Desi Dad review of Ms Marvel S1E1

Kamala Khan Lives!

I know one of the creators of Ms. Marvel personally so I admit I am biased out of loyalty and love for my friend. As an MCU fan, I’m also internally wired to just love everything about this show. Far better MCU analysts than myself can provide far more interesting commentary than I can about the lore and the canon and the easter eggs. On one level, I just watched Ms. Matrvel as a fan and geeked out and loved it.

There’s another angle however that I can’t escape, and one I can’t ignore because the Pakistani representation is being given almost equal billing to the incredible performance (see? biased) of Iman Vellani as Kamala. My angle, quite simply, is that I’m almost 50, and I have two teenage daughters. (Well, one is 20).


I am grateful for the cultural beats and the unabashed inclusion-without-spotlighting of Islamic elements. (honestly, though, Aamir is a bit stiff and Yusuf a bit too loose). The problem here is more fundamental to the very character of Kamala herself, the same struggle that the character embodies and was conceived to address. Identity, for a Muslim, and a brown kid, in a western culture automatically entails sacrifices and compromises, not to mention a genuine sense of confusion at times that we never really outgrow. I am ABCDEFG myself, from Chicago rather than HIJ, and my childhood was straight outta Stranger Things. My life had both D&D and bike rides as well as masjid and madrasah. Everyone who is brown can relate to this duality, Deen and Dunya, wearing one (sometimes literal) hat here and another hat there.

The problem I have is that the solution in media always seems to be the same. Ultimately, the culture and the faith are always portrayed as obstacles rather than empowering. Here’s where I express hope that Aamir can be a source of wisdom to Kamala for the latter. We are one episode in and we see that Kamala has a lovesick gora sidekick who surely will trigger a “you were in front of me this whole time” moment before season 1 concludes, she gets off ridiculously easy for lying to her mom (again, Yusuf is not really a factor beyond goofball and guilt trip), and apart from casual tosses of words like astaghfirullah and salaam wa aleikum here and there, the faith is largely relegated to wall hangings. Muneeba is rigid as expected (authentic in that regard) but her reasoning is devoid of any actual moral content. A convention is a party, parties are bad, we don’t trust you. (Yusuf weakly chimes in to moderate the point). Why are parties bad? She said haram things happen. True, but is that really why parties are bad? Haram things happen everywhere in Jersey and yet the Khans remain.

Yes, it’s a TV show, but ultimately having one devout side character go through the ritual motions, and having the main identity conflict be simplistically rooted in “my mom is mean and old fashioned” rather than give some airtime to the values that inform the other side of the conflict, makes Kamala’s identity crisis largely meaningless. I didn’t feel like my 16-year-old self would have related to Kamala, at least not yet. She could easily be any other Asian kid or daughter of conservative white parents and the conflict dialogue would have barely changed.

The mention of the girl Fatima who went off to Europe is instructive. On one level, of course it’s cool that she did so and Kamala is rightfully jealous and admires it. But the way that the mom and the auntie talked about it was rooted in the scene needing to show culture (and mom) as where fun goes to die. There wasn’t even a cursory attempt to understand why a European trip solo to “find yourself” would be problematic from a cultural POV, or an Islamic one. The critique is reduced to “she won’t have a ring on her finger” which is ultra generic to every immigrant culture on the planet. Those concerns have merit, but the show doesn’t allow for that at all.

What is my specific critique? Well, I don’t have one yet. I know the writing is on the wall here – Kamala is going to defy her parents, lie, and start dating Bruno (and not talk about him, no, no). But if she’s going to make these decisions, I’d like for her to feel the weight of them. Bruno speaks Urdu and is already in with the family so maybe the inevitable reveal of their relationship won’t even have plot consequences. That’s a shame because it should.

This is a TV show, not a feature film so there is time to explore what it means to literally be stuck between two worlds even before you put on the magic bracelet. I hope that the writing team is willing to explore that inside world with as much curiosity as they are the supernatural fictional one. That’s what true representation would look like.

Japanese nationalism and the Nanking massacre

Japan and IslamRemember this old fracas a few years ago? In a nutshell, a Japanese muslim found my site Talk Islam and revealed a very ugly side of Japanese nationalism that I had never really known about before. He really got set off y a pretty reasonable comment by Steven, and eventually left promising never to return. Well, he returned, promising a more temperate mindset about the Chinese people. However, he has resumed denying the Nanking Massacre ever occurred, which frankly is new to me. I rank this up with Armenian and Holocaust genocide denial, but the depth to which he as a Japanese nationalist believes that his nation was incapable of such atrocities is astounding. He argues poorly but I’ve seen that same mindset before, in response to 9-11 of course being the main example.

Anyway, just though I’d mention it here, despite it straying uncomfortably close to the political line I try to avoid at all costs.

Here’s a more representative picture of Japan’s muslims, by the way.

