COLUMBIA — Models strutting down the catwalk in fashion shows or artists huddled around displays in art galleries are normal pictures of everyday life in a modern city. A city in Iran, that is.
The way Iran is represented in popular culture, says professor Fatemeh Keshavarz of Washington University in St. Louis, hides the actual Iranian people, and for this reason, she calls them “ghosts.”
“They don’t have faces. They don’t have names. They don’t have voices,” Keshavarz said. “They’re only scary, blurred ideas in the background. All we know is about the political conflict and about threat, so the people are masked from view.”
Keshavarz spoke to MU faculty and students Thursday and Friday about a side of Iranian culture seldom presented to the American public, in a visit sponsored by the MU Center for Arts & Humanities and other organizations.
While here, Keshavarz, a professor of Persian and comparative literature and chair of the department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, read excerpts from her latest book, “Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran.” MU is the 31st campus she has visited with her book, and she said a paperback version will be released soon. In May 2007, she was invited to speak at the U.N. General Assembly about cultural education.
Keshavarz’s book focuses on giving a voice to the Iranian people. She writes about a spectrum of people, including prominent Persian poets and even her uncle, in an attempt to show how Iran is a more complicated reality than its previous black-and-white conception.
Nabihah Maqbool, spokeswoman for the Muslim Students Organization, was enlightened when Keshavarz spoke of Iranian people bypassing censorships to read the same books or watch the same television as Americans.
“I’ve realized that just as in our own country, Iran is populated by a diverse range of people, whether they are pro-government, pro-democracy, Shiia, Jewish or poets,” Maqbool said. “One has to acknowledge the diversity in the nation.”
The book has a chapter that criticizes “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” the 2003 best-seller by Azar Nafisi. Keshavarz believes that part of the misperception of Iran stems from these kinds of popular writings, including “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad and “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. In some ways, those books hinder a reader’s perception of the reality behind the story, Keshavarz said.
Keshavarz said the chapter takes to task Nafisi’s book for several reasons.
“It’s highly selective, it focuses on trouble, and it leaves out of the picture a big chunk of the culture because it contradicts its view,” Keshavarz said.
For example, its book cover shows two solemn women in head scarves, bent over with their heads touching, reading some material, which the book’s context hints is forbidden or controversial. The actual photograph of the two women, before it was cropped, however, tells an entirely different story about Iranian women. The two young women are actually campaign activists searching the newspaper for election results.
“If it brought what it left out, it would contradict the thesis of the book which says that Iran is now a culture of villains and victims,” Keshavarz said.
MU student Christopher White said Keshavarz painted a more rosy picture of Iran than what he’s used to. Even so, he understands that the reality of Iran is not as the media often portrays it.
“The population of Iran is much more westernized than that of any other country in the region,” White said. “They’re more like us than Pakistan or Afghanistan.”
Keshavarz said although public opinion hasn’t drastically changed since her book’s release a year ago, many people have responded positively to her message and more people are aware of her counter arguments.
“I hope it will be, in a way, a cultural handshake,” Keshavarz said. “When you shake someone’s hand, you feel their presence, their concreteness, the warmth of their hand. I’m hoping this book will be like a cultural handshake for people.”