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Lolita and Beyond


Foaad Khosmood: You recently published a strongly worded article in Al-Ahram weekly (June 1-7, 2006) devoted almost entirely to deconstructing Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” While you acknowledge the legitimate sources of grievance by women living in the Islamic Republic, you nevertheless see the book as an extension of American imperial hegemony. Are you referring mainly to the substance of the writing or the events surrounding its publication and popularity in the United States? 

Hamid Dabashi: That article is part of a larger set of reflections on the nature and function of the US Empire—a chimerical construct much in need of theorization since the groundbreaking work of Negri and Hardt.  To make sense of my essay on “the Native Informer,” it is imperative to read it in the larger context of my attempts for many years now at understanding how this vastly globalized empire works.  For example in my “Islam and Globalization,” also published in al-Ahram in March 2006, I tried to read the so-called Muhammad Cartoon Row in relation to massive labor migrations to Europe.  In my “Native Informer” essay, the selection of RLT as a case in point is rather secondary to my primary concern at typologizing the formation of the category of “the Native Informers” or “Comprador Intellectuals” at the service of furthering the cause of this empire.  I could have easily done the same with, say, Irshad Manji, or Ibn Warraq, or Fouad Ajami, or Dinesh D’Souza, etc.  Yes I did concentrate on this most notorious case.  But that was a methodological option to make perhaps an effective case for the typology I had in mind. 

 

As for the substance of my critique, yes of course I acknowledge the prevalence of a sustained course of misogyny in Iranian and by extension Islamic cultures. I consider Islamic law in its very doctrinal and juridical foundations prejudicial against women, and the Islamic Republic in particular has an atrocious record of sustaining a gender apartheid state.  The most effective and widespread critique of these horrid records is in fact by Iranian women themselves inside or outside their country—women of a whole range of political and ideological persuasions, from socialist to nationalist to Islamist.  The question I have in part sought to address is when these perfectly legitimate critiques mutate into entirely illegitimate formulations at the service of facilitating the US global domination—and I do so without falling into the trap that for example Frantz Fanon fell when he effectively and falsely celebrated the use of veil by Algerian women as a modus operandi of resistance to French colonialism.  Contrary to Fanon, I do not celebrate veiling as a mode of cultural resistance to colonialism.  Resistance to colonialism or imperialism can be done by women with or without veiling—though I am very much concerned about the way women’s bodies have become a site of political contestation between two modes of ideological fanaticism by Islamists and anti-Islamists alike, one insisting on veiling and the other on unveiling it.  I am as much troubled by fanatic secularists who are siding with racist policies of European states as I am by fanatic Islamists who are imposing the veil in places like Iran or Afghanistan.  Why should the body of women be the site of these two equally horrid modes of fanaticism is the central issue here. 

 

Within that context, my critique is almost entirely directed at the substance of RLT, with a very minimum attention to its context.  The fact that the author of RLT is a well-known, well-connected, and well-funded neocon, employed by the principle doctrinaire of neo-conservatism Paul Wolfowitz (when he was the head of SAIS), endorsed by the most diabolical anti-Muslim neocon alive Bernard Lewis, and promoted by a scandalous PR firm like Benador Associates, and many other similar indications are all entirely tangential to the substance of my critique which as you read in my essay is the tenor and diction, message and narrative of RLT itself—namely the portrayal of a figment of imagination called “the West” as the arbiter of truth and salvation, and the dismissal of “non-Western” cultures as banal and diabolical. 

 

FKh: What is the “collective amnesia” or strategy of “selective memory” that you contend is exhibited in “increasing body of memoir by people from an Islamic background” of which you say RLT is a good representative? What is the memory to be forgotten or deemphasized? 

 

HD: The notion of “collective amnesia” and “selective memory” that I suggest in this essay are really modes of operation for this empire rather than its domain of imperial operation say in Afghanistan, Iraq, or perhaps Iran.  Here my attention is far more directed at this notion of “the end of history,” which for me spells out as “the end of memory.”  In another essay, “For the Last Time:  Civilization” (International Sociology, September 2001) I have given a far more elaborate critique of the Fukuyama-Huntington phenomenon and the new rise of civilizational thinking, which in my judgment has as much a domestic agenda written into it as it is a global project.  In the “Native Informer” essay in particular, I wanted to see how the notion of an empire with no hegemony operates, and it seems to me that dismantling the very notion of history and the fabrication of instant stories to fill its vacuum is one way of sustaining the imperial momentum.  This to me in part explains the dearth of historical narratives and abundance of personal memoirs which remains at a very superficial and entirely self-indulgent level. 

