So, I’ve been talking about this book off and on since I first heard of it on NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. I had it in mind for awhile, and then decided to wait to read it until I was ready to take on the Non Fiction Five reading challenge. Since Non-Fiction and I don’t get along that well, I thought this would be a good one to keep until I was ready for it.
My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes is a collection of essays by contemporary Iranian writers, discussing everything from feminism to photography, from film-making to reading Exodus. Collectively, these essays confront our stereotypes of modern Iran head on. We tend to think of Iran as a country repressed by its extreme government, a country of free-thinking intellectuals, mixed in with ultra-right fundamentalists, and these two sides constantly clashing under the paranoid eye of a repressive government. And perhaps this is part of Iran, but it is not by any means ALL of Iran. That’s as simplistic as saying America is gay weddings vs. semi trucks with Playboy girls on the mud flaps. Sure, those things occur here, but they don’t define us, they don’t define our history or our cultural identity. The same can be said of Iran, especially since our current ideas of that culture are practically one dimensional.
I can’t say that I loved every essay in the book. The essays on film making pretty much went over my head, partially because I’m not that interested in the process of film making, and I don’t know the artists or the films that were being discussed.
The essay that struck me the most was the first, titled The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of , by Azar Nafisi. It is the first essay in the collection, and talks about the author’s own experience in leaving and returning to Iran. She brings in the history of modern Iran, and discusses the relevance of American literature to such a ‘foreign’ land. Anyone who quotes Huckleberry Finn in the same essay they reference Zora Neal Hurston, Henry James, Toni Morrison, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, is OK in my book. This particular paragraph struck me:
As Saul Bellow reminds us in The Dean’s December, a culture that has lost its poetry and its soul is a culture that faces death. And death does not always come in the image of totalitarian rulers who belong to distant countries; it lives among us, in different guises, not as an enemy but as a friend. To mistake sound bites for deep thought, politics for ethics, reality shows for creative entertainment; to forget the value of dreams; to lose the ability to imagine a violent death in Darfur, Afghanistan, or Iraq; to contemplate murder as passing news: are these not indications that now – more than ever – we need the courage and integrity, the faith, vision, and dreams that these books instilled in us? Is this not a good time to worry with Bellow’s hero about what will happen if our country loses its poetry and soul?
Another chapter that I found interesting (though not the only one, there were many) was about the art culture in Tehran, specifically that of photography. It mentioned a few websites where Iranian artists can go to get their art exposure outside of their country, no mean feat. The essay is titled Don’t Cry For Me, America, and mentions a few interesting websites, such as Parking Gallery, TehranAvenue, and Fanoos Photo. Check them out, and you’ll find an art culture to rival those in freer countries like the United States, France, Germany, etc. Really great stuff.