October 29, 2006


A Collision of Prose and Politics: A prominent professor's attack on a best-selling memoir sparks debate among Iranian scholars in the U.S. (RICHARD BYRNE, 10/13/06, Chronicle of Higher Education)

[Hamid] Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University who has been active in the antiwar movement since the attacks of September 11, 2001, heard a call to action.

The article prompted him to dust off an essay that he had written a few years before and publish it in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram. His target? Not President Bush or the Pentagon, but Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran and a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington.

Ms. Nafisi's memoir, published by Random House in 2003, blended a harrowing portrayal of the life of women in post-revolutionary Iran with a powerful personal testimony about the power of literary classics. The book found a wide audience, and its success made Ms. Nafisi a celebrity.

Gazing at the book through the lens of literary theory and politics, Mr. Dabashi had a much less favorable reaction to it. His blistering essay cast Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration's plans for regime change in Iran. He drew heavily on the late scholar Edward Said's ideas about the relationship between Western literature and empire and the fetishization of the "Orient" to attack Reading Lolita in Tehran as a prop for American imperialism. He also pilloried Ms. Nafisi personally for what he described as her cozy relationship with prominent American neoconservatives.

"By seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire," wrote Mr. Dabashi, "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 color, 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."

Oughtn't a patriotic Iranian's fondest wish be to get their nation going as well as India? It's too late for Iran to reap the benefits of being an Anglo-American colony, but not too late for it to learn from the Anglosphere.

THE IRAN PLANS: Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb? (SEYMOUR M. HERSH, 2006-04-17, The New Yorker)
Native informers and the making of the American empire: 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 (Hamid Dabashi, June 2006, Al-Ahram)

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.

Master of the Island: Which country is the best colonizer? (Joel Waldfogel, Oct. 19, 2006, Slate)
Book clubbed,/a>: A prominent scholar accuses Azar Nafisi’s bestselling memoir, ‘‘Reading Lolita in Tehran,’’ of being neoconservative propaganda aimed at Islam (Christopher Shea, October 29, 2006, Boston Globe)
Dabashi’s extreme, long-winded assault on Nafisi, who has taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington since 1997, might have caused little commotion had the Chronicle not given it so much attention. Still, it raises a host of issues.

First, beneath the rhetorical bluster and postcolonial jargon(‘‘Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design,’’ Dabashi writes of Nafisi, ‘‘managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home—all in one act’’) there’s the question of whether anything in the book could be said to match the critic’s description. More broadly, there is the issue of how a discussion of women’s rights in the Muslim world ought to be framed in the West.

In ‘‘Reading Lolita,’’ Nafisi describes her apartment as an oasis for ‘‘my girls’’: outside was a ‘‘war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined, forced to wash the toilets, humiliated.’’ She writes wistfully of the free lives she and even her mother led before the revolution.

Dabashi is a firm critic of the Islamic Republic, describing, in an interview, the current government as ‘‘misogynist’’ and as a practitioner of ‘‘gender apartheid.’’ But he says ‘‘Reading Lolita’’ is devoid of context. In her pining for the past, he charges, Nafisi is ‘‘entirely silent’’ about the atrocities of the Shah whom the revolution deposed. American novels are held up as examples of the best that’s been thought and said—but without any discussion of how Iranian distrust of America is rooted in the CIA’s role in the anti-democratic coup that restored the Shah to power in 1953. Nor is there any reference to Iranian democratic activism in the memoir, or any acknowledgment of Iran’s own rich literature and cinema.

Dabashi makes other, less convincing arguments, such as his claim that the book encourages an unwholesome sexual interest in its subjects (‘‘Orientalized pedophilia’’). Such instances have led some observers to question the intellectual merit of the brand of literary criticism he practices. In an online interview, Dabashi even compared Nafisi with Lynndie England, who was convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. ‘‘Over what kind of faculty does [Columbia president] Lee Bollinger preside?’’ wrote The New Republic’s Marty Peretz.

And yet, despite the several thousand words he spends eviscerating the book, Dabashi’s main point is not about this specific text, he says. Rather, ‘‘It’s the questions I raise about the selective memory and selective amnesia’’; the book’s black-and-white portrayal of Iran, he argues, mirrors the simplified picture pressed by conservative hawks.

The Sins of Edward Said (Ibn Warraq and Lynn Chu, Writers Rep)
Late in life, Edward Said made a rare conciliatory gesture. In 1998, he accused the Arab world of hypocrisy for defending a holocaust denier on grounds of free speech. After all, he observed, free speech "scarcely exists in our own societies." The history of the modern Arab world was, he admitted, one of "political failures," "human rights abuses," "stunning military incompetences," "decreasing production, [and] the fact that alone of all modern peoples, we have receded in democratic and technological and scientific development."

At last, Said was right about something. Sadly, Said will go down in history for having practically invented the contemporary intellectual argument for Muslim rage. Orientalism, Said's bestselling multiculturalist manifesto, introduced the Arab world to the art and science of victimology. Unquestionably the most influential book of recent times for Arabs and Muslims, Orientalism stridently blamed the entirety of Western history and scholarship for the ills of the Muslim world. It justified Muslim hatred of the West, taught them the Western art of wallowing in self-pity over one's victimhood, and gave vicious anti-Americanism a sophisticated, high literary gloss. Said was naturally quite popular in France.

Were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, the Arab world would be great once more, Orientalism said. Islamic fundamentalism too, as we all now know, calls the West a great Satan that oppresses Islam by its very existence. Orientalism simply lifted that concept, and made it over into Western radical multiculturalist chic.

In his recent book Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman traces the absorption of 20th century Marxist justifications of rage and terror by Arab intellectuals, and shows how it became a powerful philosophical predicate for the current Muslim campaign of terror. Said was the last and most influential exponent of this trend. Said and his followers also had the effect of cowing liberal academics in the West into a politically correct, self-censoring silence about Islamic fundamentalist violence for much of the two decades prior to 9/11. Orientalism's rock star status among the literary elite put middle eastern scholars in constant jeopardy of being labelled "orientalist" oppressors. And some of these scholars, most famously Salman Rushdie, and less famously myself, must to this day remain in hiding in order to protect ourselves and our families from Islamic extremists who regard us apostates from Islam and targets for murder.

Orientalism was a political polemic that masqueraded as a work of scholarship. Its historical analysis was over the years gradually debunked, mostly in academic journals, by numerous scholars of impeccable skills and integrity. A literary critic, it became clear that Said used poetic license, not empirical inquiry, while couching his conclusions as facts. His scholarly technique was to spray his charges of racism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism on the whole of Western scholarship of the Arab world. This technique, familiar to anyone in the field of higher learning in America over the past 20 years, was to claim a moral high ground due to his race and his Ivy League faculty chair, then to deploy slippery, deceptive rhetoric, lies, and ad hominem smears to paint all scholars who might disagree as racists and collaborators with imperialism. Orientalism was larded with half-truths, errors and lies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 29, 2006 10:25 AM

--Oughtn't a patriotic Iranian's fondest wish be to get their nation going as well as India? --

No, he'd be in Iran, but he isn't.

Posted by: Sandy P at October 29, 2006 3:03 PM

So Dabashi doesn't exactly like "Reading Lolita in Teheran"?

That just confirms how valuable the book really is.

Think I'll read it again.

In fact, everyone should. That is, anyone who wants to know what the larger conflict against religious totalitarianism is all about. Or anyone who wants to feel any sympathy for the Iranians who have been consistently trampled by the mullahcracy for the past 25 years. Or anyone who wants to find out how to really read a book.


Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 30, 2006 4:15 AM


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