|In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.
A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western
Monday, April 4, 2011
Imraan Coovadia: Curveball 2
Vera Nabokov’s 1968 formula puts in the clearest form the emerging Cold War identification of freedom and a certain kind of difficult literature. The literary-historical evidence is not so unequivocal concerning tyranny and masterpieces: King Lear did no damage to the Jacobean police state, while Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Lincoln’s account, was one cause of the 1861-5 Civil War (but it may not be a masterpiece and Lincoln’s words to Harriet Beecher Stowe were not recorded until 1896). Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago put the Soviet regime on trial, yet Coetzee’s Disgrace, channelling white racial fears about their loss of power under majority rule, may have done no favours for the new democracy in South Africa.
For Vera, as for her husband, the authoritative style claims the self-evidence of the statement. She allows no exceptions to the rule (“every book” and “every form of tyranny”), referring to her husband not as her companion of forty three years but as a phenomenon to be addressed in its objectivity. In 1968, a year of insurgency in France and Vietnam and Mexico, the most searching challenge to tyranny was mounted by Nabokovian literature. While political revolution could fail, or substitute one tyranny for another, or reduce one form of tyranny while neglecting its other manifestations, each of Nabokov’s books, although explicitly devoid of any express political purpose, struck “every form of tyranny.”
Lolita (1955) is the key text in this argument, much more than Nabokov’s political allegory in Invitation to a Beheading (1935). Already in Paris, in 1939, Nabokov had begun and abandoned The Enchanter, a proto-Lolita told in the third person about a paedophile who marries a woman to gain access to her daughter. The Nabokovs fled to the United States as the French military collapsed, having been displaced first by a left tyranny, in 1919, and then by an armed tyranny of the right. It was natural that Lolita, conceived and published in the middle of the twentieth century, should be understood as an equal challenge to the political and intellectual dominions of the extreme right as of the far left. During the Cold War Nabokov was rapidly classified alongside emigres like Stravinsky and Adorno, neither of the left nor the right nor the centre, and whose aesthetic radicalism inclined them to point out the union of conservative taste and left-wing social policy in the Communist block; as Nabokov put is, “the more radical a Russian was in politics (eg Lenin) more conservative he was on the artistic side” (BB?, 193).
The connection between Lolita and the ideological demands of the Cold War is well established in the critical literature although the significance of this connection for a narrative which seems to take place outside history is not certain. Paul Giles has argued, probably correctly, that “both its conception and execution, Lolita is a text shaped by the nationalistic contours of cold war America. Nabokov began writing his novel in 1951, the year the American Studies Association was founded; he finished it in 1953, as Joseph McCarthy was taking charge of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Rosenbergs were facing execution for allegedly transmitting atomic secrets to the Soviet Union” (41-66). For Giles, the intellectual context, in the rise of American studies, is vital to understanding Lolita, and its ethnographic representation of American materials. For the Russian refugee Nabokov, on the other hand, Senator McCarthy and the Rosenberg spies may well have seemed more important.
Giles sees Lolita as contributing to “a denaturalization of Eisenhowerian American [and] the destabilization of cold war ideology.” For Humbert, “an American citizen of hybrid European origins—French birth, Swiss father, English mother—” brings “a sense of the unassimilable and foreign. By refusing to accommodate himself to the laws of his host country, Humbert persists in interpreting its customs as conditional rather than binding...” (21-22). Other critics of the novel have seen not so much ideology critique, or relativization, as the kind of ethical training that citizens in a democracy should undergo. Indeed Richard Rorty places a reading of Lolita at the centre of his work on contemporary forms of community, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). For Rorty, Humbert is a “monster of incuriosity” [p?]. Humbert manages not to notice Lolita’s pain and therefore avoids the duties of empathy and imagination incumbent on a democratic subject. Rorty adapts the novel to his political and philosophical purpose, but his interpretation is idiosyncratic: empathy is not only a democratic virtue nor it necessarily a democratic virtue to treat some people empathetically rather than all people fairly. Curiosity itself can be invasive, the neighbour of intolerance and private aggression. Indeed, most readers see Humbert as a very curious and active observer of the world, and even and especially of Lolita whose tears he remembers but never allows to alter his behaviour.
