Author of the recently published 'Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran', Professor Fatemeh Keshavarz, 55, says that she is at home on three continents. Keshavarz, who stopped working in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, completed her PhD from London University and has been teaching Persian and comparative literature at Washington University, St. Louis, USA, for over two decades.
Describing herself as an activist, who believes in peacefully talking about making this world a better place, she feels her profession is also a means to attaining the ideals in which she believes.
Keshavarz is the face of the new Iranian liberal, the post-Cold War citizen of the world, struggling to free the mind of ideological dominance imposed on cultures around the world by both Left and Right politicians.
Keshavarz has no time for revolutions, as revolutions do not present their perspectives politely and peacefully. They throw them at you, explains the professor. Instead, she prefers to listen to grievances that have the potential to erupt into revolutions. While she feels that this is the occasion to speak to each other, she says it may not be possible till one recognizes the humanity and contribution of those in disagreement.
Keshavarz sees no contradiction in being a Muslim and a feminist; in being progressive and Islamic. "Any Muslim woman concerned with justice for women, and working to create equal opportunities for herself and others, is both a Muslim and a feminist," she states.
While she is modern enough to know that scientific and educational contributions make people progress, she is also traditional enough to know that cultures are much more than the face they make when they are angry.
Her book 'Jasmine and Stars' is titled after the memory of being woken up each morning by the feel and fragrance of the satin-smooth petals of white jasmine blossoms that her grandmother would place under her sleepy nose each dawn. She recalls returning to bed on summer evenings under a canopy of skies ablaze with stars. Interestingly, Keshvaraz grew up in Shiraz, the city of rose gardens and the home of poets Sa'adi and Hafiz.
She is pained at the continuing dehumanization of Muslims in the West and by the monstrous representation of the West by extremists. To look upon the Eurocentric, secular Western model as the only vision of progress needs correction in this day and age. Such a black and white view of the world has silenced the vast majority of the Iranian population that does not necessarily embrace Western values but, at the same time, is not in agreement with actions of the Iranian government that are wrong, undemocratic or punitive.
Keshvaraz grew up in Shiraz, surrounded by people whose life revolved around poetry and literature. Her maternal uncle became her role model. For one who worked for the army and wore an elegant military uniform, he was completely unimpressed with corrupt power. He was a painter and taught Keshavarz lessons of life through delightful narrations of Sufi stories that continue to inspire her.
"His temperament was, and still is, that of an artist. He is gentle, extremely polite, humorous, subtle, and yet impatient with mediocrity and corruption. Even in my teen years and despite the great dignity that Iranian tradition attached to seniority, he would not stay seated when I or any other of his nieces and nephews entered the room. He would rise and show all the courtesy shown normally to a guest of his own rank and age. He would not do it as a formality either, but with genuine warmth and a signature smile," recalls Keshvaraz warmly.
Such in-depth descriptions of the ordinary Iranian throughout her book have two specific goals. One is a reaction to the horror and pain Keshavarz experienced after reading 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' (RLT), Azra Nafisi's bestseller, published in 2004, in which life in Iran is reduced to black and white.
She dubs books like RLT as part of the New Orientalist narrative and speaks of the need to critically scrutinize the proliferation, in recent times, of this kind of writing. "This is important because such narratives simplify their subject, explaining undesirable Middle Eastern incidents in terms of Muslim men's submission to God and Muslim women's submission to men," she says.
Such narratives erase the complexity and richness from local cultures and there is a strong undercurrent of superiority and impatience with the locals, who are always portrayed as uncomplicated zombies.
The New Orientalist narration thrives in the shadow of the Orientalist, a concept introduced by Edward Said in the last century. Said found the 18th and 19th century European philologists' view of the Orient as being great in the past but devoid of self awareness and critical thought today. This attitude encouraged Europeans to exploit the people they conquered without guilt, for they did not think that the locals deserved any better.
Post-Cold War, and now post 9/11, there seems a need to refashion the "enemy" of the West - giving birth to a popular version of the Orientalist approach to the Middle East Muslim that is dangerous. It is adding fuel to fiery controversies like the current one over Iran's nuclear issue. "The controversy throws a curtain over the diversity and humanity of the majority population of Iran - to project the country frightening enough to justify a military attack," thinks Keshavarz.
She singles out 'Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women' by Geraldine Brookes; 'The Bookseller of Kabul' by Asne Seierstad; 'The Kite Runner' by Khaled Hosseini and RLT as examples of the best-known New Orientalist narrative that is consumed by lay readers. Such narratives distort the image of contemporary Iran and other Middle Eastern countries to a portrait that has two large holes in the place of eyes, argues the professor.
"In 'Jasmine and Stars' I carefully and painstakingly weave a multi-hued tapestry of human voice and experience. I turn my narrating voice into a vehicle for the rainbow of the faces and words that filled my childhood and youth in Iran. I will not select any particular time period, target any specific political movement, privilege any class or gender, or handpick any specific social event. It is designed to be a meaningful excursion into modern day Iran: a culture as charming, creative, humorous and humane as any culture that has much to offer the world," she says.