Eliminate the Muslim
Timeplay in the Making of Postcolonial Identities
Illustration by Tithi Luadthong / Alamy Stock Photo
By Ahmed Ragab
The premise for the short story collection Iraq + 100 is decidedly postcolonial. Hassan Blasim, the collection’s editor, asked the contributors to write about Iraq 100 years after the American- and British-led invasion in the early 2000s.1 The prompt animates a form of play on time and history. The “Iraq” listed in the title, but almost absent in most of the stories, was itself the product of an earlier postcolonial condition—a nation state built in the 1930s upon the borders and identities constructed and negotiated in the colonial period.2 A new episode of invasion and colonization has eliminated the first postcolony, reanimating some of the concerns that vexed the first postcolonial project, namely: sectarianism, tribalism, and religious fundamentalism.3 As such, Iraq + 100 proposes a new chronology for Iraq—one that distinguishes between two postcolonial ages. The stories commence at the end of the first postcolonial Iraqi state in the early twenty-first century and project a narrative 100 years into a future that imagines a new, second postcolonial world that will create and define a new set of identities and territories.
In his introduction, Blasim laments that there are hardly any Arabic writings in genres of science or speculative fiction. In his view, this lack of futuristic writings is symptomatic of the closure of futurity by the first postcolonial state, due to two interconnected dynamics. On one level, the authoritarian postcolonial states that ruled the Arabic-speaking world controlled how the future was imagined by shutting down the public sphere, thereby rendering the future moot. On another level, the failure of the postcolonial project of modernization and industrialization deprived the region and its authors of the opportunity to think about futures, especially scientific and technological ones. The (first) postcolony never owned the production of science and technology, Blasim explains, but instead remained a consumer of the products of the former metropole, rendering futuristic thinking futile.
A lively environment of futuristic writings exists in popular serialized novellas, movies, and TV shows, as well as comic books and young adult literature.
Blasim’s view of Arabic science fiction is limited to what he considers worthy literary production. But if we look beyond his tastes, a lively environment of futuristic writings exists in popular serialized novellas, movies, and TV shows, as well as comic books and young adult literature. Yet, Blasim’s questions about the possibility, availability, and legitimacy of futuristic thinking and the identities that such thinking entails merit further examination. Here I investigate the timeplay that animates the production of new postcolonial identities in the future. I propose the term timeplay to describe the deliberate destabilization of time and chronology in the production of identity categories. In “play,” time is flexible and malleable, and it is also effectual in the making of players. At the same time, it is unstable and with dubious consequences. Play is at once an attempt at rehearsing meaning-making in the non-play and a ritualistic reenactment of the malleability and the unsettling instability of these meanings. The dubious consequentiality of time in play reflects the production of postcolonial identities—made through and over time but requiring recognition and comprehension.
In investigating how timeplay influences the production and projection of Muslim identities into the future, I look at two examples of science fiction writings. First, in a number of stories from the Iraq + 100 collection I investigate dystopia and haunting in the making of timeplay and the production of contemporary Muslim identities. I then posit Marvel’s Sooraya as another example of the production of Muslim identities in the “West” looking at how this mode of future-making intersects and/or contradicts that of Iraq + 100. I present these examples as modes of thinking about timeplay as a tool in the production of deliberately destabilized future ethno-religious identities.
Kahramana and the Inevitable Dystopia
In “Kahramana,” the first story in the Iraq + 100 collection, and named after the story’s protagonist, we are in a future Iraq that has lost its identity and territorial integrity. 4 The land on which the original postcolony resided is now divided between various polities, two of which we encounter: an alliance, or NUL (Nations United League)-controlled territory, and a polity controlled by an Islamic State or Imārah (Emirate), that is unmistakably the future manifestation of ISIS. We learn that the leader of the Islamic State may be infertile and that the State’s future might hang on his procreation. Kahramana, a soft-spoken woman who says very little throughout the story, is the leader’s future bride who carries the promise of regeneration and the future of the theocratic polity. Drawn on the body of a woman, among other women, the future is made tenuous by Kahramana’s unyielding though understated agency. She escapes the ISIS-esque polity and requests asylum in the UN-esque controlled area. We learn that she is, in fact, only one of thousands of people who escape as refugees and seek asylum.
The landscape of the story is marked by harsh weather and climate change. Unlike other climate change-based dystopias, however, this climate change is limited, semi-purposefully inflicted, and unescapable.5 A series of experiments has transformed this part of Iraq into a snowy tundra where the population contends with the alliance’s trials run awry. The inevitability of this weather, much like the inevitability of the occupation/mandate/control, renders comprehension superfluous. There is simply no need and no value for the protagonists to understand and no reason for the author or reader to explain the conditions of the colony. Life is already destined by forces outside anyone’s control. Much like Kahramana, whose fate is sealed by her place of birth and her physical beauty (which suggests her fertility), the readers have to contend with the sealed fate of everyone in the story. Here, the dystopia is accidental. Caused by mistakes with good intentions, the dystopia affirms the absurdity of the colony’s future.
