Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rick Steves in Iran: An Empty Trip?

Rick Steves's documentary program on traveling in Iran is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. Unlike other travel shows, there seems to be a lack of perspective, of purpose in Steves's reporting. Normally, Steves travels Europe on camera and writes travel guides in order to encourage independent travel and tourism. However, his angle on Iran is quite different. He does not address the viewer directly in terms of travel tips such as lodging, dining, and cost. The likelihood of an American taking a vacation in Iran, he implicitly accepts, is remote and therefore complicates his role as host. What, then, is Steves's intention in creating this episode?

I would argue that, as a well-respected and popular travel writer and television host, Steves has an obligation to educate the general public on unfamiliar places. In the case of Iran, this means taking some sort of stand on the nation in relation to America. He attempts this task, but falls victim to the Orientalist habit of comparing Iran to America, using the latter as the unmarked term. I believe that his intentions are noble, that he wishes to be fair, to disprove misconceptions that Americans harbor regarding this area of the world, but his general attitude is strictly informative and lacks any depth of focus or critical analysis. The show reminds me of those small sections in history textbooks that appear every once in a while in the middle of a chapter. Soundbites, if you will. They might say something like "Shi'ite v. Sunni: What's the difference?" and then, in a few paragraphs, summarize in the most detached, clinical, expository style possible. Steves's program is a collection of these summations, and he offers no thread, no analytical message to bind the scenes together.

The perpetual elephant in the room throughout the episode is that fact that Americans fear this place. Some people probably hate it without knowing exactly why, just that there are Muslims there, and Muslims attacked New York, and they have nuclear weapons, and they're in the axis of evil. These are generalizations put forth by the media and consumed by an embarrassingly underinformed general public. Why didn't Steves take direct issue with this strained relationship? Did he fear that politicizing himself in this way could jeopardize his popularity? I did a little background reading and found that Steves is interested in politics, particularly marijuana legislation. He openly supports legalization of the the drug and uses his experience abroad to support this position. Why not take a stand on something a bit more global, Rick? I think you missed your chance.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Veiled Sexuality and Obsession in Two Women

The film Two Women rehashes many of the themes that we have discussed in regard to women in the Middle East. We should keep in mind when discussing this film that Iran, like Saudi Arabia, must be investigated in context, with attention paid to the Islamic Regime that works as an oppressive force throughout the nation, especially in terms of women. This film is a study, not a microcosm of women's issues in the Middle East as a whole.

Though not featured overtly as an article of clothing, the veil as a concept is at the center of Two Women. Most of the protagonist's problems stem from her desirability, a quality meant to be protected and stifled by state mandated dress code. Her persistent suitor on the motorbike is so crazed by his want for her that he throws acid on her cousin because he thinks he's her boyfriend and then follows her from Tehran all the way to the village of her birth. After running her off the road and causing an accident that results in the death of a child, he is convicted of harassment and manslaughter, then thrown in jail, only to return at the end of the film to seek his revenge. During his testimony in court, he cites his passionate love for the protagonist as the reason for his behavior. He appeals to the emotions of those in the courtroom and expects the men, especially, to sympathize. That this defense could even be a possibility is ludicrous and demonstrates the institutionalization of such beliefs regarding women. The men in this film, including the protagonist's eventual husband, seem hypnotized by the female entity. By casting these characters as such, the film works to point out the hypersexualization that occurs when women are forbidden by virtue of their veiled-ness.

Pardon me, but is that my identity you're wearing?.

Lipstick Jihad is an interesting work to consider for a number of reasons. For one, it's popular. Unlike some of the other books we've read, the more obscure harder to get from Amazon.com types, this work can be found at Borders. It is popular in America. It has a sexy title and a cute cover. It sells. I find this work to be valuable, but, before I get into its merits as a piece of literature, I do want make a few observations from the craft perspective. Currently, I am participating a non-fiction workshop, so I've been intimately engaged in the process of memoir-making this semester. I have been reading a lot of lovely nonfiction by women including The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Carr, I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl, A Little More About Me by Pam Houston, and a number of short pieces by others such as Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard. Unfortunately, as a piece of literary nonfiction, Maoveni's work is not quite reaching the bar.