The evidence for Nabokov’s liberalism lies more in the past of the Nabokov family, his father and grandfather who served as high-ranking bureaucrats before and after the creation of the Duma in 1906. Nabokov represents his politics, and even his otherworldliness, with paternal inheritance. His own estate was nationalized by the Bolsheviks, and on 2 April 1919, the family was evacuated from Sevastopol while, despite the gunfire, the young Vladimir was “trying to concentrate on a chess game with my father” (?, 185). In the foreground is the game. In the middle ground is the contest between father and son. Nabokov sternly repudiated the Oedipal model in favour of dynastic loyalty, and affectionate recognition, between patriarch and heir. And in the background of the chess game, as Nabokov is careful to remind us, is the sound of Bolshevik machine guns around the Crimean port. This structure of game-playing in the foreground and geopolitics in the background, mediated by a minute and privileged community of emigres, defines Nabokov’s career.
While Roosevelt and Stalin were aligned the emigres’ understandably vehement anti-Soviet views were unpopular. By the late 1940s, as the writer went back to the theme of The Enchanter but this time in English, not Russian, in the novel form, not the novella, in the first person, not the third person, it became clear that Nabokov saw his work under the sign of anti-Communism, a term of art, like later concepts of counter insurgency and counter terrorism, which positioned the Cold War democracy as responding to hostile outsiders, and yet which also, like anti-Semitism, carries the trace of the obsessive. As Vera herself noted, returning to the subject of her husband with an historian’s detachment, “Vladimir Nabokov has never criticized or attacked McCarthy for the simple reason that he found anti-McCarthyists much more repulsive than McCarthy himself” (495-6). Nabokov regarded the great linguist Roman Jakobson as a collaborator for his continuing contacts with Soviet academicians. Jakobson, for his part, is well-known for posing the question which prevented Nabokov’s appointment to the Harvard faculty: “even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” In 1973, Nabokov was unable to travel to Israel but sent the Israeli ambassador a donation towards “Israel’s defense against the Arabolshevist aggression” (522). Nabokov’s unique coinage (“Arabolshevism”) is the left-wing version of today’s “Islamofascism,” an indication of the difficulties of classifying the enemies common to Israel and the United States under the banner of left or right, as well as a suggestion that even such minute changes in Cold War vocabulary prefigure ideological moves in the ongoing War on Terror. If the Cold War democracy has to resort to tactics and strategies, named accordingly by prefix and noun like anti-Communism and counter-terrorism, then its adversaries (“Arabolsheviks” and “Islamofascists”) are defined by the running together of words and points of political identification (Arab and Bolshevik, Islam and Fascism).
In the specific circumstances of Nabokov’s career, one sees how complex literature, and Lolita in particular, became an icon of the kind of difficulty and sophistication which only an open society could tolerate. While Nabokov was composing the novel the Congress on Cultural Freedom was founded in Berlin the day after North Korea invaded the South. Anti-communist intellectuals like Arthur Koestler and Raymond Aron joined a project which had the covert support from the C.I.A., and which soon widened to include tours by jazz musicians, travelling exhibitions by Jackson Pollock and de Koonig, and the foreign itinerary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Even the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno, who warned against the capitalist culture industry while turning their mandarin and apocalyptic Marxism against the Soviet-backed left, were published and promoted by affiliates of the Congress on Cultural Freedom. Irving Kristol edited the Congress journal Encounter where he was as central to the Cold War as his son William has become to the War on Terror at the conservative Weekly Standard, an inheritance from father to son not unlike that passed from Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, an elegant liberal on the floor of the Duma, to Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.
With its sensuous and winding style, which the Russian formalist Boris Eikhenbaum labelled skaz in Gogol and Dostoyevsky, Lolita itself was converted into a form of modernist cultural capital. Maybe more than any other single text of the twentieth century Lolita became a writers’ and critics’ novel. To be able to overlook its unpalatable subject matter and perceive the subtlety and beauty of its prose was a sign of imagination and cultural sophistication, just as in the case of Joyce’s Ulysses. The conservative modernist Jose Ortega y Gasset had defined the position already in 1925 in The Dehumanization of Art and Ideas about the Novel: the ordinary reader was interested in the mere subject matter, or scene, presented by the work of art, while the elite reader was interested in the window or form through which the scene was presented. For Ortega y Gasset, a kind of proto-Bourdieu, modernist art had an explicit political purpose. The assumption of equality provoked difficult and sophisticated art. For “behind all contemporary life lurks the provoking and profound injustice of the assumption that men are actually equal.” Since inequality of talent or education could not be furthered politically, it was expressed in the domain of culture. Thus, Gasset argued, a “work of art acts like a social agent which segregates from the shapeless mass two different castes of men...the new art helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many” (?, 7). There are more than echoes of this doctrine in Nabokov and in Humbert Humbert but with some alterations. Nabokov, like Humbert, is singular, not a member of the “few.” The “drab mass” in Lolita is American, consisting of Charlotte Haze and her daughter, and redeemed by a certain anthropological interest, in Charlotte’s case, and by Humbert’s desire, in Lolita’s. Finally, in Vera’s ordering of the facts, Nabokov stands almost alone against tyranny whereas Ortega y Gasset’s elite find each other under the sign of modernist art and stand together.
