Off the grid
Reading Iranian memoirs in our time
of total war
September 21, 2004
Air-conditioned transportation in Tehran is notoriously
difficult to find. For pampered visitors such as the cultural anthropologists
and documentary filmmakers from New York and Los Angeles who seem
to converge on the Iranian capital every summer, a cool taxi ride
to the northern parts of town recalls something of the charmed
life they left behind in the United States, a life some refer to
offhandedly as "the grid."
Being on the grid, it seems, is something akin to having a non-Iranian
passport or a green card, multiple credit cards loaded with debt,
a laptop with a 24-hour DSL connection, satellite television in
an air-filtered apartment, impeccably pedicured feet in open-toe
sandals, a single Gauloise cigarette ashing in a saucer next to
that daily injection of coffee and money earned from a steady job.
This is not to say that some of these components of the grid are
not available in Tehran. They are.
Apartment complexes in the northern
parts of town, like Shahrak-e Qarb, also provide residents with
hilly, green outdoor spaces where a woman can walk her dog without
the government-prescribed full body covering and headscarf. Such
private complexes come with in-house supermarkets, boxed meals
delivered to your door and a doorman who will call a taxi and
announce visitors just as he might at a one-bedroom pad in New
Tehran, all this comes to about $500 a month.
In our time of total war, however, Tehran visitors' moniker for
the good life also evokes the frightening world of intelligence
gathering networks and terrorists recently fictionalized in the
TNT miniseries The Grid. In this terrifying world, some of those
visitors, wittingly or no, have acted to embed the particulars
of Iranian cultural and social life -- particularly those related
to Iranian women -- into visions for Iran's future that are generated
in a grid entirely different from their matrix of material comforts.
It cannot be coincidental that the memoirs by Iranian female
authors now living in the West, such as those of Firoozeh Dumas,
Satrapi and Azar Nafisi, have found such phenomenal commercial
success at a time when Washington hawks would like these authors'
country of birth to be the next battleground in the total war
of the twenty-first century.
FREEDOM AT WHAT COST
It is entry into the grid -- in both of the above senses of the
term -- that best describes Firoozeh Dumas's memoir, Funny
in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Upon her family's arrival
in America in 1972, the young Firoozeh and her mother discover
that Firoozeh's father, an engineer who had studied in the US some
years earlier, has no useful knowledge of the English language
except for the vocabulary he had needed to read pre-World War II
textbooks. Her mother eventually teaches herself how to ask about
the prices of everyday necessities and kitchen appliances by watching
The Price Is Right on television.
Fifteen times, Dumas counts, the family visits Disneyland, but
as is typical of Iranian cultural patterns, these outings were
enjoyed in a tribal fashion. On several occasions, her father brings
along his Iranian colleagues and their families, sometimes six
families in all. The grid is, within months of her family's arrival,
being adapted to old habits of a life lived elsewhere. The family
celebrates Thanksgiving with turkey and stuffing, but the pumpkin
pie is served with Persian ice cream made with "chunks of
cream, pistachios and aromatic cardamom."
of Thanksgiving dessert prompt this insight into world politics: "I
believe peace in the Middle East could be achieved if the various
leaders held their discussions in front of a giant bowl of Persian
ice cream, each leader with his own silver spoon. Political differences
would melt with every mouthful." (75) Sensuality and utopian
hope do not alleviate the sophomoric imagery in this vision of
change: what fools, what diplomatic failures, the reader must imagine
the political leaders of this region to be!
Dumas's family gives thanks around the holiday dinner table for
their new life in a free country where one can pursue one's hopes
and dreams -- even if one is female. But while, for Dumas, freedom
certainly entails such essential rights as the right to vote, it "also
refers to the abundance of samples available throughout this great
True to her naive view of Middle East diplomacy,
she contrasts this abundance with the environment she left behind
in Iran. "Here, a person can taste something, not buy, and
still have the clerk wish him a nice day." (75) Few living
in the Islamic Republic today would see the widespread practice
of communal hospitality known as nazri as somehow less free than
Dumas's sampling. For Dumas, it would seem, freedom in America
is the endless possibility of self-indulgence understood without
any self-reflection. This is freedom, yes, but at what cost?
