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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

I had heard about this book from several friends and seen it at airport book stores many times. Yet for some reason I kept postponing the decision to read it. I wasn't comfortable with the hype around it and felt it might be another "Oprah Book Club" book (not that I have anything against Oprah). Post factum, I need not have worried.

Azar Nafisi taught English literature in several universities in Iran, before giving up on the Islamic Republic of Iran and moving to live in the US. During the last couple of years before leaving, in the mid-90s, and after having had to resign from her teaching posts, a group of seven of her former students used to gather in her apartment every Thursday to read and discuss literature. This book group forms the basis for Nafisi's memoir, in which she gives her personal views of life under the Islamic regime that took over her homeland in 1979.

Nafisi's passion for literature - an almost physical one at times - is not to be doubted. She divides the book into four sections, each named after a book or an author: Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen. In each section, she attempts to use the book/author as background for the wider narrative of her students' lives (and hers). As I have only read Lolita and a couple of Austen's books, I could not relate to every nuance and how the cited paragraphs related to the story being told. What fascinated me most were the "little" everyday stories about life in Tehran. Seemingly small and private episodes, when read together, shed a light on what life is like under the ever-watching eyes of the Ayatollahs.

An issue that runs throughout the book, one which obviously occupied (and occupies) the minds of many women in Iran, is the veil and robe. Nafisi succeeds in explaining to the reader what it means for a woman to "disappear" into the mandated clothing imposed by the regime and how liberating it feels to take off these clothes once indoors. She uses this issue to demonstrate how ridiculous religion can become when manipulated by the state and how pathetic some of the more fanatic proponents of these decrees can be when confronted with logical arguments. Through Nafisi's stories we learn how easy it is to be thrown in jail and executed; how the slightest comment or even body language against the regime leads to swift and painful punishment; how the government brain-washed hundreds of thousands of children to go to certain death during the Iraq-Iran war; and how impossible it was for universities to carry out their roles under the ever-changing rules imposed on them by the regime.

One aberration from the non-fictional narrative of Nafisi's book is the "magician", a male friend that Nafisi turns to in times of need, to get advice and direction. She never reveals the identity of this "magician" (the other characters are also not revealed, for obvious reasons, but at least they get a pseudonym) but he is clearly a great influence on her. Throughout the book I was intrigued by this character and was hoping to learn morea about him as I continued reading, But at the very end of the book, Nafisi writes: "I ask myself, Was he ever real? Did I invent him? Did he invent me?". I found this to be an unsettling and annoying ending. If the "magician" was indeed fiction, then how much of the "true stories" Nafisi tells us are indeed factual? I do not doubt that much of what she has written happened in real life, but this flirt with fiction in the book's epilogue was, in my view, unnecessary.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Peres - Finally

Shimon Peres was voted today as the 9th President of Israel. Finally.

This perennially unelectable politician and statesman, who managed to be Prime Minister twice without being elected to the post, has finally won a vote. I am very happy for him (and for Israel), although I would have preferred to see him as Prime Minister right now. In the arid wilderness that is the Israeli political scene nowadays, he could have filled the void we all suffer from.

Never mind. At least he gets the respectable finale he deserves to a most remarkable life and career.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Renegade Israeli

Since Thursday, the Israeli media has been enraptured with an interview given by Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and former head of the Israeli Agency, to the daily Haaretz (Hebrew, English). The interview was part of a promotional campaign for Burg's new book: "Defeating Hitler", in which Burg exposes some highly unorthodox views about Israel, Zionism, the legacy of the Holocaust and the future of the Jewish people.

You can read the interview, or better the book itself (I ordered it yesterday), and form your own opinions. Here are some of my thoughts about things Burg said in the interview:

Zionism is dead. Burg is of course right here. Zionism is dead in more than one sense of the word. It was a movement that achieved its purpose in 1948 and after the establishment of the Jewish state, it is no longer relevant. But perhaps more important, for most Israelis the "zionist drive" has been replaced by more mundane goals: self-achievement, prosperity and the right to decide to live abroad without being labelled a deserter. The repeated pestering by the interviewer trying to get Burg to "admit" he's no longer a zionist was somewhat pathetic.

