Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's Martyrdom

Yesterday morning when I heard Amy Goodman’s voice saying, “We just received a news from Pakistan that Benazir Bhutto …” I stopped breathing for a second. I did not want her to finish her sentence, which she did after an eternity: “was murdered.”

Benazir, was one of my heroines, not for her being perfect, which she was not, but for her existence and for her dynamism. She was especially appealing to me for being from that part of the world, being half Iranian, being the daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, being so shrewd, being so courageous that in such a male-dominated society even daring to dream of becoming what she became, her amazing strength, her exotic beauty, her conflicted personality, her passion for politics and, finally, her willingness to fight, her amazing drive for life, her freshness and ever-lasing youth, her originality and, finally, being the daughter of an Ali Bhutto, being proud of him and still refusing to be his relic. She was an engaging novel which I could not stop reading.

Of course, we all came to know her from her father, one of two democratically-elected premier in this turbulent part of the world. He did not finish his term. A military coup lead by Muhammad Zia ul-Haque ended him in an execution, and that was when Benazir made her debut in politics as the head of the Pakistan People’s Party.

I became interested in Pakistani politics since Ali Bhutto’s time. He was the "event" of our time in that part of the world, where everything was meant to stay in the status quo and where a heavy curtain had shielded it from the world’s events. Ali Bhutto came as a hope, a new voice, democracy vs. coup, campaign, election, people, votes, everything which was supposed to belong only to the West was now in our neighborhood. He made such a contrast with General Yahya Khan, who looked like a giant lobster. (He was always drunk, and the only person in the world who found him charming was Empress Farah!) In addition to all that, I also had a personal reason to think about Pakistan. My sister was a student in the University of Karachi, and so Pakistan was part of our daily conversation.

When Benazir was campaigning, I was in the United States, and my good friend Nafisa Hoodbhoy, a journalist in the Pakistani daily English language newspaper Dawn, with her annual trips to the New York, brought to us Pakistan’s news, front and center. I still possess a taped interview of Benazir right before her election. She was talking about democracy, about the people, about the judiciary, although not about the military. (I also recall how disappointed I was in her hasty marriage to a man who caused her downfall.)

Having a political father, Benazir was considered a Pakistani Indira Gandhi, though it was not to be so. While Indira Gandhi always remained the daughter of Nehru, and remained a conventional symbolic women politician who continues an existing tradition, Benazir’s inner zeal made her anything but another Ghandi. She was born as a genuine politician who incidentally had a politician as a father. She rightly admired her own father and wanted to follow his legacy. (Was there any other worthwhile legacy in Pakistan?)

Her passion for politics and public life was an avalanche, nothing could stop it, just as nothing could stop her from being a women. I recall that it was in the middle of the bloody protests between her two terms that it was discovered that she was five months into her second pregnancy. (She went through three pregnancies during her premiership or campaigning.)

Her voice became the voice of people, the voice of those of whose very existence we did not know. When she won the election, after Zia’s aircraft accident, when there was no time for the military to substitute another dictator in his place and when there was no time to intimidate the people, we noticed the masses participated and elected a young woman of only thirty-six years without any reluctance, as if it is the most natural thing. That was when we saw another face of Pakistan in the form of the premier they elected, modern, educated, active, and progressive, with an ideal which was the people’s ideal, democracy.

Politically, she was shrewd and sharp, though she made many mistakes. During her premiership she was not able to fulfill her promises; she was not able to bring about that much of the social justice and the rule of law to the country. During her trip to the United States, in one of her interviews, with Charlie Rose, she explained the kind of society she has to deal with. It was a society in which Islamic law permits an eighty years old man to marry a nine years old girl in return for unpaid debts her parents owe him; in which women have been pushed into the cruel laws of “marriage to the Koran” just to keep them out of actual marriage to prevent the ownership of land transfer to another family; in which you cannot even report rape in a newspaper, for it is considered obscene; in which rape victims are indeed punished as fornicators; in which she was not permitted to talk in public with her own people about these problems. And it was in this vicious circle that she was supposed to live, to govern, and to find a way out.

There is a song I like very much by my favorite singer, Rod Stewart, Forever Young. Whenever I hear it, only a few people come to my mind and Benazir is one of them. For over quarter of century in politics, dealing with sharks every day, she lived relentlessly, in the male-dominated politics of Pakistan and its military, which is indeed the country’s most corrupt institution; the country in which almost every premier is toppled or assassinated or hung; the country in which some part of it is not under any rule or law, and the other part is under harsh sharia law; the country which is surrounded by hostile forces; and the country which, in its short life, has been more involved in war than in peace. I heard part of her speech right before her assassination; the voice was as energetic and as fresh of the same young women who, with her stunning beauty, addressed a joint session of the American legislature. I do recall her speech very well “We are here to tell to the democratic nations of the world that yes we can be a democratic state, to the Islamic world, yes we can be a democratic Muslim nation, and to the women, yes, yes, we can be there too.” I will never forget her proud poise. Although speeches of this kind are written and are well-crafted by teams of speech writers, I think this particular statement was from the depth of Benazir’s personality, a striking personality, which struck us all with all her genius as well as all her mishaps and faults. She was the most unconventional, as a Muslim woman,  or as a Pakistani of her age. Her passion for politics transfixed  those of us interested in her as if we were watching a tight-rope walker. We followed her, holding our breath lest she fall. Ah, alas she fell!

While speculation on the identity of her murderers continues, while the parties who seemed to be interested in her elimination each try to divert attention to someone else, we feel acutely that a creature of legendary proportion has ceased to live with us and, like all her kind, she is more dangerous to her enemies as a martyr than when she lived amongst us. While my heart is with her family, particularly her children, still I have a hard time thinking of people like Benazir as dead. Such heroes are forever alive.

P.S. On a personal note, my deep condolences to my friends Nafisa and Javid and Nadia. I hope Benazir’s martyrdom represents is a new page on your country’s history, not as and bleak as Tariq Ali predicted this morning in his interview with Amy Goodman.

To read the rest, click here.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Unconditional Right to Waterpipes?

This was the second article about water pipes in Mohammad ‘Ali Abtahi’s blog. Roughly, he argues that life in Iran is no fun for the young people. There is no other entertainment, entrance exams for the universities are hard, there are not so many jobs, housing is almost unobtainable, marriages are unaffordable, depression is epidemic. To make a long story short, if in other countries they try to discourage the use of tobacco, in Iran this policy is unrealistic due to the existing problems.

I think Iran is quite ready for all the progressive movements. Our record on birth control, our higher education, and the participation of women into the work force all indicate that we Iranians are ready and willing to make progress as quickly as anyone else. I hope we will be the first country in the Middle East to reduce the use of tobacco to a bare minimum.

However, a survey of the recent writings of Abtahi and other reformists indicates that such objections are targeted at different objectives than what they appear to be shooting for at first glance. Abtahi’s article on water pipes followed his sweet article on Sayyed Mohammad Khatami's trip to Tabriz. At end of this article, he said, “I wish the government would not hinder to the use of Turkish.” Having these two articles, one after the other, appealing to ethnics and younger people, made me doubt his sincerity. There were several comments on these two issues, particularly the one on water pipes, which I agree with on his timing in expressing his sympathy with the youth and with Azeris.