Kahramana is coded white. She has a fair, almost white, skin, little nose, and blue eyes. Her appearance at border control and then in the asylum center stirs waves of estrangement, compassion, and discomfort.6 Kahramana’s white appearance, which made her a more visible target in her homeland, now makes her a poster child for the population forgotten by Western press, which the NUL/Alliance leadership cares about. Her photo is printed in newspapers and on posters. Kahramana embodies a population forgotten and a colony that has become annoying, boring, and disturbing. She hardly speaks. When she does, she contradicts her white appearance by her dress, interests, and her language. She understands that it is safer to remain quiet and let her blue eyes make her an acceptable refugee. Kahramana is white but not quite.
Kahramana enacts a version of Homi Bhabha’s colonial and postcolonial subject. “Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite,” Bhabha explains, “which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.”7 The not-quite subject is left with only mimicry to make sense of her identity and enact her agency. Kahramana’s looks, her eye color and fair skin, make her a visual mimicry of whiteness, an image that merits identification, and a quandary of colonial miscegenation that threatens the lines separating the colonial from the colonized. At the same time, her speech, her hopes, and her history make her un-white, an incomplete image that must be frozen in slippage in order to perform its mimicry, and silenced in order to produce colonial sympathy. Kahramana’s escape, an agential performance aimed at changing her preordained fate, can be completed only by the shutting down of this agency—rendering her a mute picture of a blue-eyed helpless woman, an object of salvage.
Her potential coherence and the consummation of her identity as an individual threatens the visual, political and emotional order that conditioned her identity and those of others in the colony and its surroundings.
The surprise and interest of the colonial NUL officers soon turn into outrage, for the attention and sympathy that Kahramana’s looks generate transcend and subvert the mechanical order of the colony. Her blue eyes demand a break from the monotony of colonial administration, which has enabled the disappearance of the colony from colonial consciousness and attention. On one hand, Kahramana is an assemblage of white looks and Muslim identity and history.8 As an assemblage, her identity cannot be fully consummated in a coherent subject. In fact, her potential coherence and the consummation of her identity as an individual threatens the visual, political and emotional order that conditioned her identity and those of others in the colony and its surroundings. She provides the raw material for a process of colonial civilizing that promises to turn Bhabha’s not-quite figures into full civilized subjects. The desirable nature of this assemblage is the reason why Kahraman becomes a poster child, in the metaphorical and literal sense. She is an example that can be evoked when considering the refugee program, and her young blue-eyed face is printed on posters to raise awareness about the colony. In the background, the other browner subjects linger unseen.
In this sense, Kahraman is a reproduction of Sharbat Gula, known as the Afghan girl.9 In both cases, women’s bodies become sites of recognition as their looks pose the possibility of engagement along with the safety resulting from their gendered deprivation of agency. In both cases, their blue and green eyes, respectively, look out from faces rendered helpless and, therefore, harmless by the colonial gaze. In the same way, President Trump’s Afghanistan policy is also drawn on the bodies of women intentionally stripped of agency. On August 27, 2017, The Washington Post reported:
One of the ways McMaster tried to persuade Trump to recommit to the effort was by convincing him that Afghanistan was not a hopeless place. He presented Trump with a black-and-white snapshot from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul, to show him that Western norms had existed there before and could return.10
The difficulty in making the decision was rooted in colonial fatigue. Analysts wondered how long the United States would continue to wage war in Afghanistan. Others remarked that this was the longest war that the United States had waged. The women in miniskirts, similar to Kahramana’s blue eyes, presented a recognizable object of salvage that could reanimate the empire and awaken it from slumber.
Akin to what Jasbir Puar explains as “the liberation of American empire from its closets—an empire already known but concealed,”11 the celebratory narratives of Trump’s own electoral win utilize the seeming errors in the polls and the unexpected swing in the electoral vote to produce a narrative of coming-out: an appearance of the known but concealed under the overwhelming pressure of fake morality. According to Puar, this coming out of the white American empire would and should result in pride—pride of truth, of ownership, and of “winning.” But while Puar’s narrative focuses on the existence of a concealed empire, the proud “Trump movement” is unconvinced of the empire’s existence. Instead, it is deeply nostalgic for a past time and a past empire. Here, the coming-out is not of empire but rather of an imperial ideology that aims to restore a bygone, or never-accomplished, legacy. The “movement” is haunted by the specters of colonies past and never accomplished, chased by overpowering nostalgia for non-existing memory and tormented by the fleeting moment of victory. “This logic of haunting would not be merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being (of the “to be,” assuming that it is a matter of Being in the “to be or not to be,” but nothing is less certain). It would harbor within itself, but like circumscribed places or particular effects, eschatology and teleology themselves.”12 While, as Derrida explains, this hauntology is irreducible “to everything it makes possible: ontology, theology, positive or negative onto-theology,”13 it is a condition that invites specific forms of epistemological empiricisms, whereby the specters of empire can be investigated, revised, understood, and ultimately exorcised into an ontological rendition.