Anti-semitism as the raison d'ĂȘtre. I couldn't agree more. Nobody argues that Israel is the answer to 2,000 years of persecution culminating in the Holocaust and that it is the only answer to a safe haven to Jews. But 60 years on, it's time for this country to define itself in positive terms - what it wants to achieve, where it wants to be, what future it can give its citizens - rather than in negative terms ("the whole world hates us and that's the only reason we need to exist").

Force is not a solution. Burg is right, and the mirror he talks about projects back an ugly picture. Israeli discourse is violent. Driving here is a nerve-racking experience. Orderly queuing is a rarity. Domestic violence and abuse of women is on the rise. A lot of this is attributable to the fact that Israel lives on its sword. Were it inevitable, I wouldn't argue. But the continued occupation of millions of Palestinians, for example, is not entirely inevitable. The toll of this occupation on Israeli society is obvious.

Israel as a fascist debacle. I think Burg went a little too far here, but I'm happy he put it so bluntly. Better to err by exaggerating than to wake up too late because of complacency. The dialogue on the street - from taxi drivers to vendors in the market to your average Israeli "arse" - is a proto-fascist dialogue.

Israeli elite has parted with this place. So true. So sad.

Lack of spirit, "living in order to live". Here Burg touches on the single most pressing problem of Israel, in my view. The country was founded on the belief it can turn its back on Jewish history. Religion and all those "disapora Jews" were a burden that Ben Gurion and his followers (mainly in the Mapai party) were eager to get rid of. They dreamt of the "new Jew" that is Israeli first and Jewish second. They believed that religious Jews were a thing of the past and were willing to grant them concessions only because they thought they would vanish in a couple of generations. And what are we left with, half a century later? A country struggling to define itself; a country whose youth find it hard to articulate the reason why they live here; a country where the elite sends its children abroad to stay; a country that has broken its ties with its history and its legacy but has failed to create an alternative national narrative that is not negatively-phrased. "Living in order to live" and "everybody hates us" will not take us far. This so-called "vision" is actually more likely to be the end of us. Rootless people can be uprooted easily.

Doctrine of nonviolence. Here I think Burg is being extremely naive. We are years, if not decades, away from being able to adopt such a doctrine. Whilst I agree we should not define ourselves based on the fact we are still under existential threat (and we are), I disagree that the solution is to ignore this threat and imagine we live next door to Switzerland. Unfortunately, we don't. Some of our neighbours are violent thugs that want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and the only way for us to survive (and not let the new Hitlers win) is to wipe them off the face of the earth first. I admit I sound here like the violent Israeli Burg is complaining about, but there is a difference. I refuse to let this fight against our enemies define me. I am defined by my history, my religion, my values and the future I hope to achieve for my children; I am not defined by Ahmadinajad.

There are many other points in Burg's interview I can relate to (or speak against) but in general I think he hit on some of the most poignant problems facing Israel today. Like many whose views I heard over the weekend, I too felt that the style of the interview and the way Burg expressed himself were somewhat harsh and out of line. I also dislike Burg on the personal level; his conduct when he was a politician was at times disgraceful. But perhaps it is exacly this outrageous style that might help jolt people out of their "live in order to live" modus vivendi and get them to think hard about what kind of Israel they want their children to live in. I sincerely wish people would concentrate less on the man and his style and more on the points he's making. I am looking forward to reading this book.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Mad Cow Disease

A story appearing in the British press today seems to indicate that "mad cow disease" struck some Brits decades before the big outbreak in Britain a few years ago.

According to secret government documents released yesterday, Israeli intelligence "might" have assisted Palestinian terrorists in planning the hijacking of the Air France plane bound from Tel Aviv to Paris, back in 1976, and hold the hostages in Entebbe. The legendary liberation of the hostages by Israeli commandos was supposed to either help the PLO in its struggle against other Palestinian factions or deter future terror attacks, depending on whose version you believe.

Coming in the wake of other disturbing news out of Britain this week - about the boycott of Israel by this or that organisation - one wonders what we will hear next from our esteemed ex-colonialists. Perhaps Israel helped the Argentinians capture the Falklands in order to divert attention from the invasion of Lebanon in 1982? Or maybe Israel planned the death of Princess Diana just because she was more beautiful than Sarah, the wife of the then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu?

The possibilities are indeed endless.