The  motion: “The top stopped spinning at the end of INCEPTION”

For the motion: Read Mark Maccora’s opening argument here.

Here, we have Zaki Hasan against the motion:


“So, did it topple over, or did it keep spinning?”

It’s a testament to the profundity of forethought with which writer/director Christopher Nolan has imbued Inception, his masterful mindjob of a summer blockbuster, that a simple question like that has prompted such impassioned commentary both for and against its validity. Indeed, it speaks volumes about how effectively Nolan has seeded the terrain and laid the pipe for analysis and introspection that so much time, energy, and oxygen has been spent weighing this seemingly unanswerable conundrum as if the solution will somehow provide validation not just for the time we’ve spent watching the preceding events unfold, but also our investment in them.

Still, while both sides’ interpretations are equally nuanced, they either willfully ignore or remain blissfully unaware of the larger “truth” that it’s utterly irrelevant. Whether the top spins in perpetuity or whether it succumbs to gravity’s siren song is immaterial to the broader reality that Inception is a dream, from beginning to end. At no point do the characters in the film ever occupy the “real” world, making the entire experience one more level of dreaming — furthest out, and this time one that we in the audience are complicit in along with Nolan and his co-scenarists. It’s a meta-textual gambit as risky as it is rewarding, and it’s one more reason that Christopher Nolan is one of the most talented filmmakers working today.

Throughout the story, we’re told at various points by different characters about the nature of the dream realms that they flit in and out of. As mentioned in my review of the film, the line between the dreamed and the experienced is so nebulous as to be rendered virtually meaningless (both in design and in execution). To this end, a totem is carried by each of the characters to remind them where they are. In the case of our lead character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) his totem is a small metal top that belonged to his wife (who is either deceased or simply departed based on which interpretation you choose). This top, Cobb explains, will continue to spin endlessly while inside the dream world, thus allowing both he and we a kind of visual shorthand — a compass, if you will — telling them where they are at any given moment.

At film’s close, having accomplished his assignment and conquered the personal demons that have bedeviled him at every step, Cobb is joyfully reunited with his family. Or is he? While he embraces his children for the first time, the camera pans ominously to the kitchen table, where the top is still spinning…and spinning…and then…black. Does it topple over, or does it keep going? The answer to this question will definitively answer, we believe, whether we’ve wasted the preceding two hours-and-change. But the totemic rules we’re basing our judgment on are rendered meaningless if the “reality” in which they’re presented is an imagined one. And if that’s the case, what does that say about everything we’ve just witnessed? This is the question Nolan very deliberately raises, the mere pondering of which becomes a kind of answer in itself. Continue reading


THE GOATMILK DEBATES” will be an ongoing series featuring two debaters tackling an interesting or controversial question in a unique, irreverant manner.

Each debater makes their opening argument,  followed by a rebuttal.

The winner will be decided by the online audience and judged according to the strength of their argument.

The first motion: “The top stopped spinning at the end of INCEPTION”

For the motion: Mark Maccora

Against the motion: Zaki Hasan


“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.” -Federico Fellini*

Is Inception all a dream or what? I can debate this point all day. Actually, it’s been over a week so far, and the debates keep coming. You’re probably reading this to better understand the resolution- it’s why I’ve seen Inception three times. That’s exactly the filmmaker’s desire. Christopher Nolan worked hard to sow visual ambiguity into his picture. This seductive confusion creates a demand for repeat viewership, endless analysis, and public debate. Kubrick achieved the same thing with the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan is a Kubrick fan, as cited in his quotations section on IMDb. It is quite admirable that Nolan tries to use a communal dream with a hidden message, sorry, I mean a major movie with a theme to inspire thought. Wait, movies are a lot like communal dreams, huh? Hold on to that idea. I’ll get there. Thought provocation has been missing from tent pole pictures for, oh, 2 decades or so. Upon my first watch, I thought the whole thing was a dream. I found it thrilling. Then, instead of getting caught up in my own thoughts, I went reinspected the movie without so much awe at the crosscutting action sequences. I revised my conclusion because the images did not support it. Visual evidence exists to conclude that what we are told is true. The film ends in the reality of the near-future. Clues to the truth are purposefully opaqued, both by the style of the filmmaker and the language of cinema itself, but they exist. The main confusions & clues are in the costuming & casting of the child actors and the repeated test of the spinning top. They prove that despite his purposefully ambiguous, debate inspiring style, the story is that Dom Cobb ends the picture awoken from his dreams, free of his neuroses, and enjoying a real moment with his children. In his life. Not in a dream. Really. I promise. Continue reading

Exclusive excerpt of “The Butterfly Mosque” by G. Willow Wilson

Author G. Willow Wilson gives us the opening of her acclaimed new memoir, praised by Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist. The memoir eloquently chronicles an American woman’s journey in discovering Islam, Egypt, and love.