 

But if you ask me about the specific memory that is to be forgotten on the colonial site, then it is most obviously the story of women themselves, those who have been fighting foreign domination and domestic abuse alike.  There are numerous memoirs written over the last decade alone by Iranian women political activists who have suffered and survived heroically under both the Pahlavis and the Islamic Republic.  But who has heard of people like Vida Hajebi Tabrizi, Fariba Marzban, Nasrin Parvaz, or Ashraf Dehghan—all among political activists who struggled and resisted both the Pahlavi tyranny and the even more horrid tyranny of the Islamic Republic that succeeded it?  No one.  But look at the ignominy of RLT and the propaganda machinery of a predatory empire that promotes it.  The empowering and ennobling memoirs of none of those women who have struggled and suffered under the Pahlavis and the Islamic Republic has reached an audience beyond the very limited expatriate Iranian community first and foremost because their narratives do not tally well with any imperial agenda and second because they do not cater to the perturbed fantasies of a demented Orientalist and racist readership.  These are revolutionary women who exemplify a noble struggle for freedom and justice.  They do not invoke the pedophilic pathologies of an Orientalized imagination to facilitate the belief in a superior, so called “Western,” culture and/or a universal Enlightenment truth claim.  They write about the nobility of their struggle, their historical agency, their defiant courage and their daring imagination—and I assure you Bernard Lewis will not call any one of their memoirs a “masterpiece.” Books such as RLT fabricate the phantasm of an authentic memory by way of eclipsing the history of a people and their millennial struggles for freedom and democracy.  This is what I mean by “selective memory” covering up a “collective amnesia.” 

 

When making fun of poor Iranians who gathered around the US embassy chanting “Death to America,” Nafisi not once refers to the historical trauma of all Iranians following the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 which toppled the democratically elected government of prime minister Mohammad Mussaddeq, not once to the subsequent mutation of Iran into a military base for the US involvement in Vietnam, not once about the fact that at the very time that these poor Iranians were screaming at the gates of the US embassy, there were in fact US plans for a possible military coup against the revolution.  All of these historical facts are wiped out and eradicated under the disguise of portraying an innocent gathering of seven “Oriental” women reading masterpieces of Western literature to learn about freedom and democracy—while waiting for Bush to go and liberate them one Abu Ghraib torture chamber and Haditha massacre at a time.  What could be more innocent than that?  The treachery of this book is not in just cleansing the Anglo-American history of criminal involvements in Iran and in much of the rest of the colonized world, but to place an innocent and innocuous story as the functional equivalent of that history. 

 

FKh: You say that Nafisi has put her writing “at the service of US ideological psy-op.” Do you believe this was a conscious choice on her part? What motivation do you attribute to her for writing the book to begin with? (You write that she was “recruited.” Is this literal?) Is Nafisi typical of who you call “native informers” or “comprador intellectuals?” 

 

HD: I am not privy to any information whether this has been a conscious or unconscious choice.  I categorically detest conspiratorial theories.  They are insults to intelligence.  I do not believe in conspiracies of intent but I do believe in collusion of interests.  If you put Martin Peretz, the New Republic, Bernard Lewis, Azar Nafisi, Benador Associates, Paul Wolfowitz, Fouad Ajami, Amir Taheri, and Leo Strauss’ ideas together, what you get is not a conspiracy to write RLT but a collusion of interests that makes the writing of that book beneficial to a whole range of common objectives.  You put Martin Peretz, Bernard Lewis, Paul Wolfowitz, and Eleana Benador together, find their common denominator, and ask Azar Nafisi what is she doing in their company. 

