“Written to enlighten, guaranteed to offend”
A Publication of Seth J. Frantzman
July 31, 2009
Reading Ayn Rand in Tehran
Seth J. Frantzman
July 24, 2009
The bestselling book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author Azar Nafasi narrates her experience of living in Iran during and after the revolution of 1979, the subsequent hardships she faced as a lecturer at the University of Tehran and her decision to leave the country in 1997. The book’s central focus is the story of a secretive book club the author founded in 1995 where her and seven female students read Western authors and discussed women, sex and marriage.
Among the books the author exposed her students to were works by Jane Austen, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, Saul Bellow, Joseph Konrad and the ubiquitous Vladamir Nabokov. She brought them great canon of Western literature and through this asked the students to examine their lives in Iran. In the end, although the book was translated into 32 languages, it came in for harsh criticism by the academy, the thinkers, the progressives, the liberals and the Islamists in the West. Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia claimed that it was part of “Orientalism” and that “By seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire, Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India.” He referred to Nafasi as a “native informer” and “colonial agent”. Odd, considering that it was Nafasi who stayed in Iran after the revolution and Dabashi who has suckled at the breast of the Western academy. But why be surprised, the Western progressive institutions are the primary sponsors of radical Islamist thought. The West produced other harsh criticism. Fatameh Keshavarz, a literature professor at Washington University, and another expat Iranian, claimed that the book was had “damaging misrepresentations” about Iran. Odd again considering that it was Nafasi who lived most of her life in Iran and not Keshavarz, the Western Islamic nationalist. Seyed Mohammad, for once an actual Iranian living in Iran and teaching at Tehran University, also claimed that the book was Orientalist.
Dabashi, the Columbia University professor (coming from a university that already sponsors other extremists such as Abu el Haj and Khalidi) even criticized the cover of the book, which depicts two headscarf clad women; “the denoted message here seems quite obvious: these two young women are reading 'Lolita' in Tehran—they are reading ('Lolita'), and they are in Tehran (they look Iranian and they have scarves on their head). The connoted message is equally self-evident: Imagine that—illicit sex with teenagers in an Islamic Republic! How about that, the cover suggestively proposes and asks, can you imagine reading Lolita in Tehran? Look at these two Oriental Lolitas! The racist implication of the suggestion—as with astonishment asking, 'can you even imagine reading that novel in that country?'--competes with its overtly Orientalised pedophilia and confounds the transparency of a marketing strategy that appeals to the most deranged Oriental fantasies of a nation already petrified out of its wits by a ferocious war....equally evident in this cover is the whole genre of colonial picture postcards of young Algerian women—staged, produced and bought by the French colonial officers. Malek Alloula has studied these pictures in The Colonial Harem (1995).”
But Dabashi’s point is worth exploring. Lolita is about illicit sex with teenagers. But is this western? In a recent story from South Africa we read about Fatima Hassam who was married to her husband Ebrahim for 39 years. One day when returning from vacation she found that Ebrahaim had married a second wife, a young girl named Maggie who converted to Islam for the marriage and is not called ‘Mirriam’. Lolita is only western insofar as it is Islamic. And therein lies the problem. Exposing Muslims to Madame Bovary or the Great Gatsby is exposing them to a Western Culture that was primarily an
Islamic one, full of family honour and shame and women locked indoors.
In general exposing Muslims to “western culture” today would only encourage greater Islamism, which is embodied by the likes of Dabashi and most of the Western elite who champion Islamism, convert to Islam, coddle Islamic ‘culture’ and support Islamic law. What might be more helpful is to bring the Muslims translations of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. Rand hated tradition, despised the love of the masses, was disgusted by intellectualism and progressive intellectuals who coddled Stalinism and she was an independent woman, a sexual consumer of men who modeled her male protagonists on her male ideal and her female characters on herself.
But in the end the entire process is worthless. If they read Western literature they are “collaborators” and “native informers”. Anyway the West’s primary intellectual accomplishment in the last 200 years is freeing itself from the church only to become enthralled with Islamism and support a new inquisition. Muslims, particularly Muslim women, do not need the curse of the West, which would sooner lock them in closets and banish them from public view legalizing shariah law, than given them air to breath.