In a recent episode of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing San Francisco, one of the show’s stars, Roh Habibi, is shown making copies and stapling packets in his office. The viewer, seeing only Roh’s back, with the collars of his hipster coat turned up, is marveling at Roh’s impeccable style when Roh suddenly turns around to reveal his adorable baby girl, Zahra, strapped on in an Ergo!
Roh’s voiceover explains that his wife has just gone back to work after maternity leave and the couple has decided that Roh would pick up the slack as needed. Which means Zahra gets to come to the office with Roh and watch him close million dollar real estate deals, one after the other.
She probably also joins him as he completes his five daily Muslim prayers, prays the tasbih (the Muslim equivalent of a rosary), and grooms his long beard (another Muslim religious requirement).
And that’s the image that makes Roh so compelling and unusual for a reality television star: a man who embodies a mix of San Francisco hipster, million-dollar-deal maker, religious devotion, family values, and a progressive outlook on gender roles.
On a network known for showcasing materialistic narcissists, including almost every character on every Real Housewives show as well as the insufferable stars of Shahs of Sunset and Married to Medicine, Roh provides not just a breath of fresh air—he literally provides shock value. The type of shock you feel when, conditioned to see constant superficiality (and even worse, superficiality portrayed as a desirable character trait), you’re suddenly confronted with something truly worth emulating. As one Twitter fan aptly noted, “@RohHabibi is so genuine and sensitive, he so not reality tv-ish.”
Roh isn’t trying to teach any of us a lesson. He’s just being himself, seemingly unaware of all the social pressures a television star might face to become someone different. Born in Afghanistan and later a political refugee in Pakistan, Roh eventually settled in the U.S. as a child. The immigrant experience taught him hard work and perseverance (which has clearly paid off for him). But most of all it appears to have grounded him in a way that is appealingly authentic. Roh is himself religious, traditional, goofy, and—did I mention?—a great dancer without any hint of pretense or didacticism. And fans are taking inspiration from his example: @Shakari on Twitter comments, “@RohHabibi is inspirational, humble a great father/family man and he can break dance! He and I need to be friends!”
Roh’s a rebel without trying to be a rebel. When the norm in popular culture is total rejection of traditional mores, embracing tradition is an act of defiance. And it’s the type of defiance that requires discipline and sacrifice rather than a focus on the self. Roh comes off as a genuinely happy guy; tradition doesn’t constrain him in the way constraints are usually thought of. Instead, they imbue his life with meaning—and make him way less prone to Bravo-typical petty fighting.
This is a welcome departure from the way religious folks generally are portrayed on TV. Take the Duggar family in TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, or the Mormon* family in the same network’s Sister Wives—they are portrayed as freak phenomena to be ogled and mocked. Religion, and especially traditional religion, is seen as far removed from what’s “normal.”
Even more radical is that Roh is a devout Muslim. In a media space saturated with negative portrayals of Islam, including the perpetually scary, oppressive Muslim man, Roh the family man who laughs (a lot), break dances, and shares childcare duties with his wife is practically a miracle.
Roh embodies dissent—dissent from superficiality, dissent from conformity, dissent from sentiments that are anti-religion or anti-Muslim. And this makes him Bravo’s most idiosyncratic celebrity yet. Regardless of how many “million dollar deals” he makes on his television show, he’s already made a profound impact.
*The family in ‘Sister Wives’ identifies with the Apostolic United Brethren, a fundamentalist Mormon sect not recognized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which ended the practice of polygamy in the 19th century.