- Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit by Gillian Whitlock
Chicago, 216 pp, £10.50, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 89526 0
In school we were asked to write a short story: fiction, not autobiography. I began mine with the sentence: ‘Bombs dropped, the sky was ablaze, there was no night.’ The teacher, who had been making her rounds, looking down at our papers as she went, saw mine and sniffed: ‘Fiction does not have to be “real”, but it does have to be truthful. A writer writes what she knows.’ Embarrassed, I told her that I had lived through the Revolution in Iran. She apologised: Iran trumped everything, and she could neither prove nor disprove my statement. The truth was that the bombing I had experienced had presented itself only as loud thuds and clouds of smoke. Years later, when I saw a bomb turn a car to a rusted skeleton, I wasn’t able to write about it – because I literally couldn’t believe my eyes.
At about the time that I was learning to be truthful in my high-school writing class, Betty Mahmoody, who, like my mother, is an American woman from Michigan married to an Iranian man, wrote her memoir, Not without My Daughter (1987). In 1984, one of the worst years of the Iran-Iraq war, Mahmoody left her suburban life in Michigan to visit her Iranian in-laws. Her book recounts her ‘vacation, turned nightmare’, and the experience of living with a husband who switched from being the ‘civilised’ man she married in the West into a violent Iranian man who refused to let her take her daughter out of the country. She eventually escaped back to the United States with the help of his family and won full custody of their daughter.
Mahmoody’s memoir, written with William Hoffer (who also co-wrote the movie Midnight Express), is full of stereotypes and prejudices about Iranians. It became a runaway bestseller, a Hollywood blockbuster and the book one had to read to ‘learn about Iran’. But I didn’t recognise the Iran Mahmoody described and what her book taught me was something I should already have known: that any narrative is subjective and the story of a life especially is made up of assumptions, desires and fantasies about what may have happened or could have happened. Still, the reading public took Mahmoody’s book for fact, and it made life even more difficult for Iranian Americans. Her success started a trend in memoirs by Western women who have ‘survived’ the Middle East.
In the early 1990s, after graduating from college, I returned to Iran and spent a year writing a detailed memoir of daily life. I wanted to show everything that Mahmoody and the press did not. Later, my uncle, who had been a political prisoner after the Revolution in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, told me that my writing was deeply self-censored. I had left out the juicy stuff: the neighbour’s lesbian relationships, the opium addicts, the widespread plastic surgery, his incarceration. I did it to ‘protect people’, I told him. I wasn’t trying to sell books, I was trying to sell a vision of Iran different from the Western media’s. I, too, had an agenda and, while I hadn’t made up any of the details in my book, what I left out made it less ‘truthful’. (The memoir wasn’t published but one chapter came out in 1999 as a short story in A World Between: Poems, Short Stories and Essays by Iranian Americans, edited by Persis Karim and Mehdi Khorrami.)
In 2003, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books jumpstarted another, post-9/11, craze of memoirs written in English by women in the Iranian diaspora. Nafisi’s book, like Mahmoody’s, is disliked by many Iranian Americans. Unlike Mahmoody, who is largely ignorant of Iranian culture, Nafisi, who taught English literature at the University of Tehran until 1995, should have known better. Her partial account of giving secret seminars at home to a select group of students casts her in the role of intellectual interpreter, teaching the West about all things Iranian and her Iranian students about all things Western and ‘democratic’. Like the memoirs written in the Middle East by uneducated women – such as Mukhtar Mai’s In the Name of Honour (2006), which is constructed from transcripts of conversations between the ‘writer’ and her Western counterpart – Nafisi’s reinforces the old stereotype: Middle Eastern women are illiterate and powerless, and in need of interpretation.
Many Iranians stopped reading Nafisi’s book at the point where she claims that Iran has no literature because it isn’t a democracy, a statement that delegitimises an entire literary tradition in a sentence. Like other memoirists, she works hard to play down narratives of contemporary Iran that compete with her own. Marina Nemat, whose Prisoner of Tehran was published last year, talks about ‘breaking the silence’, as though no one else had written about the Revolutionary prisons: in fact it’s a popular subject in contemporary Iranian literature.[*] She is able to make her claim because the Iranian books aren’t available in translation, which only adds to the general ignorance in the West about contemporary Iran.
The sad thing is that there was once a rich tradition of books by Westerners travelling to the Middle East, books which deftly combined autobiography, ethnography and travel writing. The best were written by talented Western women fluent in the local language, with an appreciation of the culture, and the ability to make their own way: Gertrude Bell, Vita Sackville-West, Freya Stark (who, yes, may have been a spy). Iranians themselves were engaged in travel writing as early as the 19th century, when the Safarnameh, the Iranian traveller’s account of going on the Hajj, was almost as popular a genre as the memoirs of princes and princesses. (If you’re interested in harem literature and the lives of Iranian women in the early 19th century, Taj al-Saltana’s Crowning Anguish is a good place to start: she writes about everything from the ways in which women dabbled in politics to the books they read, mainly French Enlightenment philosophers.)
