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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who needs an ethos?

Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul is a brilliantly crafted textile woven of a collection of narratives that come together seamlessly and with great power. This novel truly lives up to the mouth-watering expectation set up by its organization that divides the work into chapters, each named after a food, drink, or flavor. I find myself devouring it voraciously. In line with our work last week regarding Etgar Keret's collection, I would like to speak directly to the most blatantly existential chapter in Shafak's book so far. Entitled "Vanilla," this section describes the seductive, smoky, and mysterious Cafe Kundera where young Asya meets with her intellectual friends to drink, smoke, and muse on the nature of existence. The whole set-up evokes the romanticism of the American expatriates pontificating at Les Deux Magots, post-Impressionist painters guzzling Absinthe in Montmartre, the entire catalogue of vague imagery associated with the prowess of Western intellectuals and artists. The chapter is a throwback, though Asya seems blissfully unaware of the repetition. In her self-proclaimed nihilism, she attempts to obliterate all memory, though, here, she participates in one of the oldest, most decadent of Euro-American tropes.

The conversation that takes place here is as overwrought as its setting. To be sure, Shafak is completely aware of this as she writes. Says the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist (the names in this chapter are priceless!), "Boredom is the summary of our lives. Day after day we wallow in ennui" (Shafak 81). In this chapter, the characters express what Keret's suicide victims leave to the imagination. The glaring difference is that Shafak's haughty intellectuals take refuge in philosophy, nihilism to be exact, while Keret's "happy campers" choose to take their own lives. In both stories, the overwhelming sense of ennui proves corrosive. The Cartoonist continues, citing Kundera himself, "The whole idea of lightness permeates our lives in the form of meaningless emptiness. Our existence is kitsch, a beautiful lie, which helps us to defy the reality of death and mortality" (Shafak 82). The act of existing, as Kundera puts it, is simple, too simple to be exact. Or, as our colleague Diane suggests, it is a socialized behavior. Existence as compliance with social norm speaks to the idea of nihilism. Nihilists, as Shafak casts them here, are simply too apathetic to take the next step. They realize the pointlessness our Sisyphian task here on Earth, but they are unwilling to allow the boulder to roll over them, ending the monotony.

"'There is an afterlife and it's going to be worse than here,' was the general opinion in the group. 'So enjoy whatever time you have left'" (Shafak 88). Perhaps these nihilists already know what Keret's characters only discovered after committing suicide. Would this outlook have changed their decision? Who's the "bigger" nihilist, then? One who despairs over a pointless life that will surely end, or one who has such little regard for existence he terminates himself?

More wisdom from Walter Sobchak. You've seen him on my blog before. I really think there is a Big Lebowski quote for every occasion. Try one at your next party, baby shower, or board meeting.

"Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."
-Walter Sobchak