Tuesday, April 10, 2007

O Camelia, Camelia, Camelia

O, churl, drunk all, and left me no friendly drop to help me after?

Camelia is part of the next wave of disillusioned Iranian men and women who are coming here for their “fifteen minutes of fame.” Yes, I’m warning you all, that’s all you get! Just “fifteen minutes” of fame. (Ah, Azar Nafisi, where are you now?) And when they arrive they will find that she has drunk it all. She has used all the “selling” commodities and nothing is left for them to sell for a green card, university scholarship, book contract etc.

I read Camelia, by the journalist Camelia Entekhabifard. It was my fastest read, less than twenty hours. I’m a very slow reader, but there were two reasons for such a record-breaking achievement. The first one was my unwillingness to pay $23.95 for 225 pages of delusional stories called a memoir, so I borrowed it and I had to return it before leaving for Iran. The other is, of course, its lack of content—there is nothing to read. A self absorbed, yet ambitious young woman who thinks she can make a fool of everyone all the time is writing a self-congratulating memoir. What else is new? Every couple of years we have one of them. I hope hers is the last.

I should admit that she is very a smart, spirited young lady. I met her in her first book reading in Labyrinth in New York on Friday night. The most attractive part of her was not her hands (as she repeatedly claims in every chapter) but her shoes, a very high heeled, bight red velvet with embroidery, completely out of place with her very conservative two pieces suits and old fashioned neck scarf. It reminded me more of Shahrezad, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out she meant it that way. The contradiction did not end there, it only just started.

She started her talk by apologizing for her English. She explained it was her first public reading and she was very nervous. To tell the truth, it has nothing to do with her nerves; it was her grammar. I was quite disappointed at both NYU and Columbia whose graduates with a Masters Degree in any field spoke the language so poorly. She did not utter even one single correct sentence. I was wondering what her rush was to write a memoir and not waiting for her language facility to improve so that she could enjoy writing it. However, she managed to talk straight for one hour and twenty minutes and to relay her ideas and thoughts to her audience very well. No, she did not use her hands.

Going back to her book, well, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the book will probably sell very well in the United States. It contains everything that the American public loves. There is a Lil Orphan Annie-Camelia who is innocently trapped in the hands of an abusive Islamic Republic and an interrogator. Even worse, she is in prison for a period of three months. Wow! Then she frees herself simply by using her hands and her voice. Wow again! There is no defense lawyer, no Shirin Ebadi, no Mousavi Kho’eini, no Fa’eze Hashemi to help; nobody from the Bar Association either, and no other journalist. She is there by herself, alone.

She is the victim. Another box office point! Americans love victims. I recall when Jewish Iranian memoirist Roya Hakakian wrote her memoir, the Jewish magazines pushed hard to portray her as victim and Roya, to her credit, shunned the offer. As we noticed, the book did not make it in the market so well, but Camelia’s will, you bet! She has not done anything and is charged for everything, poor girl!

Cleverness? Yes she is clever and Americans love clever people. On her first day in jail she decided that she had to do it herself, and by the second day she went into action. She is smart, she is pretty, but no one can see her, she is a good actress, she must perform the best performance of her life, and she has pretty hands and she is determined to use them. And her voice? Of course! Oh, the power of love! She gathered all the energy she had and channeled it in her hands, the only visible part of her body. She frees herself from the Islamic Republic’s prison in three months just by using her hands and her voice! Wow! And bravo! And one big bravo on behalf of her first boyfriend, the soccer player Ali Da’i, too. I think he is sorry that he did not marry her and exploit all her cunning in some of his crucial games.

The bad news is for the next wave of fame and freedom seekers. They will find nothing to impress these Americans with, Camelia did it all. (My advice to the future wave of parents is to think about it in advance, read the memoirs of survivors of Nazi Germany; you may find some secret Auschwitz somewhere in Iran which could become handy! No, Camelia did not use that.)

To be honest, two chapters of the book are worth reading, i.e., “Daisies in Autumn,” and “Zan.” The rest of the book is devoid of any sort of information or a worthwhile narrative. The author is very observant. Her poetic style coupled with her detail-oriented mind have helped her to depict the situation and scene vividly. However, she is not writing a fiction, but a memoir. As a distinct genre, memoir literature either requires a distinguished personality or someone with a bundle of wisdom and experience. Camelia lacks both. The book is just the recounting of the life of some self-absorbed young women who happens to have been in the public arena. She had a job which was both glamorous and culturally esteemed. She happened to have been in a unique part of the world where a peddler who sells newspapers is a head and shoulders above a peddler who sells tee-shirts, just by the virtue of his commodities. Nowhere in the book, is the reader presented with this distinguished aspect of Iranian life. In fact, nowhere in the book does she emerge out of her cocoon to lead her reader to some facts or truth about the country, culture, or Iranian politics. It is only in “Zan,” where she comes close to depicting some slim portion of what a memoir should do; and in “Daisies in Autumn,” where she talks about the high school girls and their relationships. (I wished she had not written four pages about her name.)

