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Hamid Dabashi: A prominent professor's attack on a best-selling memoir sparks debate among Iranian scholars in the U.S.

Historians in the News




Like many Americans of Iranian descent, Hamid Dabashi read an article in the April 17 issue of The New Yorker with anxious dismay.

In that article, Seymour Hersh reported that President Bush's administration was preparing an airstrike against Iran, including the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.

The president himself dismissed the report as "wild speculation." But Mr. Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University who has been active in the antiwar movement since the attacks of September 11, 2001, heard a call to action.

The article prompted him to dust off an essay that he had written a few years before and publish it in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram. His target? Not President Bush or the Pentagon, but Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran and a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington.

Ms. Nafisi's memoir, published by Random House in 2003, blended a harrowing portrayal of the life of women in post-revolutionary Iran with a powerful personal testimony about the power of literary classics. The book found a wide audience, and its success made Ms. Nafisi a celebrity.

Gazing at the book through the lens of literary theory and politics, Mr. Dabashi had a much less favorable reaction to it. His blistering essay cast Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration's plans for regime change in Iran. He drew heavily on the late scholar Edward Said's ideas about the relationship between Western literature and empire and the fetishization of the "Orient" to attack Reading Lolita in Tehran as a prop for American imperialism. He also pilloried Ms. Nafisi personally for what he described as her cozy relationship with prominent American neoconservatives.

"By seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire," wrote Mr. Dabashi, "Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India, when, for example, in 1835 a colonial officer like Thomas Macaulay decreed: 'We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.' Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project."

In an interview published on the Web site of the left-wing publication Z Magazine on August 4, Mr. Dabashi went even further, comparing Ms. Nafisi to a U.S. Army reservist convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. "To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi," he told the magazine.

"The reason that I decided to publish [the essay] was fear," says Mr. Dabashi over a cup of tea in his office at Columbia University. "Fear of another war."...
Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Ed

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