 

Of course I do not mean “recruitment” literally.  How would I know if she was or was not recruited to do anything?  I am not privy to any such information—whether she is or is not recruited.  What I do know and argue in my essay is the effect of the content of her book.  I have no clue what was behind “the door” that she says Bernard Lewis opened for her—what I do know and I do theorize is the textual consequence that has resulted from that generous gesture.  Yes she is very much typical of  “native informers” or “comprador intellectuals”—and the base of my argument is not any secret that I know about her connections to Paul Wolfowitz and Co. but the public evidence of the book that she has produced, and not the people she thanks or who have enthusiastically endorsed it.  If Noam Chomsky had endorsed that book I would have still argued the way I did. My critique is based on the treachery that that book commits against the social, intellectual, and literary history of a people and the barefaced compradorial services that it provides to a predatory empire I am morally committed to oppose.  The accoutrement of neoconservative power that has purchased and promoted that book is entirely tangential and rather irrelevant to the substance of that book and the relevance of my criticism. 

 

FKh: What are Nafisi’s connections to American neoconservatives? She has been described as a “close friend” of Paul Wolfowitz, and her work has been promoted by Eleana Benador (of Benador Associates) and by Bernard Lewis. 

 

HD: All of the above and more.  But as I said, I am not in the least interested in how her career opportunism has led her to corridors of power without an iota of scholarly credentials to her name.  This is the flea market of post-9/11 travesty and any mendacity has a customer.  She could be the next US ambassador to the occupied Afghanistan for all I care.  What I am interested in is understanding how the inner dynamics of this vulgar empire works—and how comprador intellectuals like Azar Nafisi and her ilk proceed to manufacture consent for it, to use Noam Chomsky’s proper diagnosis.  That interests me a lot.  To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi.  But I am trying to see how these two complementary types operate in legitimizing and executing the banality of this empire. 

 

What is far more important than documenting Azar Nafisi’s pathetic career opportunism and neocon connections is the active privatization of knowledge production in the US Empire.  The classical European Orientalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century gradually gave way to Area Studies departments at the service of the US imperial designs during the Cold War.  What seems to have happened over the last quarter of a century or so—and Lewis Lapham has studied this phenomenon in a magnificent essay, “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, A Brief History,” (Harper’s, September 2003)—is the effective bypassing of the university settings and the creations of such think tanks as the SAIS or Hoover Institutions—both of which have been quite active in recruiting Iranian and Muslim neocon artists—career opportunists with a minimum or non-existant scholarly credentials and yet full of passionate intensity in their zeal to serve the ideological machinery of this empire.  Our task today is to trace and carefully document these treacherous acts for historical record.  Fouad Ajami and Kanaan Makiyyah had made a very powerful case for the US invasion of Iraq and when scores of young American men and women come back home in body bags (nobody counts the Afghan or the Iraqi casualties of this war), these people disappear from the public scene and there is no court or public forum where one can take these criminal comprador intellectuals and hold them accountable for their deeds.  The same is now true about the neocon cohort of Fouad Ajami, namely his SAIS colleague Azar Nafisi.

 

Epistemically I am trying to see how this mutation of Orientalism to Area Studies to active privatization of knowledge production (pretty much on the model of the privatization of certain aspects of the US military, such as intelligence gathering and torturing people) actually works.  Meanwhile, I am also trying to keep a record of who is saying and doing what in these terrible times—for these criminal comprador intellectuals will have to be held historically accountable for what they now say and do. 

 

FKh: So, are you suggesting that Nafisi could make a case in favor of US action toward Iran, the way Ajami made one against Iraq? This brings to mind something she said in a 2004 interview that I read:

 

I genuinely believe, especially at this time, the way the world is turning, the West and not just people, governments should take human rights much more seriously. I keep telling my friends in Washington that “If you want to prevent terror in the streets of Washington and New York, do not support those countries giving in to terror. These countries are killing their own people, why should they not want to kill you if they can? Why would they be accountable to you if they are not accountable to their own people?” [2]

 

HD: As you rightly document this, I am not “suggesting” anything.  I am saying that chapter and verse people like Azar Nafisi have been actively involved in asking the United States officials for what inside the Beltway they call “regime change”—and now there are reports that she and her ilk—people ranging from Abbas Milani and Moshen Sazegara to Amir Taheri, Roya Hakakian and Ramin Ahmadi—are actually on a frequent flier program to and from DC, with regular visits to the White House, the State Department, and Almighty only knows what other doors Elliott Abrams (“the Neocons Neocon”) is opening for them.  I am afraid Azar Nafisi’s “friends in Washington,” as she calls them, are precisely people like Paul Wolfowitz, Foad Ajami, Bernard Lewis, and Elliot Abrams.  This is what is scary—that the foreign policy of once a democratic republic, now a predatory empire, are decided by these sorts of people, playing fast and loose with facts, and thus with a people’s destiny.  It is not just Iranians we need to worry about.  We need to worry about Americans even more.  I too live in New York, and I am frightened out of my wits that people like Azar Nafisi, Foad Ajami, Bernard Lewis, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and Richard Perle are looking after my safety. 

