In a scene from “The Eid Mystery,” an episode of the children’s animated series Mira, Royal Detective, Mira (right) solves the mystery of the missing Eid gift.

In a scene from “The Eid Mystery,” an episode of the children’s animated series Mira, Royal Detective, Mira (right) solves the mystery of the missing Eid gift.

Eid al-Fitr makes its animated debut

After growing up watching reactionary stereotypes, a screenwriter creates space for nuanced Muslim characters.

By Megan Burbank | March 25, 2022

Last May, screenwriter Nabeel Arshad ’12 made history, but unless you live with a preschooler, you may have missed it. Nabeel wrote an episode of the children’s show Mira, Royal Detective focused on the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. When “The Eid Mystery” aired on Disney Junior, it was the first time an American animated series featured a story line about the holiday.

“We were conscious of: This will be the first time kids will see themselves on TV celebrating a holiday that they actually celebrate,” said Nabeel, and for kids who don’t, “this will be their first exposure.”

A CGI-animated series set in a fictional kingdom in India, Mira follows its eponymous heroine as she brings verve and determination to low-stress mysteries. When Nabeel found out about the show, he said, “I was like, ‘Oh, this would have been my dream show to watch as a child,’ because I can’t think of any cartoon show that was set in India when I was growing up.”

With a diverse cast and setting, Mira sets a high bar for representation, subverting damaging stereotypes with a light touch. This is by design. In a tweet shared after “The Eid Mystery” premiered, Nabeel described the impact of so many limited, bigoted portrayals of Muslim and South Asian characters.

“Unfortunately, growing up it was pretty rare to see South Asian or Muslim representation on TV,” he wrote, citing The Problem with Apu, a documentary written by comedian Hari Kondabolu examining the harms caused by characters like The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who was voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria. That documentary, wrote Nabeel, “pretty accurately captures what it was like growing up for me. Outside of Apu, it was mostly post-9/11 Islamophobic tropes, which really, really, sucked.”

These negative depictions are well documented. According to “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” a report partially funded by actor Riz Ahmed and released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in June 2021, Muslim characters surveyed across 200 films were likely to be associated with violence and were virtually absent from children’s movies. Of the 23 animated films included, none featured a Muslim character.

“The Eid Mystery” breaks through this erasure. Though Mira the Royal Detective herself is not Muslim, “The Eid Mystery” features her friend Sadia, who is. The central mystery, which Mira and Sadia solve together, involves an Eid tradition and concludes with Mira’s joyful participation in Sadia’s family’s Eid celebration.

“It’s a holiday episode, so it should be fun,” said Nabeel. “Most holidays are meant to be fun, and it’s showing this is how we celebrate, and you’re welcome to be part of the celebration, too.”

He never set out to write TV for kids, but some of his experiences at Reed lay the groundwork for his work on Mira. He was an English major, and his thesis analyzed the nexus between wild places and character development in children’s literature. “I don’t know if it made me want to go into children’s media, but it definitely helped inform my work in it,” he said. After working through the subject matter with his advisor, Michael Faletra [English], he said, “a lot of the ideas that we discussed stayed with me.”

Nabeel also credits professor Kate Bredeson [theatre] with his development in dramatic writing. As a student, he knew he wanted to write for movies and TV but found a dearth of opportunities to learn the craft. He was drawn to Bredeson’s playwriting class but hadn’t taken the course prerequisites. She waived them, and in her class Nabeel wrote the play that would help him get into graduate school in dramatic writing at NYU.

Though Bredeson’s theatrical pedagogy stemmed from dramaturgy, not filmmaking, Nabeel has found it a useful way to frame his writing for the screen. “I’m not a director,” he said, “but I do think about that when I’m writing: her sensibility and the things that she would consider when she was directing plays at Reed.”

He recalled one experience outside the classroom that was equally influential. Tasked with organizing events at the Multicultural Resource Center, he decided to invite Barry Jenkins to campus.

Jenkins is now known as the groundbreaking director of Moonlight—his award-winning, lyrical study of race, gender performance, and queer romance—but he didn’t have that reputation at the time. “It was before he was famous at all,” said Nabeel. “He’d done one movie, which is my favorite movie of all time, but no one had heard of it.”

That movie is Medicine for Melancholy, a 2008 drama that went on to influence filmmakers like Lena Waithe, who told the New York Times that Jenkins was “speaking to the kind of writing that I wanted to do, which is to just show us in the sunlight —not positive light, not dark light, just the light of day.”

But since no one he worked with had seen it, Nabeel remembered having to make the case for Jenkins and Medicine for Melancholy, saying, “This is a movie about race, and this is related to what we’re doing.” The center did end up screening the film, and Jenkins gave a Q&A at Reed. “Not that many people attended,” Nabeel recalled. “But I got to have dinner with him and a few other students, so it was fantastic. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me at all, but it was really cool.”

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Performing Arts