Lolita’s geopolitical potency, if not its cultural capital, was in abeyance under the Clinton Administration, between one great war which had been fought in the shadows and the next. In Dick Cheney’s words of September 16, 2001, in an explanation which extended the indirect methods of the Cold War to the new challenges, “we have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows, in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.” On 19 March 2003, the United States tried to eliminate Saddam Hussein on the first day of Gulf War 2. In the same week, in what wasn’t entirely coincidence, Random House released an unusual memoir about a book club which had met in 1995-6 in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks, about as long, and also not by complete coincidence, as it took for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq to destroy the Republican majorities in the United States Congress.
Nafisi’s father Ahmed served as mayor of Tehran between 1961 and 1963 but had later been imprisoned by the Shah. She studied in the United States in the 1970s, in Norman, Oklahoma, before returning to teach in Khomeinist Iran. In 1980, however, she was dismissed from the University of Tehran because, as she explained, she refused to wear in her veil. She moved on to the University of Allameh Tabatabei but resigned from that post in 1987. Eight years later she started her book club consisting of herself and seven female students. It was constructed as a space of feminine liberty otherwise denied to Iranian women: “For a long time I had dreamt of creating a special class, one that would give me the freedoms denied me in the classes I taught in the Islamic Republic. I wanted to teach a handful of selected students wholly committed to the study of literature.”
The eight participants met once a week for fourteen months to discuss an author, including Henry James or Jane Austen, who would usually be found on the kind of Great Books list which had become popular in the United States in response to postcolonial and multicultural criticisms of the Western canon. The first book the club undertook to read was Nabokov’s novel which lends its title to her memoir. Although they “read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction Scherezade, from A Thousand and One Nights,” the group “concentrated on Western classics—Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December, and, yes, Lolita...If I write about N today, it is to celebrate our reading of Nabokov in Tehran, against all odds.” In a flourish which recapitulates Humbert’s own passionate language and gives Reading Lolita its own literary gloss, Nafisa offers “this...the story of Lolita in Tehran, how Lolita gave a different color to Tehran, and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov’s novel, turning it into this Lolita, our Lolita” (?).
Nafisi borrows from Scheherazade, who promised stories to keep herself alive from day to day, as well as from Humbert. She deploys the device of photographic ekphrasis just as it used in Lolita where Humbert and Nabokov are at one. As she writes Reading Lolita, “I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing against a white wall...The photograph does not reflect the peculiar opacity of Manna’s dark eyes, a testament to her withdrawn and private nature.” It is not only Humbert, with his photographs, that Nafisi and her students adapt but the girl whom Humbert tries to picture. For, “like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling in love and listening to forbidden music.” Against the backdrop of a sexually and politically repressive society, Nabokov’s novel provokes multiform resistance, as Vera predicted.
There is a hint of Nafisi’s experience in 1970s Oklahoma (“falling in love and listening to forbidden music.”) More often the feminine note is elegant rather than sexually subversive. Since beauty is concealed in public, in the safe space of the book club Nafisi is determined that it should return. So “I spent longer than usual choosing my clothes that first morning [in 1995], trying on different outfits, until I finally settled on a red-striped shirt and black corduroy jeans. I applied my makeup with care and put on bright red lipstick. As I fastened my small gold earrings, I suddenly panicked. What if it doesn’t work? What if they won’t come?” They do come, and create a space based on the idea of culture, and reading and conversation in particular, as an idyll. Scheherazade, as Nafisi writes, “breaks the cycle of violence by choosing to embrace different terms of engagement.”