Total war? Occupation? Perhaps.
Driving north on the Sadr freeway in Tehran in the summer of
2004, I came across a series of images covering the soundproofed
walls of the opposite lane. The first panel from the left was a
reproduction of the infamous
photograph of the uniformed
Pfc. Lynndie England holding a leash tied to the neck of an Iraqi
prisoner who curls naked in a fetal position on the Abu Ghraib
prison floor. This image sent shock waves around the world, as
did the one reproduced in the second panel, a hooded Iraqi prisoner
balancing on a platform with electrical wires attached to his limbs
Such haunting images of humiliating torture reinforced for many
the admonitions of Col. Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers, the famous
film on guerrilla warfare now reportedly in vogue at the Pentagon.
The colonel's words impressed on the audiences of the early 1960s,
as they do to the global multitude today, that the continued presence
of an imperial military where it is not wanted requires it to identify
sources of populist agitation by any means necessary. An ordinary
citizen's support of the occupation, whether in the name of liberation
or in the name of progress, implies his or her tacit acceptance
of all the repercussions of military force, including torture.
Passing these reproductions of domination on the freeway, I was
struck by the imprints of the hand that had transformed their texture
from photographs into painted images. I was also struck by the
words that were written in Farsi to one side of the second panel: "Emrooz
Iraq." "Today Iraq." It is an auspicious caption
that almost reads like an alert on a mobile phone: "This is
The third and fourth panels in the series represented
the site of pilgrimage in Mecca and the shrine of Imam Ali, the
son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. A quotation attributed to
Imam Ali appeared across the fourth image. It calls upon the believer
to be the enemy of tyranny and a supporter of the victim of injustice.
Following a gap on the wall, a final panel captured three soldiers
on bended knee surrounded by smoke and fire in combat.
The last heavy combat Iranian soldiers saw was the vicious eight-year
war between Iran and Iraq, for which Iran sacrificed the majority
of its male labor force, men who would now be in their thirties,
forties or early fifties. Seen from the perspective of that war,
the messages communicated in the fusion of these five panels seemed
ambiguous at best.
The images arrived as both the bearers of the
latest news -- "Today Iraq" -- and a prescription for
pious living. "Be a force against evil and a defender of the
good." They carried both a reminder of a crucial duty for
the devout and a powerful picture of military retaliation. They
were a broken phrase, an unfinished visual exhortation to an end
open to question.
There is little question, however, about the messages contained
in images of female bodies in Islamic cultures circulated by the
global media. Appearing in enlarged photos enveloped by small newsprint,
unveiled women in hair salons enjoy a cut or a manicure. Shots
of Afghan women walking the streets of Kabul without a shroud and
Iranian women in tight, thigh-length overcoats and colorful headscarves
made for Barbie on a camping trip decorate the pages of weekly
These images and their pointed captions speak, on
the one hand, of the fruits of another US-led war effort and "the
fall" of the Taliban regime. They show, on the other hand,
a burgeoning scuffle for change -- change conceived in terms of
an imagined democracy in which women appear in the public sphere,
relatively unfettered. This fantasy of Oriental women's liberation
by Western intervention, though centuries in the making, goes little
further than the printed page. Liberals have called the images
of liberated women's bodies propaganda, though in a time of total
war such as ours, one would not have expected otherwise.
MARKER OF MODERNITY
It is important to recall, before proceeding, that women's bodies
have long been politically charged symbols within Iran's national
history, not just in its relations with the West. The decision
of Reza Shah, father of the Shah deposed before the Islamic Revolution,
to mandate that Iranian women remove the veil in the 1930s was
the culmination of one lengthy historical process and the beginning
The Shahnama, a national epic that versifies the history of Iran
from its beginnings until the Muslim conquest, for example, suggests
a vital role played by women. Mahmoud Omidsalar argues that feminine
symbols, indeed female figures, appear throughout this epic to "arbitrate
all significant instances of transfer of power, be they royal,
heroic or magical." Embodied at times in female literary
and historical characters such as Faranak, Barmaya and the goddess
Anahita, the female body stands at the birth of "all new orders" and
reassuringly watches over moments of transitional trauma.
