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Week of 5.26.06

Excerpt: MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL

Book Cover: MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL; MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES: UNCENSORED IRANIAN VOICES Lila Azam Zanganeh was born in Paris to Iranian parents. She holds a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University. In 1998, Zanganeh moved to the United States to teach at Harvard University. She is the editor of the new book MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL; MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES: UNCENSORED IRANIAN VOICES, a collection of essays by Iranian writers. The following is a reprint of the introduction to the book, written by Zanganeh.

Whether as a haven of exotic sensuality or a stronghold of fanatic religiosity, Iran has, since ancient times, inflamed the popular imagination. Memories of the millennial dynasties of the shahs echo in the minds of onlookers with the convulsive days of the revolution. In the past months alone, Iran has appeared in the news almost daily: nuclear threats, conservative onslaughts, Islamic clampdowns, mock trials, and political assassinations. Yet there seems to be so little that Americans actually know about Iran, and decade after decade, the misunderstandings live on.

Recently, I was forwarded an e-mail written by a prominent member of the Jewish community in New York. It spoke of me and read: “Let’s have Leila on a panel, as a representative of the Arab press.” A gracious invitation sent, no doubt, with the best intentions. Alas, it so happens that I am neither Leila nor Arab. But like an overwhelming majority of Americans, this gentle-man—who knows I am Iranian—believes that Iran is part of the Arab world by virtue of the fact that it is a Muslim country under the yoke of a staunch Islamist regime. Iran’s story, past and present, is at once more intricate and more arcane, “something rich and strange.”

Perhaps to a greater extent today than ever before, Iran is a political puzzle. Together with Israel and Turkey, it is one of only three non-Arab countries in the Middle East. Historically, the Persian Empire became the first state to grant protection to the Jews 2,500 years ago—centuries before Arab invasions brought Islam to the Iranian plateaus. Yet Iran is now the world’s single “theocracy,” the only “Islamic Republic” of the Middle East (excluding Pakistan from the region proper), a virulently anti-Semitic state and—some say—one of the region’s most volatile powder kegs. The intransigent rule of the mullahs coupled with a nascent nuclear capacity seem to constitute a threat not only to Iran’s neighbors but to international stability at large.

The country’s ruling elite, however, strives to embrace the appearance of a democratic process, notably through the organization of elections in which both men and women are allowed to take part. But any parliamentary motion or presidential decree may be unilaterally vetoed by either the Council of Guardians or the supreme religious leader (both of them unelected), thus turning the system into a sham of democracy. Not to mention the “illiberal,” inchoate, and severely dysfunctional legal and judicial infrastructures in place. So Iran teems with make-believe democratic institutions and continues to bewilder Western countries.

At the heart of the profound distrust between Iran and the “West” are several ideological and historical factors. First, there is the Islamic Republic’s alleged, and somewhat theatrical, unwillingness to negotiate a lasting dialogue with America and Western Europe. Notoriously, the Iranian government thrives on berating the archdemon America and its egregiously corrupt “Western” value system. An Iranian reformist loves to tell a familiar story—in his country, when the conservatives wish to accuse and demean him, they brand him as “Western-struck,” which is only one step beneath the ultimate insult: “Western spy.” In this fashion, the very concept of “Western” is cursorily used as an ideological scarecrow against which lay Iranians may measure the Platonic ideals of the Islamic Republic.

But the story, of course, is not that simple. America has done its fair share to infuriate Iran over the years. For one thing, there is that illustrious “axis of evil” petition of faith. Only half a century ago, Americans resolutely supported the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a fact that the Islamic Republic will likely never forget. After the demise of the shah, the United States backed Saddam Hussein during the grisly Iran-Iraq war, financed groups of Sunni fundamentalists in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, and covertly negotiated with the Taliban—Iran’s sworn enemy—prior to September 11.

Thus Iran’s tainted perception of the United States appears to oddly mirror America’s perception of Iran. And the recent political developments in both countries—the neocon frenzy on one side and the presidential vow to return to the “rigid principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution” on the other—though incomparable in nature, have only complicated the geopolitical and emotional maps.

To be sure, in the wake of the landslide victory of the Iranian hard-line presidential candidate in 2005, Westerners who believed in the reformist pledges of Mohammad Khatami and the promise of an enlightened Iran are now faced with a looming nimbus of uncertainty. And too often, their knee-jerk reaction is to consider Iran in Manichean terms. There are those who have blind faith in the country’s democratic future and those who dread the noxious seeds of the Islamic Republic. There are those who believe, at times too hastily, that Iran is at core a Western-loving nation that can hardly wait for America to save it from its own bloodthirsty leaders. And there are those who are convinced that Iran, by and large, is a nation of Allah-worshipping, gun-toting terrorists.