This idyll enacts a return to the West. During the Shah’s reign, the youth, Nafisi informs us, wanted to read politically correct works. Now they sought “‘non-revolutionary’ writers,’ the bearers of the canon, were the ones celebrated by the young: James, Nabokov, Woolf, Bellow, Austen and Joyce were revered names, emissaries of that forbidden world which we would turn into something more pure and golden than it ever was or will be.” While “the bearers of the canon” were being displaced in American universities, to the discomfort of cultural conservatives, and at the same time the purity of purpose of literary texts had been undermined by new critical projects from structuralism to New Historicism, these values were revived on the margins in Tehran. How one constructs a curriculum is the point of contestation between literary traditionalists and their critics. Nafisi defends her own choices by a kind of innocence about these debates which could appear to be feigned in another context: “one of the criteria for the books I had chosen was their author’s faith in the critical and almost magical power of literature, and reminded them of the nineteen year old Nabokov who, during the Russian Revolution, would not allow himself to be diverted by the sound of bullets.” Nabokov was playing chess, not reading a book, but the conflation between literature and chess is present in his own thought.
Nafisi, Nabokov, and their right wing admirers define themselves in great measure by their enemies (the “anti” and “counter” prefixes). In official Iran, according to Nafisi, “we lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology.” It might have seemed surprising to Nafisi’s culturally conservative readers in the United States to find such an ally in an Iranian woman and to discover that their quite different adversaries, on the multicultural left and the religious right, both “denied any merit to literary works, considering them...handmaidens to...ideology.” Just beneath the surface here is the conservative accusation that, in the War on Terror, the cultural left in the United States and the Muslim right have made an unholy alliance against liberal democracy. If we didn’t remember that Nafisi had been fired from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear a veil, we might imagine that she understands how a veil can make what it conceals more attractive.
For Nafisi, like Nabokov, literature opposes political methods of thought. In her updated version of Vera’s maxim, “Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.” Like Lolita, she and her students have been deprived of day to day pleasures: “The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another…Yet the novel, the finished work, is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not just of beauty but of life, ordinary everyday life, all the normal pleasures that Lolita, like Yassi, was deprived of.” Humbert has the same hatred of female agency as Khomeini’s revolutionaries: “Humbert fixes Lolita in the same manner that the butterfly is fixed; he wants her, a living breathing human being, to become stationary, to give up her life for the still life he offers her in return…more and more I thought of that butterfly; what linked us so closely was this perverse intimacy of victim and jailer.” Even if Charlotte Haze and her daughter are culturally unsophisticated, we “condemn Humbert’s acts of cruelty towards them even as we substantiate his judgment of their banality. What we have here is the first lesson of democracy: all individuals, no matter how contemptible, have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To read Lolita correctly, even in Tehran, is to learn Jefferson’s wording of the Declaration of Independence. And in Tehran, as a reader of Nabokov, one has the added advantage of experience with revolutionaries who have more than one of Humbert’s vices: “Humbert exonerates himself by implicating his victim—a method we were quite familiar with in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
It is unnecessary to contest Nafisi’s tendentious interpretations of Lolita, from Nabokov’s interests in butterflies which can never be precisely pinned down because they make a pattern which alternates between one form and another, to her Jeffersonian reading of Nabokov, and in a sense of all of literature, which doesn’t necessarily teach “the first lesson of democracy.” There are numerous warning signs of confabulation in the text. Nafisi presents her memories of the provincial town of Norman, Oklahoma, during the 1970s, as a paradise of bohemian life: “These are my memories of Norman: red earth and fireflies, singing and demonstrating on the Oval, reading Melville, Poe, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung, reading Ovid and Shakespeare on warm spring mornings with a favorite professor of conservative political leaning, and accompanying another in the afternoons, singing revolutionary songs. At night, watching new films by Bergman, Fellini, Godard and Pasolini.” Besides the dubious credibility of these “memories of Norman,” many powerful readings of Lolita argue that Nabokov renders the dangers of lyrical rhetoric (“red earth and fireflies”) and idealized recollection (“reading Ovid and Shakespeare on warm spring mornings.”) It is a staple of counter-revolutionary argument to compare one’s present and disillusioned wisdom with the fond and only gently satirized follies of youth (“accompanying another in the afternoons, singing revolutionary songs.”)
