A prominent professor's attack on a best-selling memoir sparks debate among Iranian scholars in the U.S.
Excerpt: From Reading Lolita in Tehran
Like many Americans of Iranian descent, Hamid Dabashi read an article in the April 17 issue of The New Yorker with anxious dismay.
In that article, Seymour Hersh reported that President Bush's administration was preparing an airstrike against Iran, including the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.
The president himself dismissed the report as "wild speculation." But Mr. Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University who has been active in the antiwar movement since the attacks of September 11, 2001, heard a call to action.
The article prompted him to dust off an essay that he had written a few years before and publish it in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram. His target? Not President Bush or the Pentagon, but Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran and a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington.
Ms. Nafisi's memoir, published by Random House in 2003, blended a harrowing portrayal of the life of women in post-revolutionary Iran with a powerful personal testimony about the power of literary classics. The book found a wide audience, and its success made Ms. Nafisi a celebrity.
Gazing at the book through the lens of literary theory and politics, Mr. Dabashi had a much less favorable reaction to it. His blistering essay cast Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration's plans for regime change in Iran. He drew heavily on the late scholar Edward Said's ideas about the relationship between Western literature and empire and the fetishization of the "Orient" to attack Reading Lolita in Tehran as a prop for American imperialism. He also pilloried Ms. Nafisi personally for what he described as her cozy relationship with prominent American neoconservatives.
"By seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire," wrote Mr. Dabashi, "Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India, when, for example, in 1835 a colonial officer like Thomas Macaulay decreed: 'We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.' Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project."
In an interview published on the Web site of the left-wing publication Z Magazine on August 4, Mr. Dabashi went even further, comparing Ms. Nafisi to a U.S. Army reservist convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. "To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi," he told the magazine.
"The reason that I decided to publish [the essay] was fear," says Mr. Dabashi over a cup of tea in his office at Columbia University. "Fear of another war."
Ms. Nafisi has not directly answered the attack. "I don't consider his recent writing worth responding to," she told The Chronicle.
But prominent scholars in Iranian studies have taken notice of Mr. Dabashi's essay and the Z interview, which have spread quickly over the Internet and are now even attached as external links to Ms. Nafisi's entry on Wikipedia. While many feel that he stepped over a bright line of civil discourse in his attack, scholars also say that his polemic reveals the tremendous stress that bellicose exchanges between two political republics — Iran and the United States — have placed on Iranian-American scholars and writers in the Republic of Letters.
"It is a minefield," says Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, founding director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. "The whole volatile zeitgeist is on every scholar's mind."
"This is a time of crisis," says Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. "It tests your soul and your moral fabric."
Caught Between Republics
Mr. Dabashi's provocative statements coincide with a period of intense turmoil in U.S.-Iranian relations. They had improved slowly since the election of reformers in Iran in 1997, led by President Mohammad Khatami (see "Iran: A Century of Turmoil," Page 14). But President Bush placed Iran in an "axis of evil," with Iraq and North Korea, in his 2002 State of the Union address. Ever since then, his rhetoric has been matched with both words and actions in Iran.
In August 2005, Iranians elected a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has begun to roll back eight years of cautious reform and intensified his nation's dispute with the U.N. Security Council over Iran's nuclear program. Iran has arrested numerous human-rights activists and researchers in the past year, including the noted scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo. (He was released conditionally in late August.)
"Respect for basic human rights in Iran, especially freedom of expression and opinion, deteriorated considerably in 2005," stated Human Rights Watch, an international humanitarian group, in its annual report.
Those developments have left Iranian scholars in a difficult position. "The majority of Iranian scholars here [in the United States] were positive about the changes in Iran in 1997, after the election of President Khatami," says Maziar Behrooz, an assistant professor of history at San Francisco State University. "The majority of them were interested in fostering dialogue. The election of Ahmadinejad — and 9/11 and the axis of evil — has, of course, made the situation for us very different."
Whether it be the status of women (which the noted Iranian human-rights activist Akbar Ganji has referred to as "gender apartheid"), or the new mass arrests, or President Ahmadinejad's recent call for Iranian students to oust liberal professors in the country's universities, Iran has provided many reasons for scholars of its diaspora to speak out.
Mansour Farhang, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at Bennington College, observes that there "is little controversy about the repressiveness of the regime. There is a consensus on that."
The conundrum, say these scholars, is how to voice opposition to the actions of the Islamic Republic without being co-opted by those who seek external regime change in Iran through a military attack.
"All of us are mortified about the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran," says Janet Afary, an associate professor of history and women's studies on Purdue University's main campus and president of the International Society for Iranian Studies.
The invasion and chaotic occupation of Iraq, the debate over the use of torture by the United States, and incidents of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere have further complicated the picture, scholars say.
