Daily Archives: 15 May 2006

Reading Said vs. Austen in Tehran

Olga was silent.

“Ah,” cried Vladimir, “Why can’t you love me as I love you.”

“I love my country,” she said.

“So do I,” he exclaimed.

“And there is something I love even more strongly,” Olga continued, disengaging herself from the young man’s embrace.

“And that is?” he queried.

Olga let her limpid blue eyes rest on him, and answered quickly: “It is the Party.”

Every great book we read became a challenge to the ruling ideology. It became a potential threat and menace not so much because of what it said but how it said it, the attitude it took towards life and fiction. Nowhere was this challenge more apparent than in the case of Jane Austen.

I had spent a great deal of time in my classes at Allameh contrasting Flaubert, Austen and James to the ideological works like Gorky’s Mother, Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and some of the so-called realistic fiction coming out of Iran. The above passage, quoted by Nabokov in his Lectures on Russian Literature, caused a great deal of mirth in one of my classes at Allameh. What happens, I asked my students, when we deny our characters the smallest speck of individuality? Who is more realized in her humanity, Emma Bovary or Olga of the limpid blue eyes?

One day after class, Mr. Nahvi followed me to my office. He tried to tell me that Austen was not only anti-Islamic but that she was guilty of another sin: she was a colonial writer. I was surprised to hear this from the mouth of someone who until then had mainly quoted and misquoted the Koran. He told me that Mansfield Park was a book that condoned slavery, that even in the West they had now seen the error of their ways. What confounded me was that I was almost certain Mr. Nahvi had not read Mansfield Park.

It was only later, on a trip to the States, that I found out where Mr. Nahvi was getting his ideas from when I bought a copy of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. It was ironic that a Muslim fundamentalist should quote Said against Austen. It was just as ironic that the most reactionary elements in Iran had come to identify with and co-opt the work and theories of those considered revolutionary in the West.

SOURCE: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004), pp. 289-290

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