Aziz Ansari & Dev Shah: What’s In A Name?

Aziz Ansari has been nominated for a Golden Globe and received countless accolades for his Netflix series, Master of None. As a fellow Indian Muslim stand-up comic, actor and writer, I knew I had to see the series breaking barriers in diversity and storytelling.

I grew up admiring Saturday Night Live and the talented stand-up comics invited to perform on the Tonight Show. Of course, there were no South Asians on the show then. The only times I remember Indians on Saturday Night Live: Julia Louis-Dreyfus wore a sari to portray an Indian woman at the United Nations in a spoof of Donahue; and, in a more egregious instance, the character of Rajeev Vindaloo, played by Christopher Guest wearing brown makeup, speaking in an Indian accent, and uttering “chocolate babies” for no reason to great howls.

Fast forward to today: Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra, Kal Penn, Irrfan Khan, Anupam Kher, Aasif Mandvi, Anil Kapoor…the list of South Asian stars on television and in film keeps growing. Muslims, in particular, show up more now because of post-9/11 shows likeHomeland and 24.

I heard Aziz Ansari and his Master of None co-creator, Alan Yang, interviewed on NPR’sFresh Air about how they wanted to represent first-generation Asian-American voices. I read his essay in the New York Times and grew excited to see the risks he would take since “no one really cares” and this would be his show.

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I am not the first person to notice that his character is not presented as Muslim. When I pointed that out on Facebook, a friend wrote, “I prefer the show without religion.” Why does the show have to be about religion, because the character has a faith other than Christianity?

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created characters of Jewish heritage, which never hid their background and occasionally covered Jewish issues. Larry David considers himself an atheist, like Ansari, but still maintained a Jewish identity for his on-screen persona. I doubt anyone thinks of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld as being solely Jewish shows. Jewish life, culture and Yiddish made appearances, but the characters and story lines went beyond that.

“I could not help but note the irony of his refusal to cave to Hollywood norms, while simultaneously erasing a part of his heritage.”

In the “Indians on TV” episode of Master of None, Ansari’s character clearly wants to maintain his authenticity by not simply “doing the accent” in auditions. I could not help but note the irony of his refusal to cave to Hollywood norms, while simultaneously erasing a part of his heritage. Ansari explored topics like immigrant parents, minorities on television, sexual harassment and marriage. Growing up Muslim in the South or Muslim life post-9/11 would have been a great addition to the show in light of the current landscape.

In that same Facebook thread, someone asked me if Aziz Ansari had Muslim heritage. Perhaps non-Muslims think every Muslim is named “Muhammad,” “Abdul,” or “Syed.” I thought his background would be evident after Ansari picked a Twitter fight with Rupert Murdoch after the latter held all “Moslems” accountable for the ”growing jihadist cancer.” For many, this was an activist and Muslim defender side of Ansari that few knew.

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Ansari’s character on the show is named “Dev Shah.” Time picked Dev Shah as one of themost influential fictional characters of 2015. “Dev” is a masculine Sanskrit name that means “divine” or “god.” While the last name, “Shah,” can be found in Iran as well as India, coupled with that first name, the man is most likely a Hindu from the Indian state of Gujarat. (Unfortunately, that state has witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence India has ever seen.)

To Muslims, his real name has religious and historical significance. The name “Aziz” means “powerful” in Arabic and is one of the 99 names of Allah. “Ansari” refers to a group of “helpers” or “Ansar” that accompanied Prophet Muhammad on his migration from Makkah to Medinah.

When I first heard his name, I knew he had a Muslim background right away. However, most Americans likely have no context for either “Dev” or “Aziz,” much less Islamic or Indian political history. As Ansari wrote, no one cares.

“Eponymous shows worked for Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Ray Romano and Louis CK, to cite a few examples.”

Truth: you can be a Muslim and be named Tom or Larry or Jerry. A name does not make you Muslim. However, if no one cares, why go out of your way to change it? Why didn’t he just name his character “Aziz?” Eponymous shows worked for Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Ray Romano and Louis CK, to cite a few examples.

I read that Aziz Ansari’s parents are Muslim, but he considers himself an atheist. Full disclosure: I am married to an atheist raised as a Muslim. Like Ansari’s alter ego, he has liberal political leanings and does not hew to any religious-based restrictions on food and drink. He dated non-Indians and non-Muslims for most of his life. He has an Arabic name given to him by his Muslim parents. While he has rejected religious practice and belief, he would not choose another name merely to distance himself from Islam.

Ansari and my husband do not constitute the entirety of the “Muslim atheist” population. Diversity exists in the Muslim world, more than most realize.

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Like Ansari, I appear to be very Americanized. I speak Midwestern English, I dress in Western clothes without covering my hair, and my skin tone and hair often have me confused for a Latina. I do not have the stereotypical Muslim look and could “pass.”

However, my name is Sameena Fatima Mustafa, a completely Arabic name. “Fatima” is the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, and “Mustafa” is the closest he had to a surname. Those two names are very common in the Muslim world. Every time I travel, I am either detained or screened again. Randomly selected, every time.

As a performer, I am confronted with prejudice and Islamophobia regularly. I have had people literally walk out when I say I am a Muslim. When I first started stand-up, I worried about how my jokes about Indians and Muslims could be feeding stereotypes. I even briefly used my mother’s maiden name, Sultana, as a stage name due to my conservative workplace. It did not take too long for me to realize that being authentic, even at some perceived personal risk, and dropping that cover would sharpen my voice and connection to my audience.

“It did not take too long for me to realize that being authentic, even at some perceived personal risk, and dropping that cover would sharpen my voice and connection to my audience.”

Perhaps Ansari is conflicted like me and other first-generation children of immigrants. South Asian identity confusion is so ubiquitous that it has its own acronym: ABCD (“American Born Confused Desi” where “Desi” means South Asian). We see ourselves as American and Desi, but struggle to assimilate in either world.

As a Muslim, my feeling of otherness started before and deepened since 9/11. During the Iran hostage crisis, Americans saw daily images of angry, threatening Muslims on television. A few years later, I felt compelled to assure my classmates that I would not come to class dressed in fatigues with a semi-automatic weapon. They laughed nervously, but I knew they had no counterpoint to the stories told night after night.

If non-Muslim Americans, especially those who work in airport screening and immigration, saw Muslims as relatable (read: not a terrorist or terror suspect) more often, that could shift the dialogue and escalation of suspicion and hatred occurring today. Donald Trump can get away with saying total falsehoods about Muslims and stoking fears, because very few Americans actually know or interact with a Muslim.

Hopefully, with a few positive portrayals, we will get to a point where we can see Muslims on a show that has nothing to do with the Middle East or terrorism. Maybe they could be ordinary Americans with a penchant for pasta and acting with a diverse group of friends and even (gasp!) a significant other who is not Muslim. I would love the opportunity to produce a show like that one day myself.

In the meantime, I have a message for Aziz Ansari: I care.

Originally posted on The Aerogram.

Sameena Mustafa is a published author, actor, stand-up comedian, and co-founder of Simmer Brown, a South Asian comedy collective, in Chicago.