Since Mehdi Bazargan’s provisional government, some ambiguous, spectral entities named “they,” “them,” “others,” and “those” and which are held responsible for whatever goes wrong have become a fixture of the Islamic Republic. Those nameless individuals, who were in the possession of the “blade” of the knife in the Bazargan’s hand (Bazargan famously complained that he had a knife with no blade, i.e., had only the trappings of power but was unable to wield it) now have released a few fake blades here and there but are still in possession of the “sharper and the sharpest,” are still around and we hear from them. Every President in power complains about them, and even Ahmadinejad who himself, along with his cronies, could scare the devil himself, talks about the hoodlums who are preventing him from doing his duty. It seems that no matter who is in charge in Iran, these nameless figures who posses the real sharp blade are the main operators.

Though Abtahi is a little more courageous and addresses “those” as a collective “government” which is doing this and that, still it is interesting to find him manipulating what he objects to and how he objects to it. Abtahi’s two articles are not an invitation to the people to simple participation; rather, he is trying to manipulate people to vote. He cleverly sweeps under the rug that fact that there is a big difference between voting and participation.

His two recent articles very clearly were aimed at this. “Come and vote for us, you Azeris and you young people, we like you and we are concern about you. You have the right to speak your mother tongue and we won’t stop you, and we care about your entertainment and we will give you the water pipe. We are not like ‘them,’ the bad ones, ‘those’ who are not giving you water pipes.”

No, Mr. Abtahi, do not delude yourself and do not mislead the youth and do not lie to the Azeries, or other ethnics for that matter. The above problems (which are the least of our existing problems) are not limited to this or that government. They are the direct result of the whole system which has no regard for something called the Constitution; indeed, after three decades, those who are supposed to be its guardians are denying it shamelessly.

I’m afraid you cannot for ever hide behind the veil of being reformist versus conservatives or reactionary. Not that there is no difference, there is a big difference. However, you all are under the same umbrella, despite your differences because you are not doing your jobs, the job which has been invested and entrusted in you by the people, i.e., to be the guardian of law.

Reformists cannot hide behind the popularity of Khatami either. Surely students love Khatami. He is such a loveable person; he looks good, he talks well, he thinks well, and he wishes well. He is knowledgeable and very compassionate indeed. He could become an Islamic Dalai Lama. But it all means he is a very good person and is very popular, nothing more could be concluded from his popularity. There is a lot said about Khatami’s two terms presidency; there is no comparison with what we have now or at any other time, but did he help advance the reform he was talking about? Did we get closer to a lawful society? Did we get closer to democracy? Did we mange to have a healthy election? We should remember that the last presidential election took place during the Khatami administration. He could not maintain the basics of the democracy and a lawful society, a fair election process.

It is interesting that in his recent meeting in Tabriz, the banner over the stage read, “The government which is not based on people’s vote does not have legitimacy. –Imam Khomeini.” Such a superfluous statement! What if the Imam had not said such thing? It is well known that he did not believe it. He was opposed to parliamentary government and called it a violation of the shariat. Until statements of this importance receive their validity from some higher authority, i.e., the Iranian constitution, we do not have any meaningful reform, but business as usual. Our problem is simply that the constitution has been replaced by statements from “those” and “they,” who are sometimes good and sometimes not so good, as much as ever.
It was so sad to read these articles, it was so sad to witness people whom I like and respect are so simpleminded or consider us as to be simpleminded, it was so sad to see that those in whom we have great hope do not have the courage to wake up and indeed want us to take a nap with them as well. Please, Mr. Abtahi, please, President Khatami, wake up. The monumental document written by the people should be respected by all of us, and you and “them” as well. That is the only authority which gives any rights to the people, and no one is above it. Unless the constitution is place above any and every individual, talk about freedom, democracy, lawfulness, civil society, etc., is meaningless. Please, Mr. Abtahi, do not talk about our rights to water pipes or our rights to speak our mother tongue. People can even write poetry in Chinese if they want to, They don’t need the government’s assistance for that. Please stop this juggling act!

The other interesting act performed by the reformists is addressing the people when they should address the authorities. They tell people about the existing problem which “others” have created. What is the use of telling people that they have this and that right? Believe me, the people are well aware of this. The one who needs to know is 'Ali Khamene’i, it is Guardian Council, it is the Assembly of Experts, etc. Tell them! Wrap your cloak around yourself and straighten your turban and go to those ayatollahs at the top and tell them what you are preaching to the people. Go to Ayatollah Khamene’i and give him the news of what is going on, see if he is aware of it all, and remind him regarding the Imam’s intentions, as you keep telling us every other night, and see if he has heard about them, and ask him why on earth he is not implementing the Imam’s alleged intentions. While you are at it, tell him that the people are unhappy at how his clique is governing the country. Also ask President Khatami to remind him about Her Holiness Fatima, whose happiness is God’s happiness. Ask president Khatami to tell him about the speech he delivered a few months ago (I think it was in Kashan), that in the present circumstances Fatemeh is not happy and therefore God is not happy; see if he knows any of this. And tell him all about the unjust brutal basijis and the lack of wisdom and justice of Judge Mortazavi. And please tell him about the recent murder of Dr. Zahra Bani-Yaghoub in prison, and all the other illegal arrests, and see if he knows about these, too!

And as for having these arguments as a campaign strategy, I do not even for the sake of getting rid of Mahmud Ahmadinejad wish to have our campaign follows the American fashion. What was wrong with the first, or even second, election of Khatami? What was wrong with that low-cost, spontaneous, publicly-generated form of campaign? Thank you Mr. Abtahi, please leave that style of empty promises, appealing to class, race, and gender and age kind of campaign to the professional politician like Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Reformists do not need to flatter to win, they will win if their candidacy is not tossed out by the Guardian Council. Our problem is not attracting votes. Our problem is that the system has been rotten from its inception and needs a genuine reform, not just a magical quick fix. Our problem is that those who are on top think because of their robe and turban that they have inherited the government. Reform should start there. No one can inherit governing power. We all know how difficult this can be. Those in power do not want to let go of what has fallen into their laps, and I do not blame them. Even if they do let go, they will never ever be able to take it back.

Yes, there is a lot which could be done for the people, old and young. Reformists can return to power and stay for another few terms. If they leave something behind, something substantial, then they would leave a legacy and make history. But if it is just a matter of getting elected, then let’s get ready for another Tir 18, another police riot against the dormitories, another round of arm-twisting and threatening. It would give the people a chance to breath a little, but nothing more. As I see the front runners on the tour of the cities, not much should be expected. At this point, the reformists’ message is, “We are good, elect us,” as opposed to “trust us.” But still, why not be hopeful?

To read the rest, click here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The September of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

This is one of the several books I have read by young Iranians under thirty years old, i.e., who were either born after or shortly before Iranian Revolution, the generation whose memory of Iran is formed mostly from what they must have heard form their parents and very little from their early childhood recollections.

The most impressive thing about these young writers is their urge to write about Iran. The fact that they were not raised in Iran and their mind set is supposed to be in accordance with the culture they grew up in makes it even more incredible how motivated they are in preserving their Iranian identity.

