Alumnus Q&A: screenwriter and novelist Kamran Pasha ’93
Screenwriter and novelist Kamran Pasha ’93 Tu’00 majored in religion at Dartmouth before working as a financial journalist on Wall Street, attending Cornell Law School and graduating from Tuck School of Business. After briefly working as an attorney, Pasha moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to pursue a career in screenwriting. Since then, he has worked as a screenwriter and producer on Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell” and NBC’s “Kings” and “Bionic Woman.” He has also published two novels, “Shadow of the Swords: An Epic Novel of the Crusades” and “Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam.”
Did you have a finance background before beginning to work as a financial journalist?
KP: No, I didn’t. When I was looking for journalism jobs, there weren’t a lot of mainstream jobs — you know, Newsday or whatever. But, at the time, there were so many Wall Street publisher types, and I didn’t have any background. I was a religion major. So when I saw that those were the only journalism jobs available, I started scrambling. I bought all these books on finance and self-taught so that I could go into these interviews and know what I was talking about. I had no interest in it, but I thought it was what I had to do to survive. But then I got my first job, and I discovered that it was actually a lot of fun.
And then you went to Tuck?
KP: Yes. I was in this accounting class that was way over my head, so I started writing this screenplay, and then I sold that screenplay. Then I graduated, I went to work for this law firm in New York, and I was bored, I was like “What am I doing here?” So I finished the screenplay, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just mailed it out to people. Then one of them actually liked it and ended up representing me and mailing my first script to Paramount. I was like, “I can do this?” So at the age of 29, I quit my job at that law firm, I moved out to Los Angeles and that’s where I’ve been for the past 16 years.
What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
KP: I think the most important project that I’ve worked on was a TV show called “Sleeper Cell.” It was on for two seasons about 10 years ago, and it was sort of a “Homeland” before “Homeland.” It was really ahead of its time. Remember, this was right after 9/11, this was the height of the Iraq War, George Bush was president. “24” was the big show that everyone was watching, and that portrayed a lot of negative Muslim stereotypes. So “Sleeper Cell” was meant to be the first accurate representation of the War on Terror. It was about a Muslim FBI agent who infiltrates an Al-Qaeda terror cell. Being Muslim myself and having studied religion in college, this was a chance for me to talk about things that were important to me. So the show went on for two seasons, and we got Golden Globe nominations and Emmy nominations because it was the first time that Muslims weren’t just portrayed as a bunch of comic-book crazies. We’d never seen anything like that on TV before. We jostled a lot of people because we challenged a lot of the traditional narrative just by showing things as they were. And, you know, Hollywood has agendas just like Washington and everybody else. We went around that.
The greatest compliment was that FBI agents would call us and say, “This is the most accurate show on television.”
How did you make “Sleeper Cell” so accurate to real life?
KP: On the religion side, I’m a real practicing Muslim, so I was able to accurately represent that side of it. We had advisors from the FBI and the intelligence community, and we actually had access to the Al-Qaeda training manual. There’s a training manual that the United States found and translated during the first attack on Afghanistan in 2001. They translated it, and the Pentagon held it, and we were able to get access to a copy of it so we knew the entire methodology. It’s interesting because it showed — people don’t like to talk about this, but it’s historically true — that the Al-Qaeda guys were all CIA trained. And the first rule of the training manual was to stay away from Muslims. That’s why the September 11 guys were hanging out in strip clubs. They said if they went and hung out at the mosque, somebody like me would turn them in. So we portrayed that on our show as well.
After that show, there was a period when Hollywood changed their representation of Muslims to show them more accurately. But that only lasted a little bit. Hollywood’s journey of portrayal of Islam has been very specific. First, it started out in the early 1900s with the “Arabian Nights” movies and things like that, where everything’s very magical. Muslims aren’t bad guys, but they’re not normal people. They have genies, they have flying carpets. So that’s just magical, “Harry Potter” stuff, but they’re not normal people. Then the next stage was the terrorist stuff, so they’re not normal people either because they’re terrorists. Then, our show came, which showed the reality of the situation and the humanity of everyone. All those other portrayals just came out of ignorance, but then our show presented real information. But right after that, a lot of people in Hollywood decided, “Yeah, I don’t actually want to tell that story,” because they do have political agendas. They didn’t even realize they had political agendas, and then our show hit. After that, Hollywood has gone through a period of about a decade where before that, people were ignorant, but now they know what they’re doing is inaccurate, and they’re doing it anyway, on purpose. I’ve experienced it directly. My rise in the industry has led to a lot of pushback because people don’t want to face their bigotry. People always talk about how liberal Hollywood is, but it’s all fake liberal. They’re liberal to make money, but they don’t believe in any of it.
The people in Hollywood like to think that they’re the purveyors of culture, which they are, pretty much. The one export that the United States still has is culture. So these people in Hollywood know they are controlling culture and as long as it benefits them, that’s great. In Hollywood, I’ve met a lot of people who talk a lot about diversity when the truth is that they hate black people. They just do. But they can make money off of them, and that’s the thing. And so they put that tolerant face on. It’s amazing.
How has that conservatism affected your career as an artist?
KP: The more important the art is, the more it pushes humanity forward, the more resistance there is. That’s the challenge of being an artist. People in power love staying in power, and change means they’re going to lose that power. So, on the commercial side of art, the decision makers are — I like to imagine them as people sitting on a horse backwards. They just see everything the horse has passed by, but they don’t see where it’s going. You can’t change their position, they’re just positioned that way. They only see what’s just happened, and that’s all they want more of.
How have you tied your major to your current work?
KP: All of my work has succeeded when I’ve tied in religion. One thing that I’ve learned in life is that when you’re doing what you love, success will come. Even though I did fine as a journalist and got into a good law school and business school, I wasn’t really happy. Now, being able to talk about the topics that I talk about in film — namely, religion — makes me really happy. The religion major was pivotal to the development of the person that I’ve become.
Did you always have an interest in screenwriting?
KP: One thing that I’ve discovered is whatever you admire is whatever you’re capable of doing. I never would’ve said I wanted to be a screenwriter. I didn’t think it was possible. But I do remember this: When I was 5 years old, and we had just arrived from Pakistan, just learning English, I was watching this show “Three’s Company” that you may have vaguely heard of. It was like a classic comedy about this guy living with two women and all the sexual encounters — very risqué in the ’70s. Being a kid, I didn’t understand any of the risqué stuff, but I was watching this show with my sister. She must have been 6, I was 5, and I remember this vividly. I turned to my sister after watching the show and said “I’m going to do that someday.” My sister said to me, “Oh, that’s not possible for people like us.” Now I tease her all the time for that. She doesn’t even remember saying it. But that means I was born to do this. Whatever you wanted to do as a child is what you were born to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Pasha is a former editor for The Dartmouth.