The book reads like a two hundred and some page magazine article. Moaveni does not hesitate to lapse into long, dry descriptions of political situations and Iranian history. There is no light hand, no feathering in of the necessary context and detail. I find this technique to be clunky and difficult to get through. On the other hand, perhaps this is precisely what people like about this memoir. It tells the actual truth, sans generalization. The sections that fill us in on historical matters are researched and reported, not reckoned and remembered. In my opinion, this tactic renders the narrative lifeless and impersonal. There are tender moments between characters that fall flat because the book has been more about politics and journalism than relationships. The characters, even Moaveni herself, seem conspicuous and out of place when granted center stage, like poorly sewn hand puppets thrust onto a million dollar movie set.

However, there are moments in the text that shed light upon the condition that we have been so interested in these past few weeks -- Middle Eastern womanhood. Moaveni is bright and honest despite her melancholy neuroticism, and achieves moments in this narrative that illuminate the human condition regardless of gender, race, or geography. She deals quite elegantly with the issue of hybridity that is central to the immigrant condition. Is she American or Iranian? Both? How is identity constructed? Who is in charge? Can we be the keepers of our own personhood or is it a community project? Moaveni inquires,

"I thought of my family in California and superimposed the question on them. What if they woke up one day, and decided they were really American? Even if they felt it with all the force of their being, did that mean Americans would suddenly stop considering them foreigners? Maybe identity, to an extent, was an interior condition. But wasn't it also in the eye of the beholder?" (Moaveni 115)

Until reading this passage, I had not considered the exteriority of identity to be so tantamount. No matter how an individual feels in realtion to himself, his identity, to a certain point, is dependant upon the perceptions of others. I feel like this question is at the center of our project this semester. In the process of trying to learn and form insights about the Middle East through its art, we are helping to construct a particular identity. We struggle, but are delighted when we come upon something that we did not expect about this area of the world and its people. No matter how the Middle East exists as an entity, our study of it will always be a mere projection. When we, through literature and film, try to understand the experience of another human being, we strive for sympathy. We wish that we could empathize, but we cannot. The experience is too foreign. Through our quest for understanding, we examine the characters' identity as insight into the human experience. We listen to the characters and authors as they speak about themselves, then attempt to make a judgment or form an opinion. Can a character or author truly know himself and can we trust what he tells us? Writers are just as capable of lying as any other human being on this earth, and we should keep this in mind when reading, especially if the work in question is memoir. If the text seems disengenous, then it may very well be. The problem when sorting this out in postcolonial lit or any other imported work is to discern between instances in which the author is lying and when we just fail to understand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Decisions, Decisions...Are Middle Eastern Women "Oppressed"?

The chapter entitled "The Eternal Forough: the Voice of Our Earthly Rebellion" from Fatemeh Keshavarz's Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran does well to ground us in our consideration of women in the Middle East. Because both Salwa Bakr and Marjane Satrapi highlight the hardship of living female in Iran and Egypt, it is important to temper those experiences with diverse further reading and research. Keshavarz's work helps us to do that. Particularly, the author takes issue with Reading Lolita in Tehran, claiming that it "expose(s) despicable acts but...often associate(s) the root causes of these corruptions with the local religion, Islam. RLT places these incidents consistently in the familiar context of the savage, overly sexual, and duplicitous Oriental who in public projects an image of purity and piety" (Keshavarz 50). She is right when she assumes that the Western reader will readily accept this stereotype of the Muslim man. Bakr's stories that feature only oppressed or dejected women certainly affirm this notion. Satrapi, however, offers a more prismatic portrayal of the Iranian man, of Iranians in general, for that matter.

Having read a number of postcolonial works that emphasize the plight of women -- Season of Migration to the North, The God of Small Things, The Yacoubian Building, any number of texts that we have explored this semester -- I appreciate Keshavarz's perspective. Imagine, if you will, reading a cross-section of Western literature that includes only Gone with the Wind, the collected works of Morrison and Faulkner, and The Great Gatsby. If this was all you knew of American culture then you would probably think that we are also oppressive to women, and racists and classists to boot! As Said warned us in Orientalism, literature is more than an art, it's an industry, meaning that someone must decide what will be published, translated, and distributed. By his calculations, Middle Eastern texts that make it through translation and into the U.S. sometimes serve the purpose of preserving pre-existing stereotypes.

Another facet of Keshavarz's argument stems from the assumption that Iranians are not familiar with Western literature. Of course, she would notice the number of Western books available at the Iranian equivalent of Borders, but that does not mean that they are widely read by the general public. People in our own country are deprived of Western literature, for God's sake. Keshavarz is from the middle class, a cross-section of society that is deceiving in its name. The majority of people in most nations are not middle class, in fact, they are typically poor. So, when she postures herself as the average Jane going to public school, she is being disingenuous. In all fairness, though I appreciate Keshavarz's perspective, Persepolis takes care to present many sides of the Iranian story, including the historical fact of the religious regime. It is hard for me to take Keshavarz seriously in light of the information presented in Persepolis. Sure, women can defy authority and swim against the current of social propriety, but the fact that these standards of dress, behavior, and rights even exist legally is the overarching problem and the actual "elephant in the room" that Keshavarz refuses to acknowledge.