Reading the periodicals and records of the Iranian constitutional
period (1905-1911) for the parliamentary debates that focused on
the nation's responsibility for the fate of Quchani women and girls
captured or sold to the Turkomans, Afsaneh Najambadi suggests that
gender may be considered a "uniquely structuring category" for
the study of similar transitional moments.
Though largely forgotten
in subsequent renditions of events, the debates concerning the "daughters
of Quchan" were pivotal to the consolidation of the Iranian
parliament and for the constitution of Iran's modern identity.
Indeed, the term vatan defined a nation that was imagined as a
community larger than the familial and the immediate and "inscribed...as
a female body."
In the chronicles, memoirs, modernist tracts
and Iranian travel narratives of the nineteenth century onward,
the female body as mother and as beloved became principally the
metaphorical and ultimately the material battleground for the
inscription of the nation. The female body was, in other words,
a pivot in
Iran's historical transition to modernity.
Consider the unveiled body of the Babi poet Tahirih Qurrat al-Ayn
(Fatemeh Baraghani), who appears in the chronicle of the nineteenth-century
court historian, Muhammad Taqi Siphir, Nasikh al-Tavarikh. Siphir
takes pleasure in an exaggerated description of the poet's unveiled
body, adorned, as he describes it, like a peacock of Paradise beckoning
an audience of desiring men to "kiss those lips of hers which
put to shame the ruby of Ramman, and rub their faces against her
breasts, which chagrined the pomegranates of the garden."
The unveiled woman poet is represented in the chronicle as the
object-cause of national desire, a desire that is then condemned
by the force of the law in such a way that the national subject
is hailed to destroy it. Reading this and other nineteenth-century
narratives hermeneutically, it is impossible to pin down what her
particular encroachment on the nation is about. But in the subsequent
recollection of the image of this prototypical Babi in the next
eight decades, it is clear that "the Babi" is indistinguishable
from the modern Iranian subject itself.
Women's associations founded in
the decades after the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 began publishing
newspaper and journal articles in which they addressed unveiling
as a symbol of modernity. Later, in the 1930s, Reza Shah's stringent
unveiling policies saw veiling as a marker of national backwardness
and a measure of women's social retardation. The enforcement of
new unveiling laws sparked many debates about women's education,
progress and women's role in the constitution of Iran as a modern
The Babi as an unveiled female body was recovered again
and again in the public and private documents of this era as a
threat to the very constitution of the Iranian nation and, paradoxically,
as the marker of its emerging modernity. What was at stake, it
would seem, is the concept of namus (honor) "which shifted
in this period between the idea of purity of woman ('ismat) and
integrity of the nation."
Until at least the first decade
of the twentieth century, "when women began to claim their
space as sisters in the nation," both 'ismat and national
integrity were subject to male responsibility and protection.
"THE VEIL!" "FREEDOM!"
The generation of largely upper-class, urban, educated female
writers who were born before the establishment of the Islamic Republic
in 1979 are the inheritors of this history. For them, the compulsory
veiling instituted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his clerical
regime became a key means of illustrating the broader social and
political tensions unleashed by the revolution.
One simple panel
in the Paris-based Iranian artist and writer Marjaneh Satrapi's "graphic
memoir," Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, stands out
as a forceful representation of this moment of transition and the "cultural
revolution" that began to assume its full force right before
the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988.
On the left of the panel, four women, shrouded in black veils,
with eyes closed, open brows and two arms raised in the air, recite
the words: "The veil! The veil! The veil!" On the right,
facing them, four women, eyes wide open, brows slanting downward
in anger, raise their arms to the words, "Freedom! Freedom!
