The Muslim character in Department Q novels/films

a-conspiracy-of-faith-poster.jpgI’ve been watching the Scandi noir shows based on Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q novels (on Netflix). I read the novels a few years ago, but have just discovered the shows.

The grizzled, damaged Detective Inspector Carl Morck is shunted off to a new cold-case department, called Dept Q. He is also handed an assistant called Assad, an Arab immigrant, who initially gets on his nerves, but adds depth, drama, and humor to the drama.

[Spoiler alert]: I can’t get over how nice it is to see a positive depiction of a Muslim in mystery/thriller – or well, anything.

Assad is a faithful and practicing Muslim. He isn’t emptied of religious content for him to be humanized. Assad prays toward Mecca in the basement (it doesn’t matter if it’s not the exact direction, he says, as “Allah has such wide shoulders.”) But Muslim is not all he is. He has a mysterious past (no more spoilers, ok). The book and show poke fun at his idiosyncrasies as well as his cultural habits (such as his strong coffee). But they also take the time to consider the tensions between majority Danes such as Morck and Muslims like Assad. Morck is contemptuous of faith, and Assad demands that Morck take his faith (and that of others, including Christians, seriously). Assad encounters racism and Islamophobia, of course.  Morck learns to re-examine his own attitudes toward faith via Assad.

There is a touching moment in the movie A Conspiracy of Faith, when Elias, the anti-Muslim member of the “Lord’s Disciples”, whose children have been kidnapped, is struggling for his life, and Assad alone is there to hold his hand. Assad fears that Elias is dying, so he calls for a priest for him. There is no priest at that moment. There is just the pain and terror of the moment, as Elias and Assad’s eyes meet and they are brought together in empathy, faith, and pain.

Having seen endless Western shows and movies and read numerous American police procedurals with one-dimensional Muslim characters characterized primarily by their foreignness, their sexism, and the mad dangers of their faith, I take heart in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novels, and am happy to see them on the screen.


“Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them”

landscape-1469310022-eddie-redmayne-fb.jpgI’m sorry, IMDB reviewers, but 7.9/10 for Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them?? Forget that. I’d give this disappointing, stretched-out, cgi-heavy prequel a 6.5 at the most, and that would be like giving a B- to a paper that should get a D.

I really cannot decide what annoyed me the most [SPOILER ALERT]: the scattered plot-line; the beasts in the suitcase which we chased around New York for far too long; the not-particularly-interesting-or-complex characters; Newt’s incoherent speech (yes, yes, I get that he’s diffident and British, but can we get some subtitles if he must talk out of the side of his mouth all the time?) or his adorable peering out of the thatch of hair throughout the movie; the breathless misery of Porpentina Goldstein; Jacob Kowalski’s perpetual nice-guy wide-eyed innocence; or the flutes and pipes that accompanied the appearance of various cgi fantastical beasts. The only bright spot for me was, ironically, Colin Farrell, really.

Rowling’s world remains deathly white, of course. (She says it’s not all white. Um.) Of the three black people who leave us utterly unimpressed, one is a scary stereotypical mammy-type witch character who actually says to Tina, just like a black mammy-witch: “Oh honey it don’t hurt none” as she prepares to – well, kill her? The other main POC is the President who, until her apologies in the end, is a huge pain in the ass for the good guys. There’s also a singer in a speakeasy. That’s about it. Oh, wait. There’s a photograph of Zoe Kravitz in there too. Thanks so much for the tokens.

The one good thing that emerges from the movie is the message that hate is a destructive power. As my kid said, the obscurial is a visual representation of what happens when people can’t be who they are. When people are hated, stigmatized, and forced into hiding by ignorant and evil people (HELLO TRUMP’S AMERICA), this stigma becomes a destructive and unstoppable force. And yet, despite this message of inclusivity, the story remains utterly White and heteronormative. It’s White liberal.

Maybe I am especially irritable as I have, during the past week or so, struggled to wade through several acts of Harry Potter & the Cursed Child. Maybe, just maybe, it is time to stop milking the franchise until writers have something substantive to offer. Until then, maybe quit relying on stretched out, cutsie stories with two-sentence plot narratives and a blast of CGI. Maybe just sit back and gather the cash that’s already flooding from the existing products. For my part, if IMDB reviewers hadn’t misled me, I would have waited till the movie came out on Redbox for $1 or so. I keep hoping to be wrong, but the truth remains that actual good movies are only made every 5-7 years or so. So I’ll just quit spending on theater tickets and parking garages, and instead enjoy watching re-runs of The IT Crowd. 

anxiety disorder, children, emotional disorder, mental health, Uncategorized

“Finding Perfect” & other Kid Lit on disability

perfectSchool teachers, parents, diversity educators:

I highly recommend this book. It is about a 12-year old girl who has an anxiety disorder/OCD.

