Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran
© 2007 Fatemeh Keshavarz
Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran rebukes Azar Nefisi and other writers for contributing to a ‘new Orientalism’ that looks at Iran only as a place inferior to the west. The author opens Jasmine and Stars with a reminiscence of her summers spent in Shiraz. Growing up, Keshavarz’s family spent the nights outside, bringing out wooden cots so they could fall asleep to the view of the glittering stars above, and wake up to the smell of jasmine flowers that her grandmother used during her morning prayers. As exquisite as these summers could be, there was a moment of gloom: the annual migration of grasshoppers. Their migrating mass blocked the starlight and threatened the fields, and some lollygaggers would fall from the skies and litter the yard. Most of the literature westerners read about Iran or the middle east — Reading Lolita, Tehran Honeymoon, The Kite Runner — focus on the transient grasshoppers, with nary a mention made of the beauty around them. In response, Keshavarz simultaneously provides tales of jasmine and stars — recollections from her youth, mixed in with reflections on Persian literature — and directly critiques the substance of Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Her greatest problem with RLT is the depiction of literature as something foreign, as though Nefisi’s literature circle created the only opportunity for her students to ever encounter thoughtful literature. Keshavarz holds that there is no culture on Earth more passionate about its literature, or literature in general, than the Persian people. As illustration, she discusses many works, only one of which (Rumi’s poetry) has any name recognition in the west. She also points to the enormous popularity of particular authors and poets, most of whom have produced literature the authorities would not endorse, but do not oppress. The Persia of her youth, and the Persia she visits regularly today, is one that engages with literature and arts constantly — filling public theaters. Similarly, Keshavarz contends that the depiction of Iranians in literature like RLT is simplistic: the women are naive, and the men all knuckle-dragging tyrants. As a counter, she recalls many stories about extraordinary men and women she knew in Iran, and continues to visit – stern military officers who spent their nights painting, and of an illiterate peasant farmer who so loved a particular poet that he committed her every verse to memory.
Jasmine and Stars is a fascinating little mix of literary reflection, criticism, and memoir that provides readers with a welcome view of Iran beyond its political structure.
Interview with the author on NPR’s Speaking of Faith/On Being, covering “The Estatic Faith of Rumi”.