In the 1960s and 1970s, before Westerners (members of the Iranian diaspora among them) began writing their memoirs criticising Iran, Iranians wrote autobiographical poems, essays and books, many of which gave agency to the writer as a political actor; quite a few were critical of the West. Some of my favourites from that time are the painter and poet Sohrab Sepehri’s autobiographical The Footsteps of Water (1964); the poet and filmmaker Forough Farokhzad’s A Second Birth (1962) and her political film poem The House Is Black (1963); and the Marxist social critic and novelist Jalal al-Ahmad’s book about the Hajj, Alone in a Crowd (1964). Al-Ahmad’s Westoxification, published two years before his pilgrimage to Mecca, offered a powerful critique of Iran’s monarchy by pointing to the corruption that resulted from its closeness to the West. His books deal with Iran’s rapid Westernisation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and explore the West’s imperial relationship with Iran as well as the individual’s relation to history.
Another important writer of this period, and possibly the most gifted Iranian novelist of her time, Simin Daneshvar (Al-Ahmad’s wife), wrote about similar subjects in fiction. Both Daneshvar and Farokhzad address problems that affect all women, not just Iranians. During a discussion of their work in a university class in California, a student complained that her Iranian parents had never mentioned that Farokhzad was political or critical of the Shah: ‘We see pictures of her all the time in her miniskirt and are told how Western and liberated she was. So, if she felt oppressed, despite the fact that she didn’t have to wear a veil, and could have an affair with a married man (my parents won’t even let me date), then basically what my parents’ generation wants is a miniskirt democracy.’ She had a point. Having come of age during the 1990s, I had never equated the miniskirt with feminism but, relative to the veil, in some circles these days it’s considered downright radical.
Can all this really be about clothing? Yes and no. Certainly you shouldn’t overlook what Gillian Whitlock, in Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, calls the paratext: the liminal features that surround the text, not just the book’s jacket and typeface but interviews with the author, reviews and commentaries. It is in transit, as commodities, that these narratives, which Whitlock calls ‘veiled memoirs’, are shaped by and for the public. Whitlock reproduces an Audi ad that shows Nafisi, outfitted in a cream suit, floating among shelves of books in a library (a library that contains no contemporary Iranian literature) above the words: ‘Never let reality get in the way of imagination.’ She is presented as the embodiment of imagination, and yet the ‘reality’ of contemporary Iran, which she claims to reveal to her audiences, is what provides her cultural capital.
Reading these memoirs, like watching bad reality television, gives the false sense that we are being told the ‘truth’ by the powerless at a time when those with the power to construct reality have limited our access to the facts. Whitlock recalls Gertrude Stein’s prediction that the novel will die once we are able to read intimate stories about private lives in some other form. What Stein did not foresee was that these stories would be so poorly written or that readers would excuse bad writing – or even prefer bad writing – so long as it described the ‘real’. These memoirs make no attempt to be taken seriously as literature. When they are reviewed, no one mentions the way they’re written. They’re like grainy documentary films: the lower the production quality, the more real they seem; the worse the writing, the more believable the story.
There are Iranian precedents, though produced to a different political end. During the decade in which Mahmoody visited Iran, wrote her book and watched it become a hit movie, the Iranian government was engaged in its own form of reality-making. Shahid Morteza Avini’s documentary project, which spanned the nearly decade-long war with Iraq and was televised every evening across the country, is a wonderful example of the effect of grainy footage and a lack of craft. Avini claimed that his project wasn’t propaganda because he wasn’t a trained filmmaker and so wasn’t able to manipulate film (just as those memoirists, not being writers, can’t be manipulating words). And yet, at the same time, he was creating a new Islamic reality by putting forward on film a representation of the world as he thought it should be. Avini believed that reality is what has the possibility to exist. The same logic governs recent ‘survival’ or ‘veiled’ memoirs.
The memoirist’s ‘I’ has a seemingly final authority; it isn’t easy to dispute the memory of an individual, especially when that individual’s world consists only of herself and her trauma. Things become more difficult when she writes about a collective space and collective trauma: a prison at a specific moment in history, for example – unless, of course, she puts herself in solitary confinement for the most controversial moments in her memoir, as Nemat does in Prisoner of Tehran.