To be sure, this haunting is in part motivated by these familiar objects of salvage. In the case of Trump’s Afghanistan policy, the miniskirted women sufficed only for a short period before he reverted to the older narrative expressing the need to simultaneously win and disengage. The “White Man’s Burden” was resurrected in narratives of unending unwinnable wars—wars that should be won, and yet, at the same time, should never be fought. In the case of Kahramana, her blue eyes become a reason to hate and blame her for unending war. The uncomfortable nature of Kahramana’s presence brings the paranoia to the fore. Officers wonder whether she is a spy.14 She is a Muslim and remains so despite having survived and escaped the neighboring theocracy. The assemblage that first made her an attractive and salvageable object now becomes a locus of suspicion—a marker of her transgression and unnaturalness. Sophia Roosth explains how the category of the natural/unnatural invokes certain modes of kinship, queered or “fictive”: “Unnatural blurs the categorical and the normative—it refers simultaneously to that which is counter to nature and to that which is against the (moral) natural order, something strange or out of the ordinary.”15 This “unnatural” with its attendant queer kinship rooted in colonial miscegenation is reason for moral outrage, justifiable only in paranoia.
In the making of this paranoia, timeplay is key. Kahramana’s past and identity merge into a core of Muslimness that she cannot escape, and one that further emphasizes her suspicious identity and the transgression that her not-quite (un)nature embodies. Her escape narrative, shrouded in the mysteries of her incomplete, traumatized memories and her inability to fully communicate, is at once repeated and reanimated, with gaps filled with stock narratives woven from colonial imaginaries, and also doubted if not entirely denied. Similarly, she must wait for a decision on her asylum claim, and this suspension in time functions both as a reminder of her tenuous position and her vulnerability to deportation and as a way to withstand the media storm that will soon dissipate allowing for the old colonial amnesia to settle in again. These layers of timeplay animated by paradoxes and ambivalences are characterized by their danger and seriousness as well as their inconsequentiality. Ultimately, Kahramana loses the timeplay and her request is denied as the media storm predictably ends.16 We are left ignorant of her fate, which is rendered, much like her life and her future, utterly inconsequential.
In “Kahramana,” postcolonial identity in the future is built on ambivalences and held hostage to colonial nostalgias and boredom.
In “Kahramana,” postcolonial identity in the future is built on ambivalences and held hostage to colonial nostalgias and boredom. Kahramana’s life and her status is dependent on the history of her escape. It is only through proving a history of abuse to which she was subjected before escaping—and her potential future personal demise, should she continue to live there—that she can acquire refugee status. However, the linearity that this time narrative requires is denied to her as her identity traps her into an unending time loop where past abuses, and her survival of these abuses, are equivalent to her future trials, which she presumably may survive. With an identity fixed in time, though transgressed by eye color, Kahramana is unable to access a linear time narrative that would liberate her from paranoid timeplay and render her salvageable. Instead, her being salvageable, but not-quite spells the end for her, and the literal end of the story, as she is returned to the land from which she escaped and is expected to survive—or escape again—in a timeplay that frames her identity and preserves the colonial project in disinterest, inattention, and amnesia.
Haunting: Colonial Specters and Friendly Ghosts
The haunting past is at the heart of Iraq + 100. The name “Iraq,” which titles the collection and animates the collection’s literary endeavor, is almost nowhere to be found inside the stories, where most of the narratives are in worlds where “Iraq” ceased to exist. Yet, Iraq haunts the narratives forcing them to contend with the failing first postcolony and the second colonization. In the “Corporal,” a short story authored by Ali Bader, the ghost of a soldier, who died on the front lines during the invasion, is summoned using new technologies to tell his story. While the exorcised ghost promises to give some details about the war and the invasion, his narrative is dubious, difficult to understand, and trampled in repetitive and inexplicable timeframes. The ghost fails to understand where he is and whether he is in his present or future.17 He narrates his certainty of defeat and colonization, while attempting to prove that he still fought and refused to surrender.18 At the same time, he narrates a surrender story that renders his death by enemy bullets an unnecessary act of violence, which he did not expect but did not find strange and does not condemn. The ghost is stuck in a time loop where his memories are remarkably inconsequential, as most of his interlocutors hardly remember the war of which he speaks. Yet his remembrance carries the potential to liberate his soul, the soul of the nation, and possibly that of the author and readers.
