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Archive for March, 2008

Say or read the word Iran and immediately images come to mind. What do you see? Bearded men? Chador clad women? Mosques? Do you imagine plates of aromatic Persian food, boisterous parties, or a Ford Explorer driven by a woman with “big hair,” blasting U2 music near the shrine of Imam Khomeini?

Readers of Honeymoon in Purdah by Alison Wearing are left with these new images of Iran. Wearing, a Canadian travel writer, went to Iran with her gay roommate. They posed as a husband and wife on their honeymoon, complete with forged marriage certificate, and although the book doesn’t say how long they spent in Iran, they traveled all over the country (Iran is nearly as large as Alaska in area), and only one person in the book suspects they are not really married.

So much for the honeymoon, but where is Purdah, you ask? Purdah is not a place but a condition: it is the separation of women from men, symbolized so vividly for us in the west by the head to toe cloak, which you may know from media reports on Afghanistan or other Muslim countries as a burqa. in Honeymoon, we get to go along as Wearing shops for her cloak, called a chador in Iran, that the strictist interpretation of purdah requires. As she journeys, the experience of being covered is a big part of Wearing’s unfolding revelations about Iran, and she also tends to describe places and situations in part based on how much women are covered up or when they feel comfortable unwrapping the layers.

Honeymoon in Purdah is a travel memoir, but also, as Wearing herself writes in the author’s note at the beginning of the book, “a sketchbook, a collection of my impressions of Iran and its people.” She says a few sentences later, “As is the case with many portraits, their truth is not in their detail, but their spirit.” This last statement references her confession to the reader that some of the Iranians in the book are “collages” — “painted,” she explains, from many Iranians’ stories in order to protect the identities of the people Wearing met.

We have all heard, of course, that Iran is a dangerous place, especially for women — this is accepted fact in the west. Two other books I read in the past couple of years, Reading Lolita In Tehran and Persepolis, are both by Iranians who have settled abroad to avoid the persecution going on in their country. But do we know, or do we use the image we’ve learned, through books like these and the media coverage of Iran, to form a misunderstanding of the nation and its people?

Of course Americans also have the images of Iran from the hostage crisis permanently in our national memory. Iran then appeared to be a place to fanatical America-haters, radical students, violent men whipped into action by fanatical ayatollahs larger than life. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we form ideas about other countries, and how other countries see America, and I think much of what we think we know is predicated on misunderstandings.

Honeymoon is full of anecdotes about the author meeting people who want to leave Iran, who want to go to Canada, who talk about friends and relatives abroad. Wearing repeatedly meets Iranians who practically beg her to judge their culture for herself and tell others about Iran’s positive qualities. She even comes across Iranians who are tolerant of (and in some cases are adherents of) non-Muslim faiths. Many of these same Iranians also have unfair or inaccurate views of the west, especially of America. When the possibility of military action against Iran is a regular topic in the press, I find it worrying that our two countries’ perceptions are so heavily predicated on misunderstandings, myths, manipulated images, and outright propaganda on the part of both sides.

As the title suggests, purdah is one of the most culturally charged images for both westerners and Iranians. Although she is traveling pre-9/11, Wearing is also in Iran in the late 1990’s and has to remain covered in pubic. In one telling incident, while in Qom, the city where Ayatollah Khomeini is buried, she is covered head to toe, in long jacket called a manteau, scarf, over her hair, her black shoes barely show, and a man comments on her “nakedness” — their Iranian host tells her she looks western, even with her modest dress, because she isn’t wearing her chador. Wearing feels she’s being conservative and respectful, the man who comments thinks she’s practically naked; their perceptions, colored by their cultural perspectives, are striking.

Given the pervasive preconceptions, how can there ever be real understanding? Travel certainly seems to open Wearing’s eyes. She meets plenty of Iranians, both men and women, who have a more nuanced view of purdah, or who explain why they value it gently and kindly, and who help her, compliment her, or even just ask her how she likes being covered. I was impressed reading about these experiences; I wondered how many Americans would be so reasonable about discussing something controversial with strangers. I confess I also wondered how kindly she would have been treated if she was American and not Canadian. Paranoia or misunderstanding? I can’t say for sure, but probably some of both.

One thing is certain: Wearing finds plenty of warmth in Iran. Total strangers take her and her “husband” home for dinner, pay for their meals out or their cab fare, drive them to their destinations, help them find lodging, take them shopping. What struck me as I read was the lack of travel horror stories — everyone Wearing and her companion meets is anxious to feed them, entertain them, show them Iran’s sites, and open their homes and families with them. When she is overheated from wearing her black chador in hot weather, or when they find themselves in a substandard hotel, ordinary Iranians intervene to help. It’s clear she respects and admires many things about Iranian culture, especially the tenderness they openly express towards each other and towards their guests.

But Wearing knows, and openly tells readers, she cannot really understand Iran, no matter how hard she tries. And you sense that even the Iranians she meets who mock or flout some of the strict rules (no playing cards, no wine, no western music), or admit to disagreeing with the regime, are still fearful of the west, especially America, which is widely viewed, even in the mid-1990’s, as an oil hungry place with a powerful military, a nation that is a threat to Iranian security.

