The burgeoning cannon of memoirs and fiction written by or about Iranian women has saturated the literary scene of post-9/11America. We have seen literary works translated or mostly written by exiles that entice the curious western reader with Orientalist tales ofMuslim women as veiled, unveiling, powerless victims, or brave escapees of an inherently oppressive patriarchy. The titles and contents of many of these works show that appealing to a specific political climate and power structure is a key factor behind their production, dissemination, and consumption. Therefore, despite this literary boom, it is not certain whether these books add anything to our knowledge of Muslims or if, in fact, they actually obfuscate it.
I read several such memoirs while drawing up the required reading lists for the undergraduate courses that I teach at an American liberal arts college. Working under the assumption that exposure to literary self-representation is an effective way of familiarizing students with contemporary Muslim women’s lives, I eventually chose three books written in English by three contemporary Iranian women specifically for western audiences. In its own particular way, each one addresses gender and the experiences of women in Muslim societies: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House: 2003), Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran (University of North Carolina Press: 2007), and Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening: A Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country (Random House: 2007).
After resigning her faculty position at a Tehran university in 1995, Nafisi gathered together seven of her best female students for a weekly study of western literature in her home. Reading Lolita in Tehran chronicles their reading of western novels blended with the observations and discussions of the students’ personal sorrows and joys. The book is structured around four parts: “Lolita,” “Gatsby,” “James,” and “Austin.”We are told in the first part’s opening page that if Nafisi were to choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with women’s lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would be Lolita. Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955 and 1967) is a tale of sexual obsession and the subsequent affair of Humbert Humbert, a literature scholar, with Lolita, his widowed landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter. It is hard to miss Nafisi’s working assumption (even though she has denied this in her interviews) that exposure to the works of such western novelists as Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James enables Iranian women to assert their agency and counter Islamist dictatorship. To recognize all literary allusions in Nafisi’s memoir, however, requires a prior knowledge of western literature. In fact, students in my “Islam and Women” class found the laborious literary criticism passages a drawback.
Nafisi critiques totalitarianism through the liberating power of literature and offers several interesting insights. For example, just as the real Lolita is unknown except through Humbert, the narrator, the lives of Iran’s women are subsumed under the desire of those who appropriate them (pp. 36-37). She writes: “The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelveyear-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another” (p. 33 [emphasis in the original]). In more than one passage, Nafisi hints at the uncanny similarities between the mechanisms of domination and control employed by Humbert, the much older seducer who exonerates himself by implicating his victims, and Ayatollah Khomeini, who erased the lived experiences of women by turning them into figments of his imagination (pp. 25, 42, 43, and 50). Through his portrayal of Humbert, Nafisi notes in a moment of sudden inspiration, that Nabokov is, in fact, taking revenge against anyone who has tried to shape others according to their own fantasies and desires.
Nafisi’s dearth of resources becomes apparent when she states that even though these girls wanted so much more from life than they had been given, “there was nothing in reality” that she could offer them (p. 32). Her advice, consequently, pointed to the possibility of “another world,” one beyond a life of consistent brutality in which heroes and heroines are saved from utter despair. This world, she maintains, is “only attainable through fiction” (p. 32). It is understandable that Nafisi, as a scholar of western literature, grounds her advice to her “girls,” as she affectionately calls them, in western novels.
The problem, however, arises when Iran is portrayed as a static anti-modern violent nation in perpetual conflict with western democracy and individual liberty. The charge of being a “native informer” against Nafisi is not quite accurate, for aside from the recycled stereotypes that conceal the local culture’s complexity and richness, there is little in-depth information about Iran or its people here. The book ultimately upholds the structure of the West’s colonializing power and perpetuates notions of a barbaric–sexualized Muslim “Orient” (e.g., pp. 210-12).
Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran is written with two specific goals in mind: to interrogate what she calls the “New Orientalist” narrative by offering an in-depth critical understanding of this “eye-witness” literature (such as Reading Lolita in Tehran) and to provide an alternative approach for learning about an unfamiliar culture (p. 2). New Orientalism, like the Orientalism of old, she writes, simplifies its subject’s complexity and richness and maintains theWest’s narrative of comprehensive superiority and hegemony against the natives’ inferiority.
The emerging New Orientalism, however, employs native or semi-native informers and is cast in the insider’s voice (p. 3). Keshavarz reveals that she chose Reading Lolita in Tehran as an example of New Orientalism not only because it is one of the twenty-first century’s best-selling titles, but also because of the little-known furious debate it has caused among American Muslims in general and IranianAmericans in particular (p. 6).
Many of these Iranians do not recognize Nafisi’s distorted and exaggerated account of life in post-revolutionary Iran that ultimately makes Iranians appear to be subhuman. One such example is found on page 25 of Reading Lolita in Tehran: “We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent – namely ideology.” One cannot help but wonder if there could actually be any culture in a world that “denies merit to literaryworks.” Keshavarz sums up the flaw in this statement when she points out that Nafisi’s Iran is one in which “cinemas had been burnt, professors expelled students who disagreed with them, uncles who considered themselves ‘pure and chaste’ Muslims molested their nieces, and every twelve-year-old girl was ‘considered long ripe for marriage’” (p.19). She successfully portrays a culture that did more than value the world of literature; it “lived it” through the ups and downs of life (Jasmine and Stars, 28-29).