Middle East studies in the News
Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire
by Hamid Dabashi
Lacking internal support or external legitimacy, writes Hamid Dabashi*, the US empire now banks on a pedigree of comprador intellectuals, homeless minds and guns for hire
IN THE COURSE OF the US presidential election of 2004, during the final round of campaign between President George W Bush and Senator John Kerry, at one point the public debate came down to a comparison between the competing notions of an empire with no hegemony (for President Bush) versus a hegemony with no empire (for Senator Kerry). The issue remained moot, rather tangential and academic to the debate, and unresolved with the re-election of President Bush.
Soon after Seymour Hersh published an article in The New Yorker in April 2006, exposing an apparent Pentagon plan to attack Iran--an attack in which for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki the use of nuclear weapon was contemplated--anti-war activists all over the world were alerted that this particularly frightful extension of US militarism might mean the death of tens of thousands of more innocent people. An organisation of concerned scientists issued a warning in the form of a video simulation, predicting that such an invasion, if it included the so-called "tactical" use of nuclear weapon, would immediately kill at least 3 million people, and expose millions of others to cancer causing agents, with the domain of the catastrophe extended eastward beyond Iran into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even India.
Conspicuously absent in the public response, for or against this criminal thought threatening the life of millions of innocent people in the region, was any systematic linking between the identical rhetoric of the Bush administration against Iran with those presented only a few years earlier against Afghanistan and Iraq.
The apparent collective amnesia that accompanied the exposed US plan to invade Iran, even while the catastrophic consequences of its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq are yet to be mapped out, once again raised the question of hegemony and empire, one with or without the other--was there a method to the madness of US military adventurism around the globe. Did this empire have a hegemonic project, a blueprint of an ideological agenda to justify its global warmongering, or was it merely a cloak-and-dagger operation, making a mess around the world, with no moral or political accountability for the terror that it is perpetrating on humanity at large.
To be sure, such historians as Niall Ferguson have in fact sought to theorise the historical domains of the emerging US empire. In his Colossus: The Price of American Empire (2004), Niall Ferguson has fortuitously called the American empire "the imperialism of anti-imperialism," namely a form of effective global domination that does not like to be called by its proper name--and that in fact posits itself as a liberating force. On the other side of the spectrum, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri had even before the cataclysmic events of 9/11/2001 articulated a sustained theoretical position in their now classical text Empire (2000), arguing that the classical case of imperialism had now mutated into an imperial mode of domination, corresponding to cultural, social, and economic globalisation, a mode that is in fact rooted in American constitutionalism. In a new preface that the preeminent historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote (2005) to the classical book of V G Kiernan, America, The New Imperialism: From White Settlement to World Hegemony (1978), he argued that so far as the Anglo-American notions of their imperial missions were concerned, "the rest of humanity was only a raw material, clay to be moulded by the potter's hand. This assumption of superiority may be called a legacy of British insularity, magnified by America's size and wealth" (xvi). Meanwhile, Americans like Chalmers Johnson, in a magnificent book called The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of Republic (2004), were in fact providing thoroughly documented and yet mournful eulogies to the decline and demise of the American republic and the rise of a predatory empire from its ashes. Other observers, like Michael Mann in his Incoherent Empire (2003) or Robert D Kaplan in his Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005) pay particular--theoretical and factual--attention to the militarist dimensions of this empire.
So there is in fact no absence of interest or insight into how and on what general contours is the American empire navigating its turbulent course. As part of this more general concern about an American empire, with or without hegemony, one might also propose that given the way the US propaganda machinery is operating ever since 9/11, it seems (both domestically and internationally) to be completely contingent on a mode of momentary amnesia, a systematic loss of collective memory, a nefarious banking on the presumption that no one is watching, no one is counting, and no one is keeping a record of anything--that history is dead, as is memory, recollection, experience. This proposition may indeed work and tally well with the principal thesis that set this predatory empire in motion, namely Francis Fukuyama's notion of "the end of history," which in this case amounts to the end of collective memory and the effective erasure of shared experiences--even (or perhaps particularly) of the most recent history.
