Size and Shape and Other Characteristics

On 5/22/10, in the wake of the crowning of the first Arab-American Miss USA, Bilal Dardai (The Neo-Futurists) read the following at The Paper Machete.

There was a word I intended to use in the first sentence of this monologue, but I couldn’t figure out which one it was. It was going to be epidemic but that felt melodramatic, or it was going to be proliferation but that felt apocalyptic. So it ended up being infestation. And I’m sorry for that. Because when you unleash the word infestation it ends up suspended in the room, like smoke from a hundred dying cigarettes, like oil on the surface of the ocean. It spreads and it crawls with arachnid legs across your nerve endings, infestation, it turns the crisp sugars of ginger ale to squid ink in your mouth, it mottles your oxygen, it sloughs down your esophagus like some alchemical horror of liquid steel and sepsis, infestation. I wish I could tell you that I found a better word, something sturdy and steadfast like abundance or ribald and colloquial like buttload. I wish I didn’t have to keep saying infestation but it was the only word that made sense to me in order to describe all of the question marks.

You’ll have to forgive me, because I didn’t see it, I wasn’t there. Or perhaps I was there but I wasn’t paying attention, or perhaps I was paying attention but I just didn’t care. It was like photograph fade or dolphin extinction, it was something that seemed to happen so gradually that I failed to notice until one day there they were, the question marks, everywhere, the infestation, staring back at me from the front page of CNN, from the front page of every American news organization. The question mark, that odd-looking duck of the punctuation family, the weird brother who sits in his room making dioramas of the lesser works of Poe, bent and bizarre like a chromosomal anomaly.

And you can’t blame the question mark, no, not really, any more than you can blame the fired bullet or the abused Rottweiler. There are writers behind the question marks and behind the writers there are editors and behind the editors there are boards, and behind the boards there are figures so high it would take you fifty years to count there. There are demands to draw viewers and surfers, to prioritize getting the story first before you could get it right. Somewhere along the way it occurred to an enterprising media maverick that you could get away with saying just about anything as long as you placed a question mark after it. As long as you implied that maybe you weren’t sure? That although most people would agree that the positions of our well-paid guest in the studio are hateful and uninformed, but maybe he has a point maybe possibly you decide for us with your comments and your ad revenue?

None of which is to say I am opposed to the asking of questions; questions are, after all, the cornerstone of journalism. Who What When Where How and Why. That’s the story. That’s basic. That’s 101.

A story, then, in reverse order. Why: because it’s an American tradition. How: by outscoring forty-nine other competitors. Where: Las Vegas, Nevada. When: last Sunday. What: Won the Miss USA pageant. Who: Rima Fakih, the reigning Miss Michigan, a 24 year-old Lebanese-American and Muslim who has, by now, become the most downloaded masturbation fantasy of Middle Eastern descent since Princess Jasmine.

CNN’s Thursday morning headline regarding that story: “Miss USA: Muslim trailblazer or Hezbollah spy?” Of course, of course, it was taken down shortly afterwards and there was a very terse statement about how this was never intended to appear on our site in that hot-linked Helvetica; a joke, son, ah say ah say can’t you take a joke?

Now I should say: I’m not a fan of beauty pageants, even ones cast for diversity. Better writers and better feminists than I have already produced doctoral theses on the subject so I’ll leave that alone, save to clarify a few things—one, that Miss USA is not the same thing as Miss America, it was founded by a Miss America sponsor when the 1952 champion refused to pose in that sponsors’ swimsuits, saying that she wanted to be taken seriously. And two, the pageant is owned by Donald Trump, a man who seems to covet Hugh Hefner’s prime, Don Draper cool but has only ever managed to achieve the affable hostility of Jay Leno after six months of anabolic steroids. And I’d remind everybody that we live in an American era where a beauty queen can be elected governor of Alaska, quit that job mid-term, and still be considered a viable presidential candidate in 2012. So consider the carnival atmosphere already in play by the time we arrive at “Muslim trailblazer or Hezbollah spy?”

I’m not a fan of beauty pageants but after the week she’s had I find I’m a fan of Rima Fakih. Not just because she’s gorgeous, and she is, the sort of honeyed, desert-at-dusk beauty that Gibran and Hafiz might have ached for in verse. Not just because she’s smart, and she is, an economics and business graduate from the University of Michigan who articulates her thoughts well during interviews. Despite all of these excellent qualities, I find I’m primarily a fan because her very existence as Miss USA drives many of the people I despise to the heights of delectable and hilarious insanity.

Rima Fakih won the title of Miss USA ahead of Miss Oklahoma Morgan Woolard, another in a long line of blonde-haired blue-eyed cheerleader types who tends to win these things, a woman who had absolutely no regrets about voicing her support for Arizona’s new immigration laws during the interview event. Like Carrie Prejean the year before her, Miss Woolard will be seen as a martyr to political correctness run amok. I’m sure she will enjoy a fine career for the next few years as the comely spokeslass of a start-up organization that reminds you at every turn: we don’t hate Mexicans, we just wish they’d all go back to Mexico. Give us money.

Rima Fakih unsettles the latter-day Crusaders, the people who started using adjectives like “swarthy” because “camel jockey” had fallen out of vogue. They bloviate, they blog, that she is an infiltrator, a sleeper agent, and CNN, yes, CNN has to indulge this nonsense the same way they feel they have to when somebody claims Barack Obama is a secret Muslim infiltrator as well. Because on the slim possibility that these lunatics are correct, CNN would hate to lose out on the market share.

But most deeply satisfying, to me, especially, to a child of an Islamic society, somebody who has witnessed firsthand the absurd logic of dogmatism, is the way Rima Fakih gets under the skin of hardline conservative Muslims. Mumbling, bearded half-clerics who refuse to tolerate such a woman for her killer swimsuit bod and who also want to celebrate her accomplishments as a victory for all Muslims. The brutal thugs in the rural parts of Pakistan who would gang up and assault Rima Fakih in the dark corner of a Peshawar alley and then have her stoned for adultery.

I would like these groups to sit together in a room and hate on Rima Fakih together so they can see how they’re all essentially the exact same brand of useless carcass that will be forgotten when the world shifts again. I imagine the end of that infestation. I imagine the cognitive dissonance as detonator. I imagine seeing enough exploding heads to remake Scanners a hundred times over. I imagine it to be glorious.

But it is, again, only something I imagine. And in the meantime we will have to endure CNN and its experiments in the limits of question marks.

Shortly after her victory a Michigan radio group released a series of photos of Rima Fakih dancing with a stripper’s pole at a competition, which featured no actual nudity. The Muslims and the other moralists all had outrage to express about her indecency and how she was not the right person to represent any of them. Ms. Fakih’s response was to shrug, say that it was all in fun, and move on to the next topic. I’m sure our news outlets were very disappointed in her.

I’ve been raised to believe that being Muslim is a genotype of sorts, that regardless of what you believe you are going to be a Muslim because you were born as such. Viewed through that perspective I’m just as Muslim as Rima Fakih. And if nobody else wants her to represent them, she can still represent me.

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