Jasmine and Stars


Foaad Khosmood: In March 2007, you published a book called Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (Jasmines & Stars). Please explain what the book is about, and your reasons for writing it. What has been the reception to this book?

Fatemeh Keshavarz: Jasmine & Stars has been published by the UNC Press. I have been delighted with its enthusiastic reception. In fact, the book went through its first reprint in May. Jasmine & Stars blends personal memoir with literary/social commentary on present day Iran.

What is different about it is that it brings into the picture the voices and faces of contemporary Iranians almost entirely unknown to American readers. The result is that the readers – exposed only to negative news on Iran – are amazed at how imaginative, vibrant, and articulate contemporary Iranians can be. This is most shocking in the case of women writers and artists. For example, I have a chapter dedicated to the writer Sharhnush Parsipour and the novel she wrote after the 1979 revolution, Women without Men. One of the most charming characters in this novel is a prostitute called Zarrinkolah. I receive daily e-mails from people who want to read more of Parsipour’s writing.

As for the readers I hope to reach, I have a fairly wide range in mind. In the first place, I hope any American interested in the world and curious about Iran would read Jasmine & Stars. Also, high School and college courses are often short of good reading for subjects such as Middle Eastern literature, culture and literature of contemporary Iran, Muslim women, or even world literature. I hope the book meets some of this kind of demand. 

On a different level, Jasmine & Stars is a counter perspective to Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT) by Azar Nafisi (although, as ALA Booklist review pointed out, you don’t have to have read RLT in order to appreciate Jasmine & Stars). Nevertheless, I hope that every book club or individual who read Nafisi’s book would read my critique of the highly slanted vision of Iran presented in that book.

FKh: In Jasmine & Stars, you talk about the “New Orientalist” narrative. As examples of this type of narrative you point to popular works by Geraldine Brooks, Azar Nafisi, Khaled Husseini and Asne Seierstad. Can you briefly explain what you mean by the term and how these particular works are examples?

FK: I have a piece in the July 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Banishing the Ghosts of Iran” for anyone interested in a detailed take on the topic.

In a nutshell, Edward Said – one of the finest minds of the 20th century – introduced the concept of Orientalism, the worldview that considers the European cultures as the norm and those that are different as an aberration. Its main proponents were 18th and 19th century European philologists who viewed the Orientals as great in the past and devoid of agency, self-awareness, and critical ability at present.

It’ll be hasty and unfair to say that all Orientalists strived to further the interests of the European empires. But there is little doubt that the empires were aided by the conviction that the exploited Orientals did not deserve any better. 

One might argue that the Orientalist perspective never ceased to be followed, particularly in relation to the Muslim Middle East. But since 1978, when Said published his towering critique titled Orientalism, much attention has been drawn to the slanted nature of the Orientalist perspective and specifically to the way it ignores the voices of the contemporary natives of these cultures. Said’s critique has inspired new thinking in various disciplines.

Out of the post Cold War, and now post 9/11, a need to refashion the “enemy” of the West, a popularized version of the Orientalist approach to the Muslim Middle East is emerging. This version generally takes the form of memoir, travelogue, or journalistic report often by native or semi-native authors.

In Jasmine & Stars, I place these works in a category I call a “New Orientalist” narrative.  This narrative reduces the contemporary Muslim Middle East to an uncomplicated black and white world of villains (usually Muslims) and victims (usually sympathizers with the west).  A vast number of people and events, that don’t fit either category, are simply left out of the picture. Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT) and Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul are two examples. I focus on RLT and compare its distorted image of contemporary Iran to a portrait that has two large holes in the place of eyes.

FKh: What are the broader implications of these publications? Colombia Professor Hamid Dabashi has called Nafisi one of “comprador intellectuals” who are in “service of the empire” [1]. What is your own view on this?

FK: First, I would like to make a side point. As the “the war on terror” gets bloodier, we – academics – have the privilege of staying in the safety of our classrooms and avoid controversial debates (together with our responsibility as public intellectuals.)