While the members of the previous generation who came here in their teens were inclined to write their stories as memoirs, the younger ones, like Sofer, write theirs as fiction. I welcome their choice of genre, even if it is autobiographical or biographical in nature. It must be frustrating to write a memoir as historical evidence and a witness to history, just relying on one’s recollections of one’s childhood or even teen years. It is indeed admirable that these young writers have the wisdom to avoid this problem, which brought so much of the preceding “memoir”-writers to grief.

Isaac Amin, a gem dealer in Tehran, who has pulled himself up from a very modest slums of Khoramshahr, a southern oil district of Iran, to the wealthy upper class Tehran’s society, is arrested shortly after the Revolution. His son, who is studying in New York, his wife, a vocalist, and his young daughter, are devastated and overwhelmed by the sudden changes for which they were unprepared.

Even though the story is related in the third person, I still have the impression that Shirin, then nine years old, is telling us a true story long after she and her family landed safely in the United States. I think the author in her interviews reinforced this impression, though I’m not sure that she intended to.

There are three distinct settings in the novel: jail, where Amin is, the family home in Tehran, where Farnaz and Shirin (Amin’s wife and daughter) are living, and New York City, where Parviz (Amin and Farnaz’s older son) studies. The most vivid description of these lives is the Amin’s jail experience, which stands out among them. Next to his life in jail comes Parviz’s life in New York, which we learn more about. Farnaz and her daughter are notably ignored until the last chapter of the book, in which we feel their presence when they are given the best seats in the front of the truck over the boarder to Turkey. Amin had made sure to pay extra for their safety and comfort.

The book’s blurb says, “The September of Shiraz simmers with questions of identity, alienation, and love, not just for a spouse or a child (the father is the protagonist of the story) but for the unnamable, uncountable sights and sounds of the places we call home.” How true this is for all of those who live in the Diaspora. But how true is it about the book? If this novel is about love and identity, it was totally lost to me. While it has just a casual acquaintance with love, it has much more to say about the pain, though an exclusive kind of it. It is about the abuse of human rights, arrest, confiscation, torture, bribing, smuggling, corruption, and lawlessness. It is the recording of pain in the solitude of jail, where colorlessness and hopelessness cast a deeper shadow on pain and turn it into a horror. Those of us who have had dear ones in and out of Evin prison know very well how daring it is to learn about the pain and suffering there. As far as I know, those who have experience it don’t voluntarily sharing it either. Dalia Sofer, with amazing courage, dares to look into this abyss and freezes everything into words; delightfully, she does it without rage or anger.

The book was a tribute to the pain and suffering of those whose suffering was not in retribution for their wrongdoings, but merely to their slipping into the wrong side of life by sheer chance. It is a heartbreaking tale of a man who happens to fall out of favor when society goes through changes. Amin’s suffering in jail is the most elaborate and the most vivid part of the book. It is the life in those smelly, blood-smeared, insect-infested, moldy cells, smeared with blood cells which works on our heart, rather than those outside of the cell, except for those breath-taking pages when Shirin is steals some files and again when she buries them in the garden.

In contrasted to Amin’s experiences in his forced solitude, which comes to us so sharply and vividly, Farnaz’s experience remains is passed over. Even her identity remains obscure to the reader. We only have a glimpse of her as reflected in her material possessions, the things she collects, the gifts she receives, and the souvenirs she buys from all over the world. She declares early in the novel that who they would all leave the country without their belonging. Were it not for her name, she could be Spanish, Italian, Czech, Lithuanian, or British—she was too lonely to be Iranian, Jewish or otherwise. There is not even one incident in the book in which a friend visits her or any occasion for her to visit anyone. No one comes to comfort her, neither friend nor family. It seems the only time she had a visitor was when the Revolutionary Guards raided their home. There are no Sabbath dinners with friends or relatives, no friends calling, no one dropping by; she is all alone while Amin is in jail. Not only does the loneliness remains a mystery to me, but her aloofness and coldness do not fit my image of Iranian mothers either. We do not see her to put her hands around her daughter to ease her grief or vice versa.

Though the book is about suffering, there is none of the Farnaz’s pain depicted in it. Given the impression I have regarding the story’s point of view, I’m puzzled by the absence of Farnaz and the indifferences of the author to her. Is the author’s total preoccupation with Isaac, the father? Is it simply relative? Or did the author’s personal experiences of the time of her father’s imprisonment exclude everyone and everything else beyond the jail’s wall?

I met the author in one of the book reading in Manhattan and raised these questions. I asked about Farnaz’s absence and asked about its significance. Was it intentional or instrumental or what? Before the author found a chance to answer, another friend suggested that it was a lonely time, indeed, in Iran in those early years of revolution; it was not hard for people to experience that kind of loneliness and alienation. Sofer simply confirmed this. Although I can see a grain of truth in that, I’m still not convinced that anybody in Iran, even if we had been occupied by Martians, could be that lonely, and indeed, that ignored.

New York City gives life a better chance to display itself. We know more about Parviz than Farnaz and Shirin. Since the book was published in the United States, we need something for the local reader to connect to. But that aside, a parallel runs through the story, if not a connection.

Parviz lives in Borough Park with a Hasidic family and works part time for them in Mr. Zaman’s hat shop to work off the rent which he can no longer afford. He has an interest in their young daughter, Rachel. Once he takes the opportunity to return the coat, which she had left the day before in the shop, to her home.

“How your dinner party is going on?” Parviz asks.

“It is not a party. It is a dinner for a young couple going to England as emissaries tomorrow.”


“Yes … we have thousand of them going … to help the new Jewish community…”

“Sounds like quite an operation. Exporting Judaism.”

“No it is not like that.” The smile disappears from her face just as easily as it had appeared. “Well, goodnight and thank again for the coat,” she says as she shuts the door.

Standing on the stoop, he tucks his gloveless hands in his pockets and looks out onto the dark street. How unyielding is the space between connection and interruption. One false move, one misspoken word, and you find yourself on the wrong side of things.

It is this thin wall which is the most frightening aspect of our modern life, this unreliability and unpredictability, this living by chance, by a flip of the coin, this unexpected “all of a sudden” which turns Isaac Amin’s life upside down and sends Parviz to the wrong side the wall. The only difference is that by pure luck, Parviz is better suited on the wrong side, but Isaac is not.

Clair Messud, in her very favorable review, writes,

A memorable title surely attracts reader, but when a book become a classic, it is hard to say whether the title has been part of its canonization or merely become retroactively canonical! … Whether Trimalchio in West Egg, one of Fitzgerald initial choices, would in time have accrued the same force as The Great Gatsby? ... In this fickle literary world, it is impossible to predict whether Sofer’s novel will become a classic, but it certainly stands a chance.

No! It is not too exotic or overly attractive. It is just trendy. And there is nothing wrong with being attractive and establishing oneself in some niche of market if that is all it takes. But, no, Sofer is not Fitzgerald, even if their names appear in one sentence. And the September of Shiraz won’t be canonized as The Great Gatsby, even with a change of title.

I’m well aware of the significance of a review in well-established publications, particularly when it comes from a well-known writer. However, reviews come and go and are soon forgotten. What remains is the book, which should survive long after the author is gone along with the reviewer. There is a long way to go for the September of Shiraz to become a classic, for a novel in which two of its four characters do not find a chance to appear fully or even to develop at all and whose subplots have no connection to the main plot except through the blood relation. Why are we are in such a rush? The author is too young and has just started, it is her first novel. Let’s do not go that far. It takes a bit more than one review in The New York Times to make any book a classic.

