If your answer is yes, here is a book in which you will find a range of tools to dissect those annoying readings. The book is called Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than 'Lolita' in Tehran (UNC Press, 2007). The author is Fatemeh Keshaverz, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Keshaverz's argument is two-fold. One, she exposes the omissions and misrepresentations in Azar Nafisi's national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003). Two, she presents a literary analysis of a range of poetry and prose from Iran as well as gives us a feeling of life in Iran from her personal experience. This exposition is meant to question the simplistic and bleak picture one may get from Reading Lolita in Tehran and to invite the readers to understand Islam and Muslim cultures in their full complexity and richness.
Keshavarz argues that Azar Nafisi's book represents a "New Orientalist" narrative. Her argument builds on the critical writings of Edward Said, in which he argued that the way the West perceived the Orient (the East) had profound consequences on their mutual interactions. By "West", he was particularly referring to the circles of power and the intellectual discourse over the past few centuries. In the Orientalist perception, the East was seen as unvaryingly different, backward, inferior, mysterious, and dangerous. It was something to be wary of or to be disciplined. Aggressive colonial expansions in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere were rationalized as a "progressive force" which would civilize the indigenous populations in the colonized lands. These expansions occurred simultaneously with the development of the Enlightenment and technological advancements in the West. Edward Said further argued that such perceptions, especially concerning the Muslim world, continue to dominate the popular discourse in the West.
Developing on Said's line of argument, Keshavarz argues that the "New Orientalist" narrative "equally simplifies its subject. For example, it explains almost all undesirable Middle Eastern incidents in terms of Muslim men's submission to God and Muslim women's submission to men. The old narrative was imbued with the authority of an all-knowing foreign expert. The emerging narrative varies somewhat in that it might have a native – or semi-native – insider tone. Furthermore, as the product of a self-questioning era, it shows a relative awareness of its own possible shortcomings. Yet it replicates the earlier narrative's strong undercurrent of superiority and of impatience with the locals, who are often portrayed as uncomplicated. The new narrative does not necessarily support overt colonial ambitions. But it does not hide its clear preference for a Western political and cultural takeover. Most importantly, it replicates the totalizing – and silencing – tendencies of the old Orientalists by virtue of erasing, through unnuanced narration, the complexity and richness in the local culture" (p. 3).
The first chapter of Jasmine and Stars introduces the goal and the main arguments of this book. The subsequent three chapters take the readers on an exciting journey which explores the rich literary heritage and diverse lives of the people in Iran. Keshavarz particularly focuses on the Sufi tradition in her discussion of Islam. The personal stories she shares all throughout the book convey feelings of warmth, tenderness, and common humanity (shared by the peoples of Iran and the West). In her analysis of poetry, novels, and Sufi thought in these three chapters, she also shows how these literary expressions animate in the lives of ordinary people in Iran. The fifth chapter quite sharply dissects Reading Lolita in Tehran. Concluding the book in the sixth chapter, Keshavarz once again exhorts the readers to explore the shared humanity and richness of Muslim cultures.
The first and the fifth chapters could also be read separately if readers are interested in specifically reading the critique of Reading Lolita in Tehran. The tools and vocabulary provided in these two chapters could also help with evaluating works such as Nine Parts of Desire, The Bookseller of Kabul, The Kite Runner, The Almond, Persepolis, and The Trouble with Islam.
The value of this book should be self-evident in a time when distortions and lies about Islam and Muslims are widespread. These distortions are damaging not only for inter-communal relations but also the way Muslims themselves perceive their identity. Yet while reading the book, at times I wished that Keshavarz had scrutinized the premises of these distortions even more deeply. This analysis would have expanded the power and scope of her criticism. Below are two inter-related points in his regard.