Much more serious is the credibility of Nafisi’s recollections of her students. Nassrin, in her early twenties, offers in rather formal language her reflections on Lolita: “‘It is interesting,’ said Nassrin, ‘that Nabokov, who is so hard on poshlust, would make us pity the loss of the most conventional forms of life.’” There are even rather cold jokes, suggesting extreme alienation, which seem more likely to appeal to American neo-conservatives than to Iranian women. In the section of Reading Lolita on Jane Austen, for instance, one of the participants, Yassi, revises the opening line of Pride and Prejudice “in that special tone of hers, deadpan and mildly ironic, [bordering on]...the burlesque”: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife” (167).
Nafisi returned to the United States in 1997 where her career took a charmed turn many years before Reading Lolita—visiting fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, protégé and friend of many of neoconservatives including the Ottomanist Bernard Lewis who had crossed swords with Edward Said on the topic of Orientalism and became known as the Bush Administration’s favourite historian for his repeated recommendations, in private conference as well as public forums, to confront Muslim adversaries by force Nafisi thanks Bernard Lewis in her acknowledgements, almost as a Sufi mystic praising the man who has revealed the path to enlightenment, as “the one who opened the door.”
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Iran’s geopolitical significance rose dramatically. Between 1997 and 2005 the country’s nominal leader was liberal President Mohammed Khatami, who tried, against considerable resistance but with a measure of domestic and international good will, to reform the repressive system. Yet Iran was warned that it was next on the list after Iraq. As a senior British official put it, “everybody wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran.” Nafisi was soon placed on the board of Freedom House, an organization funded in large part by the United States government, led by a former C.I.A. director, and chosen by the State Department to run covert operations against the Iranians. Long before the publication of Reading Lolita Nafisi’s publicity was handled by Benador Associates, an operation which specialized in placing in the media the views of a group of policy intellectuals who advocated large-scale war against recalcitrant Muslim regimes. Besides Nafisi Benador’s clients included Richard Perle and Laurie Mylroie who is widely regarded as having fabricated links between Saddam Hussein and terrorist attacks against the United States, even before Al Qaeda, in her book Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America (2000).
From 2001 the political climate was much more receptive to fabricated claims about regimes that were in any event perceived as hostile to United States interests. A single defector from Iraq, Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, provided key parts of the casus belli against Saddam Hussein which was otherwise unavailable to American satellites and human intelligence. Al-Janabi, who received the C.I.A. cover name “Curveball,” was a former Baghdadi taxi driver and one time engineer. His testimony about biological warfare laboratories mounted in trains to elude United Nations inspectors proved the futility of the disarmament process.
On 28 January 2003, in his State of the Union address, President Bush prepared the United States population for a future war with Iraq. The verdict of history was clear: “Throughout the 20th century, small groups of men seized control of great nations, built armies and arsenals, and set out to dominate the weak and intimidate the world...In each case, the ambitions of Hitlerism, militarism and communism were defeated by the will of free peoples, by the strength of great alliances and by the might of the United States of America. Now, in this century, the ideology of power and domination has appeared again and seeks to gain the ultimate weapons of terror.” Bush cited “three Iraqi defectors,” of whom the first and defining source was Curveball: “we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.”
On 5 February, then Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the United Nations Security Council with a diagram of such a mobile laboratory in a railroad car showing the control panel and the fermentation chamber for cultivating biological agents. According to Powell, “we have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors... they can produce anthrax and botulinum toxin. In fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people. And dry agent of this type is the most lethal form for human beings.” In fact al-Janabi had fled from Iraq to Germany after embezzling money from a television production company owned by Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s son and successor who was killed in Mosul on 22 July 2003 by Task Force 20, an American unit set up to assassinate hostile leaders. No mobile laboratories have ever been found. In 2009, al-Janabi, living under German police protection, was accused of embezzling $10 000 from a support group for Iraqi refugees.
In 2003, Nafisi, a woman from Muslim Iran who valued Lolita more than religious doctrine, was an asset who could have been as valuable as al-Janabi and, on the page, far more persuasive. The attack on Iran was shelved because of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan but was placed back on the international agenda in 2010 by the Israeli government and its allies despite a much more vigorous skepticism about intelligence and preemptive action on the part of senior American military officials like Defence Secretary Robert Gates. In Reading Lolita in Tehran literature, and especially Nabokovian literature, is conceived as a feminized and pacific practice. Yet for this very reason it draws too clear a line between Western governments and their adversaries. Nafisi’s portrait of Iranian student radicals from the 1970s can hardly be read today, after the cellphone trophy photographs of American torture at Abu Ghraib, without seeing in it the most severe historical ironies: “I still remember one of them [in the student union], a chubby guy with a soft, boyish face, the outlines of his round belly protruding from under his navy blue woolen sweater. He refused to sit down and towering over our table, swinging a glass of Coke precariously in one hand, he argued that there were two kinds of torture, two kinds of killing—those committed by the enemy, and those by the friends of the people” (76).
