Throughout eight episodes, American Gods on the STARZ network has introduced its viewership to a variety of unconventionally realized cultural images. Whether it’s a slave ship churning in The Middle Passage moments before mutiny, a garden party with multiple regional manifestations of Jesus Christ hobnobbing at the buffet, or an Irish criminal-turned-indentured-servant’s intercontinental life story and relations to faerie-folk, a consistent motif in the show has been the wild dispersal and co-mingling of diverse humanity and their fables throughout the world. And with all that being said, most would be challenged to think of a more audacious and beautiful scene in the first season than the tryst between an Omani immigrant and The Jinn in a momentous rainy cab ride in Manhattan.
In episode three, we meet Salim in a familiar setting: wrapped in an ill-fitting suit, pondering the storm clouds, awaiting a sales meeting that will never arrive. He smiles through grit teeth at the day’s failure and wasted time, exits a building in torrential rain, and flags down a cab.
Playing Salim is Omid Abtahi, a Tehrani actor with quite a number of credits to his name, including roles in the Oscar-winning Argo, the Showtime series Sleeper Cell, and even a distinguished turn as a judge for the annual Noor Iranian Film Festival. Interesting, then, that this performance in American Gods may well be one of his most conspicuous appearances, in arguably the most memorable moment in the show.
Upon entering the cab and casually conversing with the driver, Salim notes that they are both familiar with Oman; Salim himself hails from the capital of Muscat, and the driver offhandedly mentions a recent trip to Ubar (the famed and perhaps contentious “Lost City Of The Sands”). This entire scene, the richness of its strange taxi-related intimacy, the connection between two Middle-Eastern men connecting frankly and gratefully, is a rumbling tempest of fraternity and romance that evolves into a sublime sexual encounter.
Middle-Eastern men are not an exceedingly common image on the small screen—let alone in a romantic/sexual scene—and writer-producer Bryan Fuller has been trying to present an erotic gay scene on his television projects for quite some time, even hiding such elements demurely in shows like Hannibal. While the two actors here—Abtahi and The Jinn, played by Brooklyn-born Mousa Kraish—do not identify as gay, the scene has been applauded for its beauty and authentically rendered sexuality.
What helps solidify this moment as the year’s most beautiful televised sex scene is its patient development, the complexity of its detail, and its kindness to the characters. In Salim and The Jinn we see two harried immigrants, approaching their grimly unromantic labors with a struggling facade. The moment when the two meet is total happenstance, which may be why Salim feels compelled to extend a very careful and slow hand to The Jinn’s shoulder, rousing him as he mistakenly dozes from a 30-hour taxi shift. They are tired, and rained-on, and stressed, but Salim’s modest-yet-brave flirts are rewarded.
Even the sex scene itself is remarkable, especially for choosing missionary as the prominent position; gay male sex scenes are rare enough on television, let alone ones depicting this particular vantage. As it progresses, the two are transported to a nighttime Ubar, becoming what appear to be animated statues with coursing bolts of flame. It’s immense and ostentatious (as is much of American Gods), but also emotionally astute, spiritual, and explicit.
While the country of Iran has a ruthless relationship with homosexuality—a detail pointedly noted in the most recent Amnesty Annual Report—the United States perpetuates their own pattern of discrimination towards the LGBTQ community, making it incredibly important for Middle-Eastern actors to present characters at this intersection to American viewers. Omid Abtahi’s character Salim does appear later on in American Gods as well, so there is some hope that there will be further points of his arc in the series.
American Gods has been renewed for a second season, and can be found on STARZ.