A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Reading Lolita In Tehran

Recently I have been reading two books, Karen Armstrong's The Battle For God (about Jewish, Christian and Islamic Fundamentalism) and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita In Tehran: A Memoir In Books. Karen Armstrong's book is very interesting but more slow going as she's covering a wide range of history. Azar Nafisi's book is also very interesting and easier to read because she's only covering relatively recent history. Her book takes place primarily in Tehran, Iran from approximately the time of the revolution in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini and his religious fundamentalists took over the country till about 1997 when she left to live in the United States. She taught foreign literature classes, mainly American and English, at the University of Tehran until she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil in the early 80's. Later she returned only to resign. During the last couple of years that she was in Iran she gathered together six of her best female students and had them come over to her house every Thursday where they discussed such works as Nabokov's Lolita. The books they read were considered forbidden and decadent and so they had to be circumspect about their meetings and discussions.

Ms. Nafisi creates a compelling portrait of what life was like in a post revolution Iran for an intellectual woman who is not anti-American/Western (having lived for 17 years in the U.S. when she was young). She begins her book writing about her Thursday meetings and the young women who came to her house and then jumps back in time to her return to Iran after a long absence just around the time of the revolution. She returned to Iran when she was thirty and began teaching at the University of Tehran. This was a time of much social upheaval and violence. Bookstores closed, censorship prevailed, women were required to wear the chador (a piece of clothing that covers the entire body except the hands and face), the legal age of marriage for women dropped from age eighteen to age nine, women were stoned for committing adultery, and as a woman you could not wear make-up or jewelry or even allow your hair to be seen. As far as I can tell these restrictions are still in place. There are also "morality police" who patrol the streets and enforce the laws particularly on women. The atmosphere at the University was tense with many meetings and demonstrations, the growing ferment of fundamentalism working its way into the school systems. Despite this Ms. Nafisi continued to teach English literature with dedication and passion. She even had her class put F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby on trial to prove that it was not a decadent book about adultery but a book about the beauty and complexity of life. Some students supported her, others held to a self-righteous Islamic fundamentalist perspective.

Considering the totalitarian state she was living in, it's amazing that she was able to teach her subject at all. But teach she did. In her way she was subversive, not willing to blindly accept the rules and regulations being forced on the populace. Teaching her six students in the privacy of her home where each chador was removed to reveal an individual, she finally allowed herself and them the freedom that they were daily denied--to look as they chose to look and to read what interested them, to be a group of intelligent women with no laws to forbid them their chance to speak out to each other. Certainly this is an inspirational book or should be to all of us who take our freedoms for granted. I have been so unintentionally ignorant of the world and now that I'm starting to open my eyes I see that so many people are suffering due to religious fanaticism. I know the U.S. isn't perfect but I thank God that at least we have some checks and balances to power. In the Bill of Rights there is the freedom of speech, religion, press and the right of assembly. The Constitution supports the separation of church and state which in itself protects people's right to worship as they choose. If, as in Iran, 99 % of the population is of one religious faith, and church (mosque) and state become one, all other religions are excluded. Take away this one freedom and mix one religion with ruling a nation and many of the other freedoms become sacrificed as well. How secure is the Islamic Republic of Iran if it has to turn out propaganda against the West (using its religion as a base) and restrict the personal freedoms of its citizens?

But then the present administration of the U.S. also has been trying to spread propaganda about "the axis of evil" (whatever that is) and its connection to the countries of the middle east and it also has been attempting to restrict the personal freedom of its citizens, so, in some ways, for now, we are mirroring Iran by having a fundamentalist president of our own.
But still, even though we do have a born again president our constitution is protecting the basic right to free speech, press and religion. But what is this fundamentalist trend? Where does it come from and why does it keep resurfacing? One of the main points Karen Armstrong makes in her book so far is that fundamentalists of any religion look backwards instead of forwards. She calls this "mythos" which she defines like this: "A mode of knowledge rooted in silence and intuitive insight which gives meaning to life but which cannot be explained in rational terms." It looks back to creation, to the myths of origin in any particular religion. It seeks to preserve or return to the root and is thus a conservative perspective. This is in contrast today with "logos" "rational, logical, or scientific discourse" which is future oriented and actively inventive and creative. Aside from fundamentalist Christians, much of the West is immersed in "logos" to the point of sacrificing some of the richness of the "mythos" mentality (and visa-versa). I have grown up in this Western culture and am biased in favor of reason over myth. Iran is an example of why to me, but that is not to say that I think the religion of Islam with all its history and beauty is at fault. It is the dogmatic interpreters of this religion (or any religion) that I find fault with. I am suspicious of those who seek unlimited power in the name of their religion. Moses didn't do this, or Buddha or Jesus or Mohammed. Seeking power and seeking to control others through religious intimidation is a perversion of any religion.

A few hours later..

"We in ancient countries have our past--we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future." Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita In Tehran, p. 109

Nostalgia is a tricky word to use. Definition--noun: "a nostalgia for tradiional values" REMINISCENCE, remembrance, recollection; wistfulness, regret, sentimentality; homesickness. I think what she meant was that while many Iranians obsess about conforming to the past, Americans dream about a better future or are sentimentally attached to this dream. Do I agree with this? I can't speak for Iranians but as an American I'd have to say we are a society with big business conglomerates and being business they compete with each other. Every year there are new inventions, new gadgets, new improvements, etc... In this sense I think Americans are used to newness of some sort or another and this newness is a pull into the future. Trends come and trends go but technology advances and permanently changes things. Without all this new technology we would probably be moving at a slower and more reflective pace. But this is really the Communication Age--computers and cell phones are again changing the world and bringing it into the future. In Iran I think it is still true that people are not allowed satellite dishes. At some point the police confiscated Azar Nafisi's satellite dish. People still have them but they try to hide them. I wonder if most Iranians have access to the internet?

It seems as if not only do those in power in Iran want to return to an earlier time period, but they want to block out the world. I don't think they can succeed with this. But praying five times a day must in some sense strengthen their resolve to adhere to their ways. Soon it will be thirty years since their revolution and the fundamentalists seem to be firmly in place as far as I'm able to tell so far. But what do most Iranians feel about their religious government? Their society seems closed enough that not many Westerners can have a glimpse at their truth. In an interview, Azar Nafisi said Americans shouldn't mistake the Iranian people for the Iranian government. I also hope that the Iranian people don't see Bush as representative of most Americans. But they get a lot of anti American propaganda pushed on them. From what I can gather not only do they paint American society as decadent, corrupt and full of temptation, it is the personification of evil. It would have to be that extreme a picture or you wouldn't have young men killing themselves in defense of their distorted ideal which they believe is being attacked from both the inside and the outside.

No matter how much one reveres the past, it is human nature to be curious. Curiousity and experimentation cannot be wiped out, nor, in my opinion, should they be. Growth depends upon those qualities or children would never grow up to become adults and adults would never learn from their own mistakes. Life happens to all of us, you can't block the world out and escape from harm. Everyone falls down, it's the getting up that's so important.
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