Sunday, February 07, 2010

"All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us."

I have just finished reading one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a difficult book to describe; one might say it is a memoir, perhaps somewhat fictionalized, of an upper-class Iranian woman, partly raised in Britain and the United States and now living in the USA, which focuses on what it was like to teach English literature in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. In particular, she talks about her interactions with some of her students during this period. Nafisi comes across as a secular person, and she sees the Islamic revolution as nothing but a disaster. For instance page 119, when she talks to one of her students, a Khomeini supporter, about the trial of a supposed counterrevolutionary:

I told him they had no proof that the gentleman in question was a CIA agent, in any case I doubt if the CIA would be foolish enough to employ someone like him. But even those whom he called the functionaries of the old regime, regardless of their guilt, shouldn't be treated this way. I cannot understand why the Islamic government had to gloat over these people's deaths, brandishing their photographs after they had been tortured and executed. Why did they show us these pictures? Why did our students every day shout slogans demanding new death sentences?

Mr. Bahri did not respond at first. He stood still, his head bent, his hands linked in front of him. Then he started to speak slowly and with tens precision. Well, they have to pay, he said they're on trial for their past deeds. The Iranian nation will not tolerate their crimes. And these new crimes? I asked as soon as he had uttered his last word. These new crimes? Should they be tolerated in silence? Everyone nowadays is an enemy of God -- former ministers and educators, prostitutes, leftist revolutionaries: they are murdered daily. What is his and his had these people done to deserve such treatment?

His face had become hard, and of the shadow of obstinacy has colored his eyes. He repeated that people had to pay for their past crimes. This is not a game, he said. It is a revolution. I asked him if I too was on trial for my past. But he was right in a sense: we all have to pay, but not for the crimes we were accused of. There were other scores to settle. I did not know then that I had already begun to pay, that what was happening was part of the payment. It was much later that these feelings would be clarified.

This book has been criticized for giving a very negative view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of women and even more men in Iran and even of Islam itself. Notably, Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz (another Iranian academic based in United States and writing in English) accuses Nafisi of promoting a neo-Orientalist agenda and confirming all the old clichés of the backward, static and exotic East. I don't see it myself. There's nothing exotic about the presentation of life in Tehran in this book, and there's plenty of action and change. What is really wrong with the criticisms I've heard is that they assume that Nafisi had to write the book that the critics wanted to read, or have other people read. This is a very personal memoir, not the history of revolutionary Iran. It tells Nafisi's story of how the revolution affected her as a teacher and scholar, and how it seemed to affect some of her more memorable students -- and not just the ones he liked. I have yet to read a review that picks up on what I think is very important point: this memoir might easily be about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the Jacobin revolution in France, or any other number of similar upheavals.

The quotation at the head of this post tells the story as I read it. It is about reading, teaching, learning, speaking about intellectual subjects when it is really important and far from easy. Again, p. 338:

I said to him that I wanted to write a book [after she left Iran] in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me -- to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, you will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think that this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French -- it was Dr. French [probably at U. of Oklahoma], wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in the place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write about all that perhaps I'll become more generous, less angry.

If you like that sample of Nafisi's writing, there is lots more where that came from.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Syme's Roman Revolution


David Meadows provided this link to a new review of a 70-year-old classic: Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution. I read this as background material early in my teaching career, because people I respected had vaguely referred to it as a classic. And it was indeed a great book, one that felt fresh decades after publication.

Here's a bit of Steve Donoghue's appropriately well-written review:
Watching how Syme handles all his sources –watching the intricate, hitherto unseen connections and uprootings that he effects by sifting through everything so carefully (he’ll find a passing comment in an epic poem that sheds light on legionary cooking techniques, or a well-known paragraph from Cicero that can be read in a startling new way) – is at once humbling and exciting, and it’s no wonder The Roman Revolution has cast such a long shadow. The subject matter – the carefully-implemented plan by which Octavian took sole, personal control of the Roman Empire (and the equally careful plan to prevent the Romans from realizing the full import of what he was doing) – has been taken up many times by many historians in the ensuing seventy years. Syme’s masterpiece is in all their bibliographies, and most of those later histories of Augustus or the end of the Roman Republic would have been unthinkable had not Syme so impeccably paved the way.

The sobering fact is how little any of those later books manage to offer even a small amplification of Syme. Even now, The Roman Revolution is the first, best modern history of Rome’s preventable and misunderstood transition from Republic to Empire. Surely a Penguin Classic of it is finally in order?

Image: Gaius Octavius, disguised as a conservative senator.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The dangers of academic history


Sometimes it is amazingly inaccurate. Sometimes it is amazingly corrupt in its values.

I am currently reading about government in ancient India, in particular the views of Kautilya (a kind of Machiavelli figure from the third century BCE). The book I am reading, which I will not name, is the product of an Indian scholar who lectured on this material for decades before writing it down. He sees Kautilya's Arthasastra, a book on how a monarch can create an ideal state, as an actual description of something that really existed, an ancient welfare state. Not only does this scholar think that Kautilya's prescriptions were actually carried out, he has nothing but good to say about Kautilya's ideas.

On taking prescription as reality, here is what he says about preparations for putting out fires:

The master of the house had to keep ready tubs full of water, ladder, leather bags, winnowers, hooks; but besides individual house-owners government saw that at places near crossroads thousands of pitchers filled with water were kept always ready to fight any outbreak of fire. Thus something like modern fire brigades were available at short calls.

Imagine that!

Then there is this policy, which the author finds quite understandable, though in need of some defence.

According to Kautilya, "traders, artisans, musicians, beggars, buffoons, and other idlers who are thieves in effect if not in name shall be restrained from oppression of the country people." It was with this view of protecting the simple village folk that Kautilya provided that no ascetic other than a vanaprastha, no company of other than of local birth, and no guilt of any kind other than local cooperative guild will find entrance in the village; nor shall there be in the village buildings intended for plays or sports, nor in view of procuring money, free labor, commodities, grains and liquids in plenty, shall actors, dancers, singers, drummers, buffoons, and bards make any particular disturbance to the work of the villagers, for helpless villagers are dependent upon their fields. Indirectly these provisions highlight the state's deepest concern for production the villagers even at the cost of depriving mirth, frolics and entertainments available in the cities.

This was written in 1976, the "year zero" of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I once read a collection of official documents of the revolution, and it sticks in my mind that the official economic plan promised that after years of slave labor the surviving population of Cambodia would eventually, after the revolution was a success, be provided with extra dessert several times a year.

I have nothing against the welfare state that really is a welfare state, but it angers and terrifies me that smart people cannot or will not see the difference between dealing with preventable or predictable problems, and this kind of serfdom.

Image: Kautilya

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, by Charles Kurzman

In this book, Charles Kurzman examine some of the more common causes or retroactive explanations of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and finds them all lacking. He contends that Iranians joined the protest movement against the Shah when and as they decided it was a viable movement. This judgment by Kurzman reflects his view of how people interact. See page 138:

Viability does not explain why the movement turned out as it did. Rather, viability is not predictive. Its focus on the variability and confusion of protest runs counter to the project of retroactive prediction [identifying causes or factors that would allow an observer to predict the outcome]. In this sense, it is not an explanation but an anti-explanation. Instead of seeking recurrent patterns of social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. Instead of emphasizing routine behavior, it emphasizes "deviant" cases and statistical "outliers." Focus on the fringe reminds us that the whole fabric of social life -- all behaviors and institutions that we take for granted, that seem unchangeable -- may be vulnerable to unraveling, that the fabric survives only through our collective expectation that it will survive.

What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding.

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