Speech and Politics

by Henry Farrell on October 13, 2006

Two interesting pieces on the intersection between free speech and politics. Richard Byrne in the “Chronicle”:http://chronicle.com/free/v53/i08/08a01201.htm on how the writer of ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ is being accused of preparing the way for war.

Mr. Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University who has been active in the antiwar movement since the attacks of September 11, 2001, heard a call to action. The article prompted him to dust off an essay that he had written a few years before and publish it in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram. His target? Not President Bush or the Pentagon, but Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran and a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington. … His blistering essay cast Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration’s plans for regime change in Iran. … “By seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire,” wrote Mr. Dabashi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India, when, for example, in 1835 a colonial officer like Thomas Macaulay decreed: ‘We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.’ Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project.” In an interview published on the Web site of the left-wing publication Z Magazine on August 4, Mr. Dabashi went even further, comparing Ms. Nafisi to a U.S. Army reservist convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi”

And Martin Arnold and Vincent Boland in the “FT”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/4dcb8dfa-5a04-11db-8f16-0000779e2340.html, on a bill passed by France’s National Assembly that will criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide if the Senate passes it too.

The French legislation, which could still be blocked by the senate, would make it a crime to deny that Armenians were the victims of genocide in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. The bill was read in Turkey as a sign that France was now permanently opposed to Ankara’s bid to join the EU. Bulent Arinc, the parliamentary speaker, criticised France’s “hostile attitude” towards Turkey. “This is a shameful decision. We are very sorry to see that this [bill] was passed only because of internal [French] politics.” Turkey itself denies genocide and the judicial authorities have prosecuted writers who have used the term to describe the killings of Armenians. One of the most prominent such figures is Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature on Thursday minutes after the French vote.

I haven’t read _Reading Lolita in Tehran_ (would be interested to hear from anyone in comments who has), but it seems to me that the evidence against Nafisi is ridiculous as it’s presented here. It seems to consist of a reductive reading of Edward Said, and the facts that she’s critical of the Iranian regime (which is better than some others in the region, but still pretty nasty) and friends with people like Paul Wolfowitz and Bernard Lewis. This doesn’t in my book add up to proof that she supports, let alone is actively paving the way, for any sort of violent regime change from outside. On the other hand, I think that the evidence that France’s new proposed law _is_ intended as a slap in the face for Turkey is quite strong. I don’t have any principled objection to bans on speech by Holocaust deniers and their like, but the law seems almost designed to be counter-productive. Telling Turkey that it’s effectively not qualified to be an EU member state (which is how this law is being received, and, I suspect, how it was intended to be received) means that the real changes in Turkey’s internal censorship regime which were starting to take hold a year or two ago are almost certain to be rolled back, and that the more vicious nationalist elements (who were never happy with EU membership in the first place) will increasingly be in the ascendant in Turkey’s internal political debates.



elliottg 10.13.06 at 11:32 am

I think you have to look suspiciously at any friend of Paul Wolfowitz.


I don't pay 10.13.06 at 11:41 am

And Bernard Lewis. I’m afraid that was my reaction too, and I’m not kidding. My wife was thinking about that book for a book club: I’m going to bring that fact to her attention.


abb1 10.13.06 at 11:44 am

What Elliottg said. And btw, her other friend Bernard Lewis is an Armenian genocide denialist, on the record. It’s not that different from being friends with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.


Henry 10.13.06 at 11:51 am

From the piece:

“I resent the fact that they create guilt by association,” says Ms. Nafisi of her critics. “I will never denounce my friends. I have conservative friends. I have radical friends. I have more radical friends in my acknowledgments to the book than conservatives. … I can definitely disagree with their politics. That’s one reason I am in this country, so I won’t be stigmatized for conversing with people who are politically different from me. So I feel a great anger that I come here and I face the same dilemma.”

Which I think is right. I have several conservative friends, with whom I vehemently disagree on politics. The fact that I’m friends with them doesn’t mean that I’m signing up to their political project. Personally, I would find it very difficult to befriend Paul Wolfowitz or Bernard Lewis in the unlikely event that we met socially, given their role in politics over the last several years. But this is personal – I don’t think it’s right to tar people with guilt-by-association unless you have good evidence that they are not just friends, but political collaborators. I’m not seeing the evidence for that here.

