A prominent scholar accuses Azar Nafisis bestselling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, of being neoconservative propaganda aimed at Islam
Author Azar Nafisi (top, right) and Columbia's Hamid Dabashi (below, right).
IF THE UNITED STATES takes military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, planning for which has been much speculated about but denied by the Bush administration, who will deserve the blame? The Iranian regime, for its brazen defiance of the international ban on nuclear proliferation? Americas neoconservatives, itching to remake the Middle East? Or Azar Nafisi, the Iranian expatriate author of the 2003 womens book-club fave Reading Lolita in Tehran?
Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, would blame all three, but its his vituperative attack on Nafisi that earned him a spot this month on the cover of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In Reading Lolita, Nafisi tells of her experience as a professor of English literature at Tehran University during and after the 1979 revolution. Unable to endure the indignity of the Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the university (final straw: shes ordered to wear a veil), she organized a small, private class for seven female students in her apartment in Tehran. The book interweaves accounts of the womens earnest discussions of such books as Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice with much commentary on the womens circumscribed lives in the Islamic Republic.
Yet this is no merely uplifting memoir, Dabashi charged in an essay published in the Cairo-based, English-language paper Al-Ahram. One can now clearly see...that this book is partially responsible for cultivating the U.S. (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran, Dabashi wrote. The book, he went on to argue, feeds into the stereoptype of Islam as vile, violent, and above all abusive of womenand thus fighting against Islamic terrorism, ipso facto, is also to save Muslim women from the evil of their men.
Dabashis 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 homeall in one act) theres the question of whether anything in the book could be said to match the critics description. More broadly, there is the issue of how a discussion of womens 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 thats been thought and saidbut without any discussion of how Iranian distrust of America is rooted in the CIAs 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 Irans 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 Republics Marty Peretz.
And yet, despite the several thousand words he spends eviscerating the book, Dabashis main point is not about this specific text, he says. Rather, Its the questions I raise about the selective memory and selective amnesia; the books black-and-white portrayal of Iran, he argues, mirrors the simplified picture pressed by conservative hawks.
Nafisi herself declined a request for an interview. She spoke briefly with the Chronicle, but did not respond directly to the points Dabashi raisesexcept to say she is not the neoconservative he accuses her of being and that shes more interested in literature than in politics.
Ali Banuazizi, the codirector of Boston Colleges Middle East studies program, agrees that the article is not worth the attention its gotten, largely because it is so intemperate. But Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, says that when speaking out to prevent war, a writer should be cut some slack on tone.
While Reading Lolita humanizes its female Iranian protagonist, says Jamal, the book lacks an analytical description of the situation on the ground. It omits any discussion of Islamic strands of feminism in Iran, which remain strong, despite the complete deterioration of womens rights since the revolution. Iranian divorce laws remain liberal by Middle Eastern standards, and a small-but-not-negligible number of women serve in the Iranian Parliament.
In her bestseller, Nafisi laments that women in the Islamic Republic werent allowed to define themselves. Whoever we were...we had become the figment of someone elses dreams. History has a way of repeating itself.
Christopher Sheas column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.