Freedom!" Satrapi's caption to this panel reads: "Everywhere
in the streets there were demonstrations for and against the veil." (5)
None of the brows on Satrapi's characters are unfurrowed after
this point, with the exception of the panels in which she draws
her young schoolmates playing with the winter hoods they were asked
to knit for Iranian soldiers (97) or again, when she depicts the
girls giggling about the flatulence factor of canned beans sitting
on an empty shelf in a Tehran supermarket during the war. (92)
The eyebrows disappear entirely on the faces of young Marji
and her veiled female friends when they make eye contact with
men in an upscale hamburger joint called Kansas. (112) Throughout
the book, the furrowed brows of her characters signal tension
and uncertain transition. They are witnesses to strife.
The hejab (Islamic dress), made mandatory in the new Islamic
Republic to counter, however nominally, the Western cultural impulses
associated with the former Pahlavi regime, and to protect and preserve
the purity of Iranian women, is described in the biographical texts
of Satrapi and Azar Nafisi as "stifling" and "unnatural." In
their works, the Iranian chador (a black, full-length veil) appears
as a new historical marker that would distinguish the ideological
position of "the fundamentalist woman" from the position
of a woman who stands in opposition to the newly established Islamic
Another panel in Satrapi's graphic memoir emphasizes the ambivalence
many Iranians felt about the social change that immediately preceded
the Iran-Iraq war. Indoors, behind a curtained window, a young
girl named Marji who represents the narrator stands between her
mother and father, looking out onto the street. Together, they
watch a bearded man pass by in trousers and a long-sleeved shirt,
with his wife, in a full chador, holding her young son by the hand.
Before the window, looking out, Marji's father is drawn with
a mustache. His wife, standing slightly bent over, as if despondent,
is dressed in a tight-fitting top and a checkered skirt. She speaks
the words that are seemingly on the minds of the other members
of the family: "Look at her! Last year she was wearing a miniskirt,
showing off her beefy thighs to the whole neighborhood. And now
Madame is wearing a chador. It suits her better, I guess." (75)
These images are images of struggle, embodied as principled positions
in a war against two distinct regimes. They are capsules
and paper of a particular time and place.
The numerous memoirs and biographies written since the 1979 revolution
are sprinkled with notations on female adornment -- alluding to
everything from the mandatory head covering to prohibitions on
nail polish and lipstick. If these references appear superficial
and at times repetitive, their constant presence gets at the crucial
question that has dominated Iranian politics since the nineteenth
That question, simply put, asks, "Whose nation is
this?" For the women writers, this is a historical question,
one that surfaces from bearing witness to a nation's transformation.
It stems from the recognition that one's own body -- a female body
-- is a fundamental constitutive force in the coming into being
of a new era in national history. The question is localized in
that it asks, "What effects do the things that I embody bring
about in this nation today?"
The memoir of Johns Hopkins University professor Azar Nafisi,
Reading Lolita in Tehran, which had spent 36 weeks on the New
York Times bestseller list as of mid-September 2004, engages this question
directly. Nafisi acknowledges in the book that her return to Iran
to teach literature during the post-revolutionary period meant
that, by virtue of her gender, she would be at the center of politics.
Her book, in this sense, follows the trajectory of literature that
bears witness to the processes of change during the revolution
and the first years of the Islamic Republic. She shows the ways
in which the female body plays a pivotal and assertive role in
the formation of the new.
Describing a city battered by war, she writes about the students
who attended her classes during the 1980s and early 1990s to read "the
great books" of the Western canon, including novels by Jane
Austen, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov.
Her goal of describing how her female students, sitting in the
private study circle that she founded in 1995, identify their own
plight with the plights of Lolita and Elizabeth Bennet is enough
to capture one's interest.
The writing, too, is gripping. Each
of Nafisi's characters "glows on the page," one reviewer
writes, "illuminated by Nafisi's affection." Most reviews
of the book in the US press are comparably fervent and enthusiastic. "Reading
Lolita in Tehran had a most unusual effect on me," writes
another reviewer. "I didn't want to be interrupted, so I canceled
a dental appointment and a business lunch and missed a deadline.
I read and read and ignored the world. This is what brilliant books
will do; they seize you until the story is over."
