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.”


Zeynab said...

This is a very good critique of Keshavarz's book. Personally, I loved it, because it vocalized many of the thoughts and uneasy feelings that I have as an Iranian woman when I see all these books about Iranian women's lives in Barnes & Noble, most of them tales of abuse or political strife.

Mina said...

Thank you for your post, Zeynab khanum. I'm glad you appreciated the post, despite the fact that you loved the book I was criticizing.

Personally, I am also uneasy about what is written about Iranians in popular culture, but we have to be honest. I don't feel that Dr. Keshavarz was.

Please visit my blog and comment again!

Melinda said...


I found my way here from Amazon. I just finished "Jasmine and Stars" and I have to admit, I truly enjoyed it. Your critique was interesting to read; your comment 'While the entire West is dehumanizing the Muslims, only exclusive “Muslim extremists” are misrepresenting the West' is an indisputable response to Keshavarz's quote. That said, I disagree that Keshavarz paints a picture of Iran that is unnecessarily rosy. Her purpose is not to point out the problems with Iran. Authors like Nafisi have already done that, thoroughly. What Keshavarz does is point out the gaps in Nafisi's work in order to show a more complete picture of Iran. She does not need to repeat the problems already brought up by Nafisi; the assumption is that Western readers don't need to be convinced of the horrors within the Islamic Republic. I don't know of any Western readers who don't already have negative views of Iran. Keshavarz shows the side that isn't as well known: the world of literature, poetry, philosophy, love, and people who are Muslim as well as creative and kind. What "Jasmine and Stars" does is create a humanity that exists within a nation easily brushed aside as simply evil.

Anonymous said...

This is my Amazon critique

I have read both “Jasmine and Stars” and “Reading Lolita in Tehran”. Fatemeh Keshavarz is not qualified to critique “Reading Lolita in Tehran” the way she claims she is. Keshavarz left Iran two years after the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and did not live under its laws the way Azar Nafisi and her students did. Being allowed to visit a country is not the same as living there on a daily basis.

Jasmine and Stars is based mostly on the experiences of a single individual, whereas Reading Lolita in Tehran is the collective experiences of seven students, from diverse backgrounds, along with their instructor.

P.5-6 Keshavarz refers to modern day Iran as a “culture as charming, creative, humorous and humane as any. A culture that has much to offer the rest of the world.” A pre-Bush U.S. Department of State Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997 shows a very dismissal human rights record. Iran has little or nothing to offer the Western World.

P. 7 Keshavarz unfairly criticizes Nafisi for ignoring Iranian literature. Nafisi is an English literature teacher and brought her students together for the express purpose of exploring Western literature, not Iranian literature.

In her book Keshavarz criticizes the New Orientalist, as she labels them, for “the vilification of Muslim men.” Yet one of the shining example of modern day Iranian literature that Keshavarz use it her book is “Women without Men” by Shahrnush Parsipur. In it is are rapes and an honor killing by Muslim men. She justifies her hypocrisy by saying that “Women without Men” is a work of fiction.

Southern Hoosier