In another story, “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim, Iraq, past and no longer present, is the site of unique environmental degradation after chemical wars have made the air hardly breathable.19 Here again, the environmental apocalypse is not the manifestation of global destiny but the accidental, inescapable reality of the colony/postcolony. People live in domes built by Chinese conglomerates that have granted Chinese citizenship to domes’ inhabitants and installed local rulers to enforce order. In the dome-kingdom-colony of Babylon, the protagonist collects stories and salvages objects of a past forgotten civilization outside the dome to write videogame scenarios. In a similar narrative, in “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili, the protagonist is a historian who is tasked with collecting stories of famines and wars that have plagued this land over its history. The polity’s leader, a cross between a theocratic charismatic leader and autocratic postcolonial head of state, needs these stories to write speeches that inspire patience as the country plunges into famine and disorder.
The past is never absent and cannot be fully erased. Instead, it is toyed with and deployed literally in games.
Outside the domes in the “Gardens of Babylon,” the videogame screenwriter is haunted by a past that will not disappear despite his best wishes. In fact, he is tasked with exorcising and animating this past for the enjoyment of his customers. The contrast between the scenarios of the games they play and the seemingly comfortable life they live under the domes is the pretext that preserves the conglomerate regime. While the protagonist is amazed that some people remain interested in history-based games and worries about finding exciting materials for his game scenarios, he acknowledges that the glass domes do not hide the past but amplify it in its ubiquitous yet inapproachable presence. He encounters youngsters wearing masks and searching for artifacts. The past is never absent and cannot be fully erased. Instead, it is toyed with and deployed literally in games. At the same time, the specter of the forgotten colony risks upsetting the existing order and creating chaos—an idea that makes the protagonist scared and anxious.
In the same way, the leader’s speeches in “The Worker” resurrect the past in order to promise a different future. The speeches invoke the instability of the past as a fate stuck to this land, and the leader justifies his rule through the similarity between the present and the abhorrent past. The historians’ narratives explain that the land has always been plagued by hardship and difficulty. There is no escape from violence and famine because these specters haunt the land and the people and cannot be exorcised. They keep coming back in a loop that renders time circular, and the leader’s promise is to make time linear and to escape this time loop. Yet, in the process, he understands that his rule relies on this endless timeplay. In all these cases, the past cannot be escaped or forgotten despite being vaguely remembered. Stuck in a time loop, the making of the postcolony’s future is reliant on and haunted by its unknowable past and its failures and atrocities.
In Derrida’s narrative of hauntology, specters demand investigation and create duties for those they haunt.20 Similarly, the protagonists in the various stories of Iraq + 100 are tasked with investigating the past, not through its artifacts or on its own terms, but rather through investigating the specters that haunt their reality. No one is truly interested in the ghost soldier’s stories, but listening is a duty that cannot be escaped. In the same way, no matter how historical videogames decline in popularity, the presence of the ruins outside the domes demand their existence to the chagrin of the exorcist/game writer. The investigation, however, does not truly exorcise the specters, ushering in a haunting-free future. Instead, it reanimates an identity made of assemblages and premised on paranoias and timeplay.21 The leader’s recollection of specters of the past does not deliver him or his people into a brighter future. Instead, it seals their identity as assemblages produced in timeplay that are paranoid of their past and future. In paranoia, the story needs to remain the same—stable and unchanging.
Sooraya—Hybridity and Assemblages
The specters of the past and the resulting identity assemblages in paranoia are equally visible in the journey of the Afghani mutant Sooraya Qadir (known as Dust).22 In the Marvel Comics universe, mutants are humans with an X-gene that gives them extraordinary abilities but renders them the objects of derision and discrimination. The future of mutants is to be charted between the competing views of Professor Charles Xavier, who advocates the assimilation of mutants within human societies, establishes a school for “talented children,” and builds the army of X-Men, named after his initials, and Magneto, once a friend of Xavier, who harbors violent skepticism against humans and builds an army that bears some animosity toward Xavier’s mutants. Yet, both Xavier’s and Magneto’s mutants must battle the forces of human bigotry led by the arch-villains Colonel William Stryker and Donald Pierce, who advocate different versions of mutant genocide.
Sooraya’s Islam is visible throughout her mutant career. She chooses to dress in a black niqab covering her body and face. The niqab is never forgotten, for it serves as an object of exegesis and explanation.