Yes, Sofir’s story is very good for a novice writer. A work in the progress, I would call it. Let the story to be read and judged by its readers, and not friendly critic, and let’s see if it withstands its readers’ demands. Let’s see if it answers reader’s questions. Then, in due time, it will become a classic disregarding the capricious market.

To read the rest, click here.

Boots and Iran’s Social Calamity

A new distraction arose this week with the Sardar Radan’s new dress code on the Islamic way for women to wear boots: They must not be worn over the pants! Well, nothing surprises one anymore. It is the police’s job to secure the city from such evils as women, their hair, their flesh, their curves.

Not a single day goes by in our country when we are not involved in some massive political, economical and social problem, domestic or international, and yet the government and the parliament and the Friday Imams are constantly distracted by the issue of women menace. Who are we that we cause such trouble? Is it all because Islam finds us so important? How does Islam define us? Sardar Radan is trying to define us as nothing but a bunch of curves! Is that all there is to us? Just curves? Then straighten them as much as possible! Sardar Radan and other sardars are there to maintain order and security, and little more, they are doing what God was not able and or not wise enough to do, to flatten women. I’m not trying to be funny. I’m just furious, as furious as I was some thirty-five or forty years ago when anybody and everybody was trying to define us and tell us “what a woman should be.” Fellini, Sartre, Lina Wertmüller, Hushang Golshiri, `Ali Shariati, Saadi, Al-e Ahmad, and any and every Azizi and Pazizi, and who knows who else. We should be beautiful, we should be light-skinned, we should be natural, we should be strong, we should be educated, we should be good cooks, we should be sexy, we should be modest, we should be tough, we should be submissive, we should be opinionated, we should be critical, we should be receptive, we should be young, we should be mature, we should be kind, we should not spoil, we should be pretty, we should not be vain, we should be motherly, we should be wise, we should be flexible, we should be authoritative. There was an expression then, mard-e-toye kucheh, zan-e-toye khuneh, Like a man outdoor, like a women at home. I do recall once in New York City how in a political meeting a member of the audience, the husband of one of the participants, said, “We should not underestimate women, such as yourself, who have been in prison, as a criterion.” I was about to scream. That is all we need on top of everything, a trip to prison, and perhaps a little bit of torture. Why not? No thank you! All we have is enough. Where did we all get this idea of womanhood? We are just a creature like men, like dogs, like cats, like elephants. Why we are not left alone to be what we are? Why do we need so many prescriptions and instructions, so much of carpentry and so much masonry, to fit into the image of those who are confused by us? Why should everybody feel free to tell us what we should do? Who are these people? What did they do in their lives? Who gave them that much of authority?

The chief of the Tehran’s police is incapable of even finding a murderer among all the murders which is happening in the city. Traffic police are not able to stop the cars that zigzag in the traffic of Tehran and endanger so many lives. They are not even able to implement the simple use of traffic signals. They lack the competence to bring about the slightest calm and order to the most peaceful demonstrations so they won’t use brutality. And, of course, who can ignore the variety of security gates, one after the other, and the security locks on each apartment door? In such a calamity, the chief of police is worried about the curves of our leg’s muscles, which are no bigger than a frankfurter, and its projection relative to the ankle, the smaller part of legs is not more that two inches, and when it is covered by stockings, pants, and leather boots…? Oh my God, please help us.

I do not know where this so-called Islamic respect and value for women lies. So far, whatever law governing us has been suitable only for half-witted creatures made of nothing but flesh. Really, what are we? Dolls? Do we have any other attributes which any human being has? Thinking? Feeling? Rationality? Wisdom or discretion? Are we all just bodies? This Sardar and other sardars do not see anything in us but the bodies. And, of course, these bodies are supposed to be as ugly as possible. Female beauty is dangerous.

As a matter of fact, the clerics and sardars are either ignorant or just pretend to be so. With all those talks about the value of women in Islam they do not see how they reveal themselves regarding the women. How ignorant are they that they think that attraction comes from the flesh which is covered by stockings and pants and heavy leather boots. How they reveal their true selves when they are fearful of the curve of leg muscles. How fragile their Islam is when the projection of a leg muscle threatens its virtue, particularly in the crowded traffic of Tehran! How ignorant they are who forget that it is the kind and intelligent eyes of the Iranian women, the warmth and glow of their souls, the virtue of their language and their voice, the aroma of love and compassion, their wisdom, their motherliness, and above all their poise coming from the self-confidence and the assuredness of knowing that they are loved, so interwoven into every shred of their being, which is so attractive and appealing. Hey Mr. Radan! beware that evil! How do you want to stop that?

Mohammad `Ali Abtahi in his blog wrote an article arguing with the radical clerics, posing as a friend fo the young. He expressed his disagreement with these arbitrary orders, simply stating that they cause aggravation and will cause more of a backlash. People now glare at those who voluntarily wear Islamic full coverage. That apparently opened a new phase in the Islamic Republic imposing laws. There were a few comments on his blog on this issue. One man complained that his fiancée is receiving insulting looks from women since she is covering herself modestly. Another women in Tehran University, of all places, expressed the same concerns, to which President Khatami replied, “No one has the right to insult people’s religious beliefs and practices,” as if people do have rights to insult non-religious beliefs and practices! I’m wondering what all these is about. What is the range of these insults? Probably an unfavorable glance or even hostile look? So what? What could be done? What is the point of these complaints? Did those ladies ever thought how insulting their ganging up with the suppressors and imposing such a weird notion as the chador over the body of a free human being and forcing her into following their style of piety and modesty was? Yes, these ladies betrayed others. Were it not for the sake of secularism, which in a short period of time spread and integrated itself so well into Iranian society, these ladies would not have any presence in universities, and indeed would have stayed back home in the kitchen and harem, and no one would look at them at all. In the early days of the Islamic revolution, were it not for the persistence of the professional, educated secular women, we would all have been pushed out of the work force and into the kitchens.

Khatami admits when he came to office that only 3% of the women where in managerial positions, which increased to only 16% during his administration.
Let us not delude ourselves and let set the record straight. Islam does not have such a brilliant record with the women. If here and there we see a little of what we call life, beyond motherhood, given to women, it is due to the local culture of the Islamic countries mixed with global demands. The current movement in Iran would have been much faster and more widespread, considering its historical record. The clerics’ daughters and wives in various academic, professional and political positions are not a testimony to the progressive attitude of Islam towards women. As a matter of fact, I do not know of any religion which separates women to such degree as to deal with them as half of the human. The best testimony to this claim is the clerics’ views and statements prior to the revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini, not yet the Imam, was a staunch critic of the Shah’s granting women the right to vote (as well as his land reform). Even last year, unsuccessful attempt to set the limit on women’s attending the universities confirm this.

Well, we do have a unique history. The most secular country in the region became the Islamic Republic. In the country with the fastest growing progressive feminism in the world, women have to fight for the basics. In the country with the most liberating and loving culture for women, women find themselves in a battle with misogyny. And now I would not be surprised if the country is becoming divided in a very unusual way. The suppressor is fighting our very being, fighting us for being women, and still claims that it is the victim!