How could one account for this politically expedited collective amnesia --of manufacturing consent and discarding history at the speed of one major military operation every two years? One way of decoding the traumatic terror at the heart of the codification of "9/11" is in fact to read it as a form of historical amnesia, a collective repression, that corresponds best with the globalised spectacle of its having made the apparently invulnerable evidently vulnerable. The trauma of 9/11 was far worse than Pearl Harbor, with which it is usually compared, because of the sheer magnitude of its spectacular and terrifying visuality. The Armageddon crumbling of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, more than anything else, staged the vulnerability of the principal imperial memento projecting the cause of the globalised capital--its titular totem poles, phallic symbols of its monumental potency. That vulnerability was too memorable to be allowed to be remembered. Fabricating instantaneous enemies and moving targets, one on the trail of the other, thus became the principal modus operandi of the virtual empire. An empire lacking, in fact requiring an absence of, long term memory, and banking heavily on the intensity of short term memories that lasts only for about one to two years--one to two wars per one presidential election.
ONE MAY ALSO ARGUE that this act of collective amnesia accompanies a strategy of selective memory --two pathological cases that in fact augment and corroborate each other. A particularly powerful case of such selective memories is now fully evident in an increasing body of mémoire by people from an Islamic background that has over the last half a decade, ever since the commencement of its "War on Terrorism," flooded the US market. This body of literature, perhaps best represented by Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), ordinarily points to legitimate concerns about the plight of Muslim women in the Islamic world and yet put that predicament squarely at the service of the US ideological psy-op, militarily stipulated in the US global warmongering. As President Bush has repeatedly indicated, the US is now engaged in a prolonged and open-ended war with terrorism. This terrorism has an ostensibly "Islamic" disposition and provenance. "Islam" in this particular reading is vile, violent, and above all abusive of women--and thus fighting against Islamic terrorism, ipso facto, is also to save Muslim women from the evil of their men. "White men saving brown women from brown men," as the distinguished postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak puts it in her seminal essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?"
Three years after the publication of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, and right in the middle of a global concern about yet another American military operation in the region, one can now clearly see and suggest that this book is partially responsible for cultivating the US (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran, having already done a great deal by being a key propaganda tool at the disposal of the Bush administration during its prolonged wars in such Muslim countries as Afghanistan (since 2001) and Iraq (since 2003). A closer examination of this text thus reveals much about the way the US imperial designs operate in its specifically Islamic domains.
The publication of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran coincided with the most belligerent period in the recent US history, the global flexing of its military muscles, and as such the text has assumed a proverbial significance in the manner in which native informers turned comprador intellectuals serve a crucial function in facilitating public consent to imperial hubris. With one strike, Azar Nafisi has achieved three simultaneous objectives: (1) systematically and unfailingly denigrating an entire culture of revolutionary resistance to a history of savage colonialism; (2) doing so by blatantly advancing the presumed cultural foregrounding of a predatory empire; and (3) while at the very same time catering to the most retrograde and reactionary forces within the United States, waging an all out war against a pride of place by various immigrant communities and racialised minorities seeking curricular recognition on university campuses and in the American society at large.
So far as its unfailing hatred of everything Iranian--from its literary masterpieces to its ordinary people--is concerned, not since Betty Mahmoody's notorious book Not Without My Daughter (1984) has a text exuded so systematic a visceral hatred of everything Iranian. Meanwhile, by seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire, Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India, when, for example, in 1835 a colonial officer like Thomas Macaulay decreed: "We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect." Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project.
Domestically within the United States, Reading Lolita in Tehran promotes the cause of "Western Classics" at a time when decades of struggle by postcolonial, black and Third World feminists, scholars and activists has finally succeeded to introduce a modicum of attention to world literatures. To achieve all of these, while employed by the US Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowits, indoctrinated by the father of American neoconservatives Leo Straus (and his infamous tract Persecution and the Art of Writing ), coached by the Lebanese Shi'i neocon artist Fouad Ajami, wholeheartedly endorsed by Bernard Lewis (the most wicked ideologue of the US war on Muslims), is quite a feat for an ex-professor of English literature with not a single credible book or scholarly credential to her name other than Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Azar Nafisi's book is thus the locus classicus of the ideological foregrounding of the US imperial domination at home and abroad in three simultaneous moves: (1) it banks on a collective amnesia of historical facts surrounding successive US imperial moves for global domination--for paramount in Reading Lolita in Tehran is a conspicuous absence of the historical and a blatant whitewashing of the literary; (2) it exemplifies the systematic abuse of legitimate causes (in this case the unconscionable oppression of women living under Muslim laws) for illegitimate purposes; and (3) through the instrumentality of English literature, recycled and articulated by an "Oriental" woman who deliberately casts herself as a contemporary Scheherazade, it seeks to provoke the darkest corners of the Euro-American Oriental fantasies and thus neutralise competing sites of cultural resistance to the US imperial designs both at home and abroad, while ipso facto denigrating the long and noble struggle of women all over the colonised world to ascertain their rights against both domestic patriarchy and colonial domination. In the latter case, the project of Reading Lolita in Tehran is just on the surface limited to denigrating Iranian and by extension Islamic literary cultures and feminist movements; its equally important target is to dismiss and disparage competing non-white cultures of the immigrant communities, ranging from African-American, to Asian-American, to Latino-American, and other racialised minorities.
Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home--all in one act. It is thus exceedingly important to read Nafisi not just for her ideological services to the US imperial designs globally, but, equally if not more important, for her reactionary consequences inside the United States as well.
ON THE SURFACE, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran has a very simple plot. A female professor of English literature at an Iranian university, having been born to a privileged family and thus educated in Europe and the United States, is finally fed up with the atrocious limitations of an Islamic republic, resigns her post, goes home, collects seven of her brightest female students and they get together and read some of the masterpieces of "Western literature," while connecting the characters and incidents of the novels they thus read to their daily predicaments in an ungodly Islamic republic. The plot, factual or manufactured or a combination of both, provides an occasion for the narrator to give a sweeping condemnation of not just the Islamic revolution but with it in fact the entire nation, the poor and the disenfranchised, that has given rise to it--for which she has absolutely nothing but visceral contempt. To connect this simple plot and its extended services to the US imperial operations at home and abroad, we need a larger theoretical frame of reference in comparative literary studies.
In his study of the cultural foregrounding of imperialism, Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said examined the overlapping territories, as he called them, between the literary and the political, the cultural and the imperial, in the Euro-American imperial imaginary. This, as he was never tired of repeating, was not to reduce European literature to the political proclivities of any given period, but in fact conversely to posit the political fact, in his proverbial contrapuntal hermeneutics, as the principal interlocutor of the literary event--of the European literature of the period in particular.
In her similarly groundbreaking work on the relationship between domestic and foreign policies of an empire and their cultural manifestations, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture (2002), Amy Kaplan has demonstrated the link between domestic and foreign affairs in the manufacturing of such an imperial project. In this extraordinary work of literary investigation, Amy Kaplan demonstrates how at least since the middle of the nineteenth century and the commencement of successive wars with Mexico, Spain, Cuba and the Philippines, the US imperial expansionism is tightly connected with such domestic political issues as race, class, and gender.
From the other side of the same argument, in her pioneering investigative scholarship, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, Gauri Viswanathan has traced the establishment of English literary studies back to its colonial origins in India and as an effective strategy of colonial control. The study of English literature, as Viswanathan has ably demonstrated, in both the matter and the manner of its literary claims, was instrumental in facilitating the British rule via the education of a generation of Indians who, as Macaulay put it, were "Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect."
From Edward Said to Amy Kaplan and Gauri Viswanathan, we now have a sustained body of scholarship, extended from the US, through Europe, to India and by theoretical implication all around the colonised world, a persuasive argument as to how the teaching of English literature has historically been definitive to the British, and now by extension American, imperial proclivities. Again, none of these scholars and theorists has reduced the literary to the political, but simply posited a political interlocutor next to the work of literature by way of a hermeneutic provocation of meaning and significance--with almost the same token that one can place a feminist or an anti-racist critique of the selfsame texts without negating or compromising their literary significance.
The publication of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro- American global domination. The factual evidence of the connection of Azar Nafisi to the US leaders of the neoconservative movement and her systematic deprecation of Iranian culture, and by extension local and regional cultures of actual or potential resistance to the US empire, glorifying instead a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of "Western literature," are additional factors in placing her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire--the service delivered via the most cliché-ridden invocation of the most retrograde Oriental fantasies of her readers in the United States and Europe.