Sooraya is a mutant from Afghanistan who was rescued by Wolverine, Xavier’s top lieutenant, after being captured by slavers. Her powers are rooted in her origin and reflective of her identity: salvaged from the desert, she can transform into sand storms that render the technology-powered Stryker’s attacks useless. Sooraya’s Islam is visible throughout her mutant career. She chooses to dress in a black niqab covering her body and face. The niqab is never forgotten, for it serves as an object of exegesis and explanation. It was never imposed on her, Sooraya explains, but rather empowers her as a choice she makes daily. Sooraya’s niqab is constructed around a slippage that highlights its nature as drag. The niqab is terrorist code,23 yet, she is pitted against the Taliban several times, recalling the image of the good Muslim as cast by the Western gaze.24 While the niqab ostensibly aims to cover and conceal her from male gaze, it is drawn in a manner that allows her to participate in the comics erotica of mutant bodies.25 Moreover, the niqab does not cover her from our gaze as we follow her to her room and peek at more of her body than what she ostensibly would want. The slippage through which her niqab becomes an act of mimicry—though of the colonized and not of the colonial—also renders it fake, exaggerated, or drag. Yet, this drag does not aim to subvert a gender or identity order through transgression. Instead, it confirms the colonial order through imitation and mimicry.26
As a character, Sooraya, is required not only to carry the burden of her mutant self and to drive her own narrative, but also to carry the political message of the authors. The character is haunted by Islam, not only on the pages of the comic, but also beyond. On one level, her Muslimness haunts her coming out as a mutant through a battle with the Taliban, and her identity as a mutant is always questioned due to the religiously motivated attire that functions also as her identity marker. On another level, she is required to represent Muslims and to question the terrorist assemblage that she modifies into a new “good Muslim” assemblage. At yet another level, Sooraya herself becomes aware of her double haunting. When confronting Donald Pierce, she explains that she is a Muslim and a mutant and so understands bigotry through both identities, that she understands Pierce’s bigotry requires the example of a misled few for its self-validation, and, furthermore, that she is not willing to serve as the example that justifies his bigotry. Sooraya’s identity renders her life a performance for the benefit of the bigot that she attempts to resist. In the process, her agency is modeled at the intersection of conformity and subversion.
While Sooraya attempts to resist and subvert her placement as a terrorist, through her actions as a character and through her character as action, she does so by conforming to standards of surveillance that police her acts as a specimen of her kind. Sooraya cannot afford to extricate herself from this regime of surveillance. Instead, she seeks to subvert it by complying with it and then rendering it useless by showing that she had nothing to hide. Here again, timeplay is key in the construction of Sooraya as a character in the surveillance regime. Her attempt to subvert the surveillance regime by undermining its expected results could only operate in a linear temporality that accepts causes and results and admits change in itself and in the surveilled. Instead, this surveillance regime is rooted in a paranoid temporality, where Sooraya’s identity is fixed and unchangeable. In fact, Sooraya’s failure to play the terrorist puts her under a more intensive mode of surveillance. She becomes a potential surprise—a risk that paranoia cannot afford.27 Similar to Kahramana’s fate, the failure to perform the expected renders her even more suspicious.
The postcolony’s existence is entangled in webs of time. At one level, the postcolony is always tethered to a particular history of colonization. At another level, the traditional postcolonial project of catching up and finding a seat at the table is one that is anxious about time. Catching-up means making time and it also entails the hope that obstacles of the past remain in the past. In this way, the production of the postcolony, in so far as it is a project for the future, is premised on a linear temporality in which the colony recedes and becomes a vague memory. The postcolonial identity, although always marked with the injuries of colonization and with the ruptures and rewriting of precolonial history, should extend to the future, moving ever further away from the past.
The production of postcolonial identity relies on the making of selfhood at the intersection of the temporalities produced in the colonial archive, and those enacted in the postcolony.
Scholarship in postcolonial studies has investigated the production and the meaning of its post-ness. Kwame Appiah and others have shown how this identification (as post-) continues to produce a particular relationship to temporality that tethers the postcolony to the former metropole in a constant process of self-production.28 This process, explains Benedict Anderson, is part of the production of a chronology at the heart of the imagined national communities emerging from the colonial period.29 Yet, these chronologies are often derivative of the European archive and its arrangement, as Aime Cesaire and Achille Mbembe have shown,30 and they rely on the production of variant times that, in Elizabeth Povinelli’s analysis, impact the making of the modern and the contemporary.31 As such, the production of postcolonial identity relies on the making of selfhood at the intersection of the temporalities produced in the colonial archive, and those enacted in the postcolony. This identity, as a function of communication with self and other, is rooted in a belatedness that is necessary for the production of history, in Hegel’s view, but also characteristic of a lagging behind history and remaining constantly outside or beside it. Similar to what Annamarie Jagose has proposed in regard to lesbian sexual identity, the postcolonial identity “retrospectively assembled from the behaviors and affects it touts as its natural expression, is always imitative and belated.”32 In the same way, postcolonial identity, built as an assemblage, is second in a chronological hierarchy that renders it imitative, and is built on “a retrospective narration of relations between the present and the past” that renders this postcolonial identity anachronistic and belated.33
In this context, Hassan Blasim’s lamentation of the absence of futuristic or science fiction narrative in Arabic is symptomatic of an anxiety about (re)productive futurities, to borrow Lee Edelman’s analytic.34 Blasim blames the first postcolonial state for a form of infertility that has impacted Arabic writings and plagued the Arab and Muslim identity. Blasim’s anxiety is also connected to how the identity of the Muslim and Arab is stamped with a death drive—both of the individual wrapped in terrorist drag or of an entire world at risk of being blown up or converted and rendered infertile, dangerous, and perverse. Sooraya, in her duality as a mutant and a Muslim, is particularly aware of how she is wrapped in this death drive, and she is concerned with the production of a variant future—a productive one—that could take her away from the X-Men. When projected into the future, however, Sooraya’s death drive is accomplished in an apocalypse that will witness the full demise of mutants—a future the X-Men will anticipate and attempt to prevent through time travel. In this future Sooraya casts away her terrorist drag and is portrayed in tight mutant garb with a modified power. She is then the one who kills Wolverine, her original savior, and his comrades, achieving the death wish expectant in her identity.
