The Enduring Disappointments of Orientalism

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I always enjoy Stephen Greenblatt’s scholarly works, so I looked forward to reading his reflections on his visit to Iran, recently published in the New York Review of Books. But like many Iranians–such as Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi, who wrote an op-ed about it on–I was let down by Greenblatt’s April 2 travelogue, “Shakespeare in Tehran.”

I appreciated Greenblatt’s honesty in relating his experience. Many of us have grown up with the dream of going to exotic places we read about when we were young. Also admirably, the scholars at the University of Tehran asked Greenblatt to give the keynote speech at a Shakespeare conference, and Greenblatt accepted their invitation. Given the current political climate, the arrangement shows courage from both parties; Greenblatt is Jewish, and has repeatedly visited Israel and collaborated with Israeli scholars. My reaction was not based on the politics, but on the missed opportunity for what Emmanuel Levinas called face-to-face encounter and the possibility of sharing ideas from two great literary and cultural traditions.

Greenblatt’s piece is filled with disappointments and surprises that are affective responses of desire and fear to two different Orientalist visions of Iran, both primarily manufactured and encouraged in the West. Nearly 40 years after Edward Said’s Orientalism–and the subsequent emergence of postcolonial studies–it appears that not much has changed: how could such a great scholar so easily tread on the same essentialist stereotypes?

The visions of the Orient that have dominated Occidental thinking were birthed in two phases, both providing a doppelgänger for the ideology of respective times in the West. The first phase began in the late eighteenth century and was evident in the success of such works as The Thousand and One Nights, translated by writers like Antonie Galland and Richard Burton, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Robert FitzGerald. The imaginary vision of the exotic and mysterious East continued through the 1960s and 1970s with the youth and counterculture movements, including the hippies and new agers. This “wonder” land was the place Greenblatt wanted to visit in his youth: the land described by the Orientalist Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana, the home of “Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes,” and the origin city of the rug in the Greenblatt family dining room.

Greenblatt does find and describe a trace of this magical past in Isfahan and the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, which Byron also marveled at in his book. But much of Greenblatt’s experience is tinged with melancholic disappointment at not finding the “paradise.” For example, instead of a “fabled” Shiraz with “nightingales and wine,” he discovers a metropolitan city with traffic and 1970s architecture. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention the ruins of Persepolis, where he could have seen the signs of the great palace of “Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes.” The modern urban landscape, on the other hand, is a reality of every developing country, where cities are growing at a rapid pace. Iran is no different.

The second image of the Orient, one that mainly began with media coverage of the Iranian Revolution, represents an Islamic land of oppression and violence, where, as Greenblatt echoes, “support for basic civil liberties, advocating women’s rights or the rights of gays and lesbians, an interest in free expression, and the most tempered and moderate skepticism about the tenets of religious orthodoxy” are always denounced. This is the Iran that Greenblatt expected to find, and he points out many of the associated tropes: women in hijab, “sinister Evin prison,” and “grim icons of the Islamic Republic” such as “photographs of ‘martyrs’”.

Yet he also finds it surprising that one of his invitees, Ismail Salami*–an English professor at University of Tehran, political commentator, editor in chief of a semi-official organ of the Iranian press, and an anti-Zionist–shares his love of the cinema and Shakespeare. He is surprised that after his talk no one rushed to exit. Instead, he writes, “Most of the questions were from students, the majority of them women, whose boldness, critical intelligence, and articulateness startled me.”

Why should he be startled that Iran is far more complicated than the narrow vision of the totalitarian state presented daily in the media? Why not expect that good students do exist in Iran and they can even be wearing hijab? He is aware there is a diversity of views and hints at it in his speech. The essentialist, monolithic image of Iranians is mostly a construct reinforced by the media demonization of a country and its people, as part of propaganda promulgating the “axis of evil” and the view of Iran as a number one threat to world peace. (As example: an article heading on this week’s CNBC: “Iran like a modern day Nazi Germany: Ex-CIA Chief.”)

I am also troubled by the text of his speech, which Greenblatt quotes in the article. It seems to echo the historical use of Shakespeare as an instrument of colonial education in places like India. It also reminded me of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, where imagination and freedom has to come to educate Iranians through great works of western literature. Greenblatt makes an argument that Iran, like the “late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth- century England,” is “a closed and decidedly unfree society, one in which it … [is] extremely dangerous to be honest in the expression of one’s innermost thoughts.” Shakespeare is then his answer, a way to advance and become “honest,” “open,” and “free.”

I share the same love for Shakespeare that many do, including those from different political persuasions. But does Shakespeare need to be politicized in this way when it comes to Iran? Is Shakespeare universal because he is seen as a subversive writer? Does Greenblatt believe that Iranians, especially Iranian scholars and writers, need to be taught a lesson? Are they not aware of their own condition? Are they not writing honest works? Would Greenblatt use Shakespeare in a similarly condescending way to teach lessons to scholars in the U.S. and Israel?

Maybe this is the first sign of Shakespearian “at-one-ment,” but I can’t help wanting more. I wish Greenblatt had put more trust in the people of his host country, reaching out to truly know the Iranians and questioning these essentialist Orientalist images. Maybe then he would have found “much more.” For example, I am not sure why his observant Muslim guide, Hassan, wasn’t able to find a synagogue in Isfahan, because there are “13 synagogues in the city,” according to a recent CNN report titled “Iran’s Jewish community in Esfahan: We ‘feel at home.’” (Sadly, that Jewish population has greatly diminished.) Greenblatt’s visit could have resulted in something more than the eminent scholar deciding, “I do not imagine that there was much I would have seen.”


*Salami wrote a letter of response to The New York Review of Books, which appeared in the April 23 issue.


Image: Ninara/WikiCommons.

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