Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran
“… During these years, when many books and media reports about Iran were published, I would search for the Iran that I know, for my friends, for myself. But we wouldn’t be there. Usually in these books and news reports, everything would revolve around religion or politics, and people would be villains or victims … “This picture is full of holes! That is not about me! The culture I grew up in has its flesh and blood just like yours. It has good and bad things just like every culture. Shake my hand and you will feel it!” … Jasmin and Stars is that cultural handshake … to feel the warmth, the tenderness, and the laughter that I describe from personal experience in present-day Iran … Both Iranians and Americans have been barred from this handshake by the political perspectives that make every American a greedy imperialist and every Iranian a petty fanatic … enough is enough and talk to each other – we will be surprised at how similar we are.
… main purpose is to search for a meaningful way to approach an unfamiliar culture, a way in which the humanity and depth of that culture is felt and enjoyed rather than masked from view. At the same time, it critiques the lopsided and exaggerated presentation of the eastern cultures in current western writings, a trend that I call the “New Orientalist narrative. “
The cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran has caused controversy because it presents a cropped image. The full image depicts two young girls, involved in the election of the reformist Iranian President Khatami. The girls are reading a newspaper in anticipation of the election results … The full and cropped images would send two very different messages … Critics have compared the book to its cover image because it also omits the aspects of the culture that show that Iranian women have agency and are actively improving their lives.
The jacket of Jasmine and Stars shows a full image of two Iranian women in a demonstration outside Tehran University in 2005. The women hold signs that say they object to injustice to women and demand equal rights with men. They smile and look directly at the camera. The goal is not to show a rosy picture of gender equality in present-day Iran — had that been the case, there would be no need for the signs these women carry. The point, however, is that the picture demonstrates women’s agency in the face of all odds and their active presence in the public domain. In other words, the cover shows that Iranian women are not passive victims.
The greatest omission in the content of Nafisi‘s book is that it overlooks the agency and presence of Iranian women in the social and intellectual domain. That is ironic particularly because the book’s main claim is to tell the untold story of women in post-revolutionary Iran … you would not be able to imagine that vibrant Iranian women writers … ever existed, let alone imagine that they wrote during the same period that Nafisi’s book covers. You would not guess that post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has [outspoken] women writers and directors …or that women activists such as the Peace Nobel Laureate … And these are only a few examples.
I have dedicated my previous book, Recite in the Name of the Red Rose, an analysis of 20th century Persian poetry, to my father — my first and best teacher of poetry. My father was as emotional, fussy, and talkative as the poets themselves. Jasmine and Stars, however, is about stars: those who brighten the world by simply existing. Rumi, the celebrated Persian poet of the 13th century said, “If you lose your way in the desert you look at the stars to decide which way to turn. Do the stars speak at all?” His point was that stars teach simply with their presence. That is my uncle the painter; he brightens the lives of those who are around him and shows them the way, often without uttering a word. He is a great painter, yet his greatest artistic achievement is his life. I had to dedicate the book to him.
About the New Orientalist narrative: … They say that the discontented people in the problem-ridden areas in the Middle East are by and large the monsters that you are afraid of. This quick validation of fears brings something of an immediate relief … I must say most readers do still feel that these books do not give them the full picture and continue to search for more.
I think what is most surprising to the reader would be the humor and the openness of the people I write about. We would hardly see a picture of a smiling Iranian face in the media or hear about their openness to other cultures. When I tell my friends that The Da Vinci Code is a bestseller or that Bill Clinton’s My Life has sold thousands of copies in Persian translation this year, even the people who know something about the rest of the world are surprised … These are facts that are simply omitted from the picture … to read the interview, see here.
Fatemeh Keshavarz is professor of Persian and comparative literature and chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. She is author of four previous books, including Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal Al-Din Rumi and a volume of poetry. Visit her homepage
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