some argue that a writer has a responsibility to judge their audience reaction when tackling sensitive topics like religion and ethnicity but by what margin of overkill do you need to put into your writing to ensure everyone gets it? Is it even desirable that everyone gets it?
As my friend Andrew says - it'll just be a lovely surprise for everyone if they make a TV series.