Matt Yglesias has an interesting discussion over at his site today on people who sign Project for a New American Century letters, which I think illustrates the difference nicely. If you’re signing these letters, you are indeed giving cover to the political project of Frank Gaffney and others (I met Gaffney once; he seemed to me to be a spittle-flecked paranoid). And you ought to get your arse kicked for your trouble. But this seems to me to be quite different from non-political friendship (and I don’t see any evidence that Nafisi has lent any political support whatsoever to Wolfowitz or Lewis).


~~~~ 10.13.06 at 11:52 am


Steve 10.13.06 at 11:59 am

“I don’t have any principled objection to bans on speech by Holocaust deniers and their like”

This is truly asrounding. Are you American or European?



elliottg 10.13.06 at 12:02 pm

It’s one thing to have conservative friends; it’s another thing to have criminal friends.


jim 10.13.06 at 12:12 pm

The problem is that there really was an Armenian genocide and that Turkey doesn’t want to acknowledge it. I really can’t blame Armenian activists for using Turkey’s desire to join the EU as leverage to attempt to get their historic wrongs righted. No doubt they’ve had some unsavoury allies in getting to this vote, but they have succeeded in making the Armenian genocide central to the debate on Turkey’s place in Europe.


P O'Neill 10.13.06 at 12:15 pm

I think another interesting angle to the Franco-Turkish dispute is that Segolene Royal had her first real mis-step of her Presidential campaign on Wednesday when she refused to directly answer a question on whether she supported Turkish membership of the EU. Falling back on the fact that there will be a referendum, but sounding rather Bourbon-like, her dodge was “my opinion will be that of the French people.” So — probably leans in favour of it but knows it’s electorally risky to say so. A little note went in Sarkozy’s book after that, no doubt.


Matt 10.13.06 at 12:17 pm

I guess I’m pretty naive on the subject but it’s never been clear to me why the Turks, who of course threw off the last bits of Ottoman empire, are so upset about bad (but true) things being said about what was done during the last days of the empire. Why can’t they just say something like, “Yes, those running the Ottoman empire did awful things to the Armenians in the last days. This may well have been genocide. But we are not the Ottoman empire and in fact our fathers, the ‘young turks’ ended the empire. So, those sins, bad as they are, are not ours, though they were the sins of the old regime, the one we replaced.” That surely wouldn’t satisfy everyone but would seem reasonable to me. Why that can’t be said I don’t understand, though as I said I don’t know that much about the issue. Can anyone give enlightenment?


John I 10.13.06 at 12:20 pm

Ditto number 6. As an American, these european laws against certain types of speech strike me as bizarre. I have no doubt that the armenian massacres occurred (my grandmother was a witness), but I will fight to to defend your right to blather nonsense, and my right to mock you for it.


Barry 10.13.06 at 12:27 pm

Matt, they don’t say things like that, because they don’t have to, and there’s enough political pressure that saying that would be dangerous.

As an example, think of the Lancet study. There’s been a veritable wave of extremely flimsy lies about it, because a lot of Americans can’t have their illusions punctured.


Seth Finkelstein 10.13.06 at 12:30 pm

Mewonders if the lady doth protest too much.

It’s not “conversing with people who are politically different from me.”. It’s about whether there’s a carrying of water for some rather notorious war-mongers (and I use the word advisedly and literally). I find Hamid Dabashi’s style over-the-top. But he does raise some interesting questions.

To strip the issue down to the core: Suppose someone in the right-wing think-tank machine saw her book, and said “Hey, here’s a great story about Noble Western Values enlightening the Savage Native Mind. It’ll probably be relatively popular in the current political climate (note – NOT “help pave the way for war we’d like to do”). And it’s by a woman, even better. We ought to help push it.”

What then?

I think the trail to follow would be along the lines of looking into those backers, if any, and the promotion process (“follow the money”). Pointing out (very verbosely) that war-mongers enjoy those sorts of stories, and that then creates a market for those sorts of stories, is rather obvious.


Henry 10.13.06 at 12:33 pm

I’m a European living in America, and am quite OK with the way, for example, that Germany has banned various neo-Nazi parties in its modern history – this seems to me to have been actively helpful in securing the foundations of democracy in Germany. The idea that hate-speech is best countered by other forms of speech is an attractive principle, but I’m not sure that it’s true as an empirical fact under all circumstances. So while I’m deeply suspicious of proposals to limit free speech (because they often have other motives than the stated ones, or negative consequences that greatly outweigh their positive ones), I’m not opposed to them on principle.


Henry 10.13.06 at 12:40 pm

Seth – if you or Dabashi had any evidence that there was such a funding trail, and that Nafisi had actively cooperated in it, it would be an entirely different matter. But I’m not aware of any evidence whatsoever that this is true. Are you?

That someone’s writings on topic _x_ can in principle (or in practice) be used by supporters of policy _y_ does not mean that the writer can be taken as lending support to _y_. To take an example from my own recent history, I wrote a post about SWIFT and the NYT revelations which was used by some warbloggers (who completely missed the point of my argument) to suggest that the NYT had too undermined the War on Terror. Am I therefore a supporter of these people? Or to take another example – Deepak Chopra’s ravings about higher consciousness etc claim to use ideas from quantum mechanics. Is Werner Heisenberg responsible for Chopra’s writings in some sense?

Now, all that said, I do think that people can use novels and art deliberately to inflame political debate, and push it the one way or another. But to say that someone is doing that, we need some evidence of intentionality. I’m not seeing that here.


Maynard Handley 10.13.06 at 12:40 pm

Regarding (10):