Even as a personal, and in fact a very personal, narrative, one never gets to the truth or matters of fact, let alone motivations or causes. I came across so many instances in which the author used the word “confusion” as verb or as a adjective or noun to describe her state of mind when she lies, cheats, or otherwise does wrong or makes a bad decision. I do not imagine what Persian word she used in her original text to be translated as such, but I can assure the reader with certainty that we do not have any word in our language which means “confusion” in the sense it is used in the English language. The widespread use of this world to justify some good amount of her misdeeds and bad judgment seems to be translated from a different language and culture. Iranian do not lie, cheat, and do wrong out of confusion, they do so for various other practical and pragmatic reasons. Camelia, almost in every few pages, does wrong because she is confused. She even mislead me to think that there might be a new phenomena of post-revolutionary Iran, and with much relief I found out it was just the terminology she adopted to justify what she was doing, probably coached by her editor.

Blaming others, an old device, is used frequently, and so is the manipulation of events by moving back and forth to confuse the reader. After finishing the book, one does not even know on what charges she is arrested. She gives a fuzzy narrative of an incident with quite an bit of manipulation. On one page, she writes all of them including some seventy men whom she had to admit she slept with. However there are no charges against her for being in Prague working with Radio Azadi. (This particular station is very different than all Iranian stations in Europe, and is different from Voice of America.) There, she broadcasted a program under the pseudonym Camelia Nakha’i. How strange that the interrogator, who knew everything about her, ignored this part of her life. The same with her relationship with FBI. However, she makes her short visit with Farah Pahlavi or even Reza Pahlavi (who are now private citizens and many Iranian abroad come to meet them on various occasions which never cause them any sort of problem) so important for no apparent reason.

It requires some mastery to portray oneself as both a dangerous subversive and an innocent at the same time. And she thinks she’s pulled it off. Well, not so well. No matter how unaccountable the Iranian judiciary is, if they feel someone is truly a danger, they will not let her go after three months, even if she had one hundred pairs of pretty hands. We are all too familiar with Iran judiciary system to know that three months in jail could not be enough for a serious charge. For a simple demonstration one can stay in jail for a much longer period. (Mohammadi is dead now and Batebi is still in jail just for showing his bloody shirt.) And believe me, if a prison in the Islamic Republic brings in an special interrogator for one prisoner (as she claimed regarding her interrogator) she would have been hanged by now. Camelia can delude herself as much as she wants, but I am worried about the young innocents who, God forbid, might believe her nonsense and put their life in danger.

It is interesting that with all her self absorbedness, she is not even concerns about the way she portrays herself. Indecisive, confused, irresponsible, delusional, being flirtatious to obtain what she needs, provocative, boasting, extremely manipulative, and empty of compassion. (She is the only woman prisoner whose memoirs I read who not only has no compassion and regard for any of the women working in the prison, but she does not hesitate to arouse their jealousy.) I’m sure Camelia does not like to be describes in these terms, but after reading this book, I do not feel I have any other choice. I think she has relied too much on her cleverness or our shallowness. But she is not as clever as she thinks, nor are we so shallow.

Indeed, Miss Camelia, with your pretty face and hands and name, after reading your book, I did not find anything else pretty in you. Your story is wrapped in fictions and the truths, if there are any, are so distorted that one wonders what you gained by writing them. Please do not get me wrong. I wished you would have written only the truth. Or better, I wish you would have written the book as fiction, it would make a very nice story. I am a big believer in writing, of all kinds. I think we Iranians have been quiet enough and that we have to write, to give information about ourselves, to introduce our culture, to bring our imagination and our inspiration to the world and become part of it, but we have to make sure that whatever we are doing is done responsibly. Then it makes no difference if it is fact or fiction.

With your book not only do you betray yourself, but you betray those you claim you love. You betray Fa’eze, who is not a woman to sit idle when one of her staff is in prison innocently; on the contrary, she would have raised hell. Woman activists would make some noise. They do this quite regularly. Shirin Ebadi would not have missed the occasion to help. Other journalist would have written something about it. Abtahi is a very brave man, and Khatami, had enough power to take an innocent one out of prison, and it has been done so. I’m sorry to tell you that the lonely women in prison who channels her energy into her hands to seduce her interrogator, if she grows her hand, it won’t (in the words of the poet) grow green. They might grow, but not green. No leaves would sprout, not even a bud. It would get yellow and it would dry out and fall off. Do not count on your hands and your looks and your charm; they all fade away, and you will remain lonely again, and when those days come, even the Pulitzer prize you dream about won’t help. If you get a chance read the book Everyman by Philip Roth. It will help.


Camelia, why did you pray five times a day? Iranian Shiites go to prayers only three times a day; they recite the noon and afternoon together, and evening and night together. You mean no one corrected you on that issue? I’m just curious.

1 comment:

sanaz said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Actually i am a PhD candidate working on Post-revolutionary anglophone Iranian writing in Australia. The chapter that i am working on now deals with memoirs (and i am trying to avoid using Nafisi at all costs) I am looking particularly at the recent prison memoirs. I think its great that there is some intellectual debate going on about these books...and i think that we should all speak out against what these people are doing to our image as Iranians!!!