"I am critical of the Iranian regime," says Mr. Farhang. "At the same time, I am opposed to the Bush administration's confrontational policies. It is a thin line to walk on, but that's where Iranians [in the United States] are at the moment."
A few moments later, he quips: "If you put a gun to my head and said choose between Ahmadinejad and Bush, I might say, 'Shoot.'"
Books on Trial
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."
Her knack for dramatizing literature's transcendent values brought robust sales for her memoir. It also drew raves from the stalwarts of the Republic of Letters — literary luminaries including Margaret Atwood ("A literary life raft on Iran's fundamentalist sea") and the late Susan Sontag, whose blurb for the book declared, "I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafisi's account of how she defied, and helped others to defy, radical Islam's war against women."
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.
Mr. Dabashi, who has written extensively on Iranian film, takes particular note of Ms. Nafisi's portrayal of film in the book, including the use of a blind Iranian film censor as a metaphor for Iran's culture. ("Our world under the mullah's rule was shaped by the colorless lenses of the censor," Ms. Nafisi writes.)
"It irritated me because of its fundamental betrayal of the cosmopolitan culture of Iran," says Mr. Dabashi. "Iran has not just produced one of the most fascinating national cinemas of the last half-century, but these people did not come from nowhere. There is a tradition — a literary tradition and poetic tradition."
Mr. Dabashi accuses Ms. Nafisi of "selective memory." The awful history of the Iranian revolution and the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in its aftermath — including the Iran-Iraq war — is fleshed out with vivid writing; the history of previous British and U.S. intervention in Iran, the repression of its people by the shah before the Iranian revolution, and the era of reform after 1997 are elided or excised.
"I was in Iran in 1979," he recalls. "In 1979 there was a legitimate fear of a coup d'état. The fact that Khomeini's people abused that fear is a different matter than people having that fear."
Mr. Dabashi argues that if he is correct in seeing memoirs such as Ms. Nafisi's as fodder for those who wish to whip up outrage in America against Iran, then the searing and abusive tone of his attack — even that comparison of Ms. Nafisi to a convicted Abu Ghraib prison guard — is not out of line.
"I have absolutely nothing personal against her," Mr. Dabashi insists. "But these sorts of books are dangerous. They are dangerous in creating and manufacturing a communal consensus about the demonization of cultures of which we need to have more sophisticated and nuanced views."
Mr. Dabashi is no stranger to controversy. Last year he was one of three Columbia professors cited in a documentary called Columbia Unbecoming, which was produced by an off-campus Jewish group called the David Project. The film, which never received a general release, purported to detail a pattern of anti-Semitism and unfair treatment of Jewish students at the university.
In response to the clamor, Columbia convened a faculty committee, which issued a lengthy report stating that it had found no evidence of such a pattern.
Mr. Dabashi was outraged by the episode, during which he received numerous abusive and threatening e-mail and voice-mail messages. But he does not seem displeased by the ruckus he has kicked up with his essay on Reading Lolita in Tehran.
"An Iranian writer said to me, 'Why are you so angry with Nafisi? All she did was write a book,"' he deadpans. "But all I did was write an essay. She wrote a book. I write an essay."
Conservatives and Radicals
Ms. Nafisi did indeed write a book. But she is determined not to engage with Mr. Dabashi in a debate about it.
"This kind of behavior, it cuts off debate," she told The Chronicle in an interview.
She was more expansive when it came to discussing her views about the often fraught relationship between literature and politics.
In particular, Ms. Nafisi resents any attempts by the left or the right to pigeonhole her personal politics or place her in a political camp. She dismisses the notion, for instance, that one can label her as a neoconservative by invoking her friendships with the noted historian Bernard Lewis and the World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz. (Mr. Wolfowitz was dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins when Ms. Nafisi was hired there. In his role as deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005, he was a key advocate of the invasion of Iraq.)
"I resent the fact that they create guilt by association," says Ms. Nafisi of her critics. "I will never denounce my friends. I have conservative friends. I have radical friends. I have more radical friends in my acknowledgments to the book than conservatives. ... I can definitely disagree with their politics. That's one reason I am in this country, so I won't be stigmatized for conversing with people who are politically different from me. So I feel a great anger that I come here and I face the same dilemma."
Ms. Nafisi does drop certain facts that suggest she may have been misrepresented by her critics. She did, in fact, oppose the invasion of Iraq. Her relationship with the neoconservative speakers bureau Benador Associates — which represents prominent neocons including Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, and James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence — ended more than three years ago. (She is now represented by the Steven Barclay Agency, which also represents the poet Adrienne Rich and the novelist Michael Chabon, among others.)