The real victim is left with two weapons, its eyes and the movement of its neck. Oh yes, we look, we look and talk with them. We say things that we are not allowed to say, we say we are angry, we say we are betrayed, we say we do not like those who are not with us, we say, “You are either with us or against us,” we say we do not like you; yes we turn our neck, we turn our head and we walk away. With that we tell you, “I do not understand your piety.” We say, “What about the piety of standing for justice?” We say, “If you put that hejab around yourself to separate yourself from us, then do not expect kindness, you are not my kind. I walk away from you who had walked away from me, unless you find your piety in something else, at least temporarily.”

To read the rest, click here.

Khatami in Tehran University: Preaching to the Choir

A student demonstration in Tehran University on Monday December 10 was followed by an equally important event on Tuesday when President Khatami addressed the students on the commemoration of Azar 16, 1332, when three students were shot dead by the Shah’s police.

It was interesting that there were even references to Tir 18, when reactionary forces stormed student dormitories, leaving a path of death and destruction in their trail, during the Khatami’s presidency. Oddly enough, it was one of the most catastrophic events in which Khatami made a massive mistake by turning his back on the people who elected him to office. Regretfully, he assumed that there was no other choice. Indeed there was: He could have stood with the people.

The recent demonstration became more heated due to ideological changes in the university enforced by the Ahmadinejad government. Large numbers of qualified professors were expelled from the universities, many active students were arrested, and many students were marked by “stars” which made them unable to continue their studies for certain period of time, if ever. While we all consider education the best remedy for every problem, this Socrates of our time bars the students from school as a corrective remedy.

The government officials and Tehran’s pro-regime newspapers called the students the voice of American imperialism and the students, agents of imperialism and a handful of Kurdish separatists.

Khatami in his speech, on the other hand, reminded the students of their right to free speech and expression and mentioned that free speech is threatening only to those who adhere fanatically to rotten traditions and do not want to move on to the way of progress and well-being. He mentioned the role of the university in uprooting the dictatorship and said that its active role in society is alive and will continue and must continue.

He used the opportunity to criticize the government which reduces justice to only economic justice and economic justice to charity. He called for the respect of the principle of “innocence before trial,” and mentioned how Imam regarded it as essential among his eight mandates. Though he did not flatly denounce its dismissal as illegal, he said “Unfortunately not much attention is paid to it.” He did mention that it is not right that “everyone interprets the constitution according to his/her own taste.” It is noteworthy that it was not some “everyone” who came with such reading of constitution, but Ayatollah Jannati who is the Secretary of the Guardian Council, the assembly of appointees of either the valiye faqih or the head of the judiciary.

Ayatollah Jennati, the same day announced very clearly and firmly that in vetting the candidates for the parliamentary election, the principal of “innocence before trial” is not considered and indeed called it irrelevant. Keyhan, in his defense, wrote that Article Thirty-Seven of the Iranian constitution only applies to crime and punishment and not when “rewarding the candidates with the nomination for the election to the parliament as peoples’ deputy and representative.”

President Khatami’s mild position is quite consistent with his personality, with his philosophy and belief and his political record. Popular and loved and adored as he is, he is too conciliatory and too forbearing for this task. Using manipulation as a negotiation technique at this stage of the game, he should not expect any victory either over winning the people’s trust or convincing the ayatollahs to modify their position. Appealing to the arguments based on Imam Khomeini’s ideas of revolution and constitution or democracy, etc., Khatami not only wastes his energy, but might demoralize the people.

President Khatami knows that the Iranian revolution was not Imam Khomeini’s revolution. It was people’s revolution, and the Imam, peace and credit upon him, just joined and supported it. The kind of democracy we wanted was not “individual centered” democracy, in which case we would have waited for the Shah to die, hoping that his son would have been a kinder and gentler individual. The revolution that we desired was supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Imam Khomeini, by proposing the velayat-e faqih and the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts and by appointing various reactionaries to sensitive positions, seemed quite aware that his six or twelve appointees had the unequivocal rights to vet the peoples nominees and that this might lead to a parliament and a government worse than what we had in the Shah’s time. If he could not predict and if he was not aware of the consequences, why the repeated references to his intentions?

After President Khatami’s trip to the United State last year, Fatemeh Rajabi in her notorious article, denounced him. Calling him all sorts of names, she demanded that he be defrocked. I wished someone would have listened to this wise lady and done that favor to President Khatami and all of us. He would have been better off without that robe and turban. Ironically, in essence, those two garments do not suit anyone better or worthier than him. Now worn by so many unworthy people, they not only add nothing to his stature, but keep him away from justice the way they, as on 18 Tir.

I cannot think of anything else but that robe and turban which might have prevented President Khatami from screaming, “No, you twelve, you are wrong, parliamentary seats are not rewards bestowed by you. Those seats belong to the people’s representatives, elected by the people. That right is granted to people by the constitution, written by the people for the people. Those seats are neither charity nor a reward. And for that matter, they are bestowed upon them by divine intervention either.” Without those two garments, he would have screamed what he had said once, that “We twelve and tens and ones and all, we are blessed to be people’s servants and should do what they want us to do. If they want us to pack and go, we have no right to stay a minute longer. And that time is getting closer and closer.” But alas, they got in his way.

I’m so sure that Khatami knows very well what I and many others know. The Constitution does not receive its importance and its validity from approval and disapproval of individuals. It is the core of a lawful society. And I’m sure he knows that it is not “unfortunate” to ignore or dismiss law, but illegal. If there is anyone who can say that, it is him, but for that also, those two garments got in his way.
To read the rest, click here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Poets & Pahlavan by Marcello Di Cintio

“Elegant and tasteful” may not fit the language of wrestling and wrestlers, even if the wrestler is a poet; however, the cover design of the book disabused me of this. And this travelogue was indeed as tasteful and elegant as its cover page.

I was not surprised either when I found the author did not like Tehran. The first chapter on Tehran was a tale of the author’s disappointment with our capital, which I think is one of the prettiest cities in the world only because of all my loved ones who live there. Besides, we know how ugly it was before Karbaschi became its mayor. The author did not like the noise, pollution, and traffic. Well, what else is left if one doesn’t like that? Luckily, he did not need to stay in the city, and he soon moved out.

The author visited only few standard tourist attraction cities, Shiraz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Tabriz; the rest were humble, dusty villages in the middle of nowhere, where he was looking for some Zoorkhanehs (sport centers) to see the demonstration of some local wrestling techniques. Wherever he goes, whether a village in Kerman or one near Ardebil, in Mahalat or Sari, in Khorramabad or Tous, he not only finds someone to demonstrate his wrestling, but he finds a dead poet under a tombstone which most of the time, though not so officially, serves as a mausoleum for the local people and the visitors. We find the author either wrestling on a wrestling mat or kneeling next to a tombstone of a poet. It is in the evening that we find him with local people, whose names he remembers very well, having supper followed by a flavored hookah, and sometimes drinking homemade vodka! (Oh yes, there is such a thing!) Actually, this is one of the few Iranian artifacts I detest—the hookah, as well as vodka. I did not even know it comes in variety of flavors, such as strawberry or orange or cherry.
To be honest, I do not like wrestling either, though it is a national sport. It was my understanding that our national sport was horseback riding or a game called chogan, very similar to polo, and another horse related sport, saber. Though, our epic hero, Rostam, apparently was a wrestler too, I do not recall seeing any wrestling matches in our miniature paintings, while there is always a horse or swords. In any case, somewhere between Herodotus and Ferdowsi, I was misinformed. Now I know better!