As Nafisi herself told the New York Times, however, "People
from my country have said the book was successful because of a
Zionist conspiracy and US imperialism, and others have criticized
me for washing our dirty laundry in front of the enemy." These
are certainly unsettling responses to a book that by all accounts
deserves praise for its style, complexity and all-consuming efficacy.
But how is one to interpret such accusations?
Though some of Nafisi's study circle participants are children
of the revolution, there is a sense in which Reading Lolita in
Tehran is a witness to a period that has passed. As one of Mahnaz
Kousha's female informants in Voices from Iran: The Changing
Lives of Iranian Women explained in a series of interviews conducted
between 1995 and 1997: "The younger generation (born after
1979) is going to be the agent of change.
From the very beginning
when they opened their eyes they saw that women demonstrated on
television. It is correct that all those demonstrators wore black
chadors. What is more important is that they were all women, demanding
something. This generation has seen women playing an active role
and has accepted that.... Veiling is not a problem for those children
who were raised with it. It is not going to stop them. I believe
a piece of material is not going to stop women's progress."
informant underscores the ability of younger women to demand
and bring about social change regardless of what the outside
world perceives as insurmountable restrictions. What was encumbering
and unnatural to Nafisi's pre-revolutionary generation is now
unremarkable to many, if not all, of the generation that has grown
nothing but the mandatory veil. The emphatic outrage over the
circumstances of women when Islamic rule was freshly established
has become almost
"When we had this secret class in Tehran," Nafisi
told the Washington Post in December 2003, "we felt
utterly helpless." But not all Iranian women feel helpless
after the limited openings for social and political activism offered
period of Khatami's presidency, and indeed Nafisi is hardly unaware
of the powerful presence of women in Iranian society today.
the Nobel Prize-winning women's rights activist and human rights
lawyer Shirin Ebadi, she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "As
a woman activist she did not have to look to other countries for
role models: She could rely on the tradition created by many courageous
Iranian women before her, who, for over a century, had fought despotism,
opening political, cultural and social spaces for Iranian women." In
the same interview with the Washington Post, she said of women
living in Iran, "They are persistent. This is bigger than
politics. These women just refuse to give up."
Moreover, it seems undeniable that Reading
Lolita in Tehran and
its author have been promoted, at least in part, to fulfill the
ends of total war. Although human rights violations are an ongoing
and urgent concern in the era of President Mohammad Khatami, whose
government came to power by democratic election in 1997, after
the point at which Nafisi's book ends, the restoration of such
rights is not the driving force of the total war in which Nafisi's
book has been embedded.
Former Marine Adam Mersereau explains
the concept of total war in the National Review. It is a war "that
not only destroys the enemy's military forces, but also brings
the enemy society to an extremely personal point of decision, so
that they are willing to accept a reversal of the cultural trends
that spawned the war in the first place."
While a total war
strategy does not have to "include the intentional targeting
of civilians," sparing them "cannot be its first priority.
The purpose of total war is to permanently force your will onto
another people." The purpose of the total war that is the
US-led "war on terror" is to force "the grid" onto
a culture that is, at its best and at its worst, ambivalent to
For some time before and after the publication of her runaway
bestseller, Nafisi was being promoted alongside proponents of total
war by Benador Associates, which arranges their TV appearances
and speaking engagements and helps to place their articles in the
top newspapers. Such neo-conservative luminaries as Richard Perle
and James Woolsey, who notoriously referred to the war on terror
as "World War IV," are still clients of the agency.
September, their agent Eleana Benador traced the cognitive links
the neo-conservatives draw between the war and Middle Eastern women
in a posting "From Eleana's Desk" on the agency's website:
of the most memorable experiences [of the 2004 Athens Olympics]
was to watch the Afghan woman participating in one of the races,
as well as an Iraqi woman. They didn't go far, they were among
the last ones. But, watching them, I couldn't avoid thinking:
'We are winning!' Yes, we are winning over extremism, whether
or secular. More accurately, we are starting to win. The road
ahead is still a long one, but the beginning is already giving
We have rescued from the hands of those extremists these women
who have regained their status as human beings, and who are
learning now what it is to be treated with respect and dignity."
