Veiled Bestsellers

 

Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit

By Gillian Whitlock
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, 216 pp., $20.00, paperback

Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been: New Writing By Women of the Iranian Diaspora
Edited by Persis M. Karim
Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006, 428 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jasmin Darznik

Early in Soft Weapons, an engaging and thoughtful new study of contemporary Middle Eastern autobiography, Gillian Whitlock tells a story about Zoya, an Afghan woman, whose 2001 memoir Zoya’s Story, about life under the Taliban, led her eventually to the stage of Madison Square Garden. Whitlock quotes Zoya’s account of how she stood before an audience of thousands to be literally unveiled by none other than Oprah Winfrey:

When the time came for me to go on stage, after Oprah Winfrey had read [Eve Ensler’s poem] “Under the Burqa,” all the lights went off save for one that was aimed directly at me. I had been asked to wear my burqa, and the light streamed through the mesh in front of my face and brought tears to my eyes. A group of singers was singing an American chant, a melody full of grief, and I was to walk as slowly as possible. . . .I had to climb some steps, but because of the burqa and the tears in my eyes, which wet the fabric and made it cling to my skin, I had to be helped up the stairs. . . .Slowly, very slowly, Oprah lifted the burqa off me and let it fall to the stage.

For Whitlock this mass spectacle perfectly illustrates the uses—or more often, the misuses—of Middle Eastern life narratives in the current age of war and terrorism. She makes an effective case that Zoya’s Story, published on the heels of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and its author’s unveiling, were manipulated by the media to promote one of the main justifications for the US military action: women’s emancipation from Islam.

While most of the memoirs discussed by Whitlock were accompanied by more subdued forms of propaganda, Soft Weapons makes clear that the forces feeding America’s appetite for Middle Eastern autobiography have hardly been innocent. In her chapter on Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (2002), she ascribes Nafisi’s phenomenal success to having “refracted” for Western readers the superiority of Western literature and thereby affirmed the “clash of civilizations” ideology that is nowadays so rampant. Indeed, for Whitlock, the exchange between Western readers and Middle Eastern writers is so thoroughly determined by commercial and political forces that even the best intentions on either side don’t count for much.

With its dire implications for anyone still devoted to humanistic ideals about literature, Soft Weapons is an especially timely and important collection of essays. In the wake of September 11 and the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, autobiography—once the least common literary genre in the Middle East—has become a hugely popular venue for lifting the imagined veil that divides “us” from “them.”

To an increasing number of scholars of Middle Eastern culture and literature, the proliferation of the new autobiographies is a pernicious outcome of the war on terror: a restaging of Orientalist ideologies under the guise of composing authentic life narratives. Although Whitlock doesn’t quite succumb to this position, she offers a trenchant examination of how the West packages, circulates, and consumes these narratives. Her lucid, closely observed study examines the multitude of blogs, journalistic dispatches, testimonies, and graphic memoirs that are playing an increasingly important role in shaping how those in the West imagine life in predominantly Muslim countries. More broadly, Soft Weapons is a study of how the commodification and political cooption of life narratives are radically redefining the subjects, terms, and uses of autobiography.

In a chapter on the “Baghdad Blogger,” the anonymous author of the extremely popular blog about a young Iraqi’s experience of the invasion and occupation, Whitlock addresses the unique potential of autobiography to humanize experiences of war, persecution, and exile. The Baghdad Blogger’s electronic dispatches, she says, signaled the birth of a new autobiographical subject, one who offered an immediate, intimate perspective on the war. The Baghdad Blogger effectively seized new media to “talk back” to his Western readers in an invented language he dubbed “Arablish.”

Even as she acknowledges the potential of the genre to illuminate catastrophic events such as war, however, she is concerned with the failures and downright abuses of autobiography—both in terms of how the writers present themselves and their subjects and how publishers market and circulate these texts. “Autobiography,” Whitlock writes, explaining her book’s title and chief metaphor, “circulates as a weapon. It is ‘soft’ because it is easily co-opted by propaganda.” Some of the most engaging parts of the book are Whitlock’s close readings of “peritexts” and “paratexts”—the cover images, blurbs, and reviews that prime us for particular readings of this literature. Whitlock is especially brilliant in unpacking the visual rhetoric with which these memoirs are marketed, as she shows us how we are meant to read the multitudes of veiled faces and figures who’ve taken up residence in bookstores all over the West.

Given the surge of literary hoaxes that began with the exposure of falisifications in James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, it is not surprising that Middle Eastern autobiographies have spawned their own subset of literary scandal. Perhaps the most egregious of these “tainted histories” has been Norma Khouri’s memoir, Honor Lost, which Whitlock examines in detail. The book was billed as the true story of an “honor killing” witnessed by a young woman from Amman, Jordan. Only after enormous commercial success was its author revealed as a Syrian immigrant who’d been living in Chicago for nearly thirty years. For Whitlock the most disturbing—and instructive—part of this story is that even after Khouri’s chilling depiction of the murder was exposed as a complete fabrication, a large number of readers defended her, claiming the distinction between autobiography and fiction did not negate the “truth” they felt Khouri had conveyed about Muslim culture.

Such episodes undoubtedly undermine an already debased genre, and the challenges for Middle Eastern autobiographers are considerable. I wish Whitlock had done more to acknowledge the contribution of those who write their life stories even under these impossible circumstances. They must negotiate the distance between the seemingly unquenchable appetite of Western readers for tales of repression and the censure of those for whom criticism of Middle Eastern culture and Islam necessarily means collusion with the forces of war and invasion. Amazingly, some—like the pseudonymous author of the extraordinary autobiographical novel The Almond—more than succeed.

But while Whitlock might have offered more examples of memoirs that manage to subvert the ideologies and prejudices of Western readers, her attentiveness to the presentation and reception of autobiographies from the Middle East provides a necessary intervention into how we read these life narratives—and how we read our own lives in relation to them.

Whitlock’s central question could be phrased thus: Who exactly is getting to speak autobiographically on behalf of the people of the Middle East? This question also permeates most readings of Iranian-American literature. The phenomenal success of Reading Lolita in Tehran, followed by a spate of bestsellers such as Funny in Farsi, Lipstick Jihad, and Persepolis, marks a period of unprecedented interest in writing by Iranian immigrant women. This writing has not been without its critics, some of the most vocal of whom have been Iranian-American academics who doubt the legitimacy of Western-educated Iranian immigrants to speak to the experience of “real” Iranians.

It all makes for a tendency to conflate a great number of memoirs and to judge them according to their political import and commercial success rather than according to their literary quality, which seems to have been abandoned as a meaningful category for scholarly inquiry. Ironically, such readings only tend to re-inscribe the importance already conferred by best-seller status. At this point, Azar Nafisi has so many virulent critics that you might get the impression she is the only Iranian woman writer in the world.

Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been, Persis Karim’s anthology of writing by women of the Iranian diaspora, in many respects provides an answer to those who doubt the usefulness of autobiography or the relevance of Iranian immigrant literature. One of its chief values is its juxtaposition of Iranian-American blockbusters (she includes excerpts from Lipstick Jihad and other bestsellers) with writing by new and emerging Iranian women writers in the West. By including poetry and fiction, Karim also manages to present a more complex cross-section of Iranian American literature than the proliferation of Iranian memoirs in the last several years suggests.

Organized in six sections—“Home Stories,” “For Tradition,” “Woman’s Duty,” “Axis of Evil,” “Beyond,” and “Stories Left Untold”—the entries traverse a range of stories, genres, and sensibilities. The melancholy of exile is rendered with intricate sensual detail in Michelle Koukhab’s poem “The Persian Baths,” in which her memories of the hammam show “the gap [that] opens sometimes / between the places we are born and the places that we live.” Longing also shades Katayoon Zandvakili’s images of “Sunlight in rooms of afternoon tea, the red and green / laugher over cards” (“The World Was a Couple”) and her memory of a long-ago “horse of infinite feeling, infinite pain” (“Stripes”).

Appropriately, there are also biting political commentaries from many different perspectives. Sholeh Wolpe’s prose poem “My Brother at the Canadian Border” is a sly indictment of racial profiling and airport detentions. Beatrice Motamedi’s essay “When Toys Are Us” imagines a day when Iranian-America men stand proudly beside their “bros” in the American military.

It is, in short, an anthology that offers much that’s unexpected—and therefore also much that’s necessary.

Jasmin Darznik received her doctorate in English from Princeton in 2007. Her memoir, The Good Daughter, about three generations of her Iranian family, will be published next year.

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