Why is the jailing of Haleh Esfandiari to be regretted? Well… because it will encourage Orientalists, of course.
Look to a novel account in this week’s Chronicle, where Fatameh Keshvarz registers her distaste for Azar Nafisi, Khaled Hosseini, and Asne Seierstad. Their fault? Well, failing to depict the “complexities” of life in the worse-governed portions of the modern Middle East. This troika simply plays to Western Orientalism (and Imperialism), Keshvarz asserts, by failing to depict Tehran, Kabul, and the like in suitably complex terms, or to provide sufficient attention to local culture. Nafisi, for one, is assailed for oversimplification (her 18 years at the University of Tehran are evidently insufficient experience for Keshvarz) while a number of bright lights in the Iranian cultural scene are highlighted as offering a better composite picture.
She highlights Shahrnush Parsipur,
a powerful postrevolutionary author of many successful novels, including The Dog and the Long Winter (1976) and Tuba and the Meaning of the Night (1989). Parsipur is also the author of Women Without Men: A Novella. I purchased the latter two novels in Iran last summer, although they are supposedly “banned.” In Women Without Men, she gives us Zarrinkolah, the charming prostitute. Shortly after the onset of the revolution, Parsipur’s women are out to “see the world,” and no one is going to stop them. When Zarrinkolah, a “little woman of 26 with a heart open like the sea,” decides to leave the brothel, she needs no one’s permission, no blessing from a holy man. She is her own source of holiness, the ray of light that brightens the brothel’s miserable life. A holy prostitute in postrevolutionary Iran has to be a miracle, you say. But that is exactly the point. Postrevolutionary Iran has towering women writers who make miracles possible.
Well, that’s great. So what’s become of her? “Parsipur has since left for exile in the United States.” Keshvarz’s principal example of overlooked Iranian female expression is… in exile? Keshvarz can buy Parsipur’s novels in Iran, but Parsipur can’t live there? Is that the societal complexity that the “New Orientalists” are missing?
Once again, Orientalist theory displays an exquisite sensitivity to any and all depictions of the Middle East, yet posits a monolithic West (which seems to consist, in their minds, of Dick Cheney, Fouad Ajami, and Bernard Lewis). Spirited criticism of problems in the Middle East, from any quarter, is always met by enfevered shushing – don’t encourage the neo-cons! Orientalism is a theory absurd enough when guiding readings of historical expression – it’s positively malignant when labeling frank criticism some sort of Imperialist collaborationist sentiment. When the Esfandiari jailing is occasion first for worries about Western Imperialism and only second about the Iranian political climate, it’s clear something’s gone wrong.