Uh, Matt, my understanding is that it was the young turks who were responsible for the genocide as part of their grand cleaning up of Turkey after the Ottomans were booted out. Now you can go along with the usual “The Ottoman Empire laid the framework for hatred, blah blah” but I think that it is precisely the heroes of the nation who did this that is the problem.

Regarding (3):
Exactly what is the evidence of Bernard Lewis being an Armenian geonide denier? I’ve never heard this. The guy is a prat, to be sure, when it comes to modern day politics and rearranging the ME, but this sort of denial just doesn’t sound like what he would say. My guess is that, if there is anything to this, it is one of those truly stupid episodes that show more about the mendacity of the accuser than the accused where he said something like “Of course we still don’t know all the details of exactly what happened” and someone jumped up and said “Hah, you see, he denies it”.


tom bach 10.13.06 at 12:42 pm

I think that one reason that the Turks deny the Genocide is precisely that it is associated not with the bad old Empire but rather with CUP with Ataturk leading the final stage.


Joel 10.13.06 at 12:55 pm

Just google Bernard Lewis genocide and you’ll get the background to this charge. It’s not new. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:
“In a November 1993 Le Monde interview, Lewis said that the Ottoman Turks’ killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 was not “genocide”, but the “brutal byproduct of war”.[10] Lewis himself argued that “the issue is not whether the massacres happened or not, but rather if these massacres were as a result of a deliberate preconceived decision of the Turkish government,” and that “there is no evidence for such a decision.”[11] A Parisian court interpreted his remarks as a denial of the Armenian Genocide and on June 21, 1995 fined him one franc.”


Seth Finkelstein 10.13.06 at 1:02 pm

Henry, I’m not saying that what Dabashi is charging is true, I’m suggesting ways it can be refined into something halfway investigate-able.

Can we dispense with the run to abstraction? “… can in principle …”, bleh. If someone is good friends with X, and X has a lot of power and influence, and suddenly, where they had previously been obscure, they write something which becomes both prominent and seems to fit well with one of X’s obsessions … hmmm …

Could be pure coincidence. Could be causality of a pitch to X. Could be causality of push from X. But having the vapors over it, oh-me-oh-my-how-can-you-think-that, seems unreasonable here.

(disclaimer: Of course there’s cases where having the vapors would be reasonable, blah, blah, blah. But given a well-funded PR machine that hypes hack authors, it’s hardly a stretch to wonder if they’d diversify a little to non-hack authors).


tom bach 10.13.06 at 1:07 pm

About the laws, do we really want a government criminalizing historical arguments? Obviously, denial of the Holocaust or the reality of the Armenian Genocide stink in the nostrils of all decent folks, left right and center, but as Joel points out the criminalization of the Aremian Genocide made Lewis interpretation a crime. Indeed, at least so far as I understand the state of documentation, Lewis is right, which does not, by the way, mean that his assertion is correct. Merely that it is supportable. Of course, one reason for the problem is that many documents have been lost, stolen, or strayed.


Henry 10.13.06 at 1:18 pm

Seth – I don’t think I’m having the vapors here – I’m saying that the evidence, as we see it, seems ridiculously inadequate to support the charge that Nafisi is a “colonial agent,” let alone a Lynndie England wannabe. I’m not sure that you disagree – to say that something is ‘halfway investigatable’ presumably is to agree that there isn’t enough evidence out there to make strong accusations as matters stand. Or is there something that I am missing?

Joel – there seems to be some weird trope among right wing historians on this. Norman Stone, former and for all I know current trustee of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation is perhaps the most prominent example – and he goes a lot further than Lewis did.


Seth Finkelstein 10.13.06 at 1:31 pm

I’d put terms like “colonial agent” and “a Lynndie England wannabe” into what I described as an “over-the-top” style. I don’t think Dabashi has made a solid case. But I also don’t think what I view as the underlying point is out of bounds either. In the Znet article, he says:

“I am not in the least interested in how her career opportunism has led her to corridors of power without an iota of scholarly credentials to her name. … What I am interested in is understanding how the inner dynamics of this vulgar empire works …”

I think the reverse (assuming what he says is true, which I’m doing for the sake of discussion), that it’s not at all interesting that empire attracts writers, but the process itself does interest me.

I’m trying to tone it down – is “Reading Lolita” at least in part a think-tank baby? That’s something that can be somewhat tested (not perfectly, but I’m suggesting it’s a better way to approach the issue).


Brian Cook 10.13.06 at 1:39 pm

In case anyone’s interested, here’s what Nafisi said about “regime change” in Iran back in 2004:

“I do not advocate regime change by use of violence or
foreign intervention; I want the progressive forces in the world to
empathize with the plight of the Iranian people, and to recognize that, for over 25 years, Iranians have resisted a theocratic system through peaceful means.”



David Moles 10.13.06 at 1:56 pm

Someone should put Dabashi in a jar with Alan Barra and shake it to make ’em fight.


Matt 10.13.06 at 2:00 pm

Thanks for the information, Barry and Maynard


abb1 10.13.06 at 2:00 pm

Of course people should be able to say and write anything they want, no question about that.

However: Lewis’ interpretation of the Armenian genocide as “brutal byproduct of war” is not different from Le Pen’s interpretation of the Nazi genocide as “a footnote in the history of WWII”. Le Pen is universally condemned as a fascist, racist, antisemite and you wouldn’t defend his friends. Why should it be different with Mr. Lewis?


Doug 10.13.06 at 2:01 pm

Turkey won’t be ready for EU accession for close to a decade anyway, but will enough of Western Europe be persuadable over the next 10 years?


Penelope 10.13.06 at 2:12 pm

