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Scholars Criticize “Literature of New Orientalism”

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Fatemeh Keshavarz, professor of Persian Language and comparative literature and chair of the department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University, wrote the following critique on what she describes as the “literature of New Orientalism.”

Alluding to Edward Said’s influential work, Orientalism, Keshavarz surveys contemporary literary perspectives examining the established discourse on Iranian history and culture as well as perceptions of Islam in general.

Whether it is [Azar] Nafisi’s women reading Western literature in postrevolutionary Iran, a brave bookseller smuggling works into Seierstad’s Taliban-run Kabul, or Amir’s guilt at tolerating the rape and repression of his kite-runner friend in Hosseini’s book, they all reduce the cavernous and complicated story of the region into “us” and “them” scenarios.

Keshavarz offers interesting commentary on a certain brand of Iranian diaspora literature, which has received wide public attention with books like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” banishes what it cannot deal with. For example, it celebrates the power of literature for the women who gather to read the forbidden texts (although it would not have to have been as secretly as the book suggests) as evidence of women’s resilience in the face of a revived patriarchy in post-1979 Iran. The least the book could do would be to mention a few contemporary Iranian women writers. It makes no such reference. The reader will not know that at the time this memoir was written, such prominent Iranian women writers as Shahrnush Parsipur, Simin Danishvar, Moniru Ravanipur, and Simin Behbahani, to mention only a few, captured the imagination of readers and made it to the best-seller list in Iran. In “Reading Lolita in Tehran’s” narration of postrevolutionary Iran, such complex and towering Iranian women do not exist.

Keshavarz questions important historical omissions in Naficy’s novel:

Further, despite favoring democratization of the Middle East, ghost stories refrain from addressing repression when conducted by the United States (for example, the toppling of Mohammad Mosaddeq, the democratically elected Iranian premier, with the help of the CIA in the early 1950s, or the behavior of governments deemed allies of the United States toward their own citizens). Indeed, the way this literature navigates its way through the Middle Eastern mess without running into the U. S. presence there is astounding. “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, for example, makes no reference to the coup ousting Mosaddeq, despite highlighting the anti-American orientation of the 1979 revolution that was widely understood to be fostered by the CIA’s role in the coup. Neither is there any mention of chemical and other weapons used on Iranians and Kurds, with no objections at the time from Western democracies, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Keshavarz is not alone in her view. The recent attention received by memoirs like Reading Lolita in Tehran has sparked wide criticism and debate between Iranian-American scholars. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, published an essay in Al-Ahram harshly criticizing Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and highlighting Nafisi’s associations with neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Bernard Lewis.

The publication of Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro-American global domination. The factual evidence of the connection of Azar Nafisi to the US leaders of the neoconservative movement and her systematic deprecation of Iranian culture, and by extension local and regional cultures of actual or potential resistance to the US empire, glorifying instead a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of “Western literature,” are additional factors in placing her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire–the service delivered via the most cliché-ridden invocation of the most retrograde Oriental fantasies of her readers in the United States and Europe.

Dabashi brings attention to expatriots serving as “comprador intellectuals” recruited to legitimize a certain ideology:

GIVEN THE TRANSNATIONAL disposition of the globalised empire, a crucial function of its ideological foregrounding is predicated on the role that expatriate intellectuals can play. The transmutation of Azar Nafisi from a legitimate critic of the atrocities of the Islamic Republic of Iran (against women in particular) into a necessary ideologue in George W Bush’s empire-building project is a crucial lesson in how the new breed of comprador intellectuals is being recruited and put to immediate use for the ideological build-up (and the cultural foregrounding) of an otherwise precarious claim to an imperial hegemony.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, comprador native intellectuals were actively recruited to perform a critical function for the militant ideologues of the US Empire. Their task is to feign authority, authenticity, and native knowledge and thus to inform the US public of the atrocities that are taking place throughout the world, in the region of their native birth in particular, by way of justifying the imperial designs of the US as liberating these nations from the evil of their own designs.

Dabashi’s interesting analysis of the cover photo of Reading Lolita in Tehran is worth noting:

By far the most immediate and intriguing aspect of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is its cover, which shows two female teenagers bending their heads forward in an obvious gesture of reading something. What exactly is it they are reading, we do not see or know. Over their heads we read “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” The immediate suggestion is very simple. The subject of the book purports to be reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in Tehran, and here are two Iranian-looking teenagers in their headscarves reading (one thing or another). The two young women appear happily engaged with what they are reading, and they do so in such an endearing way that solicits sympathy, and even evokes complicity. What better picture to represent the idea–leaving it to the imagination of the observer that they are indeed reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita ? Right? Wrong.

[…] The twist rests on the fact that the picture of these two teenagers on the cover of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is in fact lifted from an entirely different context. The original picture from which this cover is excised is lifted off a news report during the parliamentary election of February 2000 in Iran. In the original picture, the two young women are in fact reading the leading reformist newspaper Mosharekat. Azar Nafisi and her publisher may have thought that the world is not looking, and that they can distort the history of a people any way they wish. But the original picture from which this cover steals its idea speaks to the fact of this falsehood.

The cover of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is an iconic burglary from the press, distorted and staged in a frame for an entirely different purpose than when it was taken. In its distorted form and framing, the picture is cropped so we no longer see the newspaper that the two young female students are holding in their hands, thus creating the illusion that they are “Reading Lolita”–with the scarves of the two teenagers doing the task of “in Tehran.” In the original picture the two young students are obviously on a college campus, reading a newspaper that is reporting the latest results of a major parliamentary election in their country. Cropping the newspaper, their classmates behind them, and a perfectly visible photograph of President Khatami–the iconic representation of the reformist movement–out of the picture and suggesting that the two young women are reading “Lolita” strips them of their moral intelligence and their participation in the democratic aspirations of their homeland, ushering them into a colonial harem.

Lolita Cover

Negar Mottahedeh’s column, Off the Grid: Reading Iranian Memoirs in Our Time of Total War, also gives an historical perspective on the role of women in Iran’s transition to modernity. Mottahedeh is Assistant Professor of Literature at Duke University.

In the chronicles, memoirs, modernist tracts and Iranian travel narratives of the nineteenth century onward, the female body as mother and as beloved became principally the metaphorical and ultimately the material battleground for the inscription of the nation. The female body was, in other words, a pivot in Iran’s historical transition to modernity.

Irancove @ July 12, 2007

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