In a democratic society such as the U.S., where public opinion does impact foreign policy, keeping the public informed makes all the difference.  Because of this, I do read Professor Dabashi’s writing with great interest and appreciate his candid contribution to the important debate surrounding these new Orientalist works.

Secondly, there is little doubt that as the European empire-builders were served by the writings of the original Orientalists, the neoliberal capitalist drive to aggressively reshape the glob is aided by the new Orientalist writing.

Having said this, I must avoid making the error that I criticize the New Orientalists writers for: claiming authority in all disciplinary domains.  My training is not in social sciences but in understanding and explicating texts. True, texts are created and read in social/cultural contexts. But I can best speak of intellectuals in their role as authors.
 
By the same token, while I would not speculate on the intentions of these intellectuals, I feel comfortable to tell my readers in that the power of the New Orientalist texts should be taken very seriously as they frequently reduce the Orient to a dark and violent environment ripe for military intrusion. 

Whether the authors intend for this to happen or not is almost beside the point. Their writings simplify and dehumanize entire constellations of cultures and transform them into easy and “legitimate” targets.

FKh: You devote at least one full chapter of Jasmine & Stars to the issues with Azar Nafisi’s book. What is the picture of Iran pained in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT), and what is your objection to it?

FK: Yes, I devote almost forty pages to this matter in a chapter which I call “The Good, the Missing, and the Faceless: What is wrong with Reading Lolita in Tehran.”  The chapter documents the ways in which RLT associates all good with America and all evil with Iranian Muslims.

Events and people are selected in such a way that this black and while picture is not disturbed.  For example, there is not a single reference to any mistakes America might have made in the region. Neither is there any reference to Iranian writers, artists, and intellectuals who live and work hard in the post 1979 Iran to bring about positive change.

I describe this latter group as the “missing.” As a result, Iranian women – to give one example- emerge as voiceless victims although articulate women writers such as Moniru Ravanipour, Sharnush Parsipour, and Simin Behbahani wrote some of their masterpieces during the time period that the author of RLT lived in Iran.

I point to other problems as well. For one thing, grave factual errors plague this memoir. For another, two sets of standards are applied to people, one for the good western or western-friendly individuals and the other for the wicked traditional/religious locals.

This double standard is best articulated by the author herself who say to Mr. Nahvi, one of her Muslim student activists who prefers the protagonist in Gorky’s Mother to the women in Austen’s works, “I won’t compare you to Elizabeth Bennett. There is nothing of her in you to be sure. You are as different as man and mouse.” (290)

FKh: What is your view of RLT as memoir? On the one hand, if these are personal experiences on the part of Nafisi, one would think it strange to criticize them as biased. On the other hand, Nafisi presents the book as being more than that, stating “I am too much of an academic: I have written too many papers and articles to turn my experiences and ideas into narratives without pontificating.” (RLT 266)

FK: This is a very important – and frequently asked – question. Thank you, for giving me the opportunity to address it here.

First, yes, personal experiences are subjective reality. They are yours to perceive as you may, and express as you like. They are real but a malleable reality. For example, you can say “I don’t understand why people call Paris the city of love. I hate the city. It is large, crowded, and violent.” Here, you have chosen not to see the beauty of Paris.  It is your experience of this city. No one can blame you for it.

But if you said “Paris is the capital of Germany,” you have distorted an objective reality. Whether you write a memoir or a historical narrative, objective reality is not yours to distort, it is public property. You have no right to present it in anyway other than the way it is.

For example, RLT gives the readers the impression that reading of western literature is forbidden in post revolutionary Iran, and that people cannot read Austen, James, and Fitzgerald freely. This is a distortion of objective reality. Translations of works of western writers are very popular in Iran. In fact, just over 30% of what Iranians read is translation.

Elsewhere the book says “It was unprecedented for a girl to go abroad to study.” (RLT, 285) This is not true either. Iranian women have traveled abroad to study before and after the 1979 revolution. There are numerous other examples. A prominent feature of these “untruths” is that they correspond to the general western misperceptions of post-revolutionary Iran. Therefore, they are unlikely to be questioned by the reader.