I’ve read “Reading Lolita in Teheran”. It’s obviously pro-western in all sorts of ways, but that Nafisi would countenance a(nother) western attack on Iran strikes me as contrary to the spirit of the melancholy political retrospective she undertakes there. It’s all about “Look at how this and that idealistic political project turned and bit us in the ass”–I.e., the leftist projects of the late 70s, which ended up helping the Islamist revolution. I’ll get my copy and look again at how she talks about what happened in 1953, for example. That may provide some clue about this “preparing the way to war” business. But it’s certainly not a message *I* took away from the book.


soru 10.13.06 at 2:20 pm

why the Turks, who of course threw off the last bits of Ottoman empire

Serious question: what’s the common Turkish translation of the English phrase ‘Ottoman Empire’?


Henry 10.13.06 at 2:21 pm

Thanks Brian – I think that statement makes it pretty difficult to argue in good faith that Nafisi is in any way seeking to smooth the path for intervention.


Timothy Burke 10.13.06 at 2:45 pm

I think it’s not a good sign when a professor of comparative literature practices a mode of reading that is 100% incapable of recognizing a distinction between a text, an author, and the complexities of why things happen in the world. Or a mode of reading that is as unrestrainedly reductionist as this.

VS Naipaul has at times lent himself, naively in my view, to the purposes of unsavory people and political projects. Should I then spit on A Bend in the River and declare it bereft of value as a literary work, without any insight?

Prepare the bonfires, if so: there won’t be much literature or writing left if we follow this kind of reductionism. A writer with unsavory friends! With sympathy for bad ideas! With misguided or naive views! Golly. The mind boggles. I have never heard of such a thing.

The logic of reading that Dabashi is offering just in this case alone would have to also include the work of Marjane Satrapi. She doesn’t have the same friends, perhaps, but my god there’s sympathy for the West all OVER her memoirs of life in Iran. I’m sure somewhere in that sympathy, somewhere in the pictures she draws, there’s a hidden battle plan for the destruction of Fallujah.

Naturally, if you’ve read Nafisi’s book, there’s more than a little extra dollop of irony here, since it’s partially a plea for the importance of imagination and the possible pleasures of reading in a non-instrumental way.


abb1 10.13.06 at 3:15 pm

This kind of sympathy for the West is not a problem – unless, of course, one happens to feel (with some justification) that his compatriots are about to be brutally attacked by the West. Then it might be a different story. To what degree Mr. Dabashi attitude might be justified – well, not being an Iranian, it’s a little difficult for me to judge, so thanks for the insights.


Timothy Burke 10.13.06 at 3:21 pm

Anybody commenting here should, by the way, *also* read the Al-Ahram article that sparked this. Among the many problems I see in it is the remarkably casual shift between asserting that the book has been read sympathetically or used by proponents of an attack on Iran to a flat-out assertion that the content of the book is intended to be read monolithically and simplistically thus AND that the author is a willing, deliberate and programmatic agent of such readings.

But read further, and you’ll see one more thing, which is the underlying manner that a great deal of ostensibly “postcolonial” literary criticism is basically nationalism in disguise, because to Dabishi the greatest sin of Nafisi is that she doesn’t like Iranian *culture*. E.g., this is not so much about whether or not the post-1979 government is or is not repressive. Dabishi isn’t about to be enough of a tool to argue that it is not repressive. This is about diasporic struggles over national identity, and a pretty crude attempt to rough up someone who speaks as a “national” but commits cultural treason against the nation.

Anybody who on this blog, commenter or otherwise, has ever railed against the bullshit cultural nationalism of the American right–the calling out of Sontag et al as traitorously “European”, the argument that any time an American intellectual expresses distaste or disgust for American culture, should recognize what Dabishi is doing here. He is posing the sheer impossibility, in his view, of ever being a native who hates or criticizes his native *nation* (not government, but nation-as-culture, culture-as-nation). In Dabishi’s reading, the moment that a postcolonial subject expresses that perspective, they MUST, inevitably, be a hollow vessel within which lurks the empire. Whereas “Western” subjects still retain the liberal privilege of hating or disliking their nation; they are choosing subjects. This is noxious on a great many levels, not the least of which is the political puppeteering that is going on here. Western subjects choose and so long as they choose to become anti-national, they are good choosing subjects; native subjects must be loyal to their nation or be nothing more than pawns of empire. Two different kinds of human subjectivity here: what could be more faithful to the colonial bifurcation of the world into West and non-West?


Mark 10.13.06 at 3:30 pm

Dabashi, not Dabishi [/OBNitpick].


rana 10.13.06 at 3:37 pm


Dabashi’s tirade isn’t just a “reductive reading” of Said, it’s a defence of his mentor. Here is (probably) the “offending” passage in Nafisi’s book:

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.

P.S. Nafisi’s book rings true (though I have reservations about her interpretation of Nabokov). I don’t know about “Culture and Imperialism”, but “Orientalism” was prescribed reading when I was in Tehran (I left in 1991).


Tim McG 10.13.06 at 3:56 pm

The subthread of this argument that assumes that it isn’t possible for Wolfowitz and Lewis (odious as they are) to be right about something should be a danger sign to those concerned about the value of political discourse.

You are not, as a liberal, required to disagree with neocon morons in everything they say. The biggest liar in the world can say the sun is out and that don’t make it rain.


bemused 10.13.06 at 3:59 pm

Lolita…Tehran is a fine book, and people should read it. To me it certainly doesn’t seem to espouse the notion that militant solutions solve ideological problems.


yabonn 10.13.06 at 4:07 pm

the evidence that France’s new proposed law is intended as a slap in the face for Turkey