Move over, Homer: meet the Shamsoons

Did you know that the dominant Arab television company, MBC, tried to redub the Simpsons into Arabic for the domestic Arab media market? And not a crude dub, either – they spent serious money on it:

Omar Shamshoon
Omar Shamshoon
The stakes were high. The show was set to debut on Oct. 4, the first night of Ramadan 2005, after al-Ifatr (breakfast) at 7 p.m., the prime time of all prime-time slots. Almost the entire coveted Saudi Arabian market — 22 million people with nothing to do but watch television — would be tuned in, as would much of the rest of the region. (Ramadan is equivalent to sweeps season in the U.S., and advertisers pay top dollar for spots on shows they believe will be successful.) Although Fattouh and MBC will give no figures, the licence fees from 20th Century Fox could not have been cheap. Given the show’s status, to produce it appropriately would require enlisting some of the best writing talent in the Arab world, as well as three major Egyptian movie stars. Cairo, and to a lesser extent Beirut, have for decades been the Arab world’s Hollywood; all the creative minds in the Arabization process of The Simpsons were Egyptian. Mohamed Henedi, a comedic force and household name, was hand-picked by MBC to play Homer, sorry, Omar Shamshoon. (Shamshoon is a traditional Arabic name, with connotations of strong, powerful men.)

This is fascinating, and analogous in one sense ot redubbing Japanese anime for US audiences. However, as you might imagine, Islamic cultural values (as regards to alcohol and sex) and even Arab stereotypes and prejudices (anti-semitism, attitudes towards homosexuality) needed to be considered when changing the dialouge. As one might expect, this neutered some of the show’s humor:

an episode like Season 4’s Homer the Heretic — in which Homer forgoes church, is visited by God and starts his own religion — did not make the grade. Nor did references to Krusty the Klown’s father, Rabbi Krustofski. (An ex-Disney employee in Lebanon told me that if a TV station can help it, they’ll excise references to Judaism from shows meant for the pan-Arab market.)

“This guy Homer drinks beer all the time, but this is a sin to the Arabs. So I told them that he will drink she’er — which is a [non-alcoholic] malt drink, and close to beer in sound, so good for dubbing. But they refused this. They said we must make it ‘juice.’” And so on. Through a steady process of cross-cultural attrition — no bacon sandwiches, no Moe’s Tavern, church becomes masjid (mosque) — The Simpsons was whittled down to a shadow of itself. As for Smithers’s feelings for Mr. Burns? “I naturally tried to underemphasize that,” says Hosny.

What I find really fascinating about this is that it was precisely this cultural neutering that drew the ire from the young demographic who had been eagerly awaiting the show. And the producers themselves lamented the changes, because they felt that the essential appeal of Homer was somehow lost in the translation:

“They’ve ruined it! Oh yes they have, sob. … Why? Why, why oh why?!!!!” wrote a blogger, Noors, living in Oman. It soon became clear that something had gone horribly wrong.

It didn’t have to be that way. “I loved it,” says Hosny of the show. “I take off my chapeau: they are very good artists. And the writers are unbelievable. I loved the character of Homer. There is something very strange about this character. It’s very close to the Egyptian point of view. He’s a very simple and kind person; from some points of view you feel that he’s incredibly stupid, and from some points of view you feel he is wise. Sometimes I felt I was talking about an Egyptian person. Nothing is certain and taken for granted — it’s not ipso facto — and this makes good art.”

It’s a strange endeavor but I thik that the producers’ comments reveal that they really Got It about the Simpsons. It’s a show that has potential to cross cultural boundaries if you reduce it to bare elements, but you can’t just excise those elements, you need to fill the void. Removing Smither’s lust for Burns is fine, but what can you replace it with that will also give depth to Smithers and Burns beyond mere boss and lackey? For all their 2D medium, the Simpsons are three-dimensional, and it’s these little details that matter most in fleshing out Springfield to something we look at as Americans and recognize and react to.

Fundamentally, the opportunity lost here was not to remake the Arab world with our cultural values, but rather the reverse – to humanize the view of America therein:

Shows like The Simpsons, pieces of pop art that explicate the ironies of North American life, play an important role in bridging cultural confusion. “When people from this Third World see that the American Dream is not perfect,” says Hosny, “that it is full of flaws, it can give to them some hope, and says that if you want to dream, dream here! And that over there, in Dreamland, they live in the same world of mistakes and flaws. I’m sick of how people think that going to the States means going to heaven. I understand that it still may be good to them, but it’s important, vital, for them to see the cracks in the façade.”

No show did that better than the Simpsons, it must be acknowledged. I hope that where the Shamsoons failed, something else will eventually succeed. And maybe they can dub it into English for our benefit.

a japanese muslim speaks

Over at Talk Islam, I started a somewhat speculative discussion thread about parallels to the samurai code and islamic values. To be perfectly frank, the idea came to me from watching Samurai 7 – not exactly a divine fount of inspiration, admittedly. What surprised me however was a response in thread by a Japanese muslim, who left a lengthy and quite insightful comment about his perception of what Japanese society has lost since WWII and how Japan as a society has strayed from the ideals of Bushido and how Shintoism has become emptied of meaning. His castigation of superficial pursuits in Japanese culture which in his opinion have dislodged the traditional beliefs is quite moving. It’s worth a read, for a truly unique perspective. I share it with you, not to promote my religion but more for the insights into Japanese culture that I think it provides.

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