January 23, 2020 at 2:46 pm EST | by John Paul King
‘Little America’ episode about gay Syrian refugee banned in 11 countries
Haaz Sleiman (center) in “The Son,” the eighth episode of “Little America” (Image courtesy Apple TV+)

The LGBTQ-themed episode of the new and acclaimed Apple TV+ series “Little America” has been banned in nearly a dozen Middle Eastern countries.

The series, which debuted on January 17, comes from a writing and producing team that includes “Big Sick” writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, alongside “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang, Lee Eisenberg, Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis. It has been lauded by audiences and critics alike, and was renewed by the fledgling streaming platform for a second season even before the first had even premiered.

Based on a true stories series in Epic Magazine, the show’s official description tells us it goes “beyond the headlines to look at the funny, romantic, heartfelt, inspiring and unexpected lives of immigrants in America, at a time when their stories are more relevant than ever.”Each stand-alone episode relates the narrative of a different American immigrant, following the hopes, dreams, and hardships of the immigrant experience. Though the show’s focus is on character and compassion, its stories are inescapably political in today’s oppressively nationalistic climate; as the Pakistani-American Nanjiani recently observed in an interview, “Just by saying that immigrants are human beings with hopes and desires and likes and dislikes in this climate is a radical statement.”

The season’s final installment, which is entitled “The Son,” is the story of Rafiq (Haaz Sleiman), a closeted Syrian man whose inadvertent outing to his family sparks an escape that will ultimately bring him to America. Directed by Stephen Dunn, who also co-wrote with Amrou Al-Kadhi, and based on the real-life story of a Syrian named Shadi, it’s an emotional roller-coaster ride that offers a layered and compassionate document of authentic queer experience; for many LGBTQ audiences, the young protagonist’s journey – his escape from the homophobia and repression of his family and their culture, his building of a “queer family” along the way, and his joy upon finding himself in a place where he can not only finally be free, but be and accepted and loved, just as he is, by the people around him – is profoundly relatable.

The episode faced political obstacles even before it was made. As revealed by Dunn in an interview with Queerty, the episode “almost never happened” because the actor chosen to play Rafiq’s friend Zain (Adam Ali, a Lebanese-born resident of Manchester, UK) was unable to enter America for filming due to Trump’s “travel ban.” Fortunately, the producers and the studio were willing to undergo the considerable difficulty of moving production from New Jersey to Canada – a decision that Dunn says left him “floored.”

Dunn also observed that the real-life Rafiq would have been denied his asylum request if it had been submitted in Trump’s America (the story is set in the mid-2000s), which would have led to a much different outcome for the refugee, who worked with the show’s creative staff to fill in details of his experience during production of the episode.

Now, word has come that the episode has been banned by eleven different nations – ten in the Middle East and Russia – for its LGBTQ content.

On Saturday, co-writer Al-Kadhi, a drag performer from Iraq who identifies as non-binary, tweeted news of the ban, saying “We’ve just found out that our episode in #LittleAmerica has been banned from several Middle-Eastern countries. We’re so sorry and we’re working to make it valuable. If you have experienced this or are noticing changes, please let us know.”

They followed up Monday with another tweet pledging to work toward making the episode available to viewers in the affected countries, saying, “This is the harsh reality of making queer Arab work. The Trump travel ban meant we had to move this shoot out of America. And now our #LittleAmerica episode has been banned in 11 countries. We’re so sorry about this – please know we’re working hard to find a way to get it to you.”

In an interview with Pink News, Al-Kadhi said, “I know lots of queer Arabs and Muslims currently living in the Middle East who feel terrified of expressing themselves, and was desperately hoping that this episode could act like some kind of balm or source of home and comfort for them. It really saddens me to think that they don’t have access to the episode – we are exploring every option possible to get it to them.”

They also added, “It’s the grim reality of trying to tell queer Arab stories in this global climate of far-right nationalism. They don’t make it easy — which is why it’s all the more important we fight like hell to tell them.”

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