Funny Face

You fill the air with smiles
For miles and miles and miles
Though you’re no Mona Lisa
For worlds I’d not replace
Your sunny, funny face

I love your funny face
Your sunny, funny face
You’re not exotic but so hypnotic
You’re much, too much
If you can cook the way you look

I’d swim the ocean wide
Just to have you by my side
Though you’re no Queen of Sheba
For world’s I’d not replace
Your sunny, funny face

–“Funny Face” Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin (sung here by Fred Astaire)

After watching Gone with the Wind at an impressionable age, I became obsessed with the flexibility of Clark Gable’s eyebrows. I endeavored for many months afterwards to develop the muscles necessary to produce similar effects with my own eyebrows. I now bear the mark of my success on my 42-year-old-face: a surprising fountain of wrinkles originating from my left eyebrow and shooting upward toward my hairline that seem to have materialized overnight. At night, brushing my teeth before the mirror, I stare intently at the wrinkles and try to produce the facial expressions that created them. And then I naturally think about age, and about death, and about Osama bin Laden’s face, and what, exactly, the Navy Seals did to it that makes photographs of it unfit for public consumption.

Whenever an impossibly famous individual disappears without a public viewing of the body (and sometimes even then; cf: Elvis), rumors abound as to whether the personage in question is actually dead. The curious decision to keep from the public the image that would prove the kill has naturally fueled an abundance of theories. So that members of the United States Government might not also feel inclined to indulge in such conspiracy theorizing, the White House set up a limited access peep-show to which select individuals of prominent stature, such as John McCain, were invited to see the booty captured and killed by our boys. They came away convinced, slightly shaken, perhaps a little horrified, but gratified that with their tremendous stature came access to the nation’s top-drawer death porn.

Were his brains blown out? His eyes shot from his head? And if his face was revoltingly disfigured, how then would such a photograph make indisputable his identity in death? What vestige of his face was left to prove to John McCain with a photo that we had our man? With the capture of Saddam Hussein, the captors chose to distribute a humiliating image of the former leader sticking his head out of his foxhole, groggy, ungroomed, a wild-eyed old man blinking in the sudden light of the sun. “He was in the bottom of a hole with no way to fight back,” reported Major General Raymond Odierno proudly. “He was caught like a rat.” The photograph was depressing as it was convincing, and in any event, he was executed eventually. Blood lust satisfied, conspiracy theories crushed (unless it was one of his doubles?).

In Osama’s case, at least, there is said to be a photo, and there is said to have been a body, now swimming with the fishes off the coast of Karachi. In the case of the alleged killing of militant Ilyas Kashmiri by drone last month, there seems no way of proving the deed. As Interior Minister Rehman Malik put it, officials were “98% sure” that Kashmiri was one of the humans blown out by a drone strike. The target was said to be taking his tea in an orchard at the time, an image that bears with it a fragile, civilized gentility in comparison with the CIA’s not particularly covert video game-like military operation in Pakistan. Soon after he was supposedly killed, Kashmiri’s family gave an almost irritable interview that seemed rather pointed in its criticism of the missing father and husband. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write; if you are reading this right now, Ilyas K, you should know that your family is not pleased with your behavior. They said they’d believe he was dead when they had proof. Of course they’ll never have it; the United States has become too fastidious to parade its victims’ heads in the village square.

On Academic Blogging with Amitava Kumar

The esteemed Amitava Kumar, who wrote the foreword for the CM book, interviewed me for his column on academic blogging:

Manan Ahmed is a historian. He is also a blogger who started the blog Chapati Mystery. His blog-posts have been curated into a book that is coming out this month. Manan’s publisher asked me to write a Foreword to this book. (I did, but damn, I wish I had come up with the sentence “His is a canny insurgency of the keyboard and the kilobytes.”) I’m going to quote later from the Foreword, but first a brief interview with the author. The idea is to treat this occasion as a discussion of the phenomenon of academic blogging.

Tell me a bit about your starting Chapati Mystery. When did you do it, and what was the immediate reason?

The immediate reason was to speak to my brother in Pakistan who was disturbed by the stories he was reading about Pakistan/Islam/Middle East in the American press. Hence, media criticism was at the heart of it. However, more broadly, since 2002 and the launch of the Iraq War, I had grown increasingly frustrated and angry about the unanimity of war porn around me.

Were there other academic bloggers that you were reading at that time? What was the difference that you thought you could make?

Juan Cole who was running his Informed Comment and Angry Arab who had his News. Both were tenured faculty in Middle East Studies and they were both incredibly vigilant against US media and thorough in presenting views/news from the warzone. However, neither concentrated on Pakistan/Afghanistan issues and I felt that I could contribute specifically in that hole. Of course, there were other academic bloggers (like Amardeep Singh or Crooked Timber or Language Hat whom I read with great pleasure) but CM was decidedly on the political end of things.