So-so. Opponents to Turkey’s entry see it as a nice side effect, but Turkey is far away, the Armenian community is right here, and elections are coming close.

That said, I don’t raelly see point of this law, coming after the 2001 text – “official recognition” of the genocide by the French state.

Too i only half agree with O’Neil at 9 : it’s not her first mistep, and i don’t think it’d the biggest either – people just don’t care that much about that, imho. It’s just that the media is in spin overdrive these days.

On the other hand, yes, there is something Bourbon with that Royal.


abb1 10.13.06 at 4:23 pm

…the calling out of Sontag et al as traitorously “European”, the argument that any time an American intellectual expresses distaste or disgust for American culture…

But certainly it’s at least slightly different in the case of Iran vs. the West (represented by Messrs. Wolfowitz and Lewis) – considering, you know, recent colonial past, not to mention the present little clash of civilizations, Western struggle against Islamofascism, terrorism and certain evil states. Not all nationalism is ‘bullshit cultural nationalism’, not all nationalism is the same.


Anderson 10.13.06 at 4:28 pm

the real changes in Turkey’s internal censorship regime which were starting to take hold a year or two ago are almost certain to be rolled back, and that the more vicious nationalist elements (who were never happy with EU membership in the first place) will increasingly be in the ascendant in Turkey’s internal political debates.

Isn’t that rather a lot of power to attribute to a French statute?


Henry 10.13.06 at 4:47 pm

rana – I read this, but I didn’t see it as being an attack on Said – rather a statement about the way in which texts can be used in perverse ways (the topic of this argument). And I suspect that Said himself would have been considerably more sympathetic given his writings on exile etc.


rana 10.13.06 at 5:28 pm


Agreed, mostly. But there is an indirect dig at Said (certainly his more dogmatic supporters) in Nafisi’s passage, and Dabashi is defending his own territory via Said.


JR 10.13.06 at 5:50 pm

It extraordinary that anyone here has sympathy with Dabashi. He saus that an author is no different from a torturer. Lyndie England was imprisoned for her crimes. A professor who cannot tell the difference between literature and life has no business being a professor; and a professor who argues that a writer deserves prison should be condemned and shunned.


IM 10.13.06 at 7:27 pm

There is a West Indian plantation subplot in “Mansfield Park”. The owner of Mansfield Park is also the owner of a plantation in the West Indies. In the middle of the book he must leave his house and travel westwards to keep an eye on his investments. It is only a off-stage location though.

But yes, Jane Austen treated slavery in the West Indies as a fact of life, so the fanatic had a point.


abb1 10.14.06 at 3:07 am

He certainly does come out too strong, way too strong, no question about that; but otherwise his point is not unreasonable. And does he actually argue “that a writer deserves prison”?


jackie 10.14.06 at 7:33 am

My reading of Reading Lolita was that she is hopelessly naive about politics. Naive when she returned from university in the states to support the revolution, and just as naive when she left. She left for political reasons — but only as they affected her personally. As in her ability to teach, or give and attend “civilized” dinner parties (with men and women and alcohol).


Carlos 10.14.06 at 9:47 am

He certainly does come out too strong, way too strong, no question about that; but otherwise his point is not unreasonable.

I love this sentence of Abb1’s, but I’m not sure of the referent. Is he talking about Wolfowitz, Le Pen, or Bernard Lewis?


abb1 10.14.06 at 9:54 am

Dabashi, of course. In response to #43.


John Emerson 10.14.06 at 11:12 am

The question of the Young Turks is more complicated than people think. They got their start under the Ottomans around 1906, and Ataturk was not one of them and not friendly with them, and at one point he denounced the Armenian genocide.

One source says, however, that Ataturk committed his own crimes against the Armenians, even though he hadn’t participated in the most major ones.

This is not the kind of question which the internet is much help on, because partisan information overwhelms averything else. But it is true that Ataturk was not a Young Turk in the strict sense.


John Emerson 10.14.06 at 11:19 am

Der Spiegel on Ataturk, Armenians, etc.

There seems to be something weird going on in Turkey. I’m wondering whether there isn’t a big faction in Turkey which identifies with the Ottomans and the original Young Turks.


Laleh 10.14.06 at 12:01 pm

What is problematic about Reading Lolita in Tehran are a whole range of things, but here are some of the most important:

a) Without exception, Islamists in Nafisi’s book are portrayed as idiotic philistines. They have no sense of the world, no appreciation of literature, nor a sophisticated notion of history. They are just zealots and sophists. I find this really problematic. Certainly there are Islamists (who like Stalinists before them) have not countenanced literature that is not in the service of some greater cause, but frankly, there are also large numbers of Islamists who are not only familiar with Nabokov and Austen, but also with a wide range of Iranian, Arabic, and other “Third World” or Southern literature.

b) Nafisi seems to be wholly innocent of the latter. In the book, the path to civilisation seems to be through accession of European/American novels. The book does not even make the tiniest gestures (except in derision) to the astounding and beautiful modern (or indeed even ancient) Iranian literature.

Finally, i wouldn’t characterise Satrapi (the author of the immensely popular and wonderful graphic novel, _Persepolis_) as “pro-Western”. Her portrayals of even the most rigid and awful functionary manages to preserve some of their humanity, and in a couple of instances, even their sense of humour. Please remember that in orientalists discourses, the ‘other’ is always homourless, superstitutious, and backwards. This is exactly the effect Nafisi reproduces in her work: “Their” supposed innoncence of transcendent and enlightened literature only shows their barabarity, or at the very least opposition to modernity (after all, isn’t the novel the ultimate emblem of modernity? Never mind “men and women and alcohol” mixing – as a perceptive commentator mentions above)…