Despite Blasim’s anxiety and interest in a productive future, the characters in the stories of Iraq + 100 defy his wishes. They are not interested in large narratives and transformative ideas. Instead they are preoccupied with little stories that have no significance. The historians and authors that are tasked in the stories to collect the history of the past are not interested in recovery or in the construction of reliable narratives. Instead, they are invested in the eclectic and unrepresentative.35 The lack of significance is supplanted by the melodramatic, where the characters knowingly obsess about their little lives and reject any interest in the bigger or overarching questions.36 The characters’ resistance to larger and more consequential narratives becomes a form of resistance to productive futurity. They realize that they are involved in a timeplay where futurity cannot be accomplished or even imagined and where productivity is subversively disconnected from consequence.
There is no way forward for an identity that must remain always the same and return to where it came from.
In this timeplay, the postcolonial Muslim identity is a palimpsest, which is not a place for intertextual generation and negotiation but rather for paranoid violence.37 The old text, which cannot be fully erased, haunts the new narrative that can never be fully accomplished and is never completely legible. The result is not a hybrid text but rather an assemblage that animates paranoia through its ambivalence, and is also fixed in ambivalence through a paranoid reading. Progress, change, and productivity are the key terms driving the futuristic narratives of this timeplay. Productivity is obstructed, however, by recurring famine and war and a climate gone awry. The futility of intervention and the inconsequentiality of actions do not render postcolonial future-making obsolete or negate its temporality. Instead, they turn it into dubious play with uncertain results and tenuous relations to reality. This play is implicated in the production of time loops that reproduce colonialism and postcolonialism, and continue to recreate the identities of the postcolony as fixed in paranoid gaze. The timeplay is governed by paranoid suspicions and suspended in playful governance. There is no way forward for an identity that must remain always the same and return to where it came from.
The works analyzed in this paper reveal layers of pessimism that remain uninterested in contributing to the making of productive futures. When colonialism and marginalization render stepping out of the timeplay impossible, the lack of enthusiastic engagement becomes the central mode of subversion. The stories in Iraq + 100 along with many others written in the Arabic speaking world over the past half-decade, following the failures of the 2011 uprisings, speak to this level of pessimistic disengagement as a mode of resistance and subversion. These stand in a significant contrast to the enthusiastic participation that characters like Sooraya, among many others, exhibit as they are made to reenact the making of a Muslim identity that is looped in paranoid timeplay. The constructed agency of Sooraya is presented as a model for the abducted agency of the mini-skirted Afghan women, snatched by modern photography and colonial display from their world and made to participate in the new colonial salvage operation of recreating the same identities in question.
On Friday, January 27, 2017, President Trump issued the first Muslim Ban. The Executive Order was to take effect almost immediately, and it wreaked havoc in airports all over the world throughout the weekend. Confronted with media critique of the seemingly disorganized rollout, President Trump tweeted at 5:31 am on January 31, “If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” Wrapped in paranoid expectation, Trump’s anxiety about an onslaught of “bad dudes” was logical. The question of whether or not this rushing in was indeed feasible was irrelevant. The Ban, in its various versions, was not based on particular data or past acts. Instead, it was an act of speculative fiction, whereby the future of Muslims, stuck in their undifferentiated Muslimness, is imagined and acted upon. For an act of futuristic or speculative fiction, the reality of contemporary Muslims, their diversity and their defiance of the overarching narrative of Muslimness propagated by the administration, by New Atheists, or by others, is equally irrelevant. In the same vein, the consistent calls for the reforming of Islam also look to the making of a future Muslim identity that is different from the future imagined by Islamophobic discourses. In all cases, the identity of Muslims is made into the future. Contemporary Muslims serve only as raw material for the production of a future that may or may not include them.
- Hassan Blasim, Iraq + 100 ( Tor, 2016).
- On the construction of colonial and postcolonial communities, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso Books, 2006).
- On the construction of Iraq as a nation state, and Iraqi nationalisms, see, among others, Sami Zubaida, “The Fragments Imagine the Nation: The Case of Iraq,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34.2 (2002): 205–15; Guiditta Fontana, “Creating Nations, Establishing States: Ethno-Religious Heterogeneity and the British Creation of Iraq in 1919–23,” Middle Eastern Studies 46.1 (2010): 1–16; Orit Bashkin, “Hybrid Nationalisms: Waṭanī and Qawmī Visions in Iraq under ʿabd Al-Karim Qasim, 1958–61,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43.2 (2011): 293–312. See also Arbella Bet-Shlimon, “Kirkuk, 1918–1968: Oil and the Politics of Identity in an Iraqi City” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2012).