Persona, Tone, and Genre in Persepolis

In both volumes of her graphic novel, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi accomplishes something revolutionary by way of tone and authorial agency. The experience of reading this memoir is akin to sitting down with Satrapi herself to smoke a cigarette and enjoy a glass of tea while she flips through photo albums. The narration is that frank, that conversational, that raw. To be sure, at first, I viewed this work as a piece meant for children, a sophisticated lens through which a young audience might be able to grasp heady concepts -- revolution, violence, social stratification, Marx. As a didactic device, it is priceless. However, once Satrapi herself is no longer a child, then neither is the narrative persona. She swears, smokes, trips on drugs, and has sex in the second volume, and her drawings work as memorabilia of these acts, each frame a metaphorical snapshot of her life incarnate. What is the effect of her tone, then? What do we make of this brave feminine voice that matures before our eyes?

This breed of honesty, of unabashed explicitness, may in fact be the direct result of the chosen genre -- graphic novel. I noticed, especially in the childhood portions, a common image -- that of young Marji engaging the viewer through a direct gaze from the frame, holding one finger up in an "aha!" or "now listen, here" gesture -- that effectively allowed her to speak in direct address without risking vulgarity. She bothered not with prosaic gymnastics, but instead capitalized upon the fullest potential of her genre. If I am drawing myself, speaking directly to a reader, then why not etch into the speech bubble what I would actually say? The result of this inversion of literary nuance -- what we in the biz call "writing with a light hand," or "show, don't tell" -- is a refreshingly frank, even experiemental perspective that one doesn't often see in literary writing. To be sure, the only other graphic novel that I have studied extensively is Alan Moore's masterpiece, Watchmen, which is anything but straightforward, so please correct me if I'm wrong in my analysis of this particular genre.

From an ethical perspective, which is also a craft perspective in this case, this graphic novel calls into question the issue of a memoirist's persona. Because we are experiencing Marjane's life through the filters of her recollection and process of composition, it is not ostensibly authentic. Marjane is a character in her own memoir and is selective about which pictures from her scrapbook she is wiling to post on Flickr, if you will. We do not witness her taking a shit or having chicken pox or telling her mother that she needs Kotex. For that matter, we don't ever see her saying something that is anything other than insightful, articulate, and poignant. Because the narration is so earnest, it seems natural to take this work at face value. However, in our academic consideration of the memoir, we must remember that there is posturing involved, as well as the setting forth of an agenda. I am not saying that anything about Persepolis is false or disengenuous, quite the contrary in fact, but that when assessing the general condition of any group of people, we have to be careful of privileging certain perspectives.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gender Studies, Deep Fried

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is an outstanding program because it seeks to uncover all aspects of a given culture. Tony is not afraid to experience the entire spectrum when he travels to a strange land, and his articulate, profound voice-overs provide thoughtful insight from the perspective of a visitor in a foreign land. I also happen to love learning about food. I think it's so revealing. At the beginning of the Saudi Arabia episode, Tony is candid in his thoughts regarding the treatment of women who are expected to cover themselves head-to-toe in black, remaining hidden from view while in plain sight. He is disturbed, as most Westerners tend to be, by this custom. By the end of his trip, Tony remains skeptical, but seems placated, generally responsive to the explanations provided to him by his guide. As a viewer, I am not totally satisfied.

Danya takes great care to emphasize the ways in which Saudi Arabia is "normal," inherently referring to the unmarked term "normal" that is defined by Western standards and values. She tells us that Saudi people do all the same stuff that we do in the states, watch Boston Legal and Scrubs on a flat screen TV, sit on couches, hang out in shopping malls, purchase cheap and oh-so-tasteful clothing at fine establishments such as Charlotte Russe and Forever 21. She has not eaten the street food of the Saudi working class. She lives in a very nice home in an up-scale district in Jetta. She is one of the only women in Saudi Arabia permitted to make films. What does she have to complain about, aside from sweating her lady parts off in the unrelenting desert heat, shrouded in a blanket of black?