The first point is that people do not have to believe in the same things you believe in before you could appreciate and respect their humanity. By presenting instances of "shared humanity" (shared values, emotions, thoughts), Keshavarz does a fine job of relating with the Western audience. Her discussion of modern Iranian literature, particularly the works by Forough Farrokhzad and Shahrnush Parsipur, conveys a strong sense of agency, the kind which is idealized in the liberal feminist discourse(s). Keshavarz is also very frank about her feminist sensibilities in the book that have informed her selections and arguments. However, the real challenge in any attempt to understand other cultures and peoples is to appreciate the "differences" in outlooks and sensibilities, while also observing that our own ideals may not be universally valid. For example, women in Muslim cultures may also cherish "autonomy" and "empowerment", but their definition of these ideals may be very different from what some liberal feminists would like for them. Failing to recognize this difference can result in the kind of intolerance that is seen today in France against the Muslim Hijab. Some scholars would take the argument on another level to argue that ideals like "freedom" and "autonomy" (which have a particular history in the Western liberal tradition and are often defined in terms of individual choices and interests in opposition to community values and interests) may not be as important – if at all – for many women in other cultures. Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu-Lughod's works make compelling arguments in this regard. In their works, they also argue that appreciating these differences does not necessarily mean falling into moral relativism.
The second point is that we need to question the question first before answering with the typical "Not all Muslims are fundamentalist/extremists, and we need to consider the voices of moderation and peace too." The question that needs to be asked first is: what's wrong with being a fundamentalist and who defines a "fundamentalist" as such? If being a fundamentalist means believing in some fundamentals of religion, then most Muslims are fundamentalists! This issue connects to a dichotomy that underlies the popular discourse in the West. In this dichotomy Muslims are either "Good" or "Bad". Good Muslims are "modern", "moderate/progressive/rational", and "pro-Western". The Bad Muslims are "backward", "fundamentalist/extremists/fanatics", and "anti-Western". I am not saying that Jasmine and Stars necessarily falls into this trap. But it misses the voices and sensibilities of those considered to be the "Bad Muslims" (both male and female), particularly those that were part of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and those who are opposed to physical and symbolic intrusions by global powers. By no means is this segment of the population a minority in Iran, and they are the ones most frequently stereotyped in the "New Orientalist" narratives. Representing their lives and outlooks does not necessarily mean that one endorses or justifies them. But as risky and daunting as this task may be for the kind of project that Keshavarz is engaged in, without challenging the "Good vs. Bad" Muslim dichotomy most answers would come off as merely apologetic in the popular discourse.
Toward this end, we first need to scrutinize the normative assumptions of the liberal-secular discourse and its supposed moral superiority. (Examples are in the last two points – one relating to the discourse on women's rights, the other relating to the politics of war on terror). Next, we need to bring in the political and historical context in the picture. I have Mahmood Mamdani's important work Good Muslim, Bad Muslims (Pantheon, 2004) in mind that critically examines the American foreign policy during the Cold War era. In the first chapter of Jasmine and Stars, Keshavarz could also use a more elaborate discussion on the relation between power and knowledge, in how misrepresentations about Islam serve the hegemonic ambitions of global powers today. Hamid Dabashi's critical review of Reading Lolita in Tehran has some useful insight in this connection.
In the challenging task of representing the missing voices (of the supposed "Bad Muslims"), Keshavarz could perhaps find a parallel with the outrage she personally felt when it was unintentionally implied to her by another person in London that the Iranian culture and people were backward ("they ate with hands") (p. 24-25). The outrage was not about using or not using spoons per se. It was about the insinuation underlying it in that particular situation which she felt was undermining her culture and her own identity. She perceived it to be a kind of symbolic violence. It is clear from the text that she felt it rational and natural to respond to it. Other people can also have similar attachment to their religious symbols and values, and they can be as real and rational to them as any other reality out there.
On a side note, at times I also did not feel very convinced by the interpretation she presents in some of her anecdotal examples. For instance, the encounter she had at the grocery store in the checkout line where she thought that her Muslim name caused discomfort and suspicion in the next lady. She made that conclusion by just observing the lady's body language and thought that the lady's particular behavior was a reflection of the dominant cultural understandings (p. 16-17). One can similarly question the scene in the bus where she listened to a conversation between two soldiers who were returning from the war front in 1987. Based on a very short dialogue between the soldiers, our author suggests that "I can tell you for sure that neither of them had enjoyed the war, or had looked for heroism, and yet neither had run away..." (p.134). Not sure what she meant to imply with this, but the question is whether anything could be implied with certainty on the basis of that short conversation. In these and some other anecdotal examples, more ethnographic details would have helped the readers to judge for themselves whether they agree with her interpretation.
I hope that the critical remarks in the second half of this review would not to dissuade you from reading this wonderful book, which is full of gems. These remarks were only meant to seriously engage with her arguments. I highly recommend this book for personal readings and group discussions.
Ali A. is a doctoral student in social sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.