Look Who’s Talking Now: The New Orientalism

Books give me an overpowering thrill: something about knowledge in a portable, substantial form makes me feel secure. Chunks of time just slip through my fingers whenever I’m in a bookstore. But it’s not because I’m browsing books and reading chapters…it’s because I’m rearranging shelves.

I frequent the religion and world history sections, interested in what’s being said about the Middle East and Islam. And, if you analyze these topics by looking at a Barnes & Noble shelf, then you’d probably assume that we’re all either barbarous terrorists who delight in culture/religion-sanctioned brutality or passive (female) victims of our cruel cultures/religions. White, Western academics have been spouting these stereotypes for centuries. But look who’s talking now: Middle Eastern and/or Muslim women themselves are starting to echo the Orientalist babble. Fatemeh Keshavarz, who has just released a book Jasmine and Stars: Reading Past Lolita in Tehran, calls this the “new Orientalism.”

There are several Middle Eastern and/or Muslim women who are writing positive books about life in their respective countries, cultures, and Islam (Asma Gul Hassan’s books about Pakistani culture or Islam, or Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir about growing up Iranian in America, for example). But you won’t see these authors prominently on display in Borders; usually, one copy of them is tucked away on the bottom shelf. The eye-level displays are all about confirming America’s fear or disgust at Islam and the Middle East. You’ll only see books about a Saudi Arabian princess’s life in a Real-Live Harem!

The resurgent tensions with Iran have caused a slew of “tell-all” books (disguised in memoir format) by Iranian women. Doesn’t anyone else find it interesting that a majority of these books (mostly about Iran by Iranian authors) came out very quickly once U.S.-Iran tensions heightened? You can read about the harrowing experiences of Ghazal Omid, whose book Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Islamic Republic of Iran leaves even the most unimaginative reader with an idea of what life in the IRI must be like for every woman. Or read A Mirror Garden: A Memoir by Monir Farmanfarmaian and Zara Houshmand, which paints pre-Islamic revolutionary life in Iran as glamorous and carefree, only to be shattered by Khomeini and his Islamic revolution. Books such as these only take into account what pre-revolutionary life was like for the wealthy, Western-educated upper class; for the majority of Iranian women, life wasn’t about playing twister with the Shah or traveling to Europe. Books like Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir and Lipstick Jihad paint life in Iran as nothing but bleak and overwhelmingly oppressive, all because of that pesky Islamic revolution! And the failings of this government and society are all attributed to Islam, not to corruption within the ranks or patriarchal traditions within Middle Eastern culture.

And it’s no better in the religion section: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel sits right next to the Holy Qur’an in Borders. Believing what Hirsi Ali says about Islam is like accepting what a Mexican jumping bean tells you about Latino culture. Hirsi Ali uses her negative experiences with Muslims as a way to analyze Islam, blaming Islam for the people who have wronged her, instead of leveling the blame at those individuals who deserve it.

I don’t want to diminish these women’s experiences: their subjection to assault, imprisonment and torture, and discrimination are important for us to look at as overreaching examples of the dangers that women face in every patriarchal culture. But these books don’t deal with their authors’ experiences in this way; the stories pander to the sensational Orientalist ideas of exotic harems and dangerous scimitar-brandishing desert-dwellers.

These books’ shelf presence reflects the U.S.’s anti-Islamic, anti-Middle Eastern agendas. The positive experiences that women have with Islam or the Middle East are left off of the shelves (or out of the publisher’s office) because they are not what America wants to hear. America wants to hear about how horrible Islam is, not how American women are converting to Islam; they want to hear about the danger of life in the Middle East, not the rosy childhood memories of Middle Eastern authors.

The experiences these women are telling are valid and important, but they fall into a well-known trap. Women of color aren’t given a chance to tell their stories correctly, being forced (or choosing) to sell out their country and/or their religion in order to get their story told at all. Perhaps Hirsi Ali chose to “sell out” Islam because it would get her points with her new bosses (the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute). Perhaps, with Jean P Sasson’s Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, the princess really just wanted to dispel the Western myths about harems.

But these women were either forced or brainwashed into parroting stereotypes. The only difference between these stories and older ones is that these stereotypes are now coming out of “insider” mouths instead of white Western brains.

  • Irfan Yusuf

    I interviewed Hirsi Ali during her recent visit to Sydney.An edited version of the interview is here …http://www.newmatilda.com/home/articledetail.asp?ArticleID=2292… and here is the article based on the interview …http://www.newmatilda.com/home/articledetail.asp?ArticleID=2376

  • silent rant

    Excellent article. I have read a couple of Hirsi’s articles and agree with the points you made. Also, you may want to check out a similar article published in London a few weeks back: http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/salam_almahadin/2007/08/authors_of_their_fate.htmlLet me know if you have thoughts!

  • Jessica

    I love reading, and I work in a bookstore, so it goes hand in hand. I recently picked up “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea. I don’t know what to think. All I’ve heard from Saudi Arabia is tales of oppression. But I feel like Alsanea’s women are real, and in translation maybe it allows western women to see that Saudi women are parallel in many ways, the love the wrong men, the right men, they succeed and fail, they dream. But in a way, I felt the novel was almost the equivilant of western “chick-lit”. I almost wanted it to ascend what it was. I mean should it be political and full of meaning? Or should it just be fun? Because it was a fun and exciting read.In response to your comment about “tell-all” books. I agree. I’ve noticed many more books come in about Afghanistan and the Taliban since 9/11, not just politically driven ones, but ones from Afghan authors writing fiction.

  • Zara Houshmand

    As a writer (and translator) who has worked consistently for many years to represent non-Western voices more accurately to American readers and to dismantle stereotypes, I was dismayed to see your characterization here of A Mirror Garden. I can only assume that you’ve based your judgments on the publicity blurbs or comments from reviewers who don’t share your own (and my) sensitivity to Orientalism. If you had read the book itself, you might have noted how Monir cuts her own honest, if idiosyncratic, path through the Orientalism that confronts her constantly as a young Iranian artist in New York in the forties and fifties—and does so without the benefit of any theoretical or intellectual support. You might also have noted her carefully considered decision to return to Iran after the revolution, where she now lives and works. As for the sudden surge of Iranian memoirs, I can tell you that a writer works only on her own book; it is publishers who make the decisions that manifest as a trend. I began working on A Mirror Garden in 2000, and even then I felt compelled to write something that would portray Iranian culture in a positive light.

  • Zeynab

    Khanoome Houshmand, thank you for your comments. The point of my paragraph about tell-all books by Irani women was that many of them skew the Irani experience. Of course, we can all only tell our own stories, but to a normal non-Iranian reader, who has no knowledge of what Irani life is like, s/he might perceive that all Irani women had similar privileged lifes that Monir had, which (especially during this time period) isn’t true. It is only a minority who can boast of upper-class connections and get the privilege of traveling to another country to study and work in such prestigious surroundings, especially in that era. My worry is that these tell-all books will offer no wider context to an audience that unfortunately tends to generalize.