A man tells them that his country knows non Islamic people from the west, even Americans, are good, it’s just governments that are bad. When she meets women who are dealing with abuse or discrimination, or men who have been imprisoned or intimidated, she realizes that no matter how hard her new friends impress her with their love and openness, Iran is ruled by a regime unafraid to use terror to control its own people. There can be no generalizations on either side.

Just as Americans associate Iran with the hostage crisis, Iranians think of America as the nation that supported the Shah. Like the authors of Reading Lolita and Persepolis, Wearing explains that most Iranians were glad to see the Shah go, because pre-revolution Iran was a nation where power and money was concentrated in the ruling class, and the Shah’s secret police were as ruthless as their radical Islamic successors. Many Iranians welcomed revolution, only to be disillusioned by the rise of the Islamic rulers. Given all the political and social turmoil Iranians have lived through, the generosity towards strangers that Wearing experiences in Iran is very impressive.

In reading these books I am doing the armchair version of what Wearing set out to do: I want to try to understand Iran and its people, as best I can. Much has been made recently of memoir as a selective art form, which reflects “truth” only insofar as the author remembers, or writes, truthfully. All three books I mention here are a part of the memoir genre, and all three reflect, like any book, the authors’ viewpoints.

But some critics, especially other Iranian expatriates, felt that Reading Lolita in Tehran played into the Bush administration’s Iranian agenda. Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia, went so far as to suggest that Azar Nafisi is a tool of the neocons, because her book is a “selective memory” of Iranian society that only speaks to the American mistrust and misunderstanding of Islamic ideas. Dabashi says the Iranian regime should go, he agrees that misogynist laws are wrong, but he feels that books like Reading Lolita merely perpetuate the one dimensional viewpoint westerners have of life in Iran.

I wonder what Dabashi thinks of Honeymoon in Purdah? Perhaps it is not on his radar since it was nowhere near as popular. In reviewing the reviews, I think I understand his and other Iranians’ bemusement or anger at Reading Lolita — I can see that if that book and/or Persepolis were the only things I’d ever read about Iran, I might form a view of the country only a neo-con could love. The fear that these overwhelmingly bleak views of Muslim nations will further the goals of American hawks who hint at the potential for expanding the war on terror from Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran seems legitimate. I also think it’s unlikely, given the proliferation of information available, that someone would not have heard of Iran’s rich history and culture, or the indomitable spirit of the Iranian people as they’ve advanced reforms in the past few years.

Dabashi seems to suspect that at least in the case of Reading Lolita, the effort to provide a selective view of Iran is deliberate. Iranians, interviewed for a Washington Post piece in 2004 seemed to view the book more as historical record than reality, however. In that light, all of these books are dated, since Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, left Iran in her early 20’s (sometime in the early 1990’s), Wearing was in Iran during the commemoration of the 6th anniversary of Khomeini’s death, which would have been 1995, and Reading Lolita author Azar Nafizi left Iran in 1997.

In fact, a more recent book has piqued my interest: Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran, which came out about a year ago. In an interview, the book’s author, Fatemeh Keshavarz, says she wrote her book because she felt compelled to offer a “cultural handshake” to readers. She explains, “Both Iranians and Americans have been barred from this handshake by the political perspectives that make every American a greedy imperialist and every Iranian a petty fanatic. In Jasmine and Stars I suggest we say enough is enough and talk to each other — we will be surprised at how similar we are.”

Just the insight I was grasping for. This sounds like a bookconscious must-read, and I’ve put in an ILL request for it, so stay tuned. In fairness to Wearing, I think she did her best to write such a cultural handshake with Honeymoon in Purdah, albeit from an outsider’s point of view. Admittedly, I had some misgivings about the premise of the book when I realized the author could travel in Iran only by pretending to be married. It seemed to me that faking one’s identity would color any personal interactions, and made me suspicious of her ability to be truthful, when she herself was engaged in deceit.

As I consider the ruse, however, I see that it was necessary in order for her to travel so extensively in Iran at the time, and perhaps allowed her to gain insight into life there in way she would have been unable to do if the Iranians she met were distracted by her own story. Like the scarf, her marriage allows her to travel as close to the culture as she can, and to blend into the country as well as the story she tells. I think Wearing does a good job of trying to present Iran as a culturally rich, diverse, and yes, even joyful place. She found bleakness, she described some Iranians whose lives seem hopeless or miserable, and she definitely made readers aware of the limits of purdah. But she also showed the beauty of the human spirit, and the universal balm of love, friendship, and family.

Honeymoon in Purdah accomplishes what all good travel writing hopes to do — makes the reader wish to visit the place the author describes. Even though she doesn’t gloss over the hardships and complications of travel in Iran, Wearing’s descriptions of the poetry of ordinary sights and sounds in Iran are a sensual feast. Despite my wondering which of the people she meets are real and which are composites, I was drawn into the book. The genuine curiosity on the part of Iranians about her life and her travels, and above all, the depth of the openness, caring, and concern for her happiness and well being that her many new Iranian friends showed her and her “husband,” makes Honeymoon a multi-dimensional memoir. Wearing doesn’t tell readers what to think, but she does tell us how her experiences made her feel throughout the journey. Which got me to thinking, musing, questioning, seeking — and that is the bookconscious experience I hope for when I read.

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