I shared the book with a child I know. This girl (not Molly – the one in my life) struggles with a mild form of OCD. She often feels “wrong” and “weird”. Grownups snap at her for her habits – she is always stopping to perform tasks that, at best, seem pointless and, at worst, seem calculated to irritate and defy others. Why must she dawdle over her homework, trying to “perfect” the line of a T and the curve of a J? Why does she stop in stores to arrange objects in (what seem to her) symmetrical order? Why is she unable to stop doing these things even when her actions are sure to get her in trouble – losing privileges, losing free time, etc? Surely all this is merely done to be a pain in the butt? This girl has long tried to explain to people that she is a “perfectionist.” I suspect she is very similar to Molly Nathans.

This little girl finds comfort in the character of Molly Nathans. The story helps her feel less alone, and gives her some vocabulary and concepts to explain why she is this way to her peers and even to the teachers who think she is just trying to be aggravating.

Also, if you find a huge sign that says:


Thanks much.

Update: I am going to poke around for more books and book ideas in an online conversation about children with disabilities. This Twitter chat has some gems. And here is a great post on terminology and usage in kid lit.


Friday evening prayer

Today, Friday evening just before the dusk prayer (maghrib), my daughter and I sat down on the prayer rug to make a special prayer. We recited a rosary of ya Allah ya Rahman ya Raheem (O Allah, O Beneficent One, O Merciful One), and we prayed:

Protect us from the harm that hateful people can cause

Protect Muslims, undocumented people, Black people, Latinx, gay people, everyone from the harm of hateful people

But protect us also from becoming hateful

Help us understand this Trump election

Help us understand the people who voted for him

Help America become a safe place for everyone

Help America became a place where poor and working people don’t struggle and fail to survive


Of course Nox the cat was more interested in attacking our prayer beads, but that was his manner of participation.



Hosting G. Willow Wilson via skype in class!

15027961_1146487348731614_424462283622950826_nThis Thursday, G. Willow Wilson was our guest speaker for World Muslim Literature, and after a dreadful couple of days, what a delight it was to chat with her about themes in “Cairo” and “Ms Marvel.”

It especially warmed my heart to have my daughter join the discussion: on behalf of the feline family, she requested a more central role for cats in the comic. I mean, sure, Pakistani-American Muslim girls are all well and good, but CATS.

A student asked if Kamran, the former “love” interest, was an example of the “bad Muslim dude”; Willow reminded us that Kamran (the secular cool Muslim dude) and Aamir (the religious Muslim guy) actually help subvert the usual good Muslim/bad Muslim binary far too common in popular culture.

14947889_1146487382064944_5429537574233507431_nSome wanted to know if Muslims had objected to representations of Ms Marvel. In the absence of many representations of Muslim Americans in popular culture, it’s pretty common – as Willow explained – for people to want Ms Marvel to be all things *they* want (more modest, more religious, less religious, etc) but overall she’s been a very popular addition to the Marvel universe. I’m eager to pick up the newest comic from the comic bookstore and find out about Laal Khanjeer!


HOW could this happen?

America, meet POTUS:


To save you time, I’ve collected the various reasons that have been advanced for this stunning – no, stupid win:

News media: The news media handed Trump hours of publicity.  For cheap entertainment but also probably more sinister reasons (well, profits). The news media also failed to properly interrogate Trump’s statements whenever the opportunity arose. Their complete impotence in the face of his outbursts and his lack of any coherent policy is largely to blame for this vote.

The Economy, stupid: The failures of the economy mobilized millions of angry and frightened voters.

His hammy  anti-establishment strategy and rhetoric, in the face of widespread disaffection, yielded great dividends.

Elitist government policies that benefit the 1% came to bite the DNC in the rear. What, is that a surprise?


The DNC failed all of us: The DNC screwed up with their choice. The DNC sold Bernie out (thanks for the comment, Aditi!). As Svend White puts it: “The Dem establishment and coopted media actively sabotaged a viable alternative who was scandal-free and who was widely liked and respected even on the Right, and who consistently did better against Trump than HRC surveys. Who knows how Sanders would’ve done, but he definitely did not suffer the “negatives” (whether personality or policy related) often given by Trump supporters against Clinton.”

The GOP sold out and gave Trump the nomination. The GOP is in trouble. Thanks, Reince Priebus.