In the preface to his autobiography, Yeats writes: ‘I have changed nothing to my knowledge; yet it must be that I have changed many things without my knowledge … I say this, fearing that some surviving friend of my youth may remember something in a different shape and be offended.’ Nemat writes: ‘While working on this book I had to rely on my memory, which like any other person’s has a habit of fading and playing tricks. Some things I remember clearly as if they happened a week ago, but others are fragmented and foggy; after all more than twenty years have gone by.’ She has, she says, ‘merged lives and reshaped them’ to protect identities, but she’s sure her cellmates ‘will find themselves here’. Her cellmates haven’t commented in public, but there has been a row on the internet among ex-political prisoners who believe that she has fabricated episodes in the book. I don’t know, and it’s not my place to say, whether her account of Evin is accurate, but in a more general way her story is not a truthful one. She removes herself from Iranian history and paints a picture of an isolated woman – a Christian, ‘Westernised’ college student – who is imprisoned for her outspokenness. She describes her forced marriage to a prison guard and eventual release with the help of his parents (her story resembles Mahmoody’s in this), but I find her book’s drama, and the fact that she doesn’t have a close network of friends from prison, suspect.
After reading Nemat, I read the well-known Iranian writer Shahrnoush Parsipour’s Prison Memoirs (1997), parts of which are available online at iranian.com. Her writing about Evin has a very different texture from Nemat’s. There’s no doubt about what Parsipour went through in prison – there were witnesses. She wrote the book not for a Western audience but in Persian, soon after her incarceration, and published it with a leftist publisher in Sweden, where it had a large Iranian readership that included many former political prisoners who could corroborate her detailed account of prison life. It is colloquial, accessible and well written. In one haunting moment a guard explains away the sound of bullets as the sound of children playing football. The narrative is neither melodramatic nor heroic (Nemat’s action-packed story is all set to be a Hollywood movie), but detached, as if Parsipour were observing herself from a distance. ‘When historians look back and scrutinise this period,’ Parsipour writes, ‘I have nothing to be ashamed of, because I did my part.’ Nemat says she’s ashamed – for not writing earlier. But she says nothing of the strong code of honour among prisoners that Parsipour describes, which required that they bear their suffering and uphold their sense of self and identity in the face of torture, or of the shame that results from a failure to do so.
I eventually abandoned my own memoir because it lacked development – in character, in plot – and became a laborious detailing of ethnographic facts that anyone who had been there could have reported: all this to protect people’s stories, when revealing is meant to be the point. It is difficult enough to write obliquely (it took me a year of full-time work), and close to impossible to decipher such writing if you don’t know Iran and its social history inside out. Fiction, on the other hand, allows character, history, plot and place to unfold without the writer constantly covering the tracks of the pen as it moves – revealing and concealing. Why don’t more memoirists use pseudonyms? Why not write fiction? One reason: without the ‘authentic’, victimised, subaltern ‘I’ to send out on the lecture circuit, TV and radio, the book will not become a lucrative commodity.
Whitlock bookends her argument with a discussion of two unconventional texts: a blog, a form that is closer to letter or journal-writing than the self-conscious production of a marketable product; and a graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000), which blurs the lines between reality and fiction and gives intellectual agency to an eight-year-old Iranian girl. But, importantly, Whitlock opens her book with the work of a young Middle Eastern man. Even women will tell you that it’s not easy to be a man in Iran, especially a young man, since men too are expected to be perfect Islamic citizens. When they break the law and wear short sleeves, ties, moustaches, goatees and baseball caps or go out with their girlfriends, they are harassed by the Islamic police as often as improperly veiled young women. They have the added pressure of military service (they can’t leave the country until it’s done), and even with a passport they have a much harder time securing a visa to travel abroad, where they are represented as violent fathers and oppressive husbands, as members of gangs in the European diasporas or as terrorists. Rarely in writings from the Middle East produced in the West are Middle Eastern men seen in a favourable light, and it is even rarer for them to appear as authors of memoirs, or as agents for the social good – which is why Whitlock’s reading of Salam Pax, ‘the Baghdad blogger’, is so important.
Pax uses the web, one of the more democratic cultural outlets, to record in real time his daily life in Baghdad. Whether or not he is a reliable narrator, we know that he is at least self-published (it was the popularity of his blog that brought him to a book publisher), and that as a blog his text invites the reader to become part of the process. He is curt, witty and clever, and doesn’t appear to care whether he sells his political position, or his books. ‘Please stop sending emails asking if I were for real,’ he wrote early on. ‘Don’t believe it? Then don’t read it. I am not anybody’s propaganda ploy. Well, except my own.’
[*] John Murray, 288 pp., £6.99, May, 978 0 7195 6252 5.