 

Mind you there is nothing wrong with changing the regime in Iran—the question is how.  The Islamic Republic is a horrid theocracy with a treacherous record of human rights abuses, as well as the denigration and denial of women’s rights, civil rights, and any other kind of rights you can imagine.  Today we read that yet another Iranian dissident, Akbar Mohammadi, has died while imprisoned in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic.  The key question is how is this illegitimate, abusive, gender-apartheid state with the blood of thousands of political dissidents on its hand to be changed.  Certainly not under the leadership of Elliot Abrams, the chief Likudnick neocon artist, a principal culprit in the Reagan administration’s chief political scandal, the Iran-Contra affair, the son-in-law of none other than Norman Podhoretz of Commentary magazine reputation (the neocon who was a neocon when no one knew what a neocon was), and the close bosom buddy of Nathan Sharansky (the pestiferous neo-Zionist Israeli propagandist)—I mean how low do you want to go and when and where do you want to stop with this nauseating genealogy of backward, retarded, corrupt, bankrupt, and myopic policies that have wreaked havoc on planet earth.  Look at the carnage that the Israelis are now doing in Lebanon.  People like Elliot Abram are chiefly responsible for using their position in charge of President Bush’s Global Democracy Strategy (as they call it in a language that makes the remains of George Orwell spin dizzy in his grave) to abuse the legitimate grievances that people around the world have about their own government, turn them around and distort them in a way that appears to sustain the US imperial project, and thus by extension the militant thuggery of the mini-Empire it has created and calls “Israel.” 

 

One of course must not over-fetishize the current stage of the US imperialism and think it something unique and unprecedented in its history.  Imperialism is definitive to the globalizing proclivity at the heart of the US economic disposition.  That historical proclivity towards expansionism has spelled disaster for nations with which the US has come into contact.  As Stephen Kinzer has recently demonstrated in his Overthrow:  America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2006), there is something constitutionally aggressive and brutally expansionist about the US domestic and foreign policies, rooted in fact in the economic underpinnings of its political culture.  What is peculiar about the current condition of the empire, perhaps, and in part the point of my essay on RLT, is the way native informers and comprador intellectuals are hired to manufacture the simulacrum of a hegemonic credibility precisely where the empire ostensibly and constitutionally lacks such credibility. 

 

As for her comparison with Foad Ajami, I think it is wrong of us to keep looking for the Foad Ajamis and Ahmad Chalabi’s of Iran.  There is no one-to-one correspondence between the Iraq and the Iran cases.  One has to look at the services, both long-term and short-term, that the Oriental regiment of the US neocons—ranging from Foad Ajami and Azar Nafisi to Ahmad Chalabi and Abbas Milani, plus the intermediary roles of lesser figures like Amir Taheri, Ramin Ahmadi, and Roya Hakakian—are playing and reach for something far more fundamental in this nauseating game of career opportunism, namely for the absence of any overriding idea, any imperial imagination corresponding with the carnage that the US and Israel now perpetrate around the world.

 

What is peculiar to this empire is the paucity, scarcity, and utter poverty of ideas that seek to sustain, legitimize, and promote its legitimacy.  I am not talking here about dime-a-dozen native informers like Foad Ajami and Azar Nafisi, or even their superiors and elders like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.  Quite to the contrary.  I am talking about people who are trying to understand the way this empire works—theorists like Michael Hard and Antonio Negri, historians like Niall Ferguson and Chalmers Johnson, groundbreaking literary theorists and cultural critics like Amy Kaplan, Judith Butler, and Zillah Eisenstein, namely those who are trying to configure the nature of this beast, and the way it seeks to generate and sustain legitimacy for itself. 