- Blasim, Iraq + 100, 1–10.
- See Peter Yoonsuk Paik, From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (UMN Press, 2010); Anne Maxwell, “Postcolonial Criticism, Ecocriticism and Climate Change: A Tale of Melbourne under Water in 2035,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 45.1 (2009): 15–26; Laura Wright, “Wilderness into Civilized Shapes”: Reading the Postcolonial Environment (UGA Press, 2010).
- Blasim, Iraq + 100.
- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994), 85.
- Here, I am using Jasbir Puar’s analysis of the assemblage as a mode of imparting and understanding identities. However, in Kahramana’s case, the assemblage is one rooted in the colonial optimism rather than in danger and fear. See Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke U.P., 2007).
- Cathy Newman, “A Life Revealed,” National Geographic Magazine 1 (2002). On Gula’s iconography, see Anna Szorenyi, “The Face of Suffering in Afghanistan: Identity, Authenticity and Technology in the Search for the Representative Refugee,” Austl. Feminist LJ. 21 (2004): 1; Deborah Cohler, “Keeping the Home Front Burning: Renegotiating Gender and Sexuality in Us Mass Media after September 11,” Feminist Media Studies 6.3 (2006): 245–61; Rae Lynn Schwartz-Dupre, “Rhetorically Representing Public Policy: National Geographic’s 2002 Afghan Girl and the Bush Administration’s Biometric Identification Policies,” Feminist Media Studies 7.4 (2007): 433–53.
- Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, “ ‘It’s a hard problem’: Inside Trump’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan,” Washington Post, August 21, 2017
- Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 1.
- Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Routledge, 2012), 10.
- Ibid., 63.
- Blasim, Iraq + 100.
- Sophia Roosth, Synthetic: How Life Got Made (University of Chicago Press, 2017), 67.
- Blasim, Iraq + 100.
- See Nalo Hopkinson’s discussion of the use of ghosts and other elements of “fantasy” in the writing of postcolonial science fiction: Nalo Hopkinson, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004). See also Gregory E. Rutledge and Nalo Hopkinson, “Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson,” African American Review 33.4 (1999): 589–601. Themes of ghosts and magic have become part of the writing of postcolonial science fiction as a mode of ownership of myths and metaphors. See Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye and Mary Bosede Aiyetoro, “Afro-Science Fiction: A Study of Nnedi Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw in the Flames and Lagoon,” Pivot: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies and Thought 5.1 (2016); Esthie Hugo, “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Animating Magic, Modernity and the African City-Future in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon,” Social Dynamics 43.1 (2017): 46–58.
- Blasim, Iraq + 100.
- Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Routledge, 2012). On postcolonial haunting, see Michael F. O’Riley, “Postcolonial Haunting: Anxiety, Affect, and the Situated Encounter,” Postcolonial Text 3.4 (2008). Much has been written on the deployment of haunting in postcolonial literature, see, among others, idem, Postcolonial Haunting and Victimization: Assia Djebar’s New Novels (Peter Lang, 2007); Troy Potter, “Ghosts of Australia Past: Postcolonial Haunting in Australian Adolescent Mystery Novels,” International Research in Children’s Literature 8.2 (2015): 185–200; Ahmed Idrissi Alami, “‘Illegal’ Crossing, Historical Memory and Postcolonial Agency in Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” The Journal of North African Studies 17.1 (2012): 143–56; Zeina Tarraf, “Haunting and the Neoliberal Encounter in Terra Incognita and a Perfect Day,” Cultural Dynamics 29.1–2 (2017): 39–62.
- On assemblages as identity-makers, see Lindsey Moore’s investigation of colonial and postcolonial museums as assemblages: Emma Waterton and Jason Dittmer, “The Museum as Assemblage: Bringing Forth Affect at the Australian War Memorial,” Museum Management and Curatorship 29.2 (2014): 122–39. See also Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press, 2014).