Second, on one level RLT is a memoir. On another, it frequently provides extensive commentary on the larger social, cultural, and political issues. In other words, there is a convenient generic shape shifting involved that allows the author to move between the freedom of writing a personal memoir and the authority of providing an eye-witness factual report.
  
Finally, we always tell our personal stories against the backdrop of the larger stories of our time. No author can ignore that larger story. When RLT was written, the larger story of Iran and America was one of anger, miscommunication, mistrust and therefore misperception. It was not hard to predict that the content of RLT would be read – even taught in classroom – as “facts” rather than the author’s personal and subjective musing.

FKh: What about your own work? In what way does your memoir try to deal with issues of subjectivity and provide a fuller and more in-depth representation of present day Iran?

FK: No author is free of his or her subjective perceptions. In a philosophical sense, even historical narratives are partial and perspectival. That is, they are only a portion of the truth viewed from the author’s vantage point (which of course does not mean we can say Paris is the capital of Germany or Iranians are not allowed to read western literature).
 
Rather it means that cultural/literary commentary is tricky business. The author can easily mask the members of the culture s/he is representing from view and turn them into voiceless ghosts .The challenge is to find a way to allow the vitality and vibrancy of the culture to shine through and speak for itself.

The immediate solution that comes to mind is translation. That is, of course, a great – and much needed – service that has to be carried out generation after generation. But the truth is if a culture is not known (or worse still demonized), its translated treasures will remain out of reach.

How many a professor of world literature in the U.S., for example, would look for a translation of Forough Farrokhzad’s collection of poems, Another birth, to include in his or her course reading? Few people would imagine that contemporary Iran is capable of producing such articulate and self-critical poets as Farrokhzad.

In Jasmine & Stars I experiment with grafting the indigenous voices of such writers onto my own trying to allow their beauty, power, and complexity to shine through. In the book itself, I present the idea in terms of weaving a tapestry of voices and faces. These include the lucid and powerful poetry of Farrokhzad, and the post-revolutionary prose of Parsipour, as much as the colorful tales of the Conference of the Birds by the medieval mystic Attar of Nishabur.

They belong to different times and underline different concerns. But they all show the same thing. Iranians are like all other members of the human race. They laugh, cry, create, and struggle for change. Furthermore, they have continued their journey toward discovering their outer world as well as their inner complexities. The 1979 revolution has not transformed them into zombies or voiceless victims.

FKh: In (JS 112) you refer to Nafisi’s portrayal of “talking about Nabokov, Bellow and Fielding” as physically dangerous when she described it as doing so “at all costs to myself and them” (RLT 68). What is the punishment in Iran for discussing Nabokov, Bellow or Fielding?

FK: I don’t know of any punishments for discussing the writings of these authors in Iran. To the average western reader of RLT, it might seem natural to assume that Iranians are prevented from reading western literature. But that is, in fact, not the case at all. In my yearly visits to Iran, I see Iranians as interested in reading world literature as I was back in my teen years and college education.

Let me give you a personal anecdote. Last year, I arrived in Tehran right after the major Tehran International Book fair. The piles of books purchased by cousins and other young friends and relatives included all kinds of titles for young adults by native as well as European and American writers.

In the regular Shiraz and Tehran bookstores, I purchased many translations of western books including the Davinchi Code, and Senator Hillary Clinton’s autobiography. This latter has the author’s photo on the cover. Curious as to whether there were any omissions in the content, I looked for controversial topics such as her discussions in favor of women’s right to abortion and her support for gays in the armed forces. I found both sections intact.

Sadly, most Americans would not know that Iranians read on these subjects with interest. Instead, they read reports such as “Seeking signs of literary life in Iran” (New York Times, May 27, 2007) which suggested in present day Iran bookstores do not exist as such.

It also claimed that reading groups do not form anymore because books that are available include only superstitious and self-help subjects. An interesting point here is that in this age of digital photos and internet tools, it should not be hard to check out Iranian bookstores before a piece like that is published.