 

What you have in such figures as Azar Nafisi and Foad Ajami is really a band of politically pestiferous career opportunists, peanuts really in the grand scheme of things, utterly illiterate, but at the service of exceedingly powerful people who waste millions of our tax money trying to put a spin on a reality that keeps exploding in their barefaced barbarity.  I have said before and I have argued that here is an organic link between what Lynndie England did in Abu Ghraib and what Azar Nafisi did in RLT—and what holds these two underlings in the service of George W. Bush’s war on terror together is no over-riding ideology, but a mere Kafkaesque careerism best described in Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil”—in other words, in and of themselves they are exceedingly pathetic people, and yet they are instrumental in a monumental barbarity. 

 

FKh:  “Orientalism to Area Studies to active privatization of knowledge production”? Could you elaborate a bit on this? Do you mean, privatization of Knowledge the sense of Jean Francois Lyotard? What would be the economic model for this kind of knowledge privatization?

 

HD: Well of course Lyotard in his La Condition Postmodern, but even before and simultaneous with him in the work of both Foucault and Said.  I mean this goes back to the old question of the relation between knowledge and power, of which I have a bit of a more historical reading than evident in Lyotard, Foucault, and Said, and if you allow me I’d like to explain this carefully.  In simply Saidian terms, just because in his magisterial work Orientalism, Edward Said has articulated the specific terms of the relationship between colonialism and Orientalism it does not mean that old fashioned Orientalists packed their belongings and went and found a more decent thing to do with their lives.  Things change, and so does the nature of that relationship between power and the knowledge that it needs and orders to be produced in a way compatible with its wishes.

 

But I take the question a few steps before and then a few steps beyond Edward Said’s Orientalism and try to historicize what has happened in our sorts of disciplines.  I have discussed this in some detail in a new Introduction I have written to an old collection of essays by the distinguished Hungarian Islamist Ignaz Goldziher (See my “Ignaz Goldziher and the Question Concerning Orientalism,” as the new Introduction to Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies. Translated by C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern, and Edited by S. M. Stern.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Transactions, 2006).  I don’t mean to rehash that theory here—it is quite elaborate and if people are interested I refer them to that introductory essay.  But for here suffice it to say that we need to introduce a bit of periodization and history into Said’s articulation of the question of Orientalism, which for him began as a Foucauldian question of the relation between knowledge and power, was then transformed into a literary problem of representation (for above all Edward Said was a literary theorist and not a historian), which he then took to a political hotspot and applied to the modes of knowledge production at the service of colonialism.  Some like James Clifford later took Said to task for not being Foucauldian enough, for using Foucault when he wanted to dismantle Orientalism but then dropping him cold when he wanted to articulate political agency.  But one can in fact reverse the argument and suggest that perhaps Foucault was not Saidian enough rather than Said not Foucauldian enough—and again what marks that difference is the distinction between a Parisian intellectual committed to many causes but to no cause in particular and a Palestinian intellectual with the pain and suffering of an entire people at the forefront of his political commitments. 

 

But let me not digress here and go back to your question.  My point of departure in the essay I just cited is more from a sociology of knowledge perspective, which inevitably posits more history in its theoretical reading of Orientalism, which can now be divided into the Orientalism of rivalry, for example, that was rampant during the Greco-Persian wars and evident in Aeschylus’s Persians, or the Orientalism of fear, as another example, that was evident say during the Ottoman period and quite evident in Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (“Abduction form Seraglio, 1782), to Orientalism of domination that was coterminous with the classical age of European colonialism.  Said combines, and at times confuses, all such sorts of Orientalisms, in plural. 

 

Once we thus try to periodize and historicize Orientalism, as I have tried to do in that essay, and then connect it to the vast body of theoretical work in sociology of knowledge, then a number of things happen:  (1) we are no longer at the mercy of literary critical theories that one day support and the next day may discard the question of representation, and thus question the whole crucial issue of the relation between knowledge and power—the way that has for example happened in the radically depoliticized, American version, of postmodernism; (2) we stay clear of the ad hominem crossfire between Edwards Said and his chief nemesis Bernard Lewis—thus confusing a crucial theoretical issue with the Arab-Israeli conflict; (3) we wed the problem of Orientalism to a much mightier body of sociological theory—and thus buttress it against whimsical and illiterate refutation, and (4) we prepare the way for an understanding of the post-Orientalist modes and variations of knowledge production that commenced with the soc-called Area Studies period during the Cold War, when departments of Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, or Far Eastern Studies (all of them near, middle, or far in relation to some colonial bureaucrat in London or Washington DC) began to sell themselves as beneficial to the US foreign policies and the intelligence they needed in the peripheral states of the former Soviet Union and China.