- Few scholars have analyzed the making of Sooraya Qadir, the production of Western male gaze and the making of the Afghan and Muslim in the post-9/11 world. See, among others, Jehanzeb Dar, “Holy Islamophobia, Batman! Demonization of Muslims and Arabs in Mainstream American Comic Books,” Counterpoints 346 (2010): 99–110; Julie Davis and Robert Westerfelhaus, “Finding a Place for a Muslimah Heroine in the Post-9/11 Marvel Universe: New X-Men’s Dust,” Feminist Media Studies 13.5 (2013): 800–09; Miriam Kent, “Unveiling Marvels: Ms. Marvel and the Reception of the New Muslim Superheroine,” Feminist Media Studies 15.3 (2015): 522–527; Jacob L. Thomas, “The Rebirth of the Female Superhero: Kamala Khan’s “Ms. Marvel,” in The Image of Rebirth in Literature, Media, and Society, ed. by Thomas G. Endres (Univ. of Northern Colorado, 2017), 76. In these pieces, Sooraya is compared to the more recent Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel). In this article, however, I will not engage with Kamala Khan. Instead, I look at Sooraya as a Muslim heroine who is also occupying the immigrant space. See A. David Lewis, “Sidebar: The Immigrant Space,” The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, ed. by Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan (Routledge, 2017), 22. Most recently, Sophia Rose Arjana has explored the images of Muslim women superheroines especially those produced in Muslim countries (Veiled Superheroes: Islam, Feminism, and Popular Culture [Kim Fox, 2018]). In the fourth chapter, “Burka Avenger and the Subversive Veil,” she looks at a Pakistani superheroine who resembles Sooraya Qadir in a variety of ways but is produced in Pakistani animation and addressing rather different issues from those explored here about Qadir. Arjana also looks at Ms. Marvel (chapter 3), who is another Marvels Muslim woman superhero but who is not discussed in this paper.
- Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 11.
- Dar, “Holy Islamophobia, Batman!,” 107. In the same vein and on the representation of Muslim characters in comics post-9/11, see Natalie Kate Bograd, ” ‘Nothing’s Been the Same since New York’: The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Engagement with 9/11 and the War on Terror” (MA thesis, University of Texas, 2015); Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl, Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way (NYU Press, 2013); Thomas Richard, “Mythologies Politiques Et Identitaires Dans Les Conflits Du Moyen-Orient À L’heure De La Mondialisation,” (Université d’Auvergne-Clermont-Ferrand I, 2014); Cord Scott, “Written in Red, White, and Blue: A Comparison of Comic Book Propaganda from World War II and September 11,” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.2 (2007): 325–43; Christian J. Steinmetz, “A Genealogy of Absence & Evil: Tracing the Nation’s Borders with Captain America,” (MA thesis, Georgia State University, 2008); Holly Swyers, et al., The War of My Generation: Youth Culture and the War on Terror (Rutgers University Press, 2015).
- Arjana, Veiled Superheroes, 48. See also Keith T. Edmunds, “Heroines Aplenty, but None My Mother Would Know: Marvel’s Lack of an Iconic Superheroine,” Heroines of Comic Books and Literature: Portrayals in Popular Culture, ed. by Maja Bajac-Carter, et al., (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), esp. 212–213.
- Here, I am deploying mimicry in the opposite direction of Homi Bhabha’s usage and in conjunction with the mimicry discussed earlier in this piece. In this context, colonial mimicry (of the colonized) is reminiscent of Blackface and minstrelsy, which utilize mimicry to further substantiate colonial order. See Jason Richards, “Imitation Nation: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Making of African American Selfhood in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 39 (2006): 204–220; Mikko Tuhkanen, “Of Blackface and Paranoid Knowledge: Richard Wright, Jacques Lacan, and the Ambivalence of Black Minstrelsy,” Diacritics 31.2 (2001): 9–34.
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Duke University Press, 2003), 130.
- See, for instance, Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?,” Critical Inquiry 17.2 (1991): 336–357. See also Suman Seth, “Colonial History and Postcolonial Science Studies,” Radical History Review 127 (2017): 63–85; idem, “Putting Knowledge in Its Place: Science, Colonialism, and the Postcolonial,” Postcolonial Studies 12.4 (2009): 373–88.
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso Books, 2006).
- Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (NYU Press, 2000). See also idem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Achille Mbembe’s work on time and archives include “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” in Refiguring the Archive (Springer, 2002), 19–27; On the Postcolony (Univ of California Press, 2001). See also Mbembe, et al., “Qu’est-Ce Que La Pensée Postcoloniale?”Esprit 12 (2006): 117–133.
- Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Race of Freedom and the Drag of Descent,” Social Analysis 49.2 (2005): 173–81, at 176.
- Annamarie Jagose, Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence (Cornell University Press, 2002), x.
- Ibid., xi.
- Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke U.P., 2004).
- Here, I recall Halberstam’s description of the production of queer temporality as a process of focusing on the little, insignificant, and ecletic as opposed to the representative and significant. See Carolyn Dinshaw, et al., “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.2 (2007): 177–95.
- Here, I recall Christopher Nealon’s description of the melodramatic as a mode of subversion and ambivalence (“Invert-History: The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction,” New Literary History 31.4 : 745–64.)
- See Sarah Dillon, “Reinscribing De Quincey’s Palimpsest: The Significance of the Palimpsest in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Studies,” Textual Practice 19.3 (2005): 243–63; John C. Hawley, Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections (SUNY Press, 2001).
Ahmed Ragab is the Richard T. Watson Associate Professor of Science and Religion and the director of the Science, Religion, and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School. He is a physician and historian of science and medicine and the author of The Medieval Islamic Hospital: Medicine, Religion and Charity (Cambridge University Press 2015).