GIVEN THE TRANSNATIONAL disposition of the globalised empire, a crucial function of its ideological foregrounding is predicated on the role that expatriate intellectuals can play. The transmutation of Azar Nafisi from a legitimate critic of the atrocities of the Islamic Republic of Iran (against women in particular) into a necessary ideologue in George W Bush's empire-building project is a crucial lesson in how the new breed of comprador intellectuals is being recruited and put to immediate use for the ideological build-up (and the cultural foregrounding) of an otherwise precarious claim to an imperial hegemony.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, comprador native intellectuals were actively recruited to perform a critical function for the militant ideologues of the US Empire. Their task is to feign authority, authenticity, and native knowledge and thus to inform the US public of the atrocities that are taking place throughout the world, in the region of their native birth in particular, by way of justifying the imperial designs of the US as liberating these nations from the evil of their own designs.
As all other acts of propaganda and disinformation, Reading Lolita in Tehran is predicated on an element of truth. The Islamic Republic of Iran has an atrocious record of stifling, silencing, and outright murdering secular intellectuals, while systematically and legally creating a state of gender apartheid. But the function of the comprador intellectual is not to expose and confront such atrocities; instead, it is to take that element of truth and package it in a manner that serves the belligerent empire best: in the disguise of a legitimate critic of localised tyranny facilitating the operation of a far more insidious global domination--effectively perpetuating (indeed aggravating) the domestic terror they purport to expose.
BECAUSE THE NATURAL domain for the operation of comprador intellectuals, true to the origin of the term in facilitating commercial transactions, is the middle class morality of their host country (now mutated into an empire), innuendo and insinuation are among the principal tropes of their operations. By far the most immediate and intriguing aspect of Reading Lolita in Tehran is its cover, which shows two female teenagers bending their heads forward in an obvious gesture of reading something. What exactly is it they are reading, we do not see or know. Over their heads we read "Reading Lolita in Tehran." The immediate suggestion is very simple. The subject of the book purports to be reading Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" in Tehran, and here are two Iranian-looking teenagers in their headscarves reading (one thing or another). The two young women appear happily engaged with what they are reading, and they do so in such an endearing way that solicits sympathy, and even evokes complicity. What better picture to represent the idea--leaving it to the imagination of the observer that they are indeed reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita ? Right? Wrong.
A moment of pause on this cover begins to reveal something entirely different. Under the banner of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the image and the caption put together--in a classical case best read and analysed by Roland Barthes in his magnificent essay on "The Photographic Message"--suggest the tantalising addition of an Oriental twist to the most notorious case of pedophilia in modern literary 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. Under the rubric that he called a photographic paradox, Barthes gave a brilliant diagnosis of how such imitative arts as photography "comprises two messages: a denoted message, which is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the matter in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it." (Roland Barthes, "The Photographic Message," in A Barthes Reader. Hills and Wang, 1982: 195-198).
The denoted message here seems quite obvious: these two young women are reading "Lolita" in Tehran--they are reading ("Lolita"), and they are in Tehran (they look Iranian and they have scarves on their head). The connoted message is equally self-evident: Imagine that--illicit sex with teenagers in an Islamic Republic! How about that, the cover suggestively proposes and asks, can you imagine reading Lolita in Tehran ? Look at these two Oriental Lolitas! The racist implication of the suggestion--as with astonishment asking, "can you even imagine reading that novel in that country?"--competes with its overtly Orientalised pedophilia and confounds the transparency of a marketing strategy that appeals to the most deranged Oriental fantasies of a nation already petrified out of its wits by a ferocious war waged against a phantasmagoric Arab/Muslim male potency that has just castrated the two totem poles of the US empire in New York.
One of the most common clichés of the desirable Orient is the under-aged men and women, staged in numerous Orientalist paintings . Sir Frank Dicksee's "Leila" (1892) and William Clarke Wontner, "Safie, One of the Three Ladies of Baghdad" (undated) are among the most immediate archeological traces of the cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran, itself a photographic updating of a long tradition in Orientalist painting.
Equally evident in this cover is the whole genre of colonial picture postcards of young Algerian women--staged, produced and bought by the French colonial officers. Malek Alloula has studied these pictures in The Colonial Harem (1995). In his study of these colonially manufactured photographs, Malek Alloula has demonstrated how the pathological colonial phantasm generated and sustained what Barthes has called "the degree zero" of photographic evidence to represent and own the colonised body. I find it prophetic, were it not so obscene, that in the space of the front and back covers of Reading Lolita in Tehran we have an updated pedophiliac Orientalism documented so succinctly: on the front cover the picture of two veiled Iranian teenage "girls" and on the back the endorsement of Professor Humbert Lewis of Orientalism himself.
