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My Sister, Guard Your Veil;
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B : diverse pieces, fairly interesting
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Lila Azam Zanganeh means this anthology she's put together to offer (Western, and specifically American) readers a better picture of Iran, "to corrode fixed ideas and turn cultural and political clichés on their heads". As she points out in her Introduction:
All in all, the gap between the multifaceted realities of Iranian political and cultural life and the simplified image one is often fed by politicians and mainstream media alike remains mind-boggling.Of course, this is not a strictly Iranian problem -- simplified images are the norm, about every country (and in every country). The subtitle -- Uncensored Iranian Voices -- suggests the book can offer a different kind of insight, but it has a hard time fully living up to that. Significantly, these 'Iranian' voices are largely (to admittedly varying degrees) expatriate voices, and though most have maintained some sort of connexion (though in some cases not having set foot there for a decade or more) their experience is a multinational one, steeped in the personal experience of how Iran and Iranians are perceived abroad. This has its benefits -- they know the audience they are addressing, and are perhaps able to tailor their contributions to it --, but that is also a drawback. Looking at Iran through what are in some (and perhaps many) respects Westernized eyes seems likely to miss aspects of what is in many ways a closed society that is familiar with the West only second and third hand. (Even among the few who do not live abroad are figures that must be considered international and are certainly very conscious of foreign perceptions of Iran, such as film director Abbas Kiarostami (though he mentions he hasn't seen any of the latest Hollywood productions "for years now").)
Azar Nafisi's bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran has perhaps done the most to shape current images of intellectual life in Iran, but despite its great success, it, of course, has only reached a relatively small audience -- much as this book can only hope to influence that tiny sub-group of the already small part of the population that reads serious books that might be interested in a more nuanced picture of Iran. Can it help readers understand the newspaper headlines and the TV reports -- notably at this time (early 2006) the ravings (especially against Israel) of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power ? Certainly, the background material it offers, the local colour and observations, do make for some better understanding -- but in avoiding, for the most part, the biggest issues (at least as seen from America) it often seems almost beside the point. The frequently found complaint that Iran/ians are misperceived and misunderstood is perfectly reasonable, yet often seems almost petty when considering the larger picture (and is surely something that anyone who has ever been any sort of minority -- national, racial, religious, etc. -- anywhere, even if just on a short visit as a tourist, has experienced).
There's a good variety of voices and pieces in this anthology -- interviews, stories, essays -- but they are of varying interest and use. Nafisi's eloquent essay gets things off to a nice start, offering a good survey of the changes imposed on the country over the past decades, and the consequences. But it's not all like that. Particularly disappointing is Marjane Satrapi's simplistic 'How can one be Persian ?', where she takes the same approach to her writing as she does to her cartoon-drawing -- simple, black and white -- to far less impressive effect. She claims:
The worst is how "Muslim" is defined. What is a Muslim ? Unfortunately, the West equates him or her with Bin Laden, that is, with the most radical of all wretched ideas.With such a sweeping generalization (and one that doesn't seem to be even close to accurate) she is just using the same broad brush to tar the 'West' with as she believes it uses on Iran (and Islam in general). The image of extremist views (à la Bin Laden) as being representative of Islam is nothing new -- witness, among much else, militant Palestinian activity over the decades, the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 (and Ayatollah Khomeini in general), the Taliban, as well as the fatwa and fuss about Salman Rushdie's novel; nevertheless, Western definitions (as Satrapi means it) of "Muslim" obviously vary greatly depending on local circumstances and experience, and the cave-dwelling thug is surely widely recognised as being on the very fringe of Islam. That said, most Americans are unlikely to be concerned with a nuanced view of Iran or "actual people, like me" (as Satrapi closes her piece) when there is the possibility of it becoming a nuclear power -- a threat that, unfairly or not, drowns out most other concerns. (Of course, the rhetoric of those in power in Iran (reinforced, admittedly, by those in power in the United States) also helps to make that extremist label look like the proper one.)
Satrapi also suggests:
Thanks to people like the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, the writer Azar Nafisi, and the Nobel Laureate for Peace Shirin Ebadi, the image of Iran has been transformed a bit.But has it ? Kiarostami's films are art-house fare (at least in the US) and reach a tiny audience, and we're fairly certain that not more than a handful of the American readers of this book could say for sure what Ebadi has been up to for the last year, or even where she currently is. Nafisi's book has sold phenomenally well, but is also limited to an audience that was likely already more aware (or at least receptive to information) about the actual conditions in Iran; the people that should be reached -- indeed, the masses -- surely remain entirely untouched by these figures, their image of Iran still largely shaped by memories of the Shah and of Ayatollah Khomeini. Image-making is much harder -- indeed, on the level she hopes for (and this book as a whole seems to be trying for) likely impossible.
Other pieces look at the question of race (Gelareh Asayeh writing 'I grew up thinking I was white' only to find that things look different in America), Jewish identity in Iran (Roya Hakakian), and numerous variations on the treatment of women. Among the most disturbing and effective ones is Mehrangiz Kar's 'Death of a Mannequin', a clever look at the imposition of the veil on women and its consequences.
Azadeh Moaveni's look at 'Sex in the time of mullahs' is an interesting glimpse of sex in contemporary Iran, but only scratches the surface; the subject is surely more complex. (Here as elsewhere readers would surely also want to know how it is possible that such frowned upon (and illegal) activity is so widespread; like several of the other pieces, this one throws up more questions than it answers.) His statement: "The Islamic Republic has killed romance" has a nice ring to it, but doesn't explain what romance there was before it (or how the situation differs from that in other countries, as the lament that romance (admittedly varyingly defined) is dead is surely a widespread one).
Reza Aslan's 'From here to mullahcracy' is helpful in trying to describe the peculiar form of government in Iran -- not a straightforward theocracy or democracy, but rather a mess of perverted ideals:
In truth, the Islamic Republic is neither Islamic nor a republic. It can be described neither as a theocracy nor as a democracy. Iran is something else entirely. It is a "mullahcracy," a bizarre hybrid of religious and third world fascism that, like the fascisms of the past century, has turned into an embarrassing example of populism gone awry.Among the most interesting pieces is Nafisi-student Naghmeh Zarbafian's 'Misreading Kundera in Tehran', which considers Kundera's Identity and, specifically, the text in Persian translation. Because the novel was radically altered in translation it makes for an excellent case-study of contemporary Iran: the changes, demanded by the authorities and/or guessed in advance by the translator and publisher, prove as revealing as the text itself -- but just as interesting are the reactions by Iranian readers to the altered text they are presented with.
A handful of these texts -- notably those by Nafisi, Aslan, and Zarbafian -- are enough to make the collection worthwhile, and many of the others are also of some interest, but the big test of such an anthology is whether it does allow (or force) readers to see Iran and Iranians in a new light. Presumably, the answer in part depends on what the reader brings to the book, but, though more varied, it doesn't really offer insight beyond that to be gained from Reading Lolita in Tehran. Disappointingly, far too little that is likely of interest and concern to readers is addressed.
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