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Meet Sharbari Ahmed, Quantico’s Bangladeshi American Writer

The writers for Quantico have strict instructions for portraying characters beyond existing clichés.

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Quantico, the primetime hit drama about a group of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recruits has made headlines for multiple reasons: Priyanka Chopra, an established Bollywood megastar plays the lead role of Alex Parrish, adding to the diversity of the recruits and the plot of terrorism.

Sharbari Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American author, is one of the writers for the show who has sketched the characters of the Muslim twins. There aren’t many South Asian screenwriters or characters in American TV shows, which is why Ahmed’s presence in the writing team of Quantico breaks the boundaries of representation.

What happens behind the screen at the writers’ desk has also added to the surging popularity of the TV show.

Creator and executive producer Josh Safran’s writers’ room is staffed with eight writers who are of Palestinian, Jewish, Quaker and Muslim descent, to be able to aptly portray the his characters backgrounds.

So far, it’s been focused on beautiful, elegant, thoughtful writing and creating authenticity for all the characters. I am Muslim so I do harness that to contribute to the Raina and Nimah Amin’s stories. They have not used my ‘South Asian-ness’ yet, but who knows? Maybe we will explore Parrish’s backstory next season and then it might come in handy.
Sharbari Ahmed, Writer, Quantico
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The writers for Quantico have strict instructions for portraying characters beyond existing clichés.
Sharbari Ahmed is one of the screenwriters for the popular TV show, Quantico. (Photo courtesy: Sharbari Ahmed)

Writing as a Muslim

Does Ahmed feel the weight of being a Muslim writer in today’s world? Especially when Islam is being hotly debated, along with the additional burden of a presidential candidates like Donald Trump spewing hateful rhetoric?

I think Muslims have to thank Trump. His presence on the national stage has turned the conversation to the intolerance and bigotry that is becoming more pervasive in America.
Sharbari Ahmed, Writer, Quantico

If she could spend five minutes with Trump, she would tell him that he has “gotten it totally wrong.”

“Muslim immigrants are just like Americans. They wake up in the morning, thinking about their jobs and families. I guarantee you they are not thinking about causing harm to America,” she said.

In fact, Ahmed credits Quantico for its “sheer brilliance” in the casting of the Muslim twins Nimah and Raina Amin played by actress Yasmine Al Massri.

We have been careful in staying away from stereotyping. We showed both sides of the coin in the twins – the hijab-wearing devout one, and the liberal one. They are meant to create a dialogue about Islam and its complexity.
Sharbari Ahmed, Writer, Quantico

The instructions to the writers were very clear on that. Muslims don’t have to be presented in the clichéd role of terrorists. They have stayed away from demonising or caricaturing them as some other shows have done.

“But we will also not sacrifice a good, authentic story to be politically correct,” Ahmed said, “especially if it makes sense in the world Josh has created.”

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The writers for Quantico have strict instructions for portraying characters beyond existing clichés.
Priyanka Chopra in a still from Quantico. (Photo courtesy: ABC/Phillippe Bosse)
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From a Writer to a Writer for Quantico

Ahmed’s father Dr Manzoor Ahmed, now retired and living in Bangladesh, was a United Nations diplomat. For many years, he was based out of Ethiopia with his wife Anowara, a home maker. Sharbari is the youngest of four kids Parveen, Nasreen, and Murshed.

Ahmed has been writing for over a decade. She published a short story collection The Ocean of Mrs Nagai and had a play Raisins Not Virgins adapted into a short film.

She was working on her novel when an actor friend emailed her to tell her that ABC was looking for a South Asian female writer. To cut a long story short, she was hired.

This is her first television gig and she spends all week writing with the staff in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The writers for Quantico have strict instructions for portraying characters beyond existing clichés.
From left to right: Jake McLaughlin, Priyanka Chopra, Anna Diop and David Alpay in a still from Quantico. (Photo courtesy: ABC/Phillippe Bosse)
At first it was intimidating and it still is at times; it was difficult because they are all so much more experienced than me. But, with their help, I am learning and I hope we are picked up for another season.
Sharbari Ahmed, Writer, Quantico

Ahmed has only met Chopra over Skype and is filled with admiration for her work ethic. “Priyanka works really hard for this role, which requires her to be smart, and sexy. Plus, it’s physically gruelling. It makes me very proud as a South Asian to see her succeed.”

Ahmed wishes for more representation of “South Asians, Muslims and women” in America. “We have made some strides with Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling and Priyanka but that’s not enough,” she said. Ahmed was born in Dhaka but immigrated to America when she was three weeks old. She lived in Chester, Connecticut for the first seven years of her life.

Ahmed soaked in the “deeply spiritual vibe of the amazing, exotic country with its weather and its multicultural mix of Muslims, Jews, Christians and other cultures.”

She spent two years in China, and a few years in New York where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Marymount College and a master’s degree in Creative Writing from New York University.

Currently, Ahmed, who is divorced, lives in Darien, Ct, with her son Anjay,16. Traveling and living around the world made her appreciate multiculturalism and it seeps into all her work.

I always knew I was going to be a storyteller. I kept writing and I got rejected, but I never stopped.
Sharbari Ahmed, Writer, Quantico

The patience, the persistence and the perseverance has paid off and made her more determined to be a player in the world of entertainment.

When the writers get a break from the show in March, Ahmed plans to finish her novel, set in WWII Kolkata and turn it into a screenplay down the road.

Keep an eye out for her first solo TV credit, in episode 13, “Clear”, which airs on 13 March on ABC.

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