FKh: Your description of your own family members, especially male figures like your uncle, who are intellectual, open-minded and at the same time religious, stands in sharp contrast to the male figures in RLT. You talk about Nassrin’s father who is portrayed as having abused his status as a tutor to seduce Nassrin’s Mother (JS 62). Other RLT men are cruel child molesters and fundamentalists. Are you saying these characters in RLT are implausible? What, do you think, is the point of such a dark portrayal of men in RLT?

FK: My uncle is an exceptionally bright star. Every once in a while life produces men and women like him. I have written about him in Persian since I was a teen-ager. This was my opportunity to share his laughter, his decency, and his art with my American readership, hence the chapter, “My uncle the painter.”
I do tell my readers, however, that I do not suggest all Iranian men to be like that. No society produces only stars. The fact remains, however, that men like him exist in Iran too.

Now, let me attend to the important question you have posed: are the monstrous males that people RLT implausible? Not really. No human society is free of such heinous characters either. What is implausible is that in RLT these monstrous figures totally dominate the book and they all belong to the traditional Muslim culture.

What is more, a large number of these men are faceless. That is we don’t get to know anything about them except that they are someone’s father, brother, or uncle. But their cruelty haunts us all the same. And we “know” it has something to do with their religious tradition. By the time we finish the book, it is hard to imagine traditional Persian culture capable of producing any decent men.

The men I portray in Jasmine & Stars, as I explain in the introduction, are corrective characters. That is, they possess the decency almost entirely missing from the majority of Muslim male characters portrayed in the New Orientalist Narrative. I do not add more villains to the picture for the simple reason that there is an abundance of them in view already.

At the same time, I speak about men who are real, and not always as flawless as my uncle. My father, for example, is emotional and temperamental. At the same time, he is loving, generous, and respectful of strong women.

I also speak about my own arranged marriage and painful divorce and amplify the critical voices of Farrokhzad and Parsipour to suggest that in Iran, as in many other cultures, gender related conflicts demand our urgent attention.

FKh: You describe your encounter with an older fan of the female Iranian poet Parvin Etesami (JS 44). This reminded me of the surprise that Tedd Koppel expressed in his 2006 trip to Iran when a rural Esfehani farmer talked to him about the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) [2]. What was so intriguing about the old man?

FK: The old man volunteered to be on my live radio show because he had memorized the entire collection of Etesami’s poetry. On the show, he spoke about her poetry with lucidity and responded to callers’ questions with intelligence.

In the process, however, I discovered that he was illiterate. I was speechless. I would not have dreamt that a person with no schooling could possess his kind of literary interest and skill. Of course, I don’t quote the anecdote to glorify illiteracy. How much more would he have achieved, had he been educated?

Under the circumstances, he had loved the pomes so much that had memorized the entire collection to have access to them although he could not read.

One of the main reasons why I quote this anecdote, in Jasmine & Stars, is to draw my readers’ attention to our attitude here in the west toward the rest of the world. Be it Tedd Koppel, myself –  or others with perfectly good intentions – we assume that learning and understanding can only be gained through our ways, that traditional societies do not have much to offer, and that we have an unquestioned right to change them into pale imitations of ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not suggest that we should withdraw the scientific and educational contribution that we can make to modernization and progress in the world.  In fact, if we offer such cultural goods without the superior attitude and the military threats that often accompany them, much of the world would embrace them with open arms.

In a way, if we manage to understand that we do not have a monopoly on curiosity, interest, and learning, we have rediscovered the world. That is, we have learnt to think “global,” not in terms of a boring globe struggling to become us, but one that is an exciting treasure house of diversity and difference. 

FKh: When reading RLT, one gets the distinct feeling that belief in Islam is closely correlated with class status in Iran. That more enlightened, liberated and worldly Iranians have already rejected Islam while the underclass continues to suffer from it. For example Nafisi writes “People like me hated the oppression. But these others had to deal with the betrayal” (RLT 273). I didn’t see too much on the issue of class in JS. Is it relevant?

FK: Class has much to do with the way individuals view the world, no question about that. Belonging to the upper classes ensures access to better means of gaining wealth, knowledge, and power through better schooling, travel, and the like. But I don’t know if these privileges would necessarily take you away from religious belief and practice.
 