In truth, Iranians themselves live in a far more complex and schizophrenic reality, at a surreal crossroads between political Islam and satellite television, massive national oil revenues and searing social inequalities. And if Iran is geopolitically menacing and religiously sclerotic, it is also astonishingly young—more than 50 percent of the country is under the age of twenty-five—and ravenously eager to embrace modernity along with a certain avatar of the American dream. Today, at heart, these young Iranians have forged their own dream, and they are often proud of their culture. Some are genuinely religious and believe in a modern, progressive, and tolerant Islam. Many—while mesmerized by their satellite TVs and American sitcoms—remain skeptical about American values. They are inhabited, at times haunted, by a tantalizing duality: naturally drawn by the appeal of all things Western, they harbor a militant sense of local culture and national pride.

What, then, is this elusive Persian identity? And in the words of the eighteenth-century French philosopher Montesquieu, “How can one be Persian”?

My idea is to answer this question by bringing together a collection of Iranian stories that will lend a “literary” presence, and a common platform, to many of those who play a role, large or small, in the contemporary Iranian adventure. Some have written unorthodox political testimonies, others have broken artistic and cultural taboos. Others still have written tales of feminism and eroticism under the Islamic Republic. With each story, MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL; MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES aims to corrode fixed ideas and turn cultural and political clichés on their heads.

For there seems to exist endless misconceptions about Iran, some humorous (think camels), others less so (uncouth, Indiana Jones–caliber barbarians). Doubtless, the Islamic Republic exerts a peculiar sway on the American imagination. Surprisingly, at a time when there is ample talk and trepidation about Iran’s military arsenal, at a time when the fears aroused by the September 11 attacks have opened doors to blatant expressions of hostility and racism, Iranians have gained a paradoxical gleam of popularity in this country—and around the world. Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize. Azar Nafisi wrote her unexpected international bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the artistry of Mar-jane Satrapi’s comic strips was compared to Matisse’s etching technique in the pages of the New York Times. In Hollywood, the actress Shohreh Aghdashloo became the first Iranian Oscar nominee for her role in House of Sand and Fog, a film depicting an Iranian family at odds with its rekindled life in San Francisco. And of course, Iranian movies such as Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, which was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes, have won lavish critical acclaim in both Europe and America.

There’s the rub: on the one hand, the possible Iranian connection with al-Qaeda operatives and Iran’s overt support of groups the United States classifies as terrorist organizations— such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Palestine— have put the Islamic Republic back at the center of the world’s political chessboard, all the while increasing a deep-rooted and long-standing suspicion of Iran. On the other hand, however, the thunderous success of books like Reading Lolita in Tehran and the consecutive publication of a string of other memoirs by Iranian women reveal a growing and correlated curiosity about the country.

All in all, the gap between the multifaceted realities of Iranian political and cultural life and the simplified image one is often fed by politicians and mainstream media alike remains mind-boggling.

MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL; MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES offers an intimate panorama of the country through variegated stories and essays by some of Iran’s most gifted writers and artists. Alongside new voices, numerous well-known Iranian personalities have contributed original pieces to the present collection. Azar Nafisi tells us that literature can be the weapon of choice against the totalitarian thrust of Islamist rulers. Marjane Satrapi highlights, sketches in hand, the most outrageous clichés about Iran and Iranians. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s celebrated filmmaker, discloses his definition of pornography and narrates the intrinsic Persian alchemy of his cinema. The acutely controversial visual artist Shirin Neshat describes her own private world of women without men. Iran’s most prominent philosopher, Daryush Shayegan, offers his modern-day mirror version of Montes-quieu’s Persian Letters. The outspoken actress Shohreh Aghdashloo relays what it took her to break free of Iranian gender stereotypes. Reza Aslan chronicles a trip to Qom, the Rome of mullahs, and uncovers why Iran is not a theocracy but a mullahcracy. Salar Abdoh fleshes out the eerie texture of underground lives in Tehran. Azadeh Moaveni provides a snapshot of sex in the time of mullahs. Negar Azimi presents a color-studded fresco of the subversive contemporary art scene in Tehran. Mehrangiz Kar brings to life the trials and tribulations of feminism under the Islamic Republic. Babak Ebrahimian unfolds the secret of “Iranianness.” Gelareh Asayesh explains why she grew up thinking she was white—until she arrived in America. Roya Hakakian reminisces about the happy days of Iranian Jews in Tehran. And then there is that unknown yet resonant voice of a young Iranian woman named Naghmeh Zarbafian— one of Azar Nafisi’s former students in Tehran. Her voice exposes the looking-glass world of the Islamic Republic through a deftly seditious analysis of an erotic novel by Milan Kundera, censored out of recognition.

In short, MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL; MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES strives to open a series of vibrant perspectives on concealed Iranian realms. And in the vein of the most captivating Persian poet of the twentieth century, Forugh Farrokhzad, I can only hope that these texts, in and of themselves, will act as minute “windows” onto Iran.