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My name is Zaynab-- pronounced ZAY (like "day") - nab (like the verb)-- and I'm a Pakistani-American scholar and writer who grew up in the greater Chicago area. Like many young South Asian children of immigrants, I expected to study biology and become a medical doctor. In time, however, I evolved into a different kind of doctor, committed to excavating, analyzing, and teaching the history and politics of U.S. war-making.

About Me

My family moved to the United States in 2000-- just before 9/11 permanently altered what it meant to exist at the intersections of my identity as an immigrant and a Muslim woman. While growing up, the communities and cultural narratives I was surrounded by prompted me towards "secure" fields such as medicine, law, engineering, and consulting. But I was drawn towards writing, history, and popular culture: history in particular grounded me as an individual in a broader sociopolitical context, showing me where both I and my adopted country came from. Reading Edward Said's Orientalism for the first time in a freshman seminar was a seismic event in my world. So, for that matter, was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart during the 2012 election cycle, which was the first I could vote in. That official textbooks and news anchors could be argued with-- and vigorously-- was a seismic revelation.

The power of mentorship and visibility-- of quite literally seeing what it is possible to become-- is foundational both to the trajectory of my career and my praxis in the academy. It was a fellow Muslim woman of color studying the humanities who introduced me to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program at Northwestern, which supports underrepresented minorities pursuing careers in academic research. The Mellon community was indispensable to me materially and socially-- providing resources, sharing research, answering questions, connecting each other across fields and institutions. As hands reached out to pull me up and through a PhD program, I strove and keep striving to reach back and pull others up with me, passing on what has been shared with me. I believe it is critical for my students, especially my female students and students of color, to see me as instructor and undertake our work together in the full context of our personhood.

While my scholarly interests have long been rooted in questions of race, culture, and imperialism (my very first research project as a Mellon fellow was an analysis of James Bond!) my dissertation and now book manuscript grew out of one particular research question: How can we more precisely conceptualize what U.S. empire is and how it works? Though I am by no means the only scholar to try and tackle this subject, I have found that private military contractors (PMCs) offer a unique "way in" to think about empire culturally and politically.


Early in my dissertation research, I found that especially in the 21st century, they were potent political symbols through which journalists, activists, researchers, and policymakers articulated deep anxieties around capitalism and democracy. One of my dissertation chapters, for example, explored how one of the most popular and ubiquitous film franchises on the planet, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, featured at its heart a munitions developer turned guilt-ridden superhero named Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man. Stark's quest to confront his complicity in military violence coexisted with a persistent personal and systemic denial of U.S. empire in the present as well as the past-- yet, Stark's (and Marvel's) myopia was not dissimilar to the myopia of other writers and policymakers, who similarly could not imagine what meaningful accountability or reform might look like beyond tweaked procedural legislation (which itself proved difficult to pass). 

As I dug deeper into the world of defense contracting, however, I also found that PMCs were key brokers of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose role had not yet been analyzed institutionally or systemically in the scholarly literature on contracting. Blackwater's guns for hire got the most press and academic attention, yet they were, in many ways, just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, contractors from every field imaginable, from transportation logistics to intelligence gathering to digital surveillance to food service to construction furnished needed personnel and lubricated critical supply chains across the globe. Further, as I continue to work on manuscript revisions, I have begun to excavate a longer history of how instrumental corporate involvement has been to the U.S. security state since World War II. My forthcoming book project thus integrates wide-ranging and interdisciplinary historical and theoretical analysis to explain what PMCs have done, how they came to do it, and what their actions have meant for U.S. domestic and foreign relations more broadly.

When not attempting to untangle the national security apparatus, I enjoy taking long walks, watching TV, writing for pleasure, and cooking with (spicy) Pakistani flavors. Despite-- or perhaps because of-- the serious and grim nature of my research, I enjoy accumulating large amounts of useless pop culture knowledge and trivia for the simple reason that it all delights me. Whenever I'm not in Columbus, or traveling for archival research and conferences, I can be found back in Chicago, spending time with my parents and younger brother. Recently, I have begun to cultivate a baking habit: I enjoy making cupcakes and layer cakes, which I then taste-test at the Mershon Center office. It has been very helpful with stress management, but it has also had the added benefit of making me a very popular colleague.

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