Certainly, the Euro-centric model that suggests societies become more secular as they modernize has proven inapplicable to many parts of the world. The 1979 Iranian revolution – and revival of religion elsewhere in the world – provide examples of societies that modernize and move forward technologically but, at the same time, maintain strong religious tendencies.

In other words, it makes sense to consider class, wealth and technological progress as important, but not sole, factors in shaping the complicated social conditions that result in revival, or decline, of religious ideals.

In Jasmine & Stars, I do not provide any analysis of these issues. But the picture I present, my personal accounts of interaction with fellow Iranians, portrays religion as playing a role in the lives of a fairly wide range of people with varying class and social backgrounds.
I would also suggest that those who work and write in Iran to oppose oppressive political measures before and after the 1979 revolution come from diverse backgrounds as well. They are by no means limited to members of the upper classes or secular groups. A cursory look at those executed in the early 1980s, for example, would show that the middle – even the lower – classes with strong religious convictions are included among them.

FKh: Can you elaborate on what you termed “Islamization of wickedness” and “westernization of goodness” that you discuss in (JS 119)?

FK: I treat these two concepts as the two sides of the same coin. In a general sense, they describe the stark black and white nature of the portrayal of Iranian people either as religious (therefore wicked) or as pro-western (therefore good).

More philosophically speaking, the terms refer to a vision of the world which assumes an essential connection between each of these pairs. The assumed connection usually does not change even when the realities on the ground do.

For example, when in 1980s the Islamic Republic censors films heavily, RLT presents the act as an Islamic tendency. When in the 1990s, however, the government opens up and encourages cinema, the change is presented as an imitation of western habits.

In other words, an inherent “westernness” is assumed about the interest in making good films or improving Iranian cinema. This is what I describe as “westernization” of gentle, humane, and forward looking events/ideas and “Islamization” of bad, backwards, and undesirable actions and beliefs.

FKh: Couldn’t it be said that Nafisi’s negative portrayal is not so much of Iran and Iranians but more about their particular Islamic government? Where do you see linkages to the broader Iran?

FK: This is another important question concerning RLT. In fact, when the book came out, and still to this day, some enlightened liberals are cautious about criticizing the book for the fear that they might be undermining the author’s criticism of the post 1979 governments in Iran.

The problem with this approach is that it sanctions RLT’s despotic act of excluding a  vast portion of the Iranian population which does not necessarily embrace western secular values but, at the same time, is not in agreement with those actions of the Iranian government that have been wrong, undemocratic, or punitive.

This is a group of Iranians that has been working under harsh conditions to bring about reform and change from within. It has endured prison terms, closure of its publishing houses and other businesses. Its members, however, have many traditional ties to the culture – religious or otherwise – and still wish to maintain their social and political agency.  They certainly would not welcome outside “liberators.”

The presence and phenomenal diversity of this group of contemporary Iranians is usually totally ignored under the guise of exposing the regime. In fact, a rather chilling atmosphere of silence has developed here in the U.S. that forbids acknowledging the lively and vibrant participation of these Iranians in cultural and socio-political life.

We act as if these people, who are responsible for producing the bulk of the artistic, intellectual, and cultural treasures that form modern Persian literature, painting, music, calligraphy, and more, do not exist.

It is more convenient not to speak about them at all. When we do speak about them, which is in vague and general terms, they are either reduced to victims or tarred with the brush of fundamentalism because they do not necessarily embrace the secular western tradition that has come to represent our sole vision of progress. This exclusivist approach to Iran and Iranians needs to change.

RLT presents the Iranians – with the exception of the secular and the western liberated – as unaware of their rights or disinterested in freedom and agency. In the book, these form a mass of people – usually called “they” or “them” – as if possessing one mind totally closed to diversity or reform. In fact, “they” appear to be fit only for total obliteration.

The attitude is best exemplified in RLT’s disdain for large public gatherings. These gatherings – which include a wide range of activities – are ridiculed and presented in sinister terms.

The crowd participating in the funeral of a respected cleric is described as sharing a “desperate, orgiastic pleasure”(p. 90). Concerts and cultural affairs in Iran are described as “parodies of the real thing” and the audience referred to as “the mob” (p.299-301).
 