In Nafisi's acknowledgements, finally, Princeton University emeritus
historian Bernard Lewis is thanked as one "who opened the
door." Though one would hope that she testifies here to the
gentleman's chivalry and good breeding, one fears that there is
more to it. Lewis is the eminent theorist of civilizational decline
in the Islamic world who has reportedly briefed Dick Cheney. Books
like his own bestseller What Went Wrong? (2002) are the
ahistorical scaffolding upon which the neo-conservative hard core
and Woolsey hang their policy prescriptions.
Take, for example,
this statement by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a
leading neo-conservative inside government: "Bernard Lewis
has brilliantly placed the relationships and the issues of the
Middle East into their larger context, with truly objective, original
and always independent thought.
Bernard has taught [us] how to
understand the complex and important history of the Middle East
and use it to guide us where we will go next to build a better
world for generations to come." But what does this complex
and important history amount to? As University of Michigan history
professor Juan Cole observes in a generous review of Lewis's book, "[Lewis]
is not writing analytical history here, with a view to explaining
particular problems by isolating independent variables. He is writing
moral history, which is tautological. He seems to insist on erasing
any successes [Muslims] have had, and to imply that the Muslims
have failed because they are failures." Failures.
After my return from Tehran in the summer, I received a photograph
of the panels I had seen on the Sadr freeway. The fifth of the
six panels had gone up to fill the gap on the wall. There are two
men in it. One is laying face down on a red carpet, and the other,
sitting next to him, looks out of the frame toward the sixth panel
depicting the three men engaged in military combat. The caption
on the left side of the fifth panel reads: "Dirooz Filistin." Yesterday
While the messages and meanings of the images of torture in US
jails in Iraq are being muted in the global media with visual rhetoric
that justifies the occupation, and does so by promoting images
of women's bodies that have been liberated in hair salons, the
Iranian government is promoting images of prison tortures toward
different ends. These images of humiliating violence in US-occupied
Iraq are hung in close proximity to images that remind the viewer
of the inequities of Israeli occupation in Palestine.
It is likely, to my mind, that Nafisi's efforts converge on a
will to institute a transnational feminist ethics that is concerned
with the lives and conditions of women elsewhere. But if this is
so, a consistently ahistorical analysis of Iran -- one that does
not distinguish between past and present -- cannot be the rallying
call for efforts on behalf of Iranian women today. In the era of
total war intent on the reversal of cultural trends through external
Lolita in Tehran as a representation of the state
of current affairs is an undiscriminating gesture. It performs
like a wound-up metal monkey on wheels as the warmup act for more
theater of unprovoked war and another occupation.
A transnational feminist practice intent on the
Middle East is better served by focusing on the question that has
long kept the region so distraught, and that has contributed to
a colére du lait (milk anger) that, like milk,
boils into sudden rage when heated. This question is the question
Modifications in the status of women in relation to the nation-state
are handled more ably by internal forces of change. That is the
judgment of history and a judgment in ethics.
Mottahedeh teaches in the Program in Literature
at Duke University. This article was first published in Middle
East Report (September 2004). Mottahdeh thanks Shiva Balaghi,
Mazyar Lotfalian, Mana Rabiee and Ramyar Rossoukh
this essay. "Off the Grid" is dedicated to Antonio
 Mahmoud Omidsalar, "'Waters and Women,
Maidens and Might': The Passage of Royal Authority in the Shahnama" in
Guity Nashat and Lois Beck, eds. Women in Iran: From the Rise
of Islam to 1800 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), p. 171.
Najmabadi, The Story of the Daughters of Quchan: Gender and
National Memory in Iranian History (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University
Press, 1998), p. 182.
 Siphir is quoted
in Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the
Babi Movement in Iran (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 321.
 Ibid., p. 183.
Kousha, Voices from Iran: The Changing Lives of Iranian Women (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002), pp. 227-228.
 Juan Cole, "Review
of Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern
Response," Global Dialogue 4/4 (Autumn 2002). See also Adam
Sabra, "What Is Wrong with What Went Wrong?" Middle
East Report Online, August 2003.