Is Reading Lolilta in Tehran neocon propoganda? - U2 Feedback

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Old 02-23-2007, 01:24 AM   #1
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Is Reading Lolilta in Tehran neocon propoganda?

I've not read the book, and suspect that Dabashi is going a bit overboard in his condemnation of it, but he raises some interesting points:

Domestically within the United States, Reading Lolita in Tehran promotes the cause of "Western Classics" at a time when decades of struggle by postcolonial, black and Third World feminists, scholars and activists has finally succeeded to introduce a modicum of attention to world literatures. To achieve all of these, while employed by the US Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowits, indoctrinated by the father of American neoconservatives Leo Straus (and his infamous tract Persecution and the Art of Writing ), coached by the Lebanese Shi'i neocon artist Fouad Ajami, wholeheartedly endorsed by Bernard Lewis (the most wicked ideologue of the US war on Muslims), is quite a feat for an ex-professor of English literature with not a single credible book or scholarly credential to her name other than Reading Lolita in Tehran.

There's a reaction to his article here, which I think is a bit more fair in its assessment:

Mr. Farhang agrees. "What neoconservatives and right-wing people want to portray is a view of an Iran that is beyond redemption, that cannot be reformed, and where internal voices cannot make progressive change," he says. "Her book has been used. This is not what she intended. But the book lends itself to an interpretation of Iran as a country beyond the pale."
Apologies if this has already been discussed, but I couldn't find any threads on it after a quick search.

(It's also worth contrasting, as this blogger points out, Newsweek's gallery on life on Iran with the iranpx photos on Flickr .)

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Old 02-26-2007, 03:38 AM   #2
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Meggie could you pretend I am King Julien and you are Maurice, and explain what his issue is, exactly? I'm not following his reasoning. But I am having trouble getting your first link to load, so I am more than a little uninformed. Who exactly is pushing this book as propoganda?

Lolita in Tehran is on the To Read pile.

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Old 02-26-2007, 08:45 AM   #3
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The first link is a pretty long piece, so if you have a slow connection, I can see where it might not get around to opening.

Dabashi doesn't argue that the book is literally propaganda, rather that in context it may tend to have that effect. Underpinning the whole thing is a pretty clear scholarly-infighting subtext--he's strongly committed to postcolonial theory, whereas she opposes it. Basically, I would paraphrase the key points of his argument (and more or less emulating his tone) as being:

-- Nafisi self-indulgently portrays herself as a uniquely courageous and high-minded liberator of young Iranian female minds by virtue of having introduced them to...hmmm...a handful of conspicuously white and hypervenerated icons of the Western literary tradition: Nabokov (hence the title...and, isn't it odd how she neglects to discuss the censorship that book encountered in the West as well?), James, Fitzgerald, and Austen. No writers are considered who take a more complicated view of the relationship between West and non-West (Forster, say, or Wilde, or Tolstoy), and the treatment of the four covered leans heavily towards an awed, lionizing tone. Furthermore, Iran's own literary, aesthetic and intellectual tradition goes unaddressed. These omissions may not be all that consequential with regard to her Iranian students, but when you consider the book's target audience and the political climate vis-a-vis Iran it lives in, they are potentially quite significant.

-- While Nafisi's nightmarish portayal of life as a woman in the early years of the Iranian Revolution (in the form of flashbacks woven through the much later episodes involving her students, which nominally drive the plot) is genuine and justified, one cannot help but notice that she acknowledges neither the long tradition of internal resistance to this (from Iranian academics, feminists, journalists, artists and activists, many of whom paid the ultimate price for it) nor the fact that the Shah's regime which preceded it (which, perhaps not so coincidentally, was much less hard on elite families such as hers) wasn't exactly a model of enlightened and tolerant democratic rule either. Again, this may not need to be explained to an Iranian, but Western audiences may be predisposed to lap up wholesale the resultingly decontextualized picture of Iranian culture and society as one of a people who need to be rescued from their own barbarity, fear of ideas and (apparently) lack of native capacity for cultural genius and accomplishment. Western canon to the rescue! (Although, isn't it kinda romantic and exotic how she compares herself to a modern-day Scheherazade? I guess Iranians like fairy tales too, who knew?)