You can buy “Butterfly Mosque” here.


In the upper reaches of the Zagros Mountains, the air changed. The high altitude opened it, cleared it of the dust of the valleys, and made it sing a little in the lungs; low atmospheric pressure. It was a shift I recognized. We had been driving for hours, winding north along a wide dry basin between high peaks; then we turned west. Now the car, an old Peugot, struggled upward along switch-backs cut into the mountainside, past intersecting layers of rock laid down over geological ages.

For a moment I was reminded intensely of home. It had been almost a year since I had been back to Boulder, in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. The snug valley where I had gone to high school, learned to drive; where my parents and sister still lived, could be seen as a tidy whole from this height in cliffs much like these. Looking down into the plain below, I felt as though I was seeing double, and that an hour’s hike along the switch-backs would bring me to my own doorstep.

At the time, it was a sensation that seemed a little perverse. I had just flown into Iran from Egypt—this journey had begun thousands of miles from my own country. That a mountain and a change in the air in Iran should make me think of home in the spring of 2004; the spring of the War on Terror, the Clash of Civilizations, the Jihad, the things that had made my quiet life almost unlivable, must be sheer perversity. I thought so then. I didn’t yet realize that the Zagros Mountains had no name when they were forced out of the ground millions of years ago, and neither did the Rockies; that the call of earth to earth might be something more real than the human divisions of Iran and America. I had faith, then; it was in the mountains that I first thought of divinity, and these mountains reminded me of that sensation. But I didn’t yet have faith in faith—I didn’t trust the connections I felt between mountains or memories, and if I had been a little more ambivalent, I could have allowed the Zagros to be foreign, and the memory to be coincidence.

Fortunately, I didn’t.

Ahmad, my guide-plus-chaperone, pointed west over the receding peaks.

“If you keep driving that way, you would get to Iraq,” he said. He was a Shirazi man with silver hair and laugh-lines. Before the revolution he flew planes for the Shah, whom he had hated, but not as much as he now hated the mullahs. During one of our conversations on the road from Shiraz to Isfahan, he told me he used to fast during Ramadan and pray with some regularity. The Islamic regime had so deformed his religion in his eyes that he stopped. Thinking I would judge him for this lapse lest he provide a rationale (I was an American and a Sunni, and therefore unpredictable) he told me he didn’t need to fast; fasting was meant to remind one of the hunger of the poor, and he helped the poor in other ways.

“Then why do the poor fast?” I asked him. The Ramadan fast was required of all Muslims, not just the wealthy. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye; evidently I was an American Sunni who discussed theology. Among the middle classes, theology had gone out of fashion in Iran. But I had just come from Egypt, where the reverse was true. Ahmad left the question floating in the air. Continue reading

Introducing the cover for “The Domestic Crusaders” book, published by McSweeney’s Fall 2010

We are proud to unveil the official cover of “The Domestic Crusaders,” a play about a Muslim American Family living in the post 9-11 world. It will be published by McSweeney’s in Fall 2010.

The fully colored, wrap around cover was created by artist Daniel Krall.

Let us know what you think! And please buy the play, which will be out as part of McSweeney’s #36 and independently available on Amazon.com and bookstores.


If you know friends in Toronto, please spread the word about our “Domestic Crusaders” performance this Saturday and Sunday, July 31 and August 1, at Muslim Fest. http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=140045622687882&ref=search

Pakistan’s Elite Pay Few Taxes, Widening Gap

July 18, 2010

Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

A security guard standing at the entrance of a Mercedes Benz dealer in Islamabad.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Much of Pakistan’s capital city looks like a rich Los Angeles suburb. Shiny sport utility vehicles purr down gated driveways. Elegant multistory homes are tended by servants. Laundry is never hung out to dry.

But behind the opulence lurks a troubling fact. Very few of these households pay income tax. That is mostly because the politicians who make the rules are also the country’s richest citizens, and are skilled at finding ways to exempt themselves.

That would be a problem in any country. But in Pakistan, the lack of a workable tax system feeds something more menacing: a festering inequality in Pakistani society, where the wealth of its most powerful members is never redistributed or put to use for public good. That is creating conditions that have helped spread an insurgency that is tormenting the country and complicating American policy in the region.

It is also a sorry performance for a country that is among the largest recipients of American aid, payments of billions of dollars that prop up the country’s finances and are meant to help its leaders fight the insurgency.

Though the authorities have tried to expand the net in recent years, taxing profits from the stock market and real estate, entire swaths of the economy, like agriculture, a major moneymaker for the elite, remain untaxed.

“This is a system of the elite, by the elite and for the elite,” said Riyaz Hussain Naqvi, a retired government official who worked in tax collection for 38 years. “It is a skewed system in which the poor man subsidizes the rich man.” Continue reading