Doug M. 10.14.06 at 2:32 pm

I didn’t care much for “Reading Lolita”; the author sets herself up as melancholy, noble, and suffering, while her opponents are consistently depicted as humorless and ignorant zealots.

That said, the Dabashi quote is utterly ludicrous. I agree with Tim Burke here: this looks like one of those diasporid identity things, which tend to be as ugly as they are pointless.

There’s also an unattractive undercurrent of jealousy — Nafisi’s academic credentials are modest, but she’s had considerable commercial success. So she gets constructed as a sellout and tool of the imperialist west, even though her own values are more progressive than otherwise.

Being a diasporid just sucks. (Of course, there are things that suck worse, which is why there are diasporids.)

Doug M.


Doug M. 10.14.06 at 2:49 pm

“In the book, the path to civilisation seems to be through accession of European/American novels. The book does not even make the tiniest gestures (except in derision) to the astounding and beautiful modern (or indeed even ancient) Iranian literature.”

That’s not true. I don’t even like the book, but I remember several passages dealing with Persian poetry.

Furthermore, what Nafisi is trying to do — failing IMO, but trying — is to present Nabokov, Austen, et al as a world canon rather than a Western one. You can certainly argue with her choices, but her point is that these authors are relevant outside the constructed “West” — in particular, they are relevant to the lives of women in late 20th century Iran.

Note that this idea is far from new. Most obviously, this was Ataturk’s discourse; he saw newspapers, neckties and waltzes as emblems of modernization, not Westernization. Like electricity and motorcars, these were markers of advancement towards the universal civilization, not towards alienation or the loss of “Turkishness”.

Arguably he has a point. Do Turks become less Turkish by studying Fitzgerald or James? The Turks don’t seem to think so. Or, to go from the sublime to the all-too-real, the Turks were over the moon with delight a few years back when they won Eurovision with a ska band.

This conflation of western culture with world culture, civilization, or modernity quite obviously is attractive to western conservatives, which is why Ataturk remains “every Tory’s favorite Wog”. But Ataturk himself didn’t see it that way, and I’ll wager that neither does Nafisi. The point of the book is that Iran has closed itself off from what the rest of the world has to offer. You can dislike her confusion of “the rest of the world” and “the western canon” and still agree that she has a point.

Doug M.


Tracy W 10.14.06 at 2:51 pm

Please remember that in orientalists discourses, the ‘other’ is always homourless, superstitutious, and backwards.

I do not think this effect is confined to orientalist discourses.

In my experience a vast majority of people, regardless of geographic location, manages to characterise their intellectual opponents as humourless and backwards, or otherwise evil (superstitious may or may not happen, and I do not recall “Lolita in Tehran” characterising the supporters of the regime as particularly superstitious).

Either that or the New Zealand political scene is orientalist.


Seth Finkelstein 10.14.06 at 3:30 pm

Let’s put it this way – the book is certainly being blurbed as Western Canon Enlightens Savage Natives. From the publisher’s PR:

“Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.”


John Emerson 10.14.06 at 3:44 pm

“Risked removing their veils”:

Women could always remove their vails in the company of other women. Quite an ignorant blurb, though I imagine that it was “metaphorical”.


Matt 10.14.06 at 9:29 pm

Thanks for the Der Speigler link, John- it was very useful. Can you (or anyone else?) recommend a good book on the subject or the founding of modern Turkey (preferably a fairly short one, I must say, since I don’t have lots of free time.) Most of my knowledge of the Ottoman Empire comes in the context of the Balkans and I don’t know as much as I’d like about this issue.


John Emerson 10.15.06 at 12:24 pm

“Sons of the Conquerors” is pretty good quick sketch of the whole Turkish world (all the way to China), and would probably direct you to better stuff.


Tracy W 10.15.06 at 7:30 pm

Seth – how does your quote cover “savage natives”?

I get the “liberation of literature”, but that’s been a strong theme in Western discourse about literature too – eg Tolkien’s talk about fantasy as escape, or the movie Quill (quite an unusual defence, especially since I’ve read a bit of the Marquis de Sade’s work – which I found so disgusting it left me with a lot more sympathy for censorship) or many English literature lecturers.

Whether literature, Western or otherwise, actually has a liberating power is another question. But those who believe it does, generally consider it as a good thing for members of Western civilisation as well as any other.

See http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/70/roemer70art.htm for an example of an English lecturer taking this approach.


Seth Finkelstein 10.15.06 at 9:36 pm

Tracy – The descriptions of Iran stress native savagery (“… fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression …”), and the liberating power of literature comes from “forbidden Western classics”, featuring Lolita especially (I mean, you’ve got to at least raise an eyebrow at the implications of putting that particular book front and center – it’s good marketing, but it’s good marketing in part for some not so good reasons).

To quote a passage from the book itself:

“Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling in love, and listening to forbidden music.”

Of course there are all sort of subtexts and level and subversions, and the society she’s writing about is indeed very repressive. But on the other hand, it’s very, very, amenable to sort of reading that’s sending Dabashi into his florid flaming.


Doug M. 10.15.06 at 10:46 pm

“But on the other hand, it’s very, very, amenable to sort of reading that’s sending Dabashi into his florid flaming.”

[glyph of eyes rolling]

I have an elderly Hungarian acquaintance who was a young woman in the early, Stalinist days of Hungarian communism.

She and some girlfriends used to gather in an isolated apartment, draw the shades, put some jazz records on the victrola, and take turns putting on dresses, hats and scarves.