In June 2006, Nafisi’s case was addressed by Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-born scholar at Columbia University where Edward Said had taught until his death. Writing in the Egyptian periodical Al Ahram, Dabashi argued that questions about women’s status in Muslim countries were “legitimate concerns...and yet [Nafisi] put that predicament squarely at the service of the US ideological psy-op... fighting against Islamic terrorism, ipso facto, is also to save Muslim women from the evil of their men.” The nationalist right accused the multicultural left of allying with Muslim radicalism against liberal democracy. Dabashi argued that the conservative right adopted generally progressive concerns, like women’s rights, to validate great power dominion. As far as Reading Lolita was concerned, according to Dabashi, “this book is partially responsible for cultivating the US (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran.” Nafisi, “with not a single credible book or scholarly credential to her name other than Reading Lolita in Tehran” had been employed by Paul Wolfowitz, then Assistant Secretary of Defence in the Bush Administration. She was, in other words, a feminine variation on Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis, known for their elegant language and hardline views on the Middle East which made for an interesting kind of propaganda. Moreover, inside the United States, Nafisi served the purpose of restoring a canon of “Western Classics” which had only recently been opened after “decades of struggle by postcolonial, black and Third World feminists, scholars and activists...to introduce a modicum of attention to world literatures.”
Liberal-minded critics in the United States found Dabashi’s charges overheated. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, in Slate, conceded that Reading Lolita tended to “pat, self-congratulatory resolution” but argued that Dabashi and Nafisi both overemphasized “the politically salutary effects of reading novels and writing literary criticism.” In Canada, the right-wing National Post subjected Dabashi to ridicule for his views on Reading Lolita: “Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature, has discovered what he considers the real purpose of that book: It's an anti-Iranian tract supporting the plan to bomb Iran.” In language which fused the Cold War and the War on Terror, the National Post found that “Dabashi's frame of reference veers from Stalin to Edward Said. Like a Stalinist, he tries to convert culture into politics, the first step toward totalitarianism. Like the late Edward Said, he brands every thought he dislikes as an example of imperialism, expressing the West's desire for hegemony over the downtrodden (even when oil-rich) nations of the Third World.”
The War on Terror is the first conflict without a well-defined adversary and a specific territory to fight over. It could come home, as it has, in a way that the Cold War never could, and it can be fought about ideology, or identity, or where a mosque can be built, or around questions of literary style and opinion, or even around the intellectual space available in a university. In 2004 Dabashi was one of the faculty members criticized in the documentary Columbia Unbecoming, which was made by The David Project that monitored American universities for criticism of Israel. The 40 minute film, which was shown to Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger and Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem, severely criticized the university for allowing what it called anti-Israel and anti-semitic activities by faculty members. Columbia’s limited but real space for Palestinian-American intellectuals, specifically Edward Said and the historian Rashid Khalidi, had long been an irritant. Dabashi was much more flamboyant, and his style more heated and more muddled, and more typical of post-colonial academic writing, than either Said or Khalidi.
As the War on Terror came home, academics affiliated with Middle Eastern studies were a new adversary. Martin Kramer, the author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, chose the opportunity to link Dabashi with racial preferment, terrorism, and rogue states, and to help bring the period of postcolonial critique to an end. As Kramer put it, “Orientalism didn’t just propound a theory. It became a manifesto for affirmative action. If you were a dean or a provost or a department chairman, you had to ask yourself, How can I be sure I’m not appointing an Orientalist? At Columbia, Middle East studies became a rogue department, a friend-brings-a-friend department, and the guys who came in on Said’s coat-tails didn’t have his finesse. They were just garden-variety extremists.” In Kramer, as in Nabokov and Nafisi, one hears the contempt of a writer with a fine style who uses that style, amongst other things, to eliminate his political adversaries by denigration. Said, at least, had “finesse” which entitled him to some respect despite creating “a rogue department, a friend-brings-a-friend department.” Orientalism is, indeed, beautifully written. Dabashi, however, is “garden variety.” His twenty books could never strike such a blow against tyranny.