I learned a lot about this sport through the Poets and Pahlavans, and I have found its significance and its function in our history. I would not have bothered to think about it if were not because of this book. Though this sport was the primary reason that Di Cintio went to Iran, what he came back with is something greater. If I learned one thing about wrestling, it is that two people compete with each other to show who will put the other off balance while maintaining his own. It is a game of balance, which is symbolically so central to the Iranian life. It is this underlying idea which makes it such a ritual in Iran which, compensating for its lack of glamour.

While traveling from village to village in search of a method which those local people use to test their ability to maintain their balance, the author comes to another central issue in Iranian life, and that is the poetry. From Mashhad to Tous to Kashan to Isfahan to Shiraz and Kerman and Yazd or even tribal Luristan, our author finds the tomb of a poet. He is astounded to see that he is not the only visitor to those graves. Some of them are elaborate monuments and are shrines for the Iranian people. Hafez, Saadi, Khayyam, and Ferdowsi, are among the most popular and the most visited graves, while others, less famous, still receive their own share of attention. Once he asks two women why Iranians visit the grave of these poets as if they are shrines of saints. One of the women says that it is because “Iranians love their poets.” “Well,” the author replies, “We all love our poets too, but it would never occur to us to visit their graves as pilgrimage.” The woman, not having an answer, says, “Or maybe because we do not have anything else to do.”

I do not think that if Di Cintio would have stayed in Iran for another four years, or for that matter another forty years, he would have found the answer to that question, just as I still do not know why in the case of domestic hardship and family dispute, or when I am confused about something important, I run  to Attar or Hafez,  or press my mind to come up with a similar situation in a novel or a short story and use it as a guide. But I know that when for months I woke up every two hours to take my sick dog back and forth to the street to relieve himself, it was the poem “It is a rare fortune to serve the elder of the wine house,” and its command of “love and servitude” which made me do so without knowing “its why.” As the author noted, these poets’ poetry is not valued just for its rhythm and beauty, but as a consultant and a companion for us all. The solutions we seek are not in their answer to us, but the virtue of our “seeking” the answer in their poetry. In almost every case, no matter what the question is, the answer is “love,” which is supposed to keep the balance.

The book, indeed, was a balanced report of its author’s findings in Iranian life, among the poor and humble, among the strong and the weak, among the generous and the not so generous, among the love and sometimes the hate, among those who are greedy and those who are not, he is able to see with balanced eyes, and not get carried away. Whatever he tells us comes from a good dear place, the heart and mind of a poet and athlete with no exaggeration.

I have no idea what facility the author has with the Persian language, but I was amazed at how accurately he grasped and relayed his observations and his experiences in Iran. I could not find even one single narrative in which his unfamiliarity with the culture or language would have caused misunderstanding. Indeed, he demonstrated his deep understanding of the Persian language through the poetry he cited, and his choice of diction gave the impression that he had become a native Iranian in such a short period of time.

Missing are photographs, though. I wished he had printed some of those pictures he took from those remote places in Kurdistan, Luristan, and Kerman or Yazd, which are off the beaten path. I think that, being a poet, he felt rightly confident that his words would draw the picture, but still I wish he had indulged us to a little more of real visual pleasure and not to relied so much on our imagination, which is sometimes poor.

The author has a notebook to jot down his findings. Even in remote villages he comes across people who have never seen a foreigner before, and someone, usually a young fellow, would ask him, “Would you write something in English?” “Of courses,” he says, and writes “My name is Marcello Di Cintio. I am Canadian and I speak English.” He adds his address and his telephone number. In exchange, they would write something in Persian for him. Without fail, they wrote some verses of poetry. The author quoted several of them in his book.

If there is any thing I would like to recommend him next time he goes to Iran and someone asks him to write something, I would say, Please Di Cintio, there are other things you can write beside your name and address, such as:

“Like kneeling in a chapel,
a bridge, too, offers
safe passage.

Wooden beams on stone piers
were an answered prayer,
a way to manage the horse,
as well as the swarming

Perhaps those blessed with
dry feet planted firmly
on the other side thought:
And God too must
have fastened bridges.”

By: Suzanne Hancock, Another Name For Bridge
To read the rest, click here.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran

Although I found I shared values with the author, Fahemeh Keshavarz, and had a common background with her, I still found distressing moments in which I did not know what to make of the book as a whole. I found it difficult to know if I was to read this book as a memoir, as a review of Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT), as a defense of Iranian culture against the constant attacks from right and left, as just a criticism of “the New Orientalism,” or just a book written by an Iranian scholar. The book was all these and none of these.

In the introduction to the book, Keshavarz says about her book:

“[It is an]…in depth critical understanding of this eyewitness literature, which I dub as New Oreintalist narrative… and to provide an alternative to learn about an unfamiliar culture.” (p. 2)

“I will provide a candid reading of the flaws in the book RLT.” (p. 4)

“[It is]…to promise of my own narrative to take the reader more fully into the rich and complex culture world of Middle East…” (p. 4)

The promise to challenge Reading Lolita in Tehran is as attractive as the book’s cover page, though criticizing the book just as a New Orientalist narrative forecasted trouble.

To start with the New Orientalism, there is an ambiguity about the theory and its boundary and its scope in the first place. Edward Said wrote Orientalism some twenty-five years ago and it has not yet been properly challenged, and not enough time has passed to turn it into a reasonably entrenched theory. The word “Orientalist” is not even listed in any of commonly used dictionaries. To consider “Orientalism” a term of abuse, one needs to establish a credible definition for it. Said’s definition of it is so broad that it not only includes Karl Marx, but could include wide range of writers who have written anything regarding the East. From George Eliot to Najib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk, to Michael Ondaatje [.pdf], V.S. Naipal, and a whole lots of subcontinent writers, each one, just by virtue of partially fitting into a criterion of the theory, could fall into that category. Above all, Keshavarz may find it troubling that even her much adored Sufis, are not immune to this charge.

The criticism of RLT based on the charge of “New Orientalism” creates two sets of problems. It implies something which Keshavarz claims to avoid: an attack on Nafisi’s personality and her politics. The New Orientalism, unlike other schools of thought, does not have a philosophical or literary component, it is a political term, a political and social idea which carries itself into works of literature and art. Criticizing someone on that basis is to criticize the person’s political views. The second and more seriously, her attempt to prove this led her into violations of professional scholarship which I’m sure Keshavarz did not want to commit. Reading Jasmine and Stars, I came across numerous quotations from RLT which were either out of context or misquoted or partially quotation simply to forge the text into the so called New Orientalist’s framework, as I demonstrate below.

One of the main arguments used to categorize Nafisi as a New Orientalist is her stereotyping the passive and subservient portrait of women in her RLT. According to this,, Nafisi is guilty of portraying Iranian women as passive and even masochistic. As Keshevarz writes (p. 9):

Early in the book, one of the students shares the story of her imprisonment and flogging with the reading group “In some perverse way” the author suggests, the punishment was a “source of satisfaction” to the young women (RLT, 73). Harsh as the punishment itself is, RLT’s comment on the incident wounds as well by stereotyping Muslim women as passive, even masochistic victims.