DNC’s Pied Piper strategy – outlined in the email leaked by WikiLeaks – backfired. Thanks, DNC.



Electoral colleges messed up the popular vote. Again.

James Comey. Where is he anyway?

HRC: Widespread distrust of HRC and dislike of her policies. Clinton framed herself as the anti-Trump, but the evidence did her no favors: she made anti-Black statements and has always been hawkish  and elitist and pro-elite. This is no secret.

America’s anti-women culture: Sexism and misogyny worked for Trump, and he was unashamed to use them.

A “Whitelash” against the Obama presidency:   Samantha Bee puts it well.We used our progressive vote on electing Obama for Hope. Still hoping.

A faith-based movement of White evangelicals: White evangelicals came out in droves in favor of a man who has shown zero interest in faith but is 100% interested in power. The main purpose was to keep supposedly “liberal” HRC out. Clinton, despite her spotty record of policies vis-a-vis women and gays, framed herself as the gender activist, but was unable to do it well enough.

Anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant hate (see example: below) did its magic on Election Day. Untitled.png

Mass political ignorance: Angry voters, frustrated with the economy, came out to vote for the outsider. The outsider played on their fury, and offers them nothing. They think a guy who can say “You’re fired!” will be a straight shooter.

Voter suppression: Voter suppression worked against minority voters, yet again here and here.

The deterioration of culture: Celebrity culture and another reason Reality TV is the devil. The Apprentice gave him 10 years of presenting himself as a tough guy with economic smarts. Keep doing that to people who are in love with the Kardashians and who agonize when Rachel and Ross don’t get married, and they start seeing President Trump firing establishment elites all around them. This gives them a buzz. A buzz is better than no change, right?


What about third party voters? I do not buy the scapegoating argument that third party voters were a main reason Clinton lost. Instead of this rubbish, focus on …


Voter Turnout: This is a perennial problem. Instead of bellyaching about third party voters, maybe establishment Dems could … oh, I don’t know – get people out to vote?


Have I missed anything?




City life: a visit to the local library

The local Chicago Public Library just re-opened after some weeks of construction. This closing coincided with the kid’s long weekend, so it was fairly painful for our family.
When I get there, I drive around in search of parking for a good ten minutes. The parking lot is half-occupied by city construction vehicles. I loop around and park a good distance away in the residential area, and carry a heavy bag of books to return inside. I get there and climb the historic flights of stairs to the upper level (the elevators are, of course, out of order). As I wander, I find that the audiobooks are inaccessible due to construction, but it’s only by wandering around the stacks that you actually find out. 
So I go back downstairs and plonk down, exhausted, at a computer to explore the audiobooks and kids’ books on Mesopotamia and DVDs on fractions. We have lending privileges for many, many city and state libraries but on-shelf on-site holdings are far fewer than I had in the suburban library. I’ve spent a short amount of time wandering, lost, in the catalogue when a security guard/staff comes up to me and asks, accusingly, if I’m using the printer. I say no. He says, well, then you have to log off and go use the computers UPSTAIRS because these are the only ones available to printer-focused customers. I sigh and stare at him, wondering if I can tell him how much energy it’s cost me to get this far; but I just say, okay, I’ll leave in a moment.
He watches me, so I log off and leave. I go to the reference desk and a very helpful, nervous young lady to help me find materials on Mesopotamia and Sumeria (she needs help spelling them). We find stuff in the catalog, and she sends me back upstairs to get the DVD on the ancient world. Since the DVDs are also blocked by yellow tape, I ask an elderly staff lady upstairs to help me. She is not very happy today. I think of how glad I am that I chose not to bring the kid with me, as she would have by now thrown several hissy fits. 
Meantime, construction is going on around me, and a strange dust fills my lungs and I start to cough and my throat starts to close up like never before. The lady takes a while. By the time she returns, I have lost all interest in my child’s education re: the ancient world. I stagger back downstairs, check all my stuff out, and travel back to my distant parking spot (which is blocked by some delivery vehicle).
As I pass celebratory banners about the Cubs, I think of how much/little I care that I live close to Wrigley Field and its historic events, and how much I miss the boring, shiny library in the northern suburbs. 
election, immigrant, Uncategorized


14947797_1141461325900883_5754059126705941825_nWe joined the early voting queue at Northeastern Illinois University’s El Centro location today. It is nice to have Early Voting, and it is even nicer to have Early voting locations that are open to all Chicago city residents regardless of residence location. I also appreciated the Election Commission’s list of voting locations ranked by degree of use. We chose the nearest among the lowest-use locations. It was still a 1 1/2 hour wait in line. That NEIU-El Centro building is cute and modular, but it heats up like a greenhouse. The voting room was crowded, hot, and airless. I started to feel pretty lightheaded, so I wonder how the elderly felt.