 

What I now sense to have happened is that these departments perhaps did not perform their duties properly, and in the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a singular empire, the US needed a newer, more improved mode of knowledge production that is more immediately beneficial to its global designs.  Plus, the whole medieval apparatus of a university, with its arcane paraphernalia of tenure process, a decent body of scholarly publications, a proven record of teaching and training of the next generation of scholars, of peer reviews, peer promotions, peer acknowledgement, etc, is simply too cumbersome for postmodern emperors like George W. Bush who are in no mood for someone to tell them that their pants are on fire but instead need a quick fix and for someone telling him that not only he is winning in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that he can also win in Iran, as the Israelis are winning in Palestine and now in Lebanon. 

 

Here is where people like Azar Nafisi and more recently Abbas Milani become handy, people with little or no scholarly credentials to their names and yet plenty of enthusiasm to appease their employers—and thus the proximity of Azar Nafisi to Paul Wolfowitz, which Abbas Milani one-man-upped and became close to President Bush (These two have been in competition for quite a long time.  Rivalry among scholars, as the old rabbis used to say, makes them wiser.  Rivalry among neocon artists makes them more pathetic).  My point here though is that the formation of think tanks and the appearance of a new project for such subsidiary institutions as SAIS and the Hoover Institution, where Azar Nafisi and Abbas Milani provide their respective services, coincide with this latter period of the privatization of knowledge production, or the so-called “death of the Professor,” as Lyotard has called it. The principal task of these comprador intellectuals is to manufacture, supply, distribute, advertise, and sell a package of knowledge about the trouble spots of the world in a way that both legitimizes the predatory imperial project of their employers and justifies their salary.  Azar Nafisi’s “Dialogue Project:  Culture and Democracy in Muslim World and the West” at SAIS and Abbas Milani’ “Iran Democracy Project” at the Hoover Institution are the prime examples in the case of Iran.  That the combined scholarly publications of Azar Nafisi and Abbas Milani will not suffice for a junior position in a small town college is the point I am trying to make here.  The death of the professor means the birth of the comprador intellectual, or gun for hire. 

 

The problem though is not limited to the fact that these folks are exceedingly illiterate people and have in fact cheated their employers into hiring them for what they cannot deliver.  The problem is that what they say sells, and that what they sell helps justify the dropping of bombs on innocent people.  Look at the horrid propaganda machinery at the service of the Zionist project here in this country, a project that people like Elliot Abrams are hired to serve—there is, this is what I am suggesting here, a direct relationship between the bombs that Israeli fighters are dropping on Lebanese civilians in Qana with total impunity and the propaganda legwork that people like Foad Ajami and Bernard Lewis for decades and Azar Nafisi and Abbas Milani over the last few years have provided to their employers—services that amounts to positing the so-called “West” as the civilizing arbiter of truth, and as such instrumental in denying, silencing, or criminalizing any voice of dissent that cries against the atrocities and war crimes of the American army in Falluja and Haditha, for example, or of the Israeli war crimes most recently in Qana.  There is a vast and pervasive evidence of a general public lethargy in this country, an incredible degree of moral apathy, and a political indifference that I link entirely to the way that this pestiferous propaganda machinery operates and manufactures what I have called a collective amnesia, punctuated by a selective memory.  This is what I mean by privatization of knowledge production.  Hope this is clear. 

 

FKh: You compare RLT to Betty Mahmoody’s “Not Without My Daughter” in their “hatred of everything Iranian.” Are you referring to errors of omission, such as a distinct absence of native Iranian literature or is this for what you call “foregrounding” of western literature? How do you support this accusation in RLT? 

