Middle East studies in the News
Critical Distance [incl. Hamid Dabashi]
I'm made nervous by people who "devour" books, let alone "inhale" them, as Azar Nafisi claims to. It's also difficult to trust teachers of literature who tell you that "we discussed" books or "we agreed" about them when they usually mean that they talked uninterruptedly for two hours and no one in the class demurred. Nafisi's earlier memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, involved discussion and agreement with a "handpicked" group of young Iranian women, and was a bestseller. Margaret Atwood said that "All readers should read it", which is a bit steep. Susan Sontag was "enthralled" by it and Anita Desai thinks it "greatly loved".
Yet it is not greatly loved by Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University. He has written of Nafisi, intemperately perhaps, as a "pestiferous" example of "native informers turned comprador intellectuals" who are to be reprimanded for "discrediting their own native culture of resistance"; he has gone further in linking her to the neocon project via that well-known orientalist Bernard Lewis.
Nafisi's new memoir, Things I've Been Silent About, covers a lot of the same ground as Reading Lolita, but begins and ends with the author's difficulties with her mother. She does seem to have been a trying and unhappy woman, permanently in thrall to a first husband who married her knowing he was terminally ill, didn't tell her and died a year later. She remembered this marriage as rosy, excitingly lived on the fringes of political power, and nothing thereafter could match it. She appears to have disliked the author's father, her second husband, who was the mayor of Tehran for nearly five years, was then imprisoned by the Shah for almost as long, and emerged to pursue a fairly successful career in business and adultery: this in the interest, his loving daughter says, of leading "a happy family life".
Nafisi went to school for a time in Lancaster, then went to university in America, where she briefly took part in radical student politics in the 70s, and swiftly recanted. Her mother was an Iranian member of parliament for a bit, and her father was implicated in the Shah's regime, as well as in those that followed. However, as Nafisi puts it, "My family had always looked down on politics, with a certain rebellious condescension." A patrician contempt for what politics may be about for "the masses" sits comfortably enough with her assurances that the great thing about literature is that it is "useless", and that though she and her group of students "skipped back and forth between our lives and novels", literature and the reading of it have very little to do with real life, let alone politics, and everything to do with individual empathy and imagination.
Nafisi's student years in America coincided with a short unhappy first marriage and the beginning of a happier second one to an Iranian with whom she returned to Iran in 1979. During the Iran-Iraq war, she taught English and American literature in various universities and colleges in Tehran (it is not clear whether this was in English or in translation, and if in English how copies were found) and quarrelled with her mother.
She is anxious to suggest that the principal difficulties of these years for her family were internal ones, their effects ultimately harder to bear than the violence and repression suffered by the country as a whole. She also admits that families such as hers had less to complain about than others, though we hear rather little about those other families. For her, there was always someone "to help with the housework", and her father and husband had interesting and well-paid work. Nafisi had two children, eventually gave up teaching at the university (frustrated by the rules and regulations, particularly the dress code for women) and settled down to reading her favourite American novels with students in her own home. In 1997 she moved with her reluctant husband and her children to America, leaving her parents in Tehran.
The success of her earlier book may ensure the success of this one. It is marketed as full of secrets, and though these are not extraordinary ones, she describes her parents' impossible marriage and their attempts to escape one another with vigorous candour. She may also be covertly answering Dabashi, by making a good deal of her father's reading to her of Persian folk tales and classical literature as a child, and by her announcement that she has studied and written widely on contemporary Iranian literature. The wonderful novel Savushun, by Simin Daneshvar, appears (misspelled) in a booklist at the back, though not in the text itself. I would be sorry to hear that book discussed as having nothing to do with politics.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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