-- The cover photo for the book symbolically epitomizes all the above. It features a charming and perhaps subtly eroticized pair of Iranian girls, their enraptured faces rimmed by veils, looking down in an obvious gesture of reading, inviting the reader to imagine that here are a couple of Nafisi's students savoring Mr. Nabokov's prose together. In reality, the image is cropped from a stock photo of two Iranian college students standing on a sidewalk at their university, poring over the 2000 parliamentary election results in a reformist newspaper together. Thus an image of modern young Iranian women expressing their interest in participatory politics is repackaged as an irresistibly appealing cliche of downtrodden yet still eager victims of Islam delighting in the heretofore unimagined riches which could be theirs if only the mullahs shared Ms. Nafisi's enlightened appreciation of Nabokov's cultural milieu (and hey, isn't Lolita, like, some kind of sex book or something? Oooh!...).

-- Ms. Nafisi is known to have chummy relationships with Paul Wolfowitz and Bernard Lewis (of "The Roots of Muslim Rage" fame), as well as having been represented as an author by, as the Chronicle article puts it, "the neoconservative speakers bureau Benador Associates"...hmmm, mere coincidence, or revealing hint of some possibly compromising sympathies which may have directly affected the marketing, popular reception and sales success of her book?

I have read part of Reading Lolita; brought it with me on a plane awhile back, and never wound up finishing the half of it or so I didn't complete during the flight. Not because of its 'propagandistic' tone, but because while I enjoyed some of the literary analysis and recollections of life during the Revolution, I personally found her prose gratingly purple and overwrought. Others might find it pleasing and lyrical. I can understand to a point where Dabashi is coming from, and why (per the Chronicle article) many Iranian-American scholars apparently share some of his concerns, even while frowning on the harshness of his critique, which at times seems to stray into character assassination. It does indeed seem to be true, both in my anecdotal experience talking to people who liked it and looking at some of the popular-media reviews of it, that they tend towards a rather superficial and emotional, "What a hell of a place to live in; thank God there are people like her brave enough to challenge young Iranians to explore more liberated perspectives" kind of thinking. And of course one can understand why some might find it alarming to contemplate the effect this sort of interpretation could grant the book in the currently perilously charged political climate; it could perhaps be incorporated into a larger salvo for the case that what Iran needs is a good military drubbing (and perhaps a Western-directed political renovation?--since they're, you know, too warped from a millennium's worth of Islam to be capable of achieving some kind of respectable modernity on their own). That said, I think Dabashi is (ironically, given his own background) rather a bit too quick to forget that Nafisi, being after all a scholar of Western literature, is of course predisposed to favor the canon she knows best in her efforts. Furthermore, his conflation of her choice of reading matter with her (of course not coincidental) disagreements with his own theoretical leanings comes across as bordering on the paranoid at times. And, while I wouldn't want to get into the kind of unwarranted character assumptions he himself makes, I can't help but wonder if, were he a woman instead, he might be a little more sympathetic to her having foregrounded the harsh restrictions the Revolutionaries imposed on women; while he does repeatedly acknowledge that and many other unacceptables of the regime, he does so only fleetingly in his haste to tease out the problematic overtones he finds in her book.

Sorry if I rudely butted in there meegannie, I found the stuff very interesting when you posted it but didn't really feel inclined to offer what little reaction I had to Dabashi's piece at the time.
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Old 02-26-2007, 10:08 AM   #4
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I've read the book a while ago, but I enjoyed it almost more as a piece of fiction than reality. The fact she changed the names of the women in the book, and some of the details always makes you wonder how much of it was factual.

That said, I don't really agree with the criticism, because as yolland said, she would be predisposed to teaching American literature - that was, after all, her academic background. That's not to say it's not a legitimate criticism that the third world was for a very long time subjected to Western literature at the expense of local and regional writers.

If you want a book written about Iran, by a woman, that is better, and IMO, fairer, pick up Shirin Ebadi's autobiography.
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Old 02-26-2007, 12:21 PM   #5
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I really liked the book as well, and it seems to me that when the book is obviously autobiographical (at least somewhat) it's ridiculous to say they didn't take all the details of life in Iran into consideration. We are all the heroes in our own stories, so if she makes herself into a saviour, well that's part of storytelling. I had a hard time accepting the argument that the book will justify invasion. Strangely, that kind of argument is the kind of argument they use in regimes that punish those who speak out. Next he'll be advocating that we burn the book.
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Old 02-26-2007, 07:34 PM   #6
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I read the book twice. I liked it. But this is an interesting point, I think it is a book that a neocon would like. It's obviously autobiographical and Nafisi is an interesting Iranian. I need to read Ebadi's book.

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