What are your views on what often gets called “academic blogging?”

Perhaps unlike most of the academic bloggers, I had a lot of experience with web-publishing (since the mid ’90s, courtesy of an active career in IT). I thought that blogging software allowed a greater democratization for publishing on a space that was already fairly open. I was/am very vocal in my support for it. In May 2005, I wrote an essay for the American Historical Association’s magazine encouraging historians to blog more. The beauty of the open web for academic writing was the undifferentiated readership and the quick/dirty feedback mechanism.

It was a stark contrast to the studied ways in which our universities handle “open dialogue” where we show up at designated times; assemble ourselves on carefully aligned furniture; listen to a highly didactic and structured speech for 45 minutes and maybe get the chance to ask one question. This is neither “open” nor “dialogue.” The typical university talk is never ever advertised off-campus and rarely manages to get people even from neighboring departments. Yet, academia wants to pat itself on the shoulder about being the last bastion of freedom for exchange of ideas. It is a rather laughable assertion.

So anyways. The point is that while we cherish open-ness or dialogue, we relish our closed structures and cordoned-off and privileged hallways. Academic blogging, to this graduate student, was a way out of this clubbiness. Over the years, I have tested ideas for articles, posted conference papers, talked about books in the field and out of the field, challenged other historians and their interpretations. And for each, received both genuine and amazingly instructive feedback and crazy ad-hominem attacks. I am grateful for both. (I should add that as a result of blogging I have had four academic publications, half a dozen academic conference invitations and countless other specifically academic benefits — references, reviews, gossip etc. etc.)

Also, were you ever advised to wait till you had got tenure?

Yes! A number of times. More specifically I was advised that I won’t be able to get an academic job being a blogger (they will just google you and find out all the crazy shit you said!). But the tenure thing was just silly. If I am silent now, I am silent after I get tenure as well. My speech is not, and can not, be tagged to the expediency of my personal life. If something is worth saying, it is worth saying now.

Please tell me what it is that you do when you blog. What are your rules for blogging?

This has changed, of course, over time and is specific to topics. Usually, I want to show something that I feel is hidden in plain sight. It is mostly a historical connection, but sometimes it is a way in which the politics gets framed. I try to avoid long pieces. And I try to use images to talk specifically with my text.

Finally, what have been the changes since you started? The changes in your audience, but also in the sphere of social media.

I can now reach and talk to spheres which were completely inaccessible to me earlier (editors of op-ed pages, the White House press corps, politicians in PK etc). My audience is also remarkably different and both of these are as a result of participating in social media for the last six years and feeding into it. Twitter has changed my blogging and my online reading. It is now my primary place for link aggregation and short commentary. It is also the primary interaction with social media. It is actually miles improvement over the blog/comment model and I think my blogging is completely changed as a result of it. The community building/outreach efforts for academics in twitter are so vast and vastly under-utilized. Maybe I need to write a follow-up for the American Historical Association?

From the Foreword:

When you read a good practitioner of any form of writing you are also provided a lesson in the practice of the art itself. Here’s what you learn from Manan Ahmed about blogging: Blogs should be short in order to be true to their medium; bound to the everyday, they should appear like fresh blood on the bandage. Ahmed’s posts possess both these qualities. As a blogger, Ahmed has too much quickness and wit to sound sententious; he is also far too self-conscious, or just plain honest, to ever wrap himself in sanctimony. These qualities not only make him eminently readable, they also push his writings, which deal with grim issues of culture and bloody politics, toward a kind of startling poignance. I know very few writers who lead us to rich sentiment as a refinement of thought itself. Ahmed is one of them. There is also something else in this writing: it is youthful, hip, eager to reach out to the world. I don’t mean I see here a naïve friendliness. No, as should be deduced from the idea of the blog, there is a desire to engage in a conversation, sure, but it is a critical conversation, full of attitude. Think of the young Los Angeles-based South Asian hip-hop artist Chee Malabar singing: “…From Madras to Mombasa, / they harass us in our casa sayin, ‘You Hamas huh?’ / ‘Yeah, like I learned to rap in a fucking Madrasah.’” Lastly, the blog posts that have been assembled for this book do not have the Saran Wrap of retrospective packaging: They possess the immediacy of newborn hope, and of a fear that is more like foreboding than settled despair. As a reader, coming upon these entries again, I’m instantly transported to the moment of their making. Thanks to Ahmed, you and I are alive to history.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He teaches English at Vassar College.