The evident act of provoking this colonial trait on the cover of Azar Nafisi's book is not the end of what this cover does. There is more, much more, to it. In fact the case of this cover provides an intriguing twist on Roland Barthes' binary opposition between the denoted and connoted messages of a photograph and its caption. The twist rests on the fact that the picture of these two teenagers on the cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is in fact lifted from an entirely different context. The original picture from which this cover is excised is lifted off a news report during the parliamentary election of February 2000 in Iran. In the original picture, the two young women are in fact reading the leading reformist newspaper Mosharekat. Azar Nafisi and her publisher may have thought that the world is not looking, and that they can distort the history of a people any way they wish. But the original picture from which this cover steals its idea speaks to the fact of this falsehood.
The cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is an iconic burglary from the press, distorted and staged in a frame for an entirely different purpose than when it was taken. In its distorted form and framing, the picture is cropped so we no longer see the newspaper that the two young female students are holding in their hands, thus creating the illusion that they are "Reading Lolita"--with the scarves of the two teenagers doing the task of "in Tehran." In the original picture the two young students are obviously on a college campus, reading a newspaper that is reporting the latest results of a major parliamentary election in their country. Cropping the newspaper, their classmates behind them, and a perfectly visible photograph of President Khatami--the iconic representation of the reformist movement--out of the picture and suggesting that the two young women are reading "Lolita" strips them of their moral intelligence and their participation in the democratic aspirations of their homeland, ushering them into a colonial harem.
IN THE AGE OF "the end of history," as Azar Nafisi's fellow neocon Francis Fukuyama has theorised it, the function of the comprador intellectual is to oblige accordingly, helping to wipe out all national histories, and providing an entertaining story to fill the vacuum. The entertainment, however, must have a mass appeal. The content of Reading Lolita in Tehran thus matches its cover--both serving its immediately imperial context properly. History suspended, one reads this book in vain in search of even a single conversation with any relevant literary theory amassed for generations about and around the works of the authors that hold the four chapters of the book narratively together--Nabokov, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a curiously insular text, not only oblivious to Iranian history, society, and culture, but equally aloof from libraries of commentaries and analysis accumulated for generations around and about the authors and books that she discusses. But this omission tallies well with what the text is commissioned to do--namely to provide a wide range of readership with the functional equivalent of a story that stands for history, reads like fiction, and distorts reality as it pretends to tell it.
Back in the real world, however, there is of course nothing new or extraordinary about Iranians reading works of fiction of any sort from around the world as an act of political defiance. Here again, Azar Nafisi proceeds to crop the picture she portrays inside her book in a fashion similar to the visual burglary she and her publisher commit on its cover--stealing a part of truth to tell a bigger lie. It is not only "the Western classics," as this book suggests, that Iranians have read in political defiance of ruling militant tyrannies--whether the Pahlavis (about whose criminal atrocities Nafisi remains entirely silent) or the current clerics. Throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth century, great works of literature from around the world have graced and enriched Iranian literary and political culture. In their most recent history and in the course of colonial modernity and beginning with the French Revolution, Iranians have systematically and periodically been exposed to world literature, each time in fact occasioned by a major revolutionary or traumatic event. The French Revolution of 1789 occasioned the exposure of Iranians to French and English literature. The European revolutions of 1848 deeply appealed to expatriate Iranian intellectuals in Istanbul, which in turn resulted in more translation of French and English sources. The Russian Revolution of 1917 did the same with regards to Russian literature; as did the US occupation of Iran during World War II, and later the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement with regards to American literature. The Latin American revolutions, the African anti-colonial movements, the Indian anti-colonial nationalism, the Chinese Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, the student uprising in France, etc--these are the additional landmarks of Iranian exposure to world literature, as it is equally evident in our exposure to modern Arabic literature in the immediate aftermath of the colonial occupation of Palestine and the Nasserite nationalism. Azar Nafisi is either ignorant of these historical facts or else she is hiding it--in either case she is cropping the actual form and framing of this complete picture, shrinking it to a size that is useful for an active recycling of a very selective reading of English literature.
