This article contains mild spoilers for the American Gods novel and for episode 5 of the Starz series.
American Gods is ostensibly the story of Shadow Moon, a man without belief who finds himself entangled in a world of gods and supernatural beings. But it is also about many other kinds of people who immigrate to and live in America, and how they interact with the Gods they believe in. It is in one of these stories that we meet Salim, who, despite only appearing once in the American Gods, is arguably one of the most memorable characters in the book. And his expanded role in the TV series is poised to make him even more impactful.
If you’ve only seen the show and never picked up the book, you should know that the version of Salim’s Coming to America that appears in episode three is a remarkable faithful adaptation. Just in case you need it, here's a refresher: Salim (Omid Abtahi) is a nervous, unhappy businessman from Oman who meets a Jinn (Mousa Kraish) in a New York City taxicab and invites him up to his hotel room, where the two engage in an intensely erotic sexual encounter. When he wakes, the Jinn is gone and he has been given a new life in America as a taxi driver himself.
Salim’s passage is relatively short in comparison to the rest of the book's contents, and he is never mentioned again after his new life begins. In episode six of the Starz series, however, co-showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have seen fit to cross his path with those Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney, two other characters whose roles have also been expanded for the TV adaptation.
Now Salim is making the same cross-country trip as every other character in the series, so he can find the Jinn again. He’s not a perfect man, nor has he ever been (what he tells Laura and Sweeney about feeling overwhelmed in a city full of Black and Jewish people is almost line-for-line how his Coming to America chapter begins in the book), but he certainly seems to be much more caring and kindhearted person than either of his new companions are.
Most notably, unlike Laura, he manages to maintain a positive relationship to his religion.“I do not pray to ask God for things," he says. "I pray to thank God for bringing me where I am. To this time, to this place where I finally know what I must do in this life. I pray I find the Jinn. He is my afterlife.” If you ignore the offensive comments Sweeney makes soon after, it’s a downright romantic moment, and serves to deepen Salim as a character beyond the brief, beautiful glimpse we had of him before.
In the original text of American Gods, Salim’s small slice of the narrative was a groundbreaking moment for many reasons. Even before the World Trade Center attack in September 2001, Arab characters were often depicted as either terrorists or wealthy oil tycoons, but Salim is neither. Earnest depictions of gay sex were also exceedingly rare at the time; just a year before, Dawson’s Creek become the first show to feature a kiss between two men during prime time television; a few months after that, Queer as Folk became the first American TV show to feature a sex scene between two men.
Now, 16 years later, his role feels even more important than ever in America’s current political climate. According to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in America increased for the second year in a row; in particular, the number of anti-Muslim groups has almost tripled since 2015. Many of these hate groups, the SPLC argues, seem to have been bolstered by the actions of the current Presidential administration, such as President Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from entering the country or Vice President Mike Pence’s long history of anti-LGBT legislation.
When Aziz Ansari hosted Saturday Night Live just days after President Trump’s inauguration in January, he took the opportunity to speak out about the growing trend of Islamophobia in America. Those who fear Muslims do so, he argued, because the media overwhelmingly shows them in a negative light. “Any time they watch movies, and TV shows, and a character is Arabic, or they’re praying or something like that, that scary-ass music from Homeland is underneath it--it’s terrifying!” he pointed out. “People are like, ‘Aah! What are they saying?’ Just, ‘God is good!’ Normal religion stuff! It’s OK!”
American Gods also features a prayer scene; at the end of the episode we see Salim wearing a taqiyah and reciting what appears to be the Fajr, a prayer said at dawn (I am no expert, though, so if I’m wrong feel free to correct me in the comments). The music is, regrettably, still ominous—although that seems to be par for the course with this show, which is ominous as a default setting—but Salim seems happy and hopeful, and the sunrise over the green field paints a picture steeped in traditional Americana imagery. It’s Salim’s America as much as it is anyone else’s, the show is telling us. Surely, he deserves a more prominent place in it.