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.