By Maryam Elika Ansari
May 21st, 2013
In recent years, there has been a surge in Iranian women’s diaspora writing about life in post-revolutionary Iran. I will draw your attention to two such accounts, which portray two very different activities with distinct results, both taking place in Tehran. One entails a private book club with predominantly female students who get together to discuss works of Western literature. They do so clandestinely because the books do not appear to be endorsed by the Islamic Republic. The second account illustrates therapy sessions, where different types of people go to the author in question for psychoanalytical help.
The main difference between these two books is blatantly obvious. Gohar Homayounpour’s Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran, published in 2012, tries to send across the message that people everywhere are essentially the same, despite the respective politics and culture they reside under. She admirably challenges popular myths which suggest that people living under an Islamic Republic must be so horrifically different from those living under a democratic regime. The patients she describes come to her with personal issues as far-ranging as affairs, relationship problems, bad dreams, divorce, sex, and so on, proving to be nothing out of the ordinary as many might expect from an alien culture, as is Iran’s for Western readers.
Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the other hand, published only nine years previous to its counterpart, does the exact opposite. Whether the author knows it or not, by constructing a set of stock characters as villains – the radical Islamists and Marxist students she comes across during her teaching career in Iran just before and after the revolution – for instance, all she does is to create a reductionist, black and white picture of post-revolutionary Iran; one which she herself presumably attempts to refute.
They appear to be personal accounts directly from the source of the orient, but equally totalizing and reductionist
Nafisi’s obsession with the Hijab in her writing also causes some concern. For instance, by suggesting that her students ‘burst into colour’ only after shedding their ‘mandatory robes and veils’, she represents the Hijab as both symbol of oppression and concealment of women’s true identity, thus enhancing millions of inaccurate and often condescending views of ‘oppressed’ Muslim women.
Further patronization comes through her inadvertent belittling of Iranian culture. By describing Iranian affairs through the almost exclusive use of Western literature, writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen, with simultaneous disregard for Iran’s own literary culture (with the mere exception of 1001 Nights, the only known superficial example of Middle Eastern medieval literature in the West, which features only at the beginning), Nafisi lends credence to orientalist beliefs of the ‘other’ being incapable of defining or depicting itself.
Gohar Homayounpour, on the other hand, does much to combat orientalist views on this account by making use of a series of European, Iranian, and other literary works in her narrative. She mentions classic works such as Homer’s Odyssey, Ferdowsi’s medieval Shahnameh, as well as more modern literature by Freud, Julia Kristeva, Milan Kundera, and Salman Akhtar. This is another praiseworthy way for the author to intermingle cultures in her narrative, to show how they complement and enhance one another. There is no superior literature, nor any cultural ‘others’ in Homayounpour’s book, just distinct ones.
To acknowledge that these books are both situated in Tehran, that they depict and recount the experiences of the Iranian people, is indeed hard to fathom. These authors both do seem to be doing something in post-revolutionary Tehran, however, their only overlapping point appears to be the said period and place.
Nafisi’s controversial book has received much more praise than criticism, but the latter is nowhere near negligent. Scholars like Hamid Dabashi and Fatemeh Keshavarz have rightly denounced the book for what it is: a fragmented and distorted glimpse into what is only a small part of the multifaceted Iranian society and culture. Whether Nafisi herself realizes it or not, she is lending much credence to orientalist narratives about the ‘other’.
There is such a thing as neo-orientalist narratives, these scholars argue; those which are more cleverly disguised, as they appear to be personal accounts directly from the source of the orient, but equally totalizing and reductionist as those of the traditional colonialist. It is now the ‘oriental’ that speaks – one might say; but this is just what makes the neo-orientalist narrative so dangerous – it gives an illusion of veracity that cannot be refuted as it comes straight from the oriental’s own mouth.
In a media-dominated world where Iran’s alleged nuclear program is at the forefront of so many political debates, not to mention, central for much popular US entertainment shows as well, Homeland and 24 being only two examples; depictions of Iran such as Azar Nafisi’s are beyond detrimental. Like it or not, as an Iranian author writing about Iran, one has certain responsibilities. Nafisi must be aware that her book does not just act as her memoirs, but rather, has deeper political consequences, especially for a Western audience who has no such knowledge or loyalties to Iran as she herself might have. For many, this book may be a starting point, a guide to the Islamic Republic of Iran, if you will. This image of Iran as an enemy – the ‘other’ – becomes hyper-inflated in such accounts. She is therefore inadvertently playing up such ideas and ultimately lending credence to condescending, neo-liberalist ideas of the need to save Middle Easterners from themselves.
In the end, the two accounts relate very different perspectives of what it means to live in post-revolutionary Tehran, and to interact with its people. It is important to note how utterly distinct, even contradictory, these experiences are, and therefore how different every person’s perspective is likely to be. This just goes to affirm the fact that there is no monolithic account of life under the Islamic Republic.
As an Iranian living abroad, I personally have much more respect for Homayounpour’s views, which, much to the horror of her initial critics and sceptics, does not set out to illustrate and dramatize shock narratives about living under an oppressive regime, but rather, intends to pursue another much needed goal in modern literature – to de-orientalise the oriental; to enhance the point that no matter where we are from, we are all just human.
This article originally appeared at Your Middle East.