Let us look at the text at page 73 in RLT:

Sanaz was wearing a tee-shirt under her robe. Her jailer jokingly suggested that since she was wearing an extra garment, she might not feel the pain, so they gave her more. For her the physical pain had been more bearable than the indignity of the virginity tests and her self loathing at having signed a forced confession. In some perverse way, the physical punishment was a source of satisfaction to her, a compensation for having yielded to those other humiliations.

Although Nafisi’s treatment of women in her book is highly offensive and I found it extremely unfair and biased, there is no hint of masochism or passivity in this particular paragraph as claimed by Keshavarz.

Here is another example of this:

[T]he teaching of Western literary works to Iranian students was presented as a groundbreaking act or as something on the order of taming of the savages. The view presented was that “we (Iranians) lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works.”

The original quotation from page 25 of RLT reads:

We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology. This was a country where all gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms.”

Again obviously Nafisi is talking about Iran under the Islamic Republic and that in a certain period of 1980s.

On page 93, Keshavarz quotes RLT again as follows:

[T]he idea that all we need to do is to listen to the “cacophony of voices to understand the democratic imperative” in novel is simply naïve.

We read in RLT, page 268:

One of the most wonderful things about Pride and Prejudice is the variety of voices… All tensions are created and resolved though the dialogue… [Jane] Austen’s ability to create such a multivocality … is one of the best example of the democratic aspect of the novel. In Austen’s novels, there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist. There is also space for self reflection and self criticism. Such reflection is the cause of change… All we needed is to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative. This was where Austen’s danger lay.

Nafisi is very specifically talking about Austen’s employment of dialogue in her novels. She was indeed pioneered the use of dialogue as a means of conveying her message to the reader as well as to portray her characters, rather than using the narratives and descriptions.

The most interesting attempt to tie the book to the New Orientalism takes place when Keshavarz moves to the dancing scene in an empty class room after class hours. Admitting that Nafisi’s treatment of Iranian women in her book is short of flattering, if not insulting, I did not find this particular scene, fact or fiction, troubling. It is simply a description of a dance which happens to be very provocative and sexual and sensual in author’s view. Nafisi is not the first to consider Iranian solo dancing sexual. I have heard it before from many Iranians and non-Iranians, though some may disagree.

Keshavarz wrote three pages, the most detailed and elaborate, to demonstrate the alluring intention of the writer to coax the Western reader to peek into the hidden sensual secrets of life behind the veil in the forbidden world of the Orient and to “provide titillation” for them. On pages 130 to 132, she describes the following scene:

[T]he dance takes place at lunchtime, in a temporary and secret society called the Dear Jane Society (named after Austen) in an empty classroom behind the closed doors… [S]he shows them the steps of a Western dance as it appears in a ball in Pride and Prejudice… [The function of the dance in the novel is not discussed by Keshavarz.] She asks if anyone can dance Persian, and everyone looks at her delicate, normally withdrawing student Sanaz. Moments later Sanaz … begins to … which the sexual overshadows every other quality … in case we forget the innocence and fragility at the core of the sexual transformation taking place in front of us … Not so natural or innocent either — Her power for sexual allure notwithstanding, Sanaz is the same helpless fawn you have been reading about so far.

In case we consider this a normal dance,… the next sentence might as well be the portrait in an odalisque painting by an eighteenth-century European artist, torturing his imagination to depict the “essence” of all Oriental women regardless of who they are.

We are not done yet … The seduction is “elusive” it is “sinewy” and “tactile.” It “twists, twirls, winds, and unwinds.” … It is “calculated, it predicts its effect before another little step is taken, and then another little step.” In the case the description is not Othering enough, the point is reiterated. “It is flirtatious in a way Miss Daisy Miller and her likes could never dream of being.”

It would be helpful to know what separate the species of Miss Daisy Miller and “her likes” from that of Sanaz ...”

Of course Nafisi tells us the difference,

It is openly seductive but not surrendering … it is filled with streches of naz, eshveh and kereshmeh which the translation of them in English—coquettishness, teasing, flirtatiousness—seems not just poor but irrelevant. (RLT 265-266)

What is interesting in this particular quotation is the insinuation of Keshavarz’s comments into the phrases which makes it more suggestive than the Nafisi’s description. (I omit Nafisi’s text). Her interjection of words “power of sexual allure,” “helpless fawn,” “innocent and fragile,” and “the portrait in the odalisque painters of the 18th century,” “torturing,” and so on makes more of whatever she thinks of Nafisi’s description.

I also find it very interesting the similarity of discussion in this particular scene with Hamid Dabashi’s lengthy article criticizing Nafisi focusing on the cover page indicating the

The image (of two girls reading something) and the caption together suggest the tantalizing addition of an Oriental twist to the most notorious case of pedophilia in modern literally imagination. Both as social sign, and as literary signifier, the term “Lolita” invokes illicit sex with teenagers. The covered heads of these two Iranian teenagers thus suggestively borrows and insidiously unleashes a phantasmagoric Oriental fantasy and lends it to the most lurid case of pedophilia in modern literary imagination.

In Dabashi’s reading, the cover page of RLT gives a clear double message of racism as well as “a cliché of the desirable Orient in under-aged men and women staged in Oriental paintings of Sir Frank Dicksee’s “Leila and William Wontners “Safie, One of the Three Ladies of Baghdad.”

I think one needs to read RLT with a specific agenda in mind to come up with these conclusions, and still one wonders, What for? Why do we need to make such a grandiose claim over a book when we are not even so sure about the identity of its author. We all can wait to read Nafisi’s second book to see what is it about; then, we might picture her intention better. As far as I’m concerned the cover of the book is just bad scholarship. Had she have mentioned the source of this picture, she would have avoided many of the contradiction in the book too. And the dancing scene? Well, to tell the truth, it was among the best parts of the book; it was her imaginative romantic illustration of Iranian womens’ lives which briefly came into a material vividness shortly, only to die out soon.

Ironically, an obsessive search for an Orientalist agenda barred the author from noticing its real flaws. The author gives the feeling that the characters in her book represent Iranian women, and most readers fell for this. Either way the book is taken, fact or fiction, and whatever the author’s politics and intentions may have been, at best the book could represent a variety of views, concepts, characters, and beliefs. No book, no matter how grandiose the author, could be representative of a culture, society, or religion.

Unfortunately, Keshavarz does not share this view. Nafisi’s ensemble of seven defective, abused, disturbed, and confused girls represent nothing but that there are defective, abused, disturbed, and confused girls in Iran as well as any other place in the world. By the same token, Keshavarz’s compassionate kind, gentle, and cultured uncle cannot be a used as a typical Muslim man, and his liberal and enlighten views as manifestation of some general Islamic culture. At best, he represents only a large number of Iranian men of his age and his class. Keshavarz’s uncle is no more representative than Nafisi’s Mr. Nahvi or Niazzi. Unfortunately, in Jasmine and Stars, Nafisi’s self-proclaimed authority to represent Iranian culture is not challenged but is only contrasted with another authority; and her cherry-picked or fabricated examples are replaced by Keshavarz’s set of cherry-picked representations.