 

HD: The link between Betty Mahmoody’s “Not Without My Daughter” and Azar Nafisi’s RLT is the link between two phases and modes of labor migration, the moral salvation that “the West” provides, and imperial hubris.  What is paramount in all of these is the denigration of local cultures as the site of actual or potential resistance to imperial domination.  There cannot be any politics of resistance, aesthetics of emancipation, or prose and poetry of agential autonomy in history for people around the world—nothing except a Starbucks Coffee version of the so-called “Western classics” to go and save them.  Nafisi’s RLT is ten times worse than Betty Mahmoody’s NWMD, for this is not just an illiterate bystander letting loose of her most racist screeds, but a native college professor saving the soul of the poor natives from the terror of their own culture in anticipation of “white men coming to save brown women from the terror of brown men,” as my colleague Gayatri Spivak puts it pointedly. 

 

FKh: Few things solicit western fury as much as treatment of women by “others.” As recent as 2005, an American “border security” vigilante said “the rest of the world beats and rapes women, uses drugs, pedophilia is an alternative lifestyle, and has no morals.” [1]. Explain the use of this particular theme and its implications in RLT. 

 

HD: To these racist vigilantes, as to President Bush’s project to liberate the Muslim world, Azar Nafisi is God sent.  With a single act of terrorizing complacency with racism, Nafisi has confirmed white Americans that they are the measure of truth and justice and that the rest of the world is only tolerable to the degree that it is approximated to their presumed ideals and aspirations.  In RLT, everything about “the West” is represented by its literary masterpieces, and everything about Iran (and by extension Arabs and Muslims) by their infantilized youth and vile and violent culture.  There is thus nothing beautiful and sublime in Iran or the Muslim world, and nothing vile and violent about “the West.”  This is RLT in a nutshell. 

 

FKh: Please elaborate on your criticism of the RLT cover photograph, of two veiled Iranian girls reading. 

 

HD: The cover of RLT is an iconic burglary.  It photographically kidnaps two young Iranian women, while they are busy reading a newspaper, following the parliamentary election in their homeland, and thus participating in the democratic aspirations of their people, and incarcerates them inside a colonial harem.  In my essay I have sought to give a pictorial genealogy of what oriental fantasies this cover invokes by this act of thievery. I very much hope people would print the cover of RLT and place it next to the picture I have unearthed and from which it is stolen, compare the two and make up their own mind about the treachery of a career opportunist neocon artist and the extent to which she and her publisher will go to misrepresent a people and deceive another.

 

I could not believe the treachery of cropping a picture so viciously to suggest something so contrary to the original picture from which this pictorial burglary had taken place.  What Azar Nafisi and her publisher have done with that picture is identical with those shots of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled by a massive number of jubilant Iraqis, which later on turned out in the larger frame to have been entirely fabricated.  But my concern here was not just this blatant treachery of stealing two young Iranian women from the frame of their noble struggles for democracy and incarcerating them inside a colonial haram.  I was more interested in the genealogy of having one or two “Oriental” women depicted in Orientalist painting and colonial postcards.  That to me is a far more treacherous genealogy, which I tried to address in my essay.  Here, again, my interests are far less the particular atrocities that Azar Nafisi and her publisher commit and far more the invocation of Orientalist fantasies in the making of this empire and Eurocentricity of its racist imagination. 

 

FKh: Has RLT really had an impact in undermining multicultural education and world literature programs at American Universities? 

 

HD: Of course not.  The main customers of this book are kaffeeklatsch gatherings in suburban boredoms of this empire.  The point of my argument was to see through the potential consequences of such books—and what the neoconservative backers of Azar Nafisi are up to.  I am a teacher of comparative literature.  I am part of a global struggle to restore literary dignity to world literature, which obviously includes western European and North American literary masterpieces but is not limited or defined by them. The exclusive celebration of “Western classics,” as they say, in RLT, and its almost total rejection and ridicule of Persian literature tally perfectly well with the colonial function of English literature the way scholars like Gauri Viswanathan have excavated and argued.  The manner in which a kaffeeklatsch reading of a select number of European literary masterpieces is packaged here goes even against the very historical fact of the way people read world literature in Iran, as I explain in some detail in my essay.  What is lost in this book, and that loss is damaging to any global understanding of world literature, is the cosmopolitan literary culture of Iran and all other countries like it.  Based on historical facts, I have taken epistemic issue with the way RLT portrays the reading of European and American literature in Iran.  It is not that we did not read this literature.  Of course we did.  But we read it in an expansive, embracing, global, and emancipatory way and as part and parcel of world literature. So my concern is less about what RLT commits and more about what it deliberately omits.  The question is not that people in Iran did not read English or American literature.  Of course they did.  As they did in fact the French, the German, the Russian, the Latin American, the African, the Indian, or the Arabic literature.  But given our particular historical circumstances the stellar range of poets from Vladimir Mayakovsky, Nazem Hekmat, Pablo Neruda, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and Mahmoud Darwish were infinitely (and I mean infinitely) more important that Nabokov, Austen, James, and FitzGerald put together.  But I don’t think Mahmoud Darwish sells well in Washington DC these days. 

