Phi Beta Cons

Orientalism: Again, and Again

Hamid Dashabi, professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia, is not fond of Azar Nafisi, particularly her volume Reading Lolita in Tehran, the Chronicle reports. He comments: “to me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi.” Really? Tell us what you really think, Professor Dashabi.

Dashabi casts “Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration’s plans for regime change in Iran.” How so?
Yet such interpretations of the book were a key reason that Mr. Dabashi subjected Reading Lolita in Tehran and its author to another sort of trial.

Scrape away Mr. Dabashi’s vitriol and his main complaint is that the book’s elevation of Western “classics” (like Nabokov’s Lolita) and its often slighting references to Iranian culture and politics combine to belittle Iran and its people and reduce them to stereotypes.
In such a reading, it is no accident that Ms. Atwood and Ms. Sontag explicitly juxtapose Ms. Nafisi’s celebration of liberal Western literature and its values with high regard for her damning portrayal of a retrograde and fundamentalist Islamic regime. The cumulative effect of Ms. Nafisi’s book, argues Mr. Dabashi, is to create a portrait of a nation that is backward and tribal — and thus worthy of regime change by all necessary and exigent means.

Nafisi opposed the invasion of Iraq – this seems irrelevant to Dabashi. Her greater sin, it seems, was her assault on Orientalism, a theory whose proponents do more than any critics to discredit, crying Imperialism whenever any eastern society is criticized. Here, the violation is particularly grave: not only is the Islamic regime presented poorly, but Western literature is rendered positively (!) A crude stereotype, indeed! What sort of calumnies against Eastern culture did she record?

Among the most powerful scenes in Reading Lolita in Tehran is the mock trial of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that Ms. Nafisi holds in her classroom at Tehran University in autumn 1979, amid the violence and chaos of the Iranian revolution.
One of her students has complained to her that The Great Gatsby is immoral and “representative of things American, and America was poison for us.” So Ms. Nafisi holds a “trial,” appointing the student as prosecutor, two other students as defense lawyer and judge, and herself in the role of the novel to be tried.
Among the defenses that she offers in that role is that “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil. …” While the class never renders a decision, Ms. Nafisi writes that “the excitement most students now showed was the best verdict as far as I was concerned.”

Shades of Empire, again! The Chronicle piece, most depressingly, quotes a number of American Islamic scholars who found Dabashi’s attack excessive, but agreed with the substance of his criticism, fearing that criticisms of Iran encouraged “regime change” in the larger public. One professor noted: “a person like Dabashi is worried about the U.S. pampering and preparing people for Iran.” Oh, criticisms of Iran are not to be ventured, lest they inflame rapacious neo-cons.

Azar Nafisi, a Lyndie Englund indeed. I suppose the worst of tortures that the Senate failed to ban was the possibility that Azar Nafisi would inflict The Great Gatsby on Guantanamo prisoners. Now that’s really inhumane.  


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