I also found it difficult to see Jasmine and Stars as just a critique of RLT. First of all, it seems that in many parts of the book, the author sets herself up as a defender of the Islamic Republic or Islam itself, or even Iranian culture. Secondly, in this endeavor, she does not hesitate to do precisely what she told us to avoid: sweeping less desirable aspects under the carpet, downplaying difficulties and then ignoring them, or, still worse, denying them, or evading them by distorting them.

Regarding the first, by portraying the better part of Iranian culture, Keshavarz seems to mean equating the Sufi tradition with Islam. But there never been a general consensus of about the Sufism in Iran. Were it not for the sake of the adherence of giants such as Rumi, Hafez, Nizami and so on this tradition, Sufism would not have fared much better that the Babism or Bahaism. Even today, there are high-ranking clerics who are not very happy with Sufism, and if they hold their peace, it is not due to this sect’s legitimacy, but to other considerations. Nor have recent attacks on Sufi mosques have never been condemned or punished by the Islamic Republic. For their part, the Sufi masters have long tried to prove that prophet Mohammad was indeed a Sufi himself, appealing to his Ascension, in order to come some credentials for their faith.

As for the second point, denying cruelty does not eliminate cruelty. One cruel law or systematic injustice could never be diminished by thousands of good examples. No matter how many good anecdotes regarding Muslim individuals’ love and compassion, the laws governing heresy, the punishments for apostasy, and the inequitable laws of inheritance, marriage, and divorce, among many others, remain as blemishes on Islam. Even without generalizing, the cruelty of the chain murders during the last three decades of the Islamic Republic, the torture and murder of political prisoners, arrests without the court warrants, accusations and convictions of prisoners before their trial, are all so widespread and so unbecoming of anything called culture that the entire Masnavi of Rumi cannot cover its ugliness and horror. In fact, it is very naïve to assume that by citing many aspect of humane Iranian culture we take away the harshness away from the shariat.

It is interesting that Keshavarz so conveniently avoids any confrontation with inconvenient truths. When talking about Bahais, which she refers to as a “community,” she writes (p. 65):

Muslims consider the Prophet Mohammad as the last of the prophets. That means no religion is expected to follow. For this reason the tension always existed between Moslems and the Baha’i community. The tension came to a head with the 1979 revolution, during which the Baha’is were perceived as supporters of the monarchy. Their faith was denied the status of an official religion, and they suffered serious persecution.

The sequence in which the last two sentences are presented strongly suggest that Keshavarz is linking their persecution to the Bahais perceived support to the monarchy. But all this does is to “push under the carpet” a century of brutal massacres of Bahais (which paused briefly during the later time of the Pahlavi dynasty) by calling it a “tension.” It is all right for her to refer to them as a “community” rather than a faith too.

As a matter of fact, almost all the other religious minorities supported the Shah more strongly than the Bahais did, since the latter have as an integral part of their belief system that they not get involved with politics. The Zoroastrians were by and large the most supportive of the Pahlavi’s, followed closely by the Assyrians and Armenians and Jews. Moreover, some of the most fanatically anti-Bahai Islamic clerics but collaborated closely with the monarchy (such as Isfahan’s Ayatollah Khademi). Unfortunately Keshavarz, in her humanitarian and compassionate view of Iran, does not see a need to address this issue in any depth.

I liked Keshavarz’s uncle’s narrative of Attar’s story of Gabriel and God and the idolater. It is true that God, being the wiser and most compassionate, knows best how to reach the one who is lost and astray. But when several young Bahai girls were hung in public in Shiraz, He was not there when the last one, Mona Mahmudnizhad, kissed the hanging rope before submitting. I think God was rushing to Attar or Gabriel to tell them, wait, I was wrong, there are some people down there that know their way to Me better than I know my way to them. God was disgraced many times in history, and surely he has not been helped by his self-proclaimed emissaries these last thirty years in Iran.

Keshavarz’s appeasing of doctrinaire Islam, sometimes even bordering on apologetics, is noticeable in almost every chapter of the book. She either cites passages of Sufi tradition, passing this off as somehow typical of Islam as such, or cites great Iranian literary works like Nizami’s Khosrow and Shirin, (surprisingly enough, she does not even mention Vis and Ramin, which is now banned in Iran!) as if it has everything to do with Islam.

She even refuses, at the price of inconsistency, to acknowledge that there might be a harsh side to Islam which needed to be softened by some sort of reform. (p. 11)

Part of what makes the New Orientalist narrative troubling is that, through a polarized vision of the world, it denies the value of listening. Instead, it contributes to the rising heat in the fiery East West-rhetoric. The dehumanization of Muslims in the West and the diabolic representation of the West by Muslim extremists are both silencing narratives that have resulted from the heated polarization.

While the entire West is dehumanizing the Muslims, only exclusive “Muslim extremists” are misrepresenting the West.

Keshavarz assumes that any criticism of Islam necessarily falls into Edward Said’s definition of Old or New Orientalism. This is debatable. Taking every sentence in the book as an anti-Islamic comment geared to vilifying the religion is itself a “silencing narrative.”

Jasmine and Stars is a delight when Keshavarz turns, even partially, from her battle to prove Nafisi to be a New Orientalist. The last chapter of the book, “Tea with My Father and Saints,” was my favorite, though I like all her personal stories and narratives of her highly-cultured family as well as her readings of the Iranian classics. Her uncles, father, mother, and the Iranian Sufi poets, Saadi, Hafez, Rumi, and Nizami, as well as Sufi thinkers such as Bayazid Bastami and Junaid of Baghdad, are among the stars which shine brilliantly by their own virtues. I wished she had spent more time on Persian mystical poetry. I enjoyed the kitten anecdotes and I appreciated her reading of the verse written on Hafez’s Collection. I liked her talking about Saadi, much neglected comparing to Hafez and Rumi, and here I learned something which I will treasure for the rest of my life. I learned to hear Saadi’s laughter, and that by itself is worth a fortune. However, I wish I read them just for their own virtue and supreme wisdom and beauty rather than a rebuttal to Nafisi’s narrative.

I do not recall anybody offering a better reading of the Iranian classics than Keshavarz. “Trying to discipline a rascal is balancing a walnut on top of a dome!” “In the absurdity of the attempt to balance a little round walnut on a huge dome, I saw the pointlessness of harsh punishments, and in its rolling down I heard Saadi’s laughter.” It is this laughter, and these sighs of wisdoms and wit, which I wish would echo again and again, louder and louder.

I wish Keshavarz had written more on the classics she knows and loves so well. The simple summaries she delivered on Bayazid Bastami and Imam Mohammad Ghazali were elegant yet understandable to those who know nothing about Islamic philosophy, and the last chapter, with the line on Hafez’s divan and her dispute with her father? Sure I know the excitement of placing the right accent and the right pause exactly where it is supposed to be, sure it makes a world of difference. How I wish she had written more about this. Where else can one can find such a delight?

I’m impatient to receive my copies of her two other books, Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal al-Din Rumi and Recite in the Name of the Red Rose. I’m sure they will be good companions for my long Yalda nights. I’m more impatient to have her writing on Saadi. I think Keshavrz’s mother was quite right: “Nobody does it as beautifully as he does.”

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