Similarly, a crowed of movie-goers are belittled for their interest in a Tarkovsky film because “most of whom would not have known how to spell his name.” (206) The individual villains are not limited to government agents either. They include practicing Muslim students, traditional fathers, even a young man who breaks his engagement with a woman. This latter – whom we never get to meet – is called a “bloody coward.”

FKh: Have Iranian women reconciled the concepts of “Islam” and “feminism” in post-revolutionary Iran? Is this dichotomy even appropriate?

FK: No, I don’t think this dichotomy is appropriate because it assumes that being a Muslim could be reduced to an essence which would then be in conflict (or peace) with the essence of being a feminist.

Furthermore, it assumes that a person’s identity is made of independent and mutually exclusive compartments such as the Muslim or the feminist compartment. In reality, each one of us is many different things to different people and under different circumstances. These shifting and complex roles are also defined and redefined in relation to the changes in our bigger environment.

Being a Muslim, therefore, could be ten different things to ten different Iranian women with varying education, economic, and political backgrounds – and would change for of them with age. Even in the space of one year, in the life of one individual, the meaning of wearing a scarf can transform dramatically if instead of a voluntary act it turns into a legal code that cannot be disobeyed. The same fluidity is true of the concept of feminism.

Any Muslim woman concerned with justice for women, and working to create equal opportunities with men for herself and others, is both a Muslim and a feminist. I can say with certainty that there are very many such women in Iran at this very moment. However, they are bound to have personal and varied understandings of what is to be a Muslim and a feminist.

Last but not least, in post-revolutionary Iran, Islamic (and particularly Shiite) legal matters – specifically those pertaining to gender – have been pushed to the center of public interest. For example, Qur’anic verses that could be interpreted for or against women’s autonomy and equal rights, which used to be considered the prerogative of male legal specialists, is now subjected to intense public debate. When matters open up to debate, they are bound to be evaluated and considered for reform.

FKh: Please elaborate on your own experience providing introductory remarks for an Azar Nafisi speaking event in 2004. Did you feel conflicted about that? Was there something you wish you had said?

FK: My task was to introduce her to speak in a major speaker series at my university, Washington University in St. Louis. I had five minutes which included introducing the author and commenting on RLT, which I had just read.

I had to negotiate a number of incongruous feelings. I was proud of introducing an Iranian woman author, but hurt by the way her book had represented Iranians. At the same time, I was a host. I could, of course, excuse myself and ask another faculty member to do the introduction. But that would take away my five minute opportunity to provide something of a context for an audience that had – most probably – read few books other than RLT about Iran.

I used my five minutes to emphasize the fact that the Iranian revolution did not come out of hatred for progress and desire for fundamentalism but the problems of the pre-revolutionary dictatorship. I also talked about the fact that as a memoir the book did not have the space to provide a lot of historical background which could lead to overlooking the complexity of the social events in Iran.

I spent most of my time listing prominent Iranian women writers and intellectuals such as Farrokhzad, Parsipour, Behbahani, Ravanipour and Danishvar who were not mentioned at all in RLT.
I praised RLT for its attention to the power of literature and for its good reading of Western works of fiction. In particular, I read a couple of short quotes that RLT had used from Invitation to a Beheading which is one of my favorite works by Nabokov.

FKh: What is the bottom-line “harm,” if you will, that New Orientalist narratives can cause?

FK: Interestingly, some of the greatest harms caused by books such as RLT are directed at its readers and not just the Iranians/Middle Easterners they misrepresent.

To begin with, their villains-vs.-victims scenario perpetuates a desire for simplistic portrayals and easy solutions. It suggests “we” are sophisticated and progressive while “they” are crude and fundamentalist. Under these circumstances, any sense of curiosity or desire for exploring the complexities of the lively and vibrant cultures in that part of the world would feel redundant.

One result of this is that our already limited ability to think and speak about these cultures diminishes by the day. Even our visual vocabulary has been severely depleted. Although Iran is a hot topic these days, try to think of a TV show on Iran, even a positive one, which does not begin with images of the blind folded hostages or angry revolutionaries.