"I didn't want to be with an agent who is political. I wanted to be with an agent who is literary," says Ms. Nafisi.
Ultimately, however, she argues that the best path to discovering her politics and principles is through her writing. "The one way that you can see where people stand is to go and read them," she says. "All you have to do is read."
He Said, She Said
Most of Ms. Nafisi's colleagues who study Iran have read both her book and Mr. Dabashi's attacks. The consensus appears to be that his rhetoric is too extreme.
"It makes me very sad," says Ms. Afary, of Purdue. "I have a lot of respect for Hamid Dabashi's work. But Azar Nafisi's work is a literary work."
Reading Lolita in Tehran also has the virtue of being a true account of a bleak time in Iran, she says: "These were the harshest years. They were executing girls of 12 and 13. The stories are true. These things really have happened."
Others agree with that assessment but see some merit in Mr. Dabashi's argument, underneath the blistering personal attack.
"Mr. Dabashi is a distinguished scholar," says Bennington's Mr. Farhang. "His article on Reading Lolita in Tehran is perceptive in many ways, and the article is worthy of serious debate. But his polemical style completely overwhelms his discourse, so as to make debate difficult."
Some scholars see a particularly rich vein of discussion in Mr. Dabashi's use of Edward Said's theories to criticize a book that explicitly rejects the late literature scholar's work.
Indeed, Mr. Dabashi and others are quick to point to a character in Ms. Nafisi's book named Mr. Nahvi, who spouts crude reductions of Said's critical reading of Mansfield Park, including the notion that the Jane Austen novel "was a book that condoned slavery."
In the next paragraph, Ms. Nafisi writes: "It was only later, in a trip to the States, that I found out where Mr. Nahvi was getting his ideas from when I bought a copy of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism. It was ironic that a Muslim fundamentalist should quote Said against Austen. It was just as ironic that the most reactionary elements in Iran had come to identify with and co-opt the work and theories of those considered revolutionary in the West."
Her explicit link between Said and "a Muslim fundamentalist" provoked Mr. Dabashi to turn the full weight of Said's theories — on the connections between imperialism and fiction (found in Culture and Imperialism) and on the use and misuse that empires make of knowledge about colonial culture (most notably in his groundbreaking 1978 book Orientalism) — back onto Ms. Nafisi's book.
"If Edward Said dismantled the edifice of Orientalism," he wrote in his essay, "Azar Nafisi is recruited to reaccredit it."
Mr. Boroujerdi, of Syracuse, credits Mr. Dabashi's essay with raising "the relevance of postcolonial literature" in interpreting Reading Lolita in Tehran. "Whatever book is put out there these days," he observes, "has to intellectually wrestle with the points Said raised about postcolonialism."
Scholars in the field reject Mr. Dabashi's argument that Ms. Nafisi is a willing agent of American imperial ambition, but some of them do echo his concerns about how her book might be used for political purposes (see "Peeking Under Cover," page 16).
For example, in one chapter of his 2005 book Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and Its Aftermath (Soft Skull Press), Paul Berman (who supported the invasion of Iraq) uses Reading Lolita in Tehran as a case study in how writers respond to totalitarianism — and specifically, he writes, to "Islamism as a modern totalitarianism." But Mr. Berman also plumbs Ms. Nafisi's biography (she was a leftist student at the University of Oklahoma before returning to Iran, in 1979) to illustrate a transformation that he sees many leftists of that generation making to anti-totalitarianism. It is a transformation that has echoes of the classic neoconservative trajectory: frustration with the political left leading to a lurch rightward.
"Here, then, in Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, is the story of someone who enlisted in the leftism of circa '68, and then went on to discover moral and political failures in the left-wing movement, and came to adopt a different attitude altogether — an attitude of respect for the imagination," writes Mr. Berman.
That is, of course, one reading of the memoir. But it is such readings of Ms. Nafisi, linking her work and personal story to views of Islam as totalitarian, that do alarm some observers.
"A person like Dabashi is worried about the U.S. pampering and preparing people for Iran," says San Francisco State's Mr. Behrooz.
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."
Many of the scholars who talked with The Chronicle for this article — including both Mr. Dabashi and Ms. Nafisi — would be at risk of arrest if they returned to Iran in the current climate. But Roxanne Varzi, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, performed fieldwork in Iran for her new book, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Duke University Press) in 2000 , after being awarded the first Fulbright grant for research there since 1979.
She argues that the controversy over Mr. Dabashi's essay "seems empirically removed from Iran. It's not about Iran as much as it is about the diaspora."
How that diaspora of Iranian scholars should engage with the broader world in an era of poisonous relations — and perhaps warfare — between the United States and Iran is a subject of heated debate.