I would much rather go with a public holiday on Election Day, but I guess then all the poor and people of color will stream out to the polls, and the GOP would be bummed.

Our 10 year old was not happy to be stuck with us, but we were determined to have her join us. From the look of the crowd, I would guess it to be a solidly blue one, but I’m just an ethnographer. We took up booths, checked off our choices, and grabbed our wristbands.

As a US citizen, this is my first presidential vote.

This is also my first-ever presidential vote. I grew up in Pakistan when General Zia-ul-Haq occupied the Presidential building for 11 years. It’s telling that, as a child of military dictatorship, I didn’t even bother to vote in 1990 or 1993. I then left Pakistan and was in the UK as a British citizen, though I arrived in the US as an international student before the British election of 1997. Then I became a green card holder, and voted in the primaries – for Bernie. It is a sad day, in many ways, that I’m unable to vote for Bernie today.

It was only when I sat waiting for a booth that it struck me how historic the act of voting is. For most of human history, as I told my daughter, regular people did not have any input into who would rule. This point in human history is startling in contrast, where we do have input in the political process. But the contrast not a night-and-day one. The United States remains an oligarchy. Electoral colleges remain a problem.

Our political system is not the best we can do. It is desperately in need of reform. I voted, but with an eye to how much more we need to do. Not just on voting day, but everyday, not to protect the status quo but to make it better – to ensure regular people have better representation, better protection under the law, more equality, better lives.

As for third parties – good luck to them in the current circumstances. If the Greens succeed in capturing 5% of the vote, they become eligible for federal funding in the next election. That could change the terms of the political context entirely, and end the stranglehold of the two sets of elites.

The terror of a Trump presidency – which is an entirely horrific prospect, probably unprecedented in its  nature – leads critics of both parties to hold their noses and vote for Hillary Clinton, especially in swing states.

Get out and vote. Educate yourself about the candidates. Don’t be like the Brexit voters who voted with their moods, and then whined about how they really didn’t think anything was actually going to happen. In the context of human history, most of your ancestors wouldn’t have this opportunity at all. Treat it responsibly. This is no occasion for you to throw a hissy fit. Act like you’re actually 18+ years old.


Teaching about refugees

hopeLast night, in my graduate class on World Literature, we discussed Laila Lalami‘s novel Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits, along with clips of the excellent Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag. The title of the under-exposed but brilliant film (its budget was under $1m) is a play on words: bhaag means both fortune, portion, lot in life, or destiny, but it also means to flee or run; and zinda bhaag can mean “run with your life” as well as, literally, “living fortune” or idiomatically, “good fortune.”

In the discussion, we highlighted the timely issue of refugee movement – Syrian, Afghan, Mexican and other refugees from South and Central America, Rohingya, etc. Lalami’s novel trains the gaze on the lives of refugees and migrants *before* they become branded as a pestilence, unwanted bodies roaming the seas, as well as during and after the movement of bodies between lands, in liminal spaces and identities. We engaged with the lives that are so trapped that people are willing to plunge (with their children) into the dangers of illegal immigration, including very possible death, rootlessness, and loss of self. The book brings the narratives of four individuals – 2 men and 2 women – who find themselves so trapped due to global economic pressures, widespread corruption, elitism, and exploitation, hyper-competitive higher education opportunities (there are few seats in MENA universities given the youth bulge), domestic violence and gender, religious movements, the fear of extremism and terrorism, oppressive dictatorships where to speak critically of a monarch means to destroy one’s life prospects, and so on. In a relatively short novel, Lalami succeeds in capturing a world of forces that push illegal migrants into the sea and, if all goes well, into the ghorba and loneliness of unwelcoming societies where one loses contact with previous lives.


Homework supervision

Everyday I tell myself I will focus on my writing. Writing that book review. Finishing that article. Everyday there is service and admin work. And everyday – every day – there is homework. I need to decide certain days of the week when, after picking my child up from school, I can satisfy my conscience with B- or C+ parenting, while I get work done. The problem is homework supervision.

For a child who struggles to focus.

Tons of homework. New work. If it’s English or Social Studies, I’m all good. The problem is MATH – the bane of my existence. “I’ve never seen this before” homework. “It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes” (according to the teacher) homework. (I think they meant per subject). Me watching Khan Academy videos so I can help with homework. Me supervising homework while she sits in the back of my undergrad classroom. Catching up with new material on the weekend.