How do you defend an entire nation’s literature and poetry in one small book? When the country to defend is Iran, and the people who need convincing are Americans, the question becomes particularly difficult. Books like Geraldine Brookes’ “Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women,”Khaled Husseini’s “The Kite Runner,”Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” and Asne Seierstad’s “The Bookseller of Kabul,” have launched the second generation of Orientalism, leaving American readers naively supposing Islamic countries to be intellectual wastelands, populated by sub-human fundamentalists.
Fatemeh Keshavarz, professor of Persian and comparative literature and chair of the department of Asian and Near Eastern languages and literatures at Washington University, seeks to reverse this literary trend with “Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran.”
Keshavarz’s answer solicits the help of her uncle and father (both great lovers of Persian poetry) and a menagerie of locusts and a semi-visible elephant. She begins her book with a tale from the 13th century Persian poet/mystic, Rumi. The citizens of a small town learn that an elephant is visiting, and having never seen such a beast, they flock towards it in the middle of the night. Several lucky folks approach the elephant and touch it. When they return to eager peers, one describes the elephant as a thick column, another as a drainpipe and a third as a fan. Rumi observes that a candle would do them well, so they would all experience the same elephant.
“It is time for us to retell the story in the twenty-first century in the United States of America,”writes Keshavarz. “The challenge is to see each other’s humanity, and the question is: where are the candles?” In the “information age” of iPods, email and satellites, people ought to be able to use the candles of their minds and their easy access to information to build bridges with their peers, rather than massaging one part of a situation and considering the elephant drainpipe-like simply on the basis of its trunk.
When the late Edward Said first observed the Orientalist tendencies of the West, he referred to a particularly European and colonialist narrative in which the citizens of the East were carefully studied, but nonetheless held as inferiors, who could imitate but never replicate Western achievements.
The new Orientalism, as Keshavarz observes it, is cultural in nature and “explains almost all undesirable Middle Eastern incidents in terms of Muslim men’s submission to God and Muslim women’s submission to men … The new narrative does not necessarily support overt colonial ambitions. But it does not hide its clear preference for a Western political and cultural takeover.” Most importantly to Keshavarz, the new Orientalists seek to erase “through unnuanced narration, the complexity and richness in the local culture.”
One such complexity arises in a story Keshavarz’s uncle told her from 12th century Iranian mystical poet, pharmacist/ physician and hagiographer, Attar of Nishabur’s work “The Conference of the Birds.” The archangel Gabriel hears God responding to a worshipper. Curious, he flies down to inspect all the usual suspects in the usual temples to see who was praying. He fails twice, so he asks God where the pious worshipper was to be found. God directs him to a man worshipping an idol in an obscure temple. The flabbergasted angel asks God how He could possibly answer a man bowing to an abomination. “Just because this man does not know the right way to me,” God responds, “it does not mean that I — who know better— should not find my way to him.”
The Sufi of Khurasan Bayazid surely knew this lesson of multiple avenues to serving God well, when he surprised an adoring crowd by eating a piece of bread during Ramadan. The disgusted crowd dispersed immediately, but the lesson had been taught: “You must rescue yourself from the need for other people’s approval before you can see your true significance in the bigger picture,” Keshavarz writes.
But tales of idolaters and men who break their fasts are not necessary to justify Iranian literature. Keshavarz’s book does not argue that Americans should take Muslim writers seriously, because they are normal, laid back people, who violate their own religious laws. Many of Keshavarz’s characters are deeply religious people, whose love for Persian literature derives from the same place that nurtures their faith. No matter what one feels about religion, religion neither hinders nor animates art. Artists and the public make those decisions.
“Jasmine and Stars” oscillates between a close reading and critique of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and a memoir about Keshavarz’s experiences growing up in Iran and returning there to visit family and friends. She argues that Nafisi’s book solidifies a picture in readers’ minds of a locust-filled Iran, where in fact jasmine and stars are just as true fixtures — if not more prominent ones. Her anecdotes are “little two-way bridges that keep my Iranian and American selves connected … And who will deny that bridge building is the thing to do in this age of transnationalism fractured by terrorist acts and erroneous perceptions of each other?” Traditional cultures, she continues, “have a lot of candles in their antiquated stores, and it is time we insisted on using their light to see the elephant in its entirety.”
Keshavarz’s book succeeds where she draws from her own rich experiences and illustrates wonderfully rich portraits of her family and close friends. She writes in a highly-personal, transparent way that assures readers that every word is wholly heartfelt and sincere. The book can perhaps only be said to err where it deviates from the path it has set for itself so as to beat a dead elephant. The book loses some of its focus where it fetishes Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” and wastes ink critiquing and re-critiquing a book that it has already devastatingly exposed as a farce early on in the introduction. It runs the risk of rallying an entourage of mystical and magic realist Persian literature that might further the new Orientalism by allowing unknowing readers to further consider Iran a place that is Other by virtue of its magic.