"I feel torn," says Mr. Boroujerdi. "My philosophy is that I need to keep a critical distance from both sides." While that is "an uncomfortable position," he acknowledges, it also "has an edge, a comparative advantage, engaging both poles in discussion."
Some scholars, including Mr. Farhang, argue that they should be outspoken in seeking to influence policy. "We need to expose the idea of using force to bring about regime change," he argues. "It will be a disaster for Iran and the United States."
Others, like Mr. Behrooz, agree that while speaking with the news media, policy makers, and the wider public is crucial, there are boundaries within which scholars can be most effective. "Academics can advocate for academic rights," he says. "There are limits to what they can do. The goal is to be frank and to be precise."
"We have to be very careful about the way we write here," says Ms. Afary. "Americans are quite ignorant about the Muslim world and the history of U.S. interventions."
There is general agreement, however, that precision and care include remaining within a certain notion of civil discourse. "The urgency in the discussion has increased," particularly since the New Yorker article that set off Mr. Dabashi, says Mr. Karimi-Hakkak, of Maryland's Center for Persian Studies.
"But the answer is not shrill voices prophesying war," he continues. "Attacking or invading Iran is not a viable response. Pulling an essay out of the drawer after three years is the wrong response. We must be loud and clear in our opposition to these designs. But the style in which we respond is important."
Both Mr. Dabashi and Ms. Nafisi will certainly be part of that discussion, but on their own terms. Mr. Dabashi says he plans to continue on a dual track, producing both scholarly work and essays like his attack on Ms. Nafisi for Al-Ahram. The latter forum is important, he adds, because he sees the Washington think tanks usurping the hard-earned sphere of influence held by peer-reviewed scholars and universities in debates on Iran and other public issues.
"We have become publicly irrelevant, we as scholars, and then the public domain is empty, open, vacant," he says. "And in come very pestiferous people, deeply ideologically motivated, extremely adept in fund raising and pushing the soft spot of fear in people."
Ms. Nafisi is working on two books — a memoir reflecting on her mother's life and the role of women, to be titled "Things I Have Been Silent About," and a new book about the liberating power of literature, called "The Republic of Imagination." In a time when two political republics are at odds, she says, the Republic of Letters "is far more important than at any other moment. Because this is a time when politics is swallowing us all up. One of the most positive political acts is not to give up our domain."
As she does in Reading Lolita in Tehran, Ms. Nafisi calls upon Scheherazade, the fabled storyteller who uses literature to outwit the vengeful king in the tales of The Arabian Nights. "When she is confronted with violence," says Ms. Nafisi, "and the king is very violent, killing a virgin every night, she doesn't confront him on his turf. What she does, which is very clever, is to bring him to her turf, which is strange ground, and by telling stories she provokes his curiosity and shows him that the world is not black and white."
IRAN: A CENTURY OF TUMULT
1906: Driven by internal resistance to corrupt rule and foreign interventions in Iran's affairs, the Constitutional Revolution culminates in the adoption of a constitution and the formation of an elected assembly, or Majlis.
1921: Riza Khan, a military officer, seizes power in a coup d'état. Four years later, he declares himself Riza Shah Pahlevi.
1941: The shah is forced to abdicate by British and Soviet forces in favor of his son, who becomes Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi.
1953: The Nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, is overthrown in a coup designed and abetted by the British and U.S. intelligence services. Two years earlier, Mossadeq had nationalized the nation's oil industry, plunging relations between Britain and Iran into crisis. The shah, who had fled in the turmoil, was restored.
1963: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is expelled from Iran after serving a jail term for criticizing the shah. In exile, he moves through Turkey, then Iraq, and at last to France.
1975: The shah eliminates opposition political parties.
1979: The Iranian Revolution: Street protests of increasing intensity lead the shah to flee on January 16. Khomeini returns from exile on February 1. An Islamic republic is declared on April 1. The U.S. Embassy is seized by militant students on November 4, and 66 Americans are taken hostage.
1980: Iraq invades Iran on September 22, sparking a war that lasts almost eight years.
1981: The last 52 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy takeover are released.
1988: A truce between Iran and Iraq is signed on August 20.
1989: Khomeini announces a religious decree against the British author Salman Rushdie on February 14, demanding the novelist's death for the publication of his book The Satanic Verses.
1997: The reform presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami is elected president of Iran on May 23, ushering in a mild thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. Abbas Kiarostami's film, A Taste of Cherry, wins the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
2002: President Bush includes Iran in an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea in his annual State of the Union address on January 29.
2005: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who campaigns on a conservative and anti-U.S. platform, becomes Iran's president on August 3.
http://chronicle.comSection: Research & PublishingVolume 53, Issue 8, Page A12