Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Life as a Traitor

My Life As A Traitor by young Iranian exile Zarah Ghahramani, assisted by Oz writer Robert Hillman, is another book about how crap it is to be a woman under the rule of the mullahs. So it has obvious resonances with Reading Lolita in Teheran, resonances all the greater since Zarah also experiences literature as a liberation. But Zarah is much younger than Azar Nafisi, and is a student not a teacher. Her experiences are also more grim. But both books convey the oppressive misogyny of the mullah’s regime, an intimate part of a larger pattern of oppression. Not without a certain amount of humour: but that is also a weapon and a defence, a statement of life. Such as Zarah's comments on the regime giving power to teenage boys (pp.75ff).

Which, however much humour she injects into the discussion, is still a nasty form of oppression in itself. Her discussion (pp 81ff) of the high rates of female suicide (especially among young woman—very different from the Western pattern) is particularly grim. The lead-in is a young country cousin who, at 15, married a much older man from Teheran. A few months into the marriage, she attempted to kill herself by setting herself on fire. An attempt that was eventually successful, after she lingered on in hospital for some time. There is even a region in Iran where such self-immolation has become a local tradition as if to say, as Zarah says, my motive is the same as she who went before. As we read of the oppressive misogyny, it is again clear how grounded the official and pervasive misogyny is in the erotophobia of patristic monotheism where sex (unless it is procreative) separates us from God, from the divine, and—given religious authority is male—female sexuality is particularly threatening.
As an aside, average age at marriage is a good indicator of the status of women: the younger the average age at first marriage, the more such decisions are parental and the lower the status of women; the older the average age at first marriage, the more such decisions are the couple’s and the higher the status of women. Draw a line from Trieste to St Petersburg and the average age at first marriage is higher North and West of that line and lower South and East of that line. A pattern that evidence suggests predates Christianity but continued after it, and broadly still does.

Zarah was born after the Iranian Revolution. Her father is Kurdish (therefore Sunni rather than Shi’a) and was a general in the Shah’s army, but escaped any post-Revolutionary retribution. Her mother is a Zoroastrian. One of the themes of the book is Zarah wrestling with her parent’s outlook and history.

The book’s chapters interweave two narratives, each successive chapter moving to the other narrative. The first narrative is her experience of incarceration, interrogation and torture in Evin prison: formerly where the victims of SAVAK under the Pahlavi regime were “dealt” with, now where the victims of the mullocracy go. It is brilliantly evocative of the horror and helplessness of such incarceration.

The second narrative is her life. Growing up, going to school, discovering ideas, books, memorable teachers who encouraged their students to think, socialising, discovering boys, becoming political. The prose is simple, clear and very evocative. The things she describes come alive. She both describes and wrestles with how one lives in an oppressive regime.

Each narrative ends with a car ride. The prison narrative with the drive to freedom, the life narrative with being snatched by the police.

There was a backlash against Reading Lolita in Teheran, as if President Bush II’s hostility to the Iranian regime was the most important thing to be undermined and resisted, even if it means attacking eloquent witnesses to oppression. The nasty side of “criticise ourselves first”, where the reality that the US is, as it was throughout the C20th, better than its enemies (just as, in the Middle East, Israel is better than Hamas, Hezbollah, Ba’athist Syria, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Fatah, etc.) has to be obscured to sustain the “correct” moral perspective.

But the Iranian regime is vile and oppressive and My Life as a Traitor is a vivid and highly accessible rendition of that reality. It is also an invocation of the power of good teaching, even in very trying circumstances. The dedication at the start of the book reads
This book is dedicated with love and esteem to my friend Akbar Mohammadi, whose bravery, which so greatly exceeded my own, cost him his life.
The acknowledgment at the end ends with,
… and her secondary school and university teachers are asked to accept her gratitude, for reasons that will be apparent to any reader of this book.
As they are.

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