AS AMY KAPLAN has demonstrated in her Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture, "the conceptual borders between domestic and foreign" are the principal artifacts that empires both erect and destabilise. The paradox that Amy Kaplan articulates is resolved in the dual task that comprador intellectuals perform in both discrediting their own native culture of resistance and, ipso facto, neutralising equally potent cultures of resistance among immigrant communities and racialised minorities at the metropolitan centres of the empire. There is thus another--not so hidden--agenda or consequence evident in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Decades into a sustained struggle against the domination of Eurocentric curriculum in the US academy, fighting to restore democratic dignity to the world literary scene, Nafisi once again pushes the clock back for about half a century by a singular and exclusive praise for the Eurocentricity of the literary imagination.
Promoting the racist cause of a singular literary canon in the United States and Europe goes hand in hand with denigrating, dismissing, or ignoring the existence of non-Euro-American literary and cultural traditions. No one will ever know, reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, that Iranians, like all other nations, have a literature of their own, a constellation of women writers, poets, artists, activist, and scholars second to none, that they are survivors and dreamers in terms not just global to their geopolitics but also domestic to their own perils and promises, and that in the span of the same period of time (the 1990's) that Azar Nafisi deigned to live in Iran and sought to save the soul of a nation by teaching a privileged few among them "Western Classics," Iranians had produced a glorious cinema that has captivated the globe in awe and admiration, produced a feminist press and literature rarely matched in any other country, and elected more women to their parliament than those in the United States. The narrative eradication of Persian literature and Iranian culture while writing in an entirely Iranian context mutates into a more global dismissal of world literatures at large, any literature or culture that might pause and pose an element of resistance to imperial designs and their ideological foregrounding.
Criticising the calamity of the Islamic Republic--and recognising the sustained heroism of a nation first investing its hope in it and now fighting it to bitter end--is a perfectly legitimate and entirely urgent project. But joining the neocon takeover of the democratic institutions of the US by a band of militant renegades, and thus helping build a literary canon for a predatory empire, is an entirely different matter. In the former project you restore dignity and hope to a nation and its cultural resistance to imperial domination; in the latter you seek to steal such dignity and hope from them.
The major problem with Reading Lolita in Tehran in fact lies not in its systematic distortion of Iranian literary and social history but even more importantly in how utterly ignorant (indifferent or dismissive) of the massive debates of a counter-culture movement in the US academy, briefly code-named multiculturalism, Nafisi has been, thus joining force with the right-wing, conservative resistance to curricular changes in the US and European colleges and universities, and by extension the world at large. Nafisi has never taught at any liberal arts college or university in the US. She is entirely ignorant of or indifferent and hostile to the decades of struggle that racialised minorities and women's and minority studies have endured to make a dent in the vacuum-packed curricular terrors of the white establishment. At a time when the entire nation is engaged in a radical debate about the necessity of curricular diversity, Azar Nafisi joins ranks with the worst reactionary elements singing the praise of the "Western masterpieces." After decades of consistent struggles, native-Americans, African-Americans, Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans, feminists, and scores of other denigrated and disenfranchised communities, have successfully engaged the white male supremacist canon of the US higher education, against all odds and against powerful opposition from Christian fundamentalism and other conservative bastions upholding this empire. With utter disregard for this struggle across the nation, across the globe in fact, Azar Nafisi squarely places yet another non-European culture outside the fold of the literary--of the sublime and the beautiful.
IN PROVIDING HER SERVICES to the predatory empire, the comprador intellectual does her or his share to normalise the imperial centre and cast its peripheral boundaries as odd, abnormal, and grotesque. Nafisi writes about the oddity of reading "Lolita" in Tehran as if its reception in the United States or Europe has been a piece of the proverbial cake. The book and both its film adaptations have been systematically banned or boycotted since its original publication in France in 1955. Nabokov could not even find a US publisher willing to take a risk with "Lolita." By 1954, at least four publishers had turned Nabokov down. He finally took his book to Europe and consented to Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press--the publisher of such pornographic titles as "White Thighs," "With Open Mouth," and "The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe"--to publish only 5,000 copies of "Lolita."