Following your logic, if she later wrote a memo about it, she could then be accused of abetting CIA death squads in El Salvador. And you and abb1 would say, well, her work is very amenable to that sort of reading.

I’m really not getting this.

Look, I don’t even like the damn book. But its depiction of Iran’s current regime as narrow-minded, mean-spirited, corrupt and repressive is, um, right.

N.B., I could get in my car after breakfast and be in Teheran for a late lunch. We get a lot of Iranians up here. And while the reality is more complex than she depicts, she’s not wrong or lying… modern Iran is a bad place to be a woman, and a horrible place to be a woman who wants to take part in the intellectual life of the greater world.

Doug M.


Seth Finkelstein 10.16.06 at 12:00 am

The analogy doesn’t work because

1) Jazz doesn’t have the sort of creepy baggage that Lolita does (it’s a superficial interpretation, etc. etc., but still …)
2) There’s no push to have the US invade Hungary now

For an analogy, think something like “Reading Atlas Shrugged in Cuba” (“And like John Galt, we took every opportunity to live by economic value, against the repression of the socialist regime …”)

Again, I’m not saying that’s the only aspect present. But I am saying it’s an uncomfortable aspect present.


abb1 10.16.06 at 3:56 am

Yes, Doug, I think you underappreciate the level of antagonism in the current political climate.

You know, I’m pretty sure glamorizing, say, Japanese or German culture (at the expense of the local culture) wouldn’t be taken well in 1941 US, probably not even by US intellectuals. And that’s understandable.


Lopakhin 10.16.06 at 5:50 am

I mean, you’ve got to at least raise an eyebrow at the implications of putting that particular book front and center – it’s good marketing, but it’s good marketing in part for some not so good reasons

Hi Seth. I thought the point about choosing ‘Lolita’ was that Khomeini, after the revolution, lowered the age at which girls were permitted to marry to 9 (there are varying accounts of this: I think you had to have your parents’ permission to marry at such young ages), and so she’s saying that it permitted paedophilia?


Seth Finkelstein 10.16.06 at 7:16 am

Maybe that’s the “official” reason. But I can’t help thinking that a clever “packaging” person understands that the book will benefit from the patronage (not readership, but patronage) of a certain demographic that’s reflected in Humbert Humbert (not literally in terms of being pedophiles, but more in terms of having more sympathy for him as a character than might be admitted in polite company).


abb1 10.16.06 at 7:28 am

…so she’s saying that it permitted paedophilia?

If so, then isn’t it ironic that pretty much everything Nabokov wrote (including Lolita) is pretty much purely aesthetical, the way abstract paintings are; pretty much none of it having anything whatsoever to do with any social or political issues.


Doug M. 10.16.06 at 10:10 am

“Yes, Doug, I think you underappreciate the level of antagonism in the current political climate.”

So, because her stuff is popular with the Wrong Sort of People, you support some doofus saying there’s no difference between her and a torturer.

(Oh, sorry… don’t /support/, as such… you just see how it’s, like, totally understandable.)

‘George Bush makes me very angry’ is no excuse for throwing your brain out the window. Nor for condoning mean-spirited stupidity.

“You know, I’m pretty sure glamorizing, say, Japanese or German culture”

Godwin violation. Thanks for playing.

Doug M.


abb1 10.16.06 at 11:05 am

…saying there’s no difference between her and a torturer.

But that’s the whole point. From this guy’s (not entirely unreasonable) point of view they all work to the same end by different means: the writer glamorizes, the jailer tortures, the soldier kills, the politician does his thing, the journalist his, the historian his – hence the comparison you don’t like.

Again, had there been no torturer, no soldier, no orchestrated campaign – I would’ve agreed with you that the guy is a wingnut; but unfortunately he has a point. And if she is merely an admirer of Nabokov, she should just say it, shouldn’t keep us guessing. And also should find herself some better friends.


Doug M. 10.16.06 at 12:44 pm

“From this guy’s (not entirely unreasonable)”

Explain to me again what’s reasonable about it.

“Again, had there been no torturer, no soldier, no orchestrated campaign”

The connection between mediocre author Nafisi and convicted torturer England continues to elude me. Maybe I’m just slow, but there it is.

I note in passing that the book was written in the late 1990s, and bought before 9/11. IOW, when it was written, there /was/ “no torturer, no soldier, no orchestrated campaign”.

But the wrong sort of people like her book! So.

“And also should find herself some better friends.”

Shorter abb1: bitch had it coming.

Doug M.


abb1 10.16.06 at 1:00 pm

According to wikipedia, the book was first published in 2003.

Shorter abb1: bitch had it coming.

What’s that supposed to mean – that I am a misogynist or something? Jeez.


rana 10.16.06 at 5:13 pm

But the wrong sort of people like her book! So.

Doug – I think you have it about right.

My late father was in jail under the Shah and then under Khomeini. He never forgave himself for signing a petition supporting Khomeini’s return from France. He would be appalled by Dabashi and Dabashi’s apologists here.


Tracy W 10.16.06 at 10:54 pm

The descriptions of Iran stress native savagery (“… fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression …”),

Really? I got the impression from the book that a large chunk of the Iran population were opposed to the fundamentalists – and that those people opposed to the fundamentalists were as much native Iran citizens (is that right?) as the fundamentalists.

According to this logic, native Brits who attacked Margaret Thatcher are presumably also stressing native savagery (of the British), and contempt for the Orientalist “other”.

To me, Nafisi’s just doing the thing it is very easy to do in debate – looking at your opponents as an ‘other’ – not quite a whole person. I see it all the time in NZ politics, and I don’t believe that NZ politicians are Orientalists or regard their fellow Kiwis as native savages. Given the relative costs imposed on Nafisi, this attitude of hers is much more forgivable than the same attitude amongst NZ politicians – though it would be better if she hadn’t fallen into the trap.

But on the other hand, it’s very, very, amenable to sort of reading that’s sending Dabashi into his florid flaming.

