Book Review

Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran
By Fatemeh Keshavarz
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2007
Hardcover, 192 pp., $24.95

As the Bush administration continues to prepare for a possible military attack on Iran (despite the recent National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran has no nuclear weapons program), it is important that we get more than the mainstream media’s parroting of the official line. We need a balanced, objective perspective on Iran, a perspective that provides nuanced depth and humanity. “Jasmine and Stars,” a new book by Fatemeh Keshavarz, provides that perspective.

While the book doesn’t directly deal with the mainstream media and its depiction of Iran, it accomplishes three very important and related goals: first, it defines what Keshavarz calls the “New Orientalist Narrative” (a Western interpretation of Muslims as “the Other”); second, it critiques “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” by Azar Nafisi, which exemplifies this narrative; and third, it humanizes the people of Iran through the personal musings of someone who grew up there.

“Jasmine and Stars” analyzes how the new Orientalism of some Western intellectuals distorts reality and lays the groundwork for worsening relations with Iran, which could be used to help justify war. According to Keshavarz, the narrative “simplifies its subject” and claims that “Muslim men’s submission to God and Muslim women’s submission to men” is at the root of the crisis in the Middle East.

As a result, she writes, the new narrative also displays a “strong current of superiority and of impatience with the locals, who are often portrayed as uncomplicated.” While “the new narrative does not necessarily support overt colonial ambitions,” it does have a “clear preference for a Western political and cultural takeover.”

Most importantly, this narrative “replicates the totalizing — and silencing — tendencies of the old Orientalist by virtue of erasing, through un-nuanced narration, the complexity and richness in the local culture.”

Keshavarz, in a step-by-step process, dissects Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” (RLT) and exposes its narrative misconceptions, contradictions and factual errors.

In the chapter titled “The Good, the Missing, and the Faceless,” Keshavarz writes, “Lack of confidence and self-respect is typical of the majority of Iranians portrayed in RLT. The female students are often portrayed as feeling envious of the courage displayed by Western fictional figures. … They have a confused image of themselves.”

She continues: “The bleakness of the human landscape is such that if you have not been to Iran, it is hard to avoid pity and disdain for its people.” Obviously, according to Keshavarz, RLT is trying to paint a certain type of picture, one that portrays Iranians, especially Iranian women, as “backward, subhuman and ready to surrender to authority.”

According to Keshavarz, in Nafisi’s RLT, Iranian men are also a caricature, a stereotype, somehow less than human. RLT tries to convince us that Iranian “men are cruel and heartless to their female relatives, which has something to do with their religious conviction.”

Her harshest words are reserved for the Nafisi’s mischaracterization of those of the Islamic faith. According to Keshavarz, “Although unflattering literature on Islam is not hard to find these days, it is difficult to find a fuller Islamization of wickedness than the one configured by RLT.”

“Jasmine and Stars” accomplishes its third, most important goal — the humanizing of the Iranian people — in grand literary fashion. Woven throughout the book are Keshavarz’s stories about growing up, reciting poetry with her father, going to school and visiting her uncle, who was “gentle, extremely polite, humorous, subtle, and yet impatient with mediocrity and corruption.”

In fact, Keshavarz is at her best when she’s telling us these stories. The simple day-to-day truths of our personal relationships, and what they mean to us — this is Keshavarz’s gift. By describing the humanity in her upbringing, in her family, and in her relations with other Iranians, she reassures us that, though we are half a world away, we aren’t that different.

While she criticizes the current Iranian government, especially in regard to women’s rights, she makes the point that it does not have a monopoly on civil and human rights violations. She also makes a clear distinction between the Iranian people, who want progressive reform, and their government.

To Keshavarz, “In the faint voices that reach us from across the globe, there is recognition of our shared humanity. In laughing at the same joke, feeling the same pain, or admiring each other’s work of art, there is an empowering flash of recognition,” a recognition that the new Orientalism distorts and mystifies.

The book succeeds in what is clearly one of the author’s primary goals: to build bridges, to tear down walls, and to shed light on the darkness that, if left to its own devices, may facilitate war.

On top of all that, “Jasmine and Stars” is a great read.