Until Graham Greene took "Lolita" seriously and published an interview with Nabokov, no one in Europe or the US was willing to review the book. Greene's endorsement outraged the British public. John Gordon, editor of Sunday Express, called "Lolita" "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography." The British Home Office ordered the UK customs to confiscate all copies entering the United Kingdom and pressured the French Minister of the Interior to ban the book. In 1962, when Stanley Kubrick released his adaptation of "Lolita" he faced the censorial policies of the Production (censorship) Code of Hollywood and the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency. Years later, in 1998, when Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" was released he was skewered by the conservatives in both the US and Europe. The 1994 Megan's Law in New Jersey, the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1995, and the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996 were all back in public debate casting the odds against Lyne's "Lolita."
As a literary work of art, Nabokov's Lolita has endured much praise and condemnation, uses and abuses the world over--and casting the evident oddity of reading it in Tehran is nothing but exoticising an otherwise perfectly cosmopolitan literary scene--a scene consistently distorted and ridiculed by Azar Nafisi.
TO SUSTAIN THE LEGITIMACY of the predatory empire, the comprador intellectual must also do her or his share in re- accrediting the hitherto discredited ideologues of the imperial project. The comprador intellectual speaks with the voice of authenticity, nativity, Orientalised oddity. He is from "there," and she "knows what she is talking about," and thus their voices carry the authority of a native informer. Nafisi's most useful task has thus been to be an Oriental voice accrediting the most discredited Orientalist alive--the sole surviving Orientalist who links his services to British colonialism and US imperialism in the span of a lifetime (he is quite a museum piece). The relationship between the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Professor Humbert Humbert of Orientalism is quite a warm and fuzzy one, mutually quite beneficial. Long before Bernard Lewis "opened the door" for Azar Nafisi and anointed Reading Lolita in Tehran a "masterpiece," in an infomercial that The US News and World Report published on the aging Orientalist (Jay Tolsonn, "A Sage for the Age: Bernard Lewis," The US News and World Report, 12/3/2001) this is what Azar Nafisi had to say about Lewis:
"'When I was studying in the States in the 70's I was very much against people like Lewis. I had far more books by people like Said. When I went back and lived and taught in Tehran in 1979, I began to discover how many of my assumptions were wrong.' Reading Lewis, she discovered, among other things, that Muslims until mid-19th century had been far more critical of their own culture than any Orientalist ever was--a self-critical spirit that she had been ignorant of until Lewis and other 'Orientalists' led her to it."
If Edward Said dismantled the edifice of Orientalism, Azar Nafisi is recruited to re-accredit it. It is for that very same reason that in anticipation of Bernard Lewis' favourable disposition, Azar Nafisi makes sure that one of the demonic characters she portrays in her Reading Lolita in Tehran is an avid supporter of Edward Said--thus identifying one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of his generation with some of the most retrograde sentiments in a theocracy--all to appease Bernard Lewis and solicit his favourable disposition towards a neocon debutante.
As for the substance of the endorsement of Bernard Lewis, Azar Nafisi may indeed be ignorant of any number of things--including of the Islamic intellectual history. But to assume that before Humbert Lewis and other mercenary Orientalists told them so, Muslims were not aware of their own self- critical spirit simply defies reason. How could Muslims be self-critical of their own culture but not be aware that they have been self-critical, and wait for Orientalists to come and tell them so? The sheer inanity of the suggestion flies in the face of reason and sanity. But the quotation from an Oriental confirming the structural hatred of a civilisation across lands and cultures pays back lucratively when Lewis returns the favour and blurbs Azar Nafisi's book as "a masterpiece" and facilitates her entrance into the subterranean dungeons of power in Washington DC.
TO ANALYSE THE CULTURE of US imperialism, according to Amy Kaplan in The Anarchy of Empire, "it is necessary to cross . . . borders and challenge the interpretative framework of national paradigms, which use history for 'inflating our national ego.'" Otherwise lacking internal support or external legitimacy, the US empire now banks on a pedigree of comprador intellectuals, homeless minds and guns for hire. All this to momentarily manufacture consent, to secure a selective memory, and to sustain a far more enduring collective amnesia that may perhaps serve immediate US imperial purposes well, but will ipso facto sustain its self-destructive force of building fictive sand castles near the factual waves of history. This empire will not last. No empire does. If empires lasted, the whole world would be speaking ancient Persian today.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his best- known books are Authority in Islam, Theology of Discontent, Truth and Narrative, Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future, and an edited volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema (2006). His forthcoming book Iran: A People Interrupted is scheduled for publication in 2006 by the New Press.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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