Jasmine and Stars

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The thirteenth century Persian poet Jall al-Dn Rm tells a story of how an elephant was brought to a small town after nightfall. Eager to see the creature, the townspeople went out in the dark to find out more about it. The next day, those who had gone out tried to describe the animal to those who had not been there. Their descriptions varied, according to which part of the animal they had managed to touch. One thought the animal was like a fan, having felt the elephant’s ear; another, having touched the elephant’s trunk, thought the animal was like a pipe. Had they each had a candle, Rm concluded, they would all have seen the same creature.

Fatemeh Keshavarz, author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than “Lolita” in Tehran, sees this story as having crucial importance in the early twenty-first century, as people face the challenge of trying to see the humanity in one another. Where, she asks, are the candles with which people can carry out this task? Everyone has gaps in their knowledge of the world; as an example, Keshavarz gives the Muslim Middle East. It is, she suggests, a place that appears to be a threat, but most people know little about it; indeed, people know little about how to deal with the threat it may represent. For Keshavarz, as an Iranian living in the United States, this is an extremely pertinent issue. She argues that in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “knowing about the Muslim Middle East is not a luxury, it is a matter of life and death.”

As a result, Keshavarz argues, people seek information, turning to those who might be able to tell something about the Muslim Middle East. These eyewitnessesand she sees them specifically as writersare her “candles.” There are many of them: Some, she notes, speak specifically to a specialized academic audience. Others are writing for an educated but lay audience.

However, Keshavarz raises concerns about these accounts of life in the Middle East, what she calls eyewitness literature. Her book is intended to provide, first, an in-depth critical understanding of this eyewitness literature, what she calls the “New Orientalist” narrative, and second, an alternative approach to learning about an unfamiliar culture. As characterized by literary critic Edward Said, the original Orientalist narrative sought to justify the colonial presence of Europe in the East by subordinating the local culture to that of Europe. Everything was described in inferior terms, or else attributed to a glorious past, after which the culture had deteriorated. Colonial administrators and scholars often felt that they understood a country better than its own inhabitants.

Eyewitness literature bears strong similarities to this Orientalist agenda, Keshavarz suggests, in that it takes a reductive approach toward its subject matter. Likewise, although the authors write from an “insider” point of view, they often exhibit impatience with local customs and culture, positioning themselves as superior because of their clear preference for Western culture and politics.

Keshavarz cites a number of recent examples of the New Orientalist narrative, including The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini, The Bookseller of Kabul (2003) by Åsne Seierstad, and Reading “Lolita” in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi. The subtitle of Keshavarz’s own book makes it clear that she is specifically addressing Nafisi’s memoir, and she discusses aspects of it a number of times in her own narrative. Keshavarz suggests that the success of these New Orientalist narratives lies in part in their hybrid nature, blending as they do travel writing, memoir, journalism, and a certain amount of social commentary; yet, she suggests, they do not make demands on their readers in terms of supposing they already know about the culture being described, and their final effect is that of feeling an...

(The entire section is 1601 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 13 (March 1, 2007): 53.

Middle East Journal 61, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 535-536.