I get the impression that nothing critical of the Iran regime could have avoided Dabashi’s sort of reading.

Anyway, this whole discourse is amusing to me, because I read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” due to the WEA’s bookclub programme, and the WEA is definitely on the political left. Consequently my associations with the book are drastically opposed to American right politics and Dabashi’s insuinations.


Tracy W 10.16.06 at 11:02 pm

of a certain demographic that’s reflected in Humbert Humbert (not literally in terms of being pedophiles, but more in terms of having more sympathy for him as a character than might be admitted in polite company).

What demographic?


ralph 10.16.06 at 11:46 pm

Re: strange question by soru:

I believe that the Turks use the phrase, “Osmanlı imperatorluÄŸu”. This is almost a direct translation of “Ottoman Empire”.

My impression of the Turkish sensitivity to anything regarding the Armenians is that it is used as a wedge issue by the West to rip apart Turkey and take what they denied it as the Ottoman Empire and then again when it was a fledgling state: its rightful and independent sovereignty. Then, too, many people don’t believe it happened the way it really happened, just as Americans simply don’t want to believe the Lancet study is VERY probably close to the mark. But I think Henry’s right: The France thing seems like a neato way for the parties in France to jab Turkey (an easy target) as well as Muslims (Turks being Muslims, albeit not the way they are in other countries after Ataturk’s strong secular influence).

A very good book (but BIG) in English on the founding of modern Turkey and (two for one!) the character and actions of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is the biography Ataturk by Andrew Mango. While I suspect that it goes easy on Ataturk’s personal life, it is an excellent biography on a man who is revered by many if not most Turks, not quite so much others.

There are more academic books that are also wonderful, harder to read, but shorter than Mango. Try Eric Zurcher, Turkey: A Modern History for a nice, fair start. There are several others, each with their own bent. Search for that book at Amazon and look at related books to see others. They all have to tackle controversial subjects like the Armenians, the subjugation of the failing Ottoman empire by the West, the not-so-neat-and-tidy creation of modern Turkey by (among other things) defeating and expelling huge populations of Greeks, and — what else? — oh yeah, that pesky Kurdish issue. Where each book falls on these subjects is an exercise best left to the reader, as they say…


ralph 10.16.06 at 11:48 pm

Whoops. I didn’t mean to suggest that Zurcher was “academic”. Although it is used as an introduction to Turkish history in classes, it’s a readable history not caught up with jargon or academic arguments in any undue way. He’s the one you should start with, probably…


abb1 10.17.06 at 1:55 am

He never forgave himself for signing a petition supporting Khomeini’s return from France. He would be appalled by Dabashi and Dabashi’s apologists here.

You seem to be assuming that Mr. Dabashi is some kind of Khomeini supporter, right? Well, read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamid_Dabashi

What distinguishes Professor Dabashi even in his political activism is his uncompromising critique of all forms of theocracies (Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Jewish or any other), any form of violence in which preemptive wars and pro-active terrorism are in fact identical in their destructive consequences. While he is not teaching world cinema, comparative literature, and social and intellectual history at Columbia University, he is an anti-war activist like other high-profile academics such as his late colleague and friend Edward Said at Columbia University. Similar to other American academics who are anti-war activists, like Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, Norman Finkelstein and Howard Zinn, Hamid Dabashi’s activism has sparked criticism by neoconservatives in the United States, while earning him support from many in the academia as well as praise from the American anti-war movement.

In fact it’s Wolfowitz, Lewis and their little useful idiots are the ones who aren’t much different from Khomeini. Same shit, different idol – and better weapons.


rana 10.17.06 at 7:05 am

Abb1 – I know Dabashi well. The Wikipedia entry is far too kind, a gushing postmodernist paean, and some of the names it drops for comparison are not people I find entirely congenial. Dabashi strains to see Khomeinism as a manifestation of “liberation theology” and as a bulwark against what Jalal Al-e-Ahmad called “westoxication”. You can read his attack on Nafisi in that light. Many leftists, including my father, welcomed Islamism as the (temporary) vanguard of genuine revolution in Iran. A quarter century later, the Velayat-e faqih is firmly entrenched, Islamism has spread well beyond Iran’s borders, and Dabashi is still making the same excuses.


abb1 10.17.06 at 7:33 am

Making excuses for whom? For what? It’s you, guys, who are making excuses here.

Clearly he is not a supporter of Islamism in any shape or form. Here’s his recent op-ed:

Any potential or actual US/Israeli attack on the Islamic Republic will significantly change that balance, will unify the clerical establishment and popular resentment alike, and will lead to a Shi’ite/Islamic alliance across the Iranian borders and well into Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon – an alliance that will aggravate the already volatile region in terms of even more violent guerrilla operations, making even more room for al-Qaeda-like globalized terrorism.

Does it sound like he is welcoming Islamism?


rana 10.17.06 at 8:15 am

My father “welcomed” Khomeinism. These days Dabashi merely “explains” it. And sometimes conscripts it as a bogeyman against other bogeymen (me and my “guys”?). I don’t think a conversation between my father and Dabashi would have gone well.

I see ours isn’t going too well, either, so I’ll sign off.


abb1 10.17.06 at 8:34 am

What’s wrong with explaining Khomeinism? What’s wrong with warning against actions that are likely to strengthen and expand it? Nothing I can see.

So sorry for offending your delicate sensibilities, Rana, but this is a blog comment thread – shit happens, you know.

Comments on this entry are closed.