 

Departments of English literature were (and still are) entirely parasitical and irrelevant in the Iranian literary scene.  We read the varieties of world literature in magnificent and exceedingly competent Persian translations.  Whatever we lost in these translations (which was not much, for I now teach these texts in their originals), we gained doubly by having a cosmopolitan conception of world literature that did not make us feel we were eavesdropping in some rich, obnoxious, white man’s study.  We claimed and called that literature ours, and turned them, over a period that extends over more than two hundred years, as ours, and as the arsenal of our struggles against domestic tyranny and foreign domination alike.  What this treacherous, deceitful, and pernicious book does is to distort, and deliberately distort, that history and manufacture a narrative that will enable and justify the global arrogance of this predatory empire and its pathetic claim to civilizational authority. 

 

FKh: RLT has enjoyed tremendous success both inside and outside of Academia. The edition that I have even has teacher’s-aid discussion type questions at the back. What is your opinion of this? How do you believe the book should be taught in American universities?

 

HD: I am not really sure how extensively RLT is or is not used in the US colleges.  When the dust of this empire settles, there will be enough time for keeping a record of who said what when.  Our task at this juncture is not to conjecture what the particular propaganda tools of these empires are or are not doing.  We need carefully to monitor and radically to challenge them.  This is a civil war of ideas—those at the service of this predatory empire and those that seek to oppose and end it.  I believe in the absolute and unconditional freedom of expression.  The problem is that neither Benador Associates nor Paul Wolfowitz nor Bernard Lewis, nor anyone else with the military, political, and financial might of these people and PR firms will open any door for someone with ideas contrary to those of Azar Nafisi—the Fox News anchorperson of “Western Literature.” The American publishing industry is now squarely at the service of this propaganda machinery.  A magnificent translation of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh appears and in order to sell it the publisher asks Azar Nafisi to write a preface to it.  To me it is an act of obscenity beyond words that when one of the most distinguished Shahnameh scholars on planet earth, Mahmoud Omidsalar, lives in this country, Azar Nafisi should be asked to write a preface to the English translation of Shahnameh.  And then who gets to review it for the Wall Street Journal, certainly not Mahmoud Omidsalar, but yet another neocon artist Azar Nafisi wannabe named Roya Hakakian who believes Dick Davis’ translation is not good enough.  Dick Davis sneezes and there is more poetry and scholarship in it than in Roya Hakakian and seven generation of her parentage put together—and who died and made Roya Hakakian an authority either on Shahnameh or on its English translation? This is a nightmare we are living with these days in the United States.  Scholars like Mahmoud Omidsalar and Dick Davies who have spent a lifetime achieving competence in the work they do are scarcely known to the public at large and career opportunist charlatans are promoted by warmongering PR firms as spokesperson and representatives of a people they wish thus to denigrate, dismiss, invade and dominate.  I have no idea how these acts of ignominy ought to be read or not read.  I am too busy trying to figure out the way this calamity rummages throughout the globe and destroys from its layer ozone to its elementary definitions of decency. 

 

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books and articles on Iran, medieval and modern Islam, comparative literature, world cinema, and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). Among his best-known books are his Authority in Islam, Theology of Discontent, Truth and Narrative, Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future and an edited volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema. His forthcoming book Iran: A People Interrupted is scheduled for publication in 2006 by the New Press.

 

 

[1]. Quote is by Ranch Rescue co-founder Casey Nethercutt in documentary film “Walking the Line,” 2005 http://www.walkingthelinefilm.com/

 

[2]. Identity Theory interview with Robert Birnbaum, February 2004.

http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum139.php

 

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