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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism / autobiographical

Jasmine and Stars

Fatemeh Keshavarz

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To purchase Jasmine and Stars

Title: Jasmine and Stars
Author: Fatemeh Keshavarz
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 165 pages
Availability: Jasmine and Stars - US
Jasmine and Stars - UK
Jasmine and Stars - Canada
  • Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran

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Our Assessment:

B- : valid and important points, muddled presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Middle East Journal . Summer/2007 Nasrin Rahimieh

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The complete review's Review:

       Fatemeh Keshavarz's Jasmine and Stars promises Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran, but it doesn't deliver nearly as much as one might hope. Keshavarz's book is meant to be a corrective and response to Azar Nafisi's bestselling and ubiquitous Reading Lolita in Tehran, but Keshavarz tries to go about it in too many different ways, diluting the valid and important points she makes. She tries to convey that contemporary Iran is a more complex place than Nafisi and her ilk ('the New Orientalists', as she calls them) allow for, but in all this mix of very personal memoir and literary essay (which includes a close reading of a recent Iranian novel and a critical dissection of Nafisi's book ) that message ultimately isn't as convincing as it should be.
       Going with the very personal touch may have seemed an obvious choice: the sympathetic Keshavarz and her interesting memories and experiences make for a humanized account. Nafisi relied on the same trick (though in her case it was more of a trick, since she acknowledges about her book: "The facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful, but I have made every effort to protect friends and students, baptizing them with new names and disguising them perhaps even from themselves, changing and interchanging facets of their lives so that their secrets are safe"), and much of the power of both books lies in this 'true-life' aspect. Unfortunately, Keshavarz's touch isn't quite as sure, and she treads on dangerous ground when she promises in her Introduction:

     You will laugh and cry with me and all the ordinary Iranians you will meet, some from my own family and many I could not myself have met. The compelling voices you will hear will not be those of politicians and ideologues, but of writers and poets as well as family members and friends.
       [Usually if any writer promises us that we will "laugh and cry" with them over the course of their book, it's reason enough to fling it away right there and then (authors shouldn't burden their texts -- or their readers -- with such expectations); only our interest in the subject-matter kept us going past that point here. Note, however, that we neither laughed nor cried -- and were never close to doing either -- at any point while reading this book.]
       Keshavarz's main gripe is with the simplistic picture of Iran (and Islam, and the entire Middle East) in the West. She believes a New Orientalist narrative dominates which, for example:
explains almost all undesirable Middle Eastern incidents in terms of Muslim men's submission to God and Muslim women's submission to men.
       And it is a narrative that:
replicates the totalizing -- and silencing -- tendencies of the old Orientalists, by virtue of erasing, through unnuanced narration, the complexity and richness in the local culture.
       Fair enough -- and with Nafisi's book she has the perfect example to work with. Unfortunately, she's not too sure about her plan of attack, and the multi-pronged effort she offers isn't nearly as effective as it could be.
       As Keshavarz notes, one of the remarkable things about Reading Lolita in Tehran is how little attention Nafisi pays to Persian literature. The texts that are discussed are Western texts, and Iranian literature barely rates a mention, much less any discussion:
RLT's view of Persian literature is both revealing and typical. It does acknowledge that stars such as Attar shone once upon a time, but they are things of the past. "There was such a teasing, playful quality to their words, such joy in the power of language to delight and astonish," the book says of Rumi, Hafez, and Attar. But then -- poof ! -- they have all disappeared. "I kept wondering: when did we lose that quality ?" (RLT, 172) The author thus concludes her discussion of classic Persian literary masterpieces. The answer is rather simple, we have not lost them. Modern counterparts of Attar are very much present in contemporary Iran. They are lost on authors who do not know the subject well or choose a dismissive attitude toward contemporary Persian culture.
       Nafisi's unwillingness to even consider recent Iranian literature is one of the major flaws of her book -- and it's something we mentioned and discussed at some length in our review -- and in a book subtitled Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran one certainly hopes to find that (local) 'more' ..... Unfortunately, here Keshavarz disappoints as well. She makes a nice case for the great Forough Farrokhzad, and the reminiscences of learning of the poet's tragic death (from her ninth grade physics teacher) are effective (and convincing in conveying what a significant figure she was), and Keshavarz also devotes a chapter to a close reading of Shahrnush Parsipur's 1989 novel, Women without Men, but that's almost the extent of it. These selective examples may be impressive but hardly give a sense of any bigger picture -- even of the very limited amount of contemporary Iranian fiction available in English translation.
       Keshavarz perhaps means to make a case for Iranian culture in the broadest sense, and hence devotes as much (or rather: as little) space to, for example, Iranian cinema as she does to recent authors other than Farrokhzad and Parsipur, but in doing so her argument may well look flimsy. (It's all the more baffling since contemporary -- including post-revolutionary -- Iranian literature is rich with impressive examples for the picking.)
       Keshavarz's arguments also look a bit flimsy in how she addresses many of the contentious issues that are familiar to, say, American audiences. She takes the lopsided picture (of Iran/Islam/etc. in the West) and tries to right it by generally taking relatively extreme examples and explaining what is wrong with them. But she does not address many of the broader issues adequately: yes, Jasmine and Stars may well offer readers an Iran they do not recognise, but that, as likely, will just add to their confusion, as Keshavarz only reacts to some of the aspects of the Iran they are familiar with from media reports and the like (i.e. many questions about and features of the society (and regime) remain unaddressed). Too often she offers a sunny-side fact -- there are more women at university than men ! -- without considering all the facets of the issue (and, specifically, addressing many of the concerns the admittedly often misguided and misinformed American or Western audience might have). The chapter devoted to the de-bunking of Reading Lolita in Tehran is perhaps the most useful in getting into specifics, but even here there are limits to how effective Keshavarz's point/counter-point approach is.
       As someone who returns to Iran every year, and is engaged both with local culture (and teaches it at an American university) as well as on a purely personal level -- with friends and family who have both stayed in Iran or gone abroad --, Keshavarz would seem to be well-positioned to offer insight into the country and its society. There are many nuggets strewn through the text, but the presentation is just too much of a mess. The mix of personal and critical doesn't work very well, though the different strands are promising (and, often, interesting) enough; a tighter focus on one or the other -- a more straightforward memoir, or framing the book entirely in response to Nafisi's -- likely would have been far more effective. But what's most disappointing is that Keshavarz doesn't convey the true riches (and especially the breadth) of Iranian culture, and that she doesn't fully face up to many of the issues Iranians have to deal with (such as even a limited discusssion of literary censorship in post-revolutionary Iran).
       Jasmine and Stars does point out many of the flaws of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and given the success (and influence) of that book is probably worth reading just for that (especially for those readers otherwise unfamiliar with Iranian literature), but with its own limited perspective is far from definitive itself.

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Jasmine and Stars: Reviews: Fatemeh Keshavarz-Karamustafa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian-born author Fatemeh Keshavarz was born in 1952 and teaches at Washington University in St.Louis.

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