More than anything else, the approach is disrespectful of the viewers. They are considered unable to take interest in other aspects of Iran and its culture. And yet, why should they? The language they hear has lost its ability to speak in fresh and meaningful ways which lead to healthy curiosity about a topic.

George Orwell has a fascinating essay called Politics and the English Language in which he talks about the way politics has impacted the language of his time draining the meaning out of the most fundamental concepts such as “democracy” and “freedom” and turning them into “prefabricated hen houses” that don’t say much anymore. The same is true today of concepts such as “the war on terror,” “fundamentalism,” and the like.

They barely say anything, yet it is impossible to speak about Iranians or Muslims without these ready-to-use phrases which block the flow of thought and speech. Perhaps the New Orientalist writing is not responsible for creating these prefabricated hen houses but it plays a significant part in pumping them into the popular discourse.

Young readers of Jasmine & Stars, often Iranian Americans, sense this instinctively. They write to me excited that their culture of heritage has products other than religious fanaticism to share with the world. Not only do they fall in love with contemporary figures such as Farrokhzad and Parsipour, they start looking at classic works such as Attar’s Conference of the Birds as relevant to modern life as well. Without exception, they want to read more Persian literature because they sense it will give them new vocabulary for thinking about Iran in fresh ways.

Finally, I must point to another, very real, possibility of harm coming from such New Orientalist writings as RLT this time not to the readers but to the cultures they speak about. Through their black and white lens of good and evil, they reduce entire countries and faith communities into easy and legitimate military targets.

Take Iran’s nuclear issue, for example. Right now a crisis has been fabricated around the country’s nuclear “non compliance” which presents it as a threat to the world. If the diversity and humanity of its people are masked from view, Iran may appear frightening enough for a military attack to appear justified.

FKh:  Who are some of these under-appreciated Persian-language literary figures that you contend were missing in RLT?

FK: As I mentioned earlier, I devote a whole chapter to one of the greatest Persian poets of all time who happens to be contemporary, Forough Farrokhzad. She died before the 1979 revolution but remains a best-seller.

Farrokhzad who describes herself in a poem as “naked” like “silences in between passionate words,” is one of the most candid and articulate voices of modern Iran. I also devote a chapter to Shahrnoush Parsipour in whose novella Women without Men a charming prostitute called Zarrinkolah is the spiritual heartbeat of the story. I won’t say more, you simply have to read her writing.

The truth is that all prominent writers and poets of contemporary Iran are almost entirely unknown in the U.S. – and they are all missing from RLT. One example is the poet I describe in Jasmine & Stars as the “Lady of contemporary Persian Ghazal'” one of the best poets of this century Simin Behbahani. Behbahani, whom the Iranians affectionately call Simin, is also known as the Lioness of Iran.

She has published numerous collections of poems including A Line of Speed and Fire, A Windowful of Freedom, and Paper Dress. Simin is more of a secular intellectual but her work is not antagonistic or insensitive to religion. She has been an ardent critique of war, violence, gender inequality, and oppression of any kind.

I list lots of other major writers and thinkers, who are missing in RLT, devoting only a brief introductory paragraph to each. But more importantly, in Jasmine & Stars I use every opportunity to bring in a voice other than my own be it from medieval or modern Iran.

When I talk about Islam and rationality, for example, I get us into the medieval theologian Ghazali’s Chamber of lights, and when I talk about my Uncle the Painter, I include his jokes, games with painting, and his retelling of some Sufi tales. The idea is to keep the tapestry enlivened with local colors. These voices speak for themselves.

Fatemeh Keshavarz is professor of Persian and Comparative literature and Chair, Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages & Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. Her latest book is Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran.

[1] Lolita and Beyond. Foaad Khosmood interviews Hamid Dabashi. ZNet, August 4, 2006. http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10707

[2] Tedd Koppal’s “Iran, The Most Dangerous Nation,” aired on Discovery Channel, November, 2006.http://youtube.com/watch?v=4RXL2HKEOGw (around 3:00)

 

Leave a comment