During their meal at the Saudi version of KFC, Danya reveals her feelings on the status of women, proclaiming that Saudi culture is family-oriented and that it's really single men who are being marginalized and excluded (Which is somehow okay? Marked vs. unmarked terms become probematic here, yet again). All restaurants in Saudi Arabia have separate sections, one for families and one for single men. Men behave badly, Danya says, and need to be isolated from women and children. Similarly, female beauty is a thing to be protected, hence the abaya. Besides, things have always been this way in Saudi Arabia, so change, if it happens at all, will be slow. Danya, it seems, doesn't see any need for reform. Does this, as Diane suggested a couple of weeks ago, translate as a class issue? Would an impoverished or lower-class woman who is oppressed in other, completely universal ways, agree with Danya on this set of issues? Or, are we, as liberal-minded scholars, simply so used to questioning the status quo that we can't possibly fathom the notion that an age-old custom is valid? In class tomorrow, I'd like to talk about how Danya responds to this "elephant in the room" on the show. Are you satisfied with her explanation?

Women as Children in The Wiles of Men

In Salwa Bakr's The Wiles of Men, we find a collective of misunderstood women who are marginalized for being different, discriminated against, in some cases, to the point of complete annihilation. With the exception of "An Occasion for Happiness" which deals primarily with the theme of nationalism, particularly how it is embedded in quotidienne Egyptian life, all of these stories feature female main characters who are effectively infantilized and forced to relinquish some facet of individual identity against their will. For Bakr's women, peculiarity is the ultimate downfall, marked uniqueness an act of symbolic suicide.

In "Thirty-one Beautiful Green Trees," Kareema is ostracized for a number of social trangressions -- kissing a man forwardly and in public, failing to wear a brassiere, painting her work desk red, and making a demonstration on election day. For the final offense, she is forced into confinement and eventually into an asylum. Essentially, she is being punished for taking a stake in her own well-being, and that of others. All she desires is to propogate happiness through beauty, hence the compulsion to preserve the thirty-one trees and brighten the office decor. Because her actions are out of the ordinary and draw untoward attention, her mother scolds her, "Have you reached the stage when you'll ruin the future of your brother?" (Bakr 24). Kareema, a sensitive soul, reasons that the only way to wrest herself and her family from turmoil and shame is to remove her own tongue, a task that seems bearable when compared to the circumcision that she endured at the age of nine (Bakr 25). Though she does not succeed in this endeavor, the implications are resonant. To be unable to speak is to be thrust back into early childhood, into helplessness. The best solution, Kareema asserts, is to silence herself, for those who have no voice can do no harm.

Voicelessness is a recurring theme throughout Bakr's collection, most poignantly in "That Beautiful Undiscovered Voice" in which housewife Sayyida suddenly inherits a heavenly, melodic singing voice. The tragedy in this story is that no one in Sayyida's life will believe her, or even take time to listen to her new talent. All she seeks is validation, a nod from outside herself that will prove her worth. Instead, she is met with scorn. Importantly, a major impediment is that she has no female friends to which she can turn. Her confinement, then, becomes two-fold. Not only is she trapped inside herself, the knowledge of this secret overflowing from her consciousness, but she is also isolated in the house, the private sphere. Unlike her husband who may visit public cafes and share his thoughts and frustrations with an array of male friends, Sayyida is expected to remain content within the confines of domestcity (Bakr 65). Furthermore, the men in which she chooses to confide -- Isa the grocer, her husband, the psychiatrist -- don't even concede the decency to let her explain. She is treated like a child, like some imaginitive little girl indulging in an elaborate fantasy. The joy that Sayyida garners from the discovery of this beautiful voice is symptomatic of a deeper cultural desire to be perceived in the public sphere and taken seriously. When she flushes the medications that quell the voice at the end of the story, she effectively makes a stand against traditional gender roles (Bakr 70).

"Dotty Noona" deals explicitly with a theme that underlies much of Bakr's work -- the institution of marriage. A peculiar girl, Noona has been denied the luxury of an education, so she lives vicariously through the children in whose home she is the maid, and also by listening to the school goings on across the street. Her mistress considers Noona abnormal because of her obsession with appropriating mundane, juvenile knowledge. She takes solace in the process of learning by dropping eaves, and the simplicity of this task works to infantilize her in the eyes of her adult peers. Specifically, when her father informs her that she is to be married, she breaks down in a tantrum, horrified by the prospect of being married off and "rooted in suffering" (Bakr 48). In this case, complying with social norms would result in the worst type of punishment for Noona who is content as an inward, solitary being.