Early on in his career, Pej Vahdat — who’s played elite Muslim scientist Arastoo Vaziri on Bones since 2009 — would audition for parts that were hackneyed Middle Eastern stereotypes. “Of course there were those terrorist roles,” he told BuzzFeed News, which along with “the bodega owner and the taxicab driver was the majority of the stuff you would be seen for, unfortunately.”
So Vahdat was happy to land the role on a Fox detective show, and happy when Arastoo turned into a recurring character; he thought it was “incredible that he’s a brilliant scientist helping people solve crimes, and not committing them.” The majority of TV portrayals of Muslims have been so one-note that they prompted then-President Barack Obama to say in 2016, “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security.” In that grim context, Vahdat has played a forensics expert and a poet whose faith is important but not his defining characteristic. He was subverting racist clichés, but quietly.
Over the last year, though, Vahdat has gotten louder. Like his character Arastoo, the 34-year-old actor is an Iranian-American Muslim who immigrated to the US — Vahdat himself came as a baby with his family. And just a day before he met with BuzzFeed News in Los Angeles, a panel of three federal judges ruled against the current administration’s travel ban for people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran (a slightly revised version of the order is expected soon). As he had throughout the election, Vahdat felt as though his humanity was on trial — now, almost literally.
“I’m not a political person at all, but this is hitting me,” he said. His Twitter account has been dominated by politics; with a newfound will to engage with that sphere, the usually press-averse Vahdat enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed this month. He wants to be as visible as possible, America’s Muslim next door neighbor.
Muslims have long been a political bogeyman, but they’ve been unabashedly vilified in this current political climate, and the new Republican administration regularly casts Islam as a generator of terrorists. Raising his eyebrows slightly, Vahdat recalled that after he began openly criticizing our now-president online, “My mom called me crying, worried sick because she was afraid a Trump supporter would shoot me.”
It’s a heightened version of the circumstances that led to Arastoo in the first place. On the phone, Bones creator Hart Hanson explained to BuzzFeed News that in Season 4, he added a Middle Eastern scientist to the cast in a conscious effort to engage with Muslim identity — and anti-Muslim bigotry. “You started to think, ‘Wow, these moderate, everyday Muslims are facing a tough world,’” Hanson said in a phone interview. “A predominantly white culture views Muslims as the Other. It just seemed to have squeezed up into the zeitgeist, and at the same time, there was good, increasing pressure … to increase diversity.”
Admittedly, the introduction of Arastoo was clumsy: For his first two episodes, the character had a thick accent and was portrayed as a very devout and exceedingly deferential man who cheerfully endured anti-Muslim gibes from his co-workers in the forensic lab. Although the nonchalant bigotry in those early Arastoo episodes is odd to watch now, Vahdat didn’t think the other characters’ behavior in the show was out of place; based on his experience, the open hostility to Arastoo was “probably how someone would react.”
“I grew up in a pretty white suburb,” Vahdat said. Throughout the conversation, he rarely interrupted himself, but here he began to speak in fragments. “I always felt a weird — the jokes about my — even in lightheartedness, there were a lot of jokes about my skin color, my culture, and it was always taken like, eh, no big deal.”
However, after the first three episodes featuring Arastoo, Hanson said the writers had to abandon their impulse to make him stereotypically foreign. “I have to be both ashamed and proud when it comes to the character of Arastoo,” Hanson said — ashamed largely because Arastoo’s Iranian accent was used for “cheap humor.” Hanson decided that Arastoo had faked his accent so that his co-workers wouldn’t question his faithfulness to Islam. “Wouldn’t it give us a pot to stir if this guy had put on the accent to deal with progressive discrimination?” Hanson said.
In his fourth appearance on the show, Arastoo angrily drops the act when he snaps at lab head Cam (Tamara Taylor), who repeatedly asks him if he’s comfortable working with pig bones. “I’m a scientist, okay? Just like the rest of you,” he says, frustrated. “Back off and let me do my job like anyone else.” From then on, Bones has been at pains to emphasize Arastoo’s ordinariness.
And to the show’s credit, it is impossible to imagine certain moments like the one in Season 4 when Hodgins (TJ Thyne) casually affirms that he mistrusts Muslims, and other characters accept this as reasonable. By contrast, in Season 8, a white intern assumes that Arastoo might feel uncomfortable investigating a death related to the 9/11 attacks: In a scathing speech that lambasts lazy generalizations, Arastoo tells his fellow intern, “Those horrible men who hijacked those planes hijacked my religion that day, too.” The white character says, “I’m sorry, and thank you for taking the time to set me straight,” and the other interns around them nod.
Vahdat said that’s his favorite episode. “I still get people sending me clips of that scene … saying, ‘This opened my eyes up because we never thought, How could you be affected by this?’ … A lot of them really woke up and said, ‘Oh my god, yeah, he’s American, and he was affected by this, just like me.’”
By now in this current, final season of Bones, we’ve met Arastoo’s family and he’s going to get married; he’s been fully integrated into the show as an essential character. Vahdat thinks Hollywood is swinging away from negative depictions of Muslims and Arab-Americans — with this new administration and its frothy-mouthed eagerness to make generalizations about an entire religion, creators are suddenly aware, he thinks, of the damage caused by the overwhelming number of “Muslim terrorists” on our screens. In response, Vahdat expects nuanced counterprogramming in entertainment. “Let’s hold off on the 24 shit,” he said, referencing a series that has been criticized for its depiction of Muslims. “People are influenced by television, good or bad, and let’s make it good.”
For him, the consequences of media portrayals are personal: He recalled that a neighbor walked into his parents’ home in the fall of 2001, uninvited, to check if his family had bombs.
Americans need to confront real, humanizing diversity, he said; and as for speaking up about anti-Muslim bigotry, “I think I can do more of it, and I think I should use my voice and my platform as much as I can.”