ITV's hit horror Count Abdulla: Being a Muslim vampire is complicated

Being a Muslim vampire is complicated
8 min read
08 September, 2023

In the Nineties and Noughties, Citizen Khan, Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42 were the first comedies on mainstream British television that featured brown people, and in the case of Citizen Khan, Muslims.

The writers, creators, actors and actresses in these shows paved the way for South Asian and Muslim representation in a genre that until that point was heavily dominated by white people.

For our parents these comedies were a revelation – the first time they saw themselves on British TV, with cultural references and inside jokes that only they would get.

Fast forward to 2023, and while today’s generation will always be grateful to these shows that were our pioneers in comedy, we no longer feel that comedies representing us need to focus on jokes about stereotypes.

"I started digging into how a Muslim could be a vampire and the jokes just kept on flowing with the concept. The first thing I thought was, how can you be a Pakistani vampire? Because all our food is full of garlic"

Channel 4 comedy We Are Lady Parts, broadcasted in 2021, did something completely new – it showed Muslim women doing *gasp* regular things, like forming a punk rock band, rather than existing onscreen purely to talk about issues like arranged marriages or hijabs.

Picking up where We Are Lady Parts left off is the hilarious, goofy and yet equally dark horror comedy Count Abdulla which was recently released on ITV’s on-demand streaming service, ITVX.

Horror in itself is a genre that has an absence of Muslim, South Asian or SWANA representation in the West – unless you count Ancient Egyptian mummies as representation.

Abdulla, played by British Iranian actor Arian Nik, is a British Pakistani junior doctor in Hounslow who is obsessed with all things vampire and horror-related.

After escaping a boring Eid party to attend his Sikh colleague Amrita’s Halloween party (whom he is secretly in love with, but she is still in her white boy phase), he gets bitten at the bus stop by white working-class vampire Kathy – played by Jaime Winstone – who has a “thing” for brown men’s blood.

The six-part series follows Abdulla as he slowly morphs into a vampire. At first has no idea what’s going on, while vampire Kathy tries her best to kill him, or she will get staked by the dominantly white and racist vampire coven which claims that since she had turned a brown man into a vampire, it is against the coven’s rules to turn a second.

On paper, the storyline may sound a little far-fetched but on screen, it works. It is the brainchild of British Pakistani TV, film and theatre writer and horror fan, Kaamil Shah, who looks a little like a vampire himself.

“I was obsessed with vampire movies and horror movies in general and just wondered why there had never really been Muslim representation in the genre,” Kaamil tells The New Arab. “Then I started digging into how a Muslim could be a vampire and the jokes just kept on flowing with the concept.

"The first thing I thought was, how can you be a Pakistani vampire? Because all our food is full of garlic. You would be in the sun all the time if you were in the Middle East or Pakistan. You obviously can't drink blood as it's non-halal, so it just felt like a really crazy concept initially," he adds. 

“But then, I also turned it back into a lot of the questions that I was asking around being a British Muslim and the kind of split in your identity that can bring, and then I threw vampire mythology into the whole thing. So, imagine, it's already hard enough being a British Muslim. How do you deal with that when you're also a vampire? Exploring identity and what it means to be British, Muslim and a vampire, breaking rules and working out how you sit in terms of the rules that society has imposed on you in a way that works for you.”

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While Abdulla transitions into a vampire – contending with things like no longer being able to eat his mother’s Pakistani food without vomiting his guts out, mistaking his need for blood for being severely anaemic, or finding the sight of his roadman-turned-imam cousin Shafi’s neck increasingly appealing – he also contends with other struggles.

First, there is the changing relationship between him and his mother Bushra, portrayed by national treasure Nina Wadia, who worries that her son will leave her the way his father mysteriously left 25 years earlier; she is trying to hold onto him and can’t understand his regular disappearances at night.

“She's an absolute legend and she actually supported the show for a long time. Before we'd even got the green light from ITV to make it, she came with us on a table read and absolutely loved the work and really wanted to be a part of it,” reveals Kaamil.

Then there’s the interfaith relationship aspect – Muslim Abdulla wanting to be with Sikh Amrita. She lies at her sister’s wedding and tells her parents he is Sikh, representing a challenge that many young South Asian couples in Britain continue to face from families who won’t support an interfaith marriage.

"We wanted to show that Islamophobia is not something that's over. And it's not just something that is associated with the alt-right; we wanted to show that it's something that has passed the dinner table test"

Abdulla also struggles inwardly – he knows and acknowledges that he is not the perfect Muslim, yet, he is still very much aware of his faith and strives to connect with it. There’s a scene in which he embraces his identity as a Muslim vampire, rolls out his prayer mat and prays (albeit with blood on his vest, but never mind).

Such a multi-faceted Muslim character was refreshing to watch – on screen we either see Muslim characters who completely reject their faith, or they are on the other end of the spectrum – faultless and flawless and hence not believable. This was something Kaamil purposely intended for his show.

“I know what my relationship to my faith is and I know that it's not one that is shared by every single Muslim in the world, just like that's true of every faith. We were really careful to be sensitive in that we never wanted to insult anyone's level of religiosity. We wanted to show all these different people exist within our community and that was really important to me and it was important to get feedback from people who have different takes on the faith so that we could have that full-rounded sense of what the Muslim community is," he continues. 

“Having said that, there were important things that I did want to get across. For example, the male hypocrisy that I feel is really present right now within our community and I didn't want to shy away from that. And the character of Shafi, I love him, he's my favourite character. But, he's also a huge hypocrite and he is the sort of dawah man that we all too often see online who tells people to do one thing and does something else.”

Count Abdulla is available to stream on ITVX and will be on ITV2 in early 2024
Count Abdulla is available to stream on ITVX and will be on ITV2 in early 2024

Similar to Nida Manzoor in We Are Lady Parts Kaamil Shah has not shied away from portraying taboo topics in the Muslim community, one of them being sex. The not so “halal” scenes had a purpose and were an important part of the storyline too.

“I wanted to be frank about sex because I feel like we never see British Asian people or Muslims in general, have sex on TV, even though it's a huge part of life. If you look back at our literature, such as Arabian Nights, these are stories where sex played a huge part. I felt like that was the story I wanted to tell and that it was not going to represent everyone. But I think we all need to accept that there are so many ways of being Muslim and approaches to this kind of stuff.”

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Beyond Kathy and Abdulla’s cat and mouse chase, the blood and the gore, and a particularly hilarious and notable scene in which Shafi tries to exorcise Abdulla using an Arabic translation of The Exorcism (instead of Ayat-ul-Kursi as Bushra rightfully points out), there is a very serious theme – that of Islamophobia.

Comedy has always been an art form that gently raises audiences’ awareness of important social and political issues. The show begins in Ramadan, with two Muslim men being bitten by Kathy after Taraweeh prayers outside a mosque in Hounslow. Luckily, they survive, but the police’s refusal to release details about the attack means that the local Muslim community, led by Shafi, start a protest believing it is an Islamophobic attack.

“We wanted to show that Islamophobia is not something that's over. And it's not just something that is associated with the alt-right; we wanted to show that it's something that has passed the dinner table test,” Kaamil explains.

“It's something that people can do underhandedly. And I think the way we portrayed the vampires as being against all people of colour in general, but particularly against the Muslim community, we tried to be really smart with that. We were careful not to be bogged down in the terrorism and counter-extremism conversation. And I think there are so many more angles that we can deal with in future seasons.” 

Fifteen-year-old me who was obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer could only have daydreamed about a heartthrob Muslim vampire who is also a doctor.

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA