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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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A new translation of the Menagier de Paris

An excerpt of the review on the e-mail list, TMR-L (The Medieval Review), a useful and timely resource you can subscribe to free.

Greco, Gina L. and Christine M. Rose, translators. The Good
Wife's Guide (Le Menagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 384. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-

Reviewed by Kate Kelsey Staples
West Virginia University

According to the fourteenth-century Le Menagier de Paris, the key to being a good wife included these edifying directives: "be your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest" (104); "choose rather to please your husband than yourself, because his happiness must come before yours" (104); "it is through good obeisance that a wise woman
obtains her husband's love and, in the end, receives from him what she desires" (119); "protect [your future husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant, and peaceful with him"(139); "steer clear of swaggering and idle young men who live beyond their means and who, possessing no land or lineage, become dancers" (94). While perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities, or comical in turn, this fascinating and relatively understudied text overflows with suggestions for a woman's obedience, attention to reputation, proper piety, and correct conduct. The anonymous author also advises his audience, presumably his young wife, on the practicalities household management: when to transplant cabbage (212), how to delegate tasks to servants (section 2.3), in what ways to tend to ropy, musty, and moldy wine (221), and how to care for horses (223-228). Completing the manual of instruction is a rich selection of cooking menus and a guide to buying spices and foodstuffs, continuing the practical nature of the guidebook.

As the first modern English translation of Le Menagier de Paris, this edition makes a gem of a text accessible beyond French literary courses. With their clear translation, Gina Greco, Associate Professor of French, and Christine Rose, Professor of English, both at Portland State University, open spaces for discussion of the composition of the late medieval household, the reading practices of the bourgeoisie, late medieval culture, culinary practices, and women's history, more generally.

One of the greatest attributes of this edition is that Greco and Rose present Le Menagier de Paris as we may expect it to have originally appeared. There are only three surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts and one early sixteenth-century manuscript; the original is lost (2). The modern scholarly Middle French edition (Brereton and Ferrier, 1981) omits three sections of the text that appear in the
manuscripts: the Griselda tale, the Melibee tale, and Jacques Bruyant's Le Chemin de povrete et richesse (here, too, appear the first modern English translations of the latter two texts). Karin Ueltschi's Middle French and Modern French facing-page translation (1994) includes the tales of Griselda and Melibee, but consigns Le
poem to an appendix. As the translators rightfully point out, presenting it without these texts or in an alternate order, even if they were not originally compiled by the author, does a disservice to understanding reading practices, the author's goals, and household composition in late medieval France (5)...

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Modern" to "Islamic" in just a few years

From the New York Times "At War" blog:

She said: “Abeer you know me, we used to wear such clothes in college.” I told her: “Things are very different now.” Then I showed her a picture on my mobile phone of me wearing an abaya. She was shocked and said: “I heard about it, but I can’t believe it, I never imagined things would go this way.”

We have got a gap inside the Iraqi community. A gap between people of the same generation, I mean between those who fled the violence and traveled out of Iraq after 2003, and these who stayed in the country.

The people who left Iraq cannot imagine what happened, they only have the barest idea, and they have not seen and lived the Islamist style of life.

At that restaurant meeting where I met a group of my friends we chatted and talked about many things, including the provincial elections next month. All of them, even the religious ones, agreed that they would not vote for an Islamist, of any kind. “Even if he was blessed by Ayatollah Sistani and got Sistani’s signature beside his name,” one of them said.

But my friend who had lived outside had an extremely different opinion. She said: “Why not, if they are good?”

More here.

Image: Back before the invasion.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Derek Neal Speaks: The Damage Done:

From Dr. James Murton:

The next talk in the History Department Seminar Series features our own gender and medieval historian Derek Neal, speaking on "Sex and the Damage Done: A Rare Prosecution for Sodomy in Late Medieval England."

Next Friday, Oct 24, 3:00 pm, Rm A224 (note the later than normal time to accommodate the Arts & Science Council Meeting).

Refreshments will be served.

Hope to see you there!

Image: The White Hart Inn in Blythburgh, Suffolk, was built in the 13th century as an ecclesiastical court venue, where such cases would have been tried.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Stage Beauty (2004)

I never heard of this movie until Dr. Cameron McFarlane of Nipissing's Department of English Studies offered a paper on it in the History Department's seminar seried. I couldn't make the seminar, but his abstract was enough for me to hunt down a copy, which I have just watched. Am I ever glad I did. This is a topnotch historical movie with a serious theme but lots of fun, too.

The protagonist is a star actor in the time of Charles II who has spent his whole career portraying women, a specialized but essential skill since women are forbidden to appear on the stage. He has a young, good-looking female dresser who wants to act. In a comedy of errors, he loses his career and identity when women are allowed to act and men are forbidden to take crossdressing roles. And she, who does not have his training or talent, becomes a star instead.

That, and much, much more. Highly recommended. Thanks, Cameron!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Other things I'm interested in

Although the major subject of this blog is "early [pre-railway] history," and providing my students with extra material is a priority, sometimes I comment on more recent events.

I've written and researched the world history of democracy, and so I can hardly be indifferent to democratic issues in my own country. One recent issue has been the question kicked around in the last few days: whether veiled women can vote in Canadian elections without showing their faces. The idea that it might be possible to vote veiled has provoked some hostile comment, notably from the Prime Minister. The Chief Electoral Officer of the country points out, though, that he has no legal power to require unveiling and if Parliament doesn't like it, only it can change the law.

I have conflicting feelings about veiling but it occurs to me that in many parts of the world, including this one, veiled Muslim women are quickly becoming an easy target, easier even than thin women (who must be anorexic) or even fat women. Are veiled women victims? If so, "blame the victim" seems to be awfully popular. (It may be a case of "blame the Muslim," but somehow it looks a little more like "blame the woman.")

Thanks to Chet Scoville for discussing this issue in his blog, The Vanity Press, in two recent posts, this one and this one. I particularly liked this historical allusion:

It's worth remembering that until the end of the nineteenth century, we did not have a secret ballot. In those days, people (well, men) voted by standing on a platform and openly declaring their allegiance -- and often fighting off gangs of the other party's thugs while they did so. It was called "the manly art of voting." Alexander MacKenzie introduced the secret ballot, and did away with all that. The "manly art of voting" was all about being required to show your face when you voted, and it was barbaric. There's nothing particularly wonderful, or, as far as I can see, anything urgent, about requiring citizens to show their faces when they vote -- especially not when most will anyway.

I don't always agree with Chet but boy he's interesting and passionate. See his recent postings for more hot stuff.

And who could forget September 11th (which I discuss both in World History and History of Islamic Civilization)?

Well, I went through all of this September 11th without anyone mentioning the six-year-old tragedy to my face. Online I did see some thoughtful reflections; but none as thoughtful as this post from driftglass which was called Sunday Mornin' Coming Down but might have been entitled The Better Universe and This One. Once again it brought home to me what a squalid era, morally and intellectually we live in.

Image: Read this.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

The complexities of the hijab -- Turkey's upcoming elections

An unusually excellent article in today's Washington Post discusses head scarves in Turkey and how they are at the moment one of the keys to Turkish politics (even Turks seem a bit bemused by this).

Sensibly, perhaps, the article focuses more on what the wearers think than on what the opponents do. For that alone it is worth a look.

It might be interesting to make a list of countries where wearing a hijab looks like a threat to the constitution. Do any but the nuttiest nuts in the USA feel that way? Yet quite a few people in France and Turkey get really charged up on the subject.

Certainly one can see where this attitude comes from in Turkey. It strikes me that the vital issue there is whether women will have a real choice about expressing religion, or not, through headwear. For Turkish women does the wearing of hijab by some mean that soon all will be required to? That's the fear on one side. On the other, those who want to wear hijab certainly face restrictions, and the article shows them desiring the freedom to be Islamic in public.

It would have been interesting if the reporter had asked the hijab wearers about the freedom of other women not to wear hijab -- or did I miss something?

Update: More on the election and the issues from the Washington Post.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

You are the crown of creation...

...and you've got no place to go!

Less than two weeks ago, the government of Poland was arguing in EU councils that its voting weight should take into account all the Poles slaughtered by Germans in World War II and the natural increase of population that might have taken place had there been no war.

Yesterday the online Guardian ran an article on the harrassment of gays in Poland, including a government body tasked with "curing" them, which has led to an exodus of gays to countries like Britain.

Between 1989 and 1991, the countries of eastern Europe were freed from Soviet domination with hardly a life being lost -- the most miraculous public event I've witnessed, and probably will ever witness. Some of those countries have yet to decide what that freedom means; for some of their people it seems that the nationalist/racist nightmare that was 1930s Europe is attractive. It's not just Poland, and it's not just this issue. The mistreatment of the Roma (otherwise known as the gypsies) is a running scandal.

There has been speculation about whether the Turks, the old enemy of Christian Europe, can really fit into the EU. Incidents like this make it clear that even within its current boundaries there are big issues to be sorted out.

Link: the song on YouTube.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Algerian women rise up

...and take control of the economy while wearing hijabs. See this from the New York Times.

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