On the enduring creepiness of (classic) clowns

bozoI don’t know if this is true for most people, but I can vividly remember the very first nightmare I ever had in my life. It was when I was four years old and it featured Bob Saget and Bozo the Clown – guess which of them was the villain. Saget, known to me only as Michelle’s dad on Full House, may have represented fatherly warmth in my dream; Bozo, on the other hand, was an unholy terror, chasing after me through the halls of a deserted children’s hospital, smiling his enormous red smile, laughing his deranged, bubbling giggle as I ran for my life. During the chase, I came upon a ward where Bob Saget sat on a kiddie stool with a storybook in his lap. Safety! I ran to him, but alas, even nice ol’ Mr. Tanner couldn’t save me now – the clown found us. I’ll spare you the disturbing details, but in a nutshell, I was eaten alive by a big, bouncy, happy-faced creature – and it was laughing gleefully all the while. I woke up screaming. Continue reading On the enduring creepiness of (classic) clowns

What’s a TV drama got to do with international politics?

This post comes a bit late but, I got published at The Week last week! I wrote a piece on the uber-jarring inaccuracies in the portrayal of my hometown Islamabad on Showtime’s Emmy-winning series Homeland. A portrayal that is essentially as authentic as setting Midnight In Paris in New Orleans and having all the native Parisians played by pencil-moustached Louisianans. Of course, that’s true for a lot of television shows, even very good ones - The Good Wife comes to mind for the criticism it often receives from Chicago residents for its unrealistic depiction of their city. But Homeland‘s shoddy approximation of Islamabad is different not just because it’s a whole new level of wildly inaccurate, but is also very irresponsible, given the ugly and offensive stereotypes it helps propagate. Continue reading What’s a TV drama got to do with international politics?

“The Election” (New Jersey, 1788)

Zealous Patriots, heading rabbles,
Orators promoting squabbles;
Free Electors always swilling,
Candidates not worth a shilling;
Butchers, Farmers and Car Men,
Half Pay Officers and Chairmen;
Many Zealots, not worth noting,
Many Perjured Persons voting;
Candidates with Tradesman pissing,
Cleavers, Bagpipes, Clapping, Hissing;
Warmest Friends in Opposition,
Hostile Forces in Coalition!
Open Houses, paid to tempt the
Rotten Voters with Bellies empty;
Boxing, Drinking, Rhyming, Swearing,
Some Fools laughin, some despairing;
Fevers, Fractures, Inflammations,
Bonfires, Squibs, Illuminations;
Murd’rers daring all detection,
Pray, gentlemen, how do you like the Election?

- ‘The Election’, Federal Post (Trenton, NJ) 18 November 1788

Cited in Rapoport, David C. and Weinberg, Leonard. “Elections and Violence.” Terrorism and Political Violence, 12:3-4, 15-50. 2000.

Rest in Peace, Robin Williams

In-the-Wild-Robin-Willaims-with-Dolphins-650x443The thing I always remember about Robin Williams, before his comedy, before his antics, is that he smiled with his eyes. When you’re a little kid watching Mrs. Doubtfire for the first time, the movie casts its magic over you not just because the guy in it is so funny dressed in drag, but also because he has eyes that you trust: the warm eyes of a loving father, the kindly eyes of a wise old lady – the movie just wouldn’t work otherwise. They were eyes that smiled, really smiled – I can honestly say I have not seen a pair more smiling. When Robin did a documentary for PBS called “In the Wild”, in which he played and communicated with dolphins, I thought the filmmakers couldn’t have picked a more perfect celebrity for the job. What human being can you think of who is more dolphin-like? That friendly smile, the impish giggle, the fireball of energy and lift-you-up showmanship. Continue reading Rest in Peace, Robin Williams

“NO! GET OFF MY CHAIR!”: The Azadi March and Revolution

In Saadat Hasan Manto’s hilarious short story Naya Qanoon (“The New Constitution”), a tongawala named Ustad Mangu overhears snippets of conversation among his fares about the upcoming Government of India Act. From these snippets, and his own limited knowledge of politics aided by wild flights of imagination, he deduces that the Act will “change everything”, that India will no longer be subservient to the British (whom Mangu despises), that “the new constitution would be like boiling water on those leeches sucking the blood of the poor.” He becomes very, very excited. On the morning that the Act is supposed to have been passed, Mangu jumps out of bed earlier than usual and sets off on his tonga, expecting to see newness and bright colours everywhere – he’s even bought a new plume for his horse to celebrate the occasion. But everything looks the same. Soon, he ends up beating up a British soldier (who he tries to overcharge for a tonga ride) and is carried off by the police. “New constitution! New constitution!” he yells all the way to the station. The constables snap, “What the hell are you on about? It’s the same constitution, you jackass!”

Eight decades later, Manto’s portrayal of the political behaviour of the average Pakistani citizen still rings true, and my feeling is that Imran Khan capitalizes on this “Mangu mentality”. His outlandish campaign promises in the lead-up to the 2013 election (“I will wipe out corruption in x days! Restore normal electricity in y days!”) and his heavy use of cricket lingo have made a comeback in his Azadi March rhetoric, and his followers appear to be eating it all up. One news channel even reported that marchers appear to be expecting “change” the moment they arrive in Islamabad. Continue reading “NO! GET OFF MY CHAIR!”: The Azadi March and Revolution

Notes on Culture: Southern Fiction Without the Accent?

Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occured between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (detail), 1994. Cut paper on wall, 156 x 600 inches.

I am enjoying this special issue of Guernica so much I feel like a kid in a candy store. It’s called The American South: On the Map and In The Mind. Haven’t gotten all the way through yet, but right now I want to share this feature by Ed Winstead on the twangy accents and nostalgic cliches that make Southern literature seem authentically Southern (“Faulkner, Lee, Percy, and Welty were no more Southern than Edgar Allen Poe or Sidney Lanier or Kate Chopin, and yet their writing, in the context of the South at that time, definitively was.”), and how the South is moving forward but its fiction clings to the past. It’s a great article and I’ll take his point, but personally I hope the “people dressed in white and drinking mint juleps on a porch” style of Southern fiction never goes out of style. Continue reading Notes on Culture: Southern Fiction Without the Accent?

Notes on Culture: The Happy British Muslims video

I have to admit, I have conflicted feelings about the currently trending Happy British Muslims video. Not with the video itself, obviously – it is endearing and uplifting, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t break into a grin while watching. It’s just that the fact of the video’s existence makes me sad. It makes me sad that a whole community of people feels it has to “prove” its capacity for joy (and therefore its humanity) to the rest of the world. You’d think the idea that someone can subscribe to Islamic spirituality and still be a normal human being would be a given in global public opinion, but a quick scan of comments sections around the web will tell you otherwise. It’s easy for critics to dismiss the video as a display put on for the appeasement of Western society – the “politics of happiness” equivalent, perhaps, of the “politics of respectability” in race relations in the United States. But such critics underestimate the power of media in shaping race/ethnic/inter-community relations in the modern age. Islamophobia is a real and rampant thing, and it is fuelled by media portrayals of Muslims, a stunning proportion of which are very negative. When was the last time something positive and “happy” went viral about Muslims rather than reports of violent outrage over Danish cartoons and blasphemous YouTube videos? Continue reading Notes on Culture: The Happy British Muslims video


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