Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran

If you’ve read Reading Lolita in Tehran, I would highly suggest that you read Fatemeh Keshavarz’s thoughtful counterpoint Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran.

Jasmine and Stars is made up of Keshavarz’s own, more positive, memoir of growing up in Iran, her analysis of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and literary analysis of some of the novelists and poets who were writing actively before, during, and after the Iranian Revolution.  Keshavarz and Azar Nafisi (the author of Reading Lolita) have very different perspectives on Iran, Iranian people, the Revolution, and the role of literature in that country, and they write from quite different religious and political perspectives.

In contrast with Reading Lolita, which gives the impression that Iran was not a society that appreciated literature or where it was normal or accepted to study literature, Jasmine and Stars points out the deep literary history and ongoing vibrant literary culture of the country.  Keshavarz, a comparative literature professor at Washington University in St. Louis, counters fallacies and points out discrepancies in Reading Lolita that are interesting to consider.  In addition to the question of whether or not reading Western literature was or is really dangerous in Iran (Nafisi claims it was, Keshavarz disagrees and cites evidence from book sales statistics, popularity of Western literature in translation within Iran, and her own experience as a literature student in Iran), Keshavarz takes issue with Nafisi’s nearly universal portrayal of Iranian men as bullies (even citing the negative connotations of the names Nafisi assigns the men) and  Iranian women as fragile and incapable of critical thought, and with the value judgements Nafisi makes against some of her characters for their opinions about literary characters or the color of stationery they use for love letters.  Overall, Keshavarz’s perspective is that Nafisi’s narrative portrays Iran as a two-dimensional bugaboo rather than a nuanced, conflicted country full of real people with real feelings.

However, while I think the counterpoint to Reading Lolita is interesting and important, I enjoyed much more Keshavarz’s discussion of Iranian writers and their impact, and the central role that literature has in Iran, irrespective of social class and education.  Keshavarz noted that in Iran even uneducated people quote poetry and are familiar with Iranian literary classics, and described how authors and poets are venerated and discussed even among middle class school children.  Although Iranian writers work within boundaries of topical censorship, Keshavarz cites ways in which authors convey depth of feeling and conflicts over ideas within those restrictions – an interesting topic also covered in Literature From the Axis of Evil, which I reviewed earlier this week.

Another interesting concept in the book is the challenge to avoid the “New Orientalism” Keshavarz finds in Reading Lolita and other similar narratives.  Keshavarz defines New Orientalism as viewing Near and Middle Eastern people and cultures as inherently inferior and backward, and the thinking that Western culture is automatically and thoroughly superior to others.  I think this is a very real challenge for thoughtful readers.  On one hand is the tendency to accept all difference as equally good or valid without using discernment to say “actually some things (human rights, religious freedom, etc) are important, and some things (terrorism, genocide, etc) are unacceptable.”  On the other hand is the tendency to assume that anything different is wrong, backward, or unworthy of respect.  As a Westerner and a Christian, I have to be mindful of noticing how much of my lens of understanding is composed of foundational truths, and how much is really just the product of my culture and era.

I got a lot out of Jasmine and Stars and I think it would be a valuable read for anyone who has read Reading Lolita in Tehran, especially if that book is your main source for understanding what life in Iran is or was like.  It would be really interesting to discuss the two books together – if you’ve read both (or read them in the future) be sure to leave me a comment to let me know what you thought!


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