Thursday, January 12, 2012

Post #154 - Cultures and Conflict

A Vermont country road
Only after I went to Iran could I understand the reaction of our Iranian staff members to the green hills of Vermont during my initial Peace Corps training. These Iranians, our exemplars of authentic Persian language and culture, began to call Vermont "zendaan-e-sabz," “the green prison.” Now, Americans fill up New England country inns each year to take in the fabled fall foliage. But, for people who grew up in the wide, spare spaces of central Iran, where one sees the rocky spine of each hill and mountain with clear blue sky above them, Vermont's wall-to-wall woods produced an acute case of claustrophobia. I had to experience their reference reality for myself, though, before I could grasp their point of view. Recognizing this gap between our subjective perceptions was a first step toward learning that my own way of looking at the world was not the only way (hey, I was young...and American! okay?)

Iran -- Aras River Valley
There were other adjustments -- many of them.  For example, I was initiated gradually into Persian "ta-arof," a complex and subtle fabric of custom and verbiage that can be (very inadequately) translated as “etiquette,” "protocol" or “patterns of deference.” Many societies have hierarchical systems of relationship (the caste system of India comes to mind), and every society has ways of lubricating the interfaces between its parts to avoid having petty frictions flare into fatal conflagration. But in becoming used to Iranian daily life, I found that ta-arof was, more than anything, an outward expression of the idea that each of us deserves consideration, each of us must be allotted a place in society, each of us has dignity. By a process of trial-and-error, I slowly became initiated into Persian gentility. I learned to add to my own speech the niceties that in Iranian conversation act like illuminations in a manuscript.  I learned that a spur-of-the-moment invitation to sup with a family was heart-felt, even when the person offering it had no food in his larder, and no real expectation that I would accept. Had I accepted the invitation, food, drink and all the comforts of home would have been arranged in short order, no matter what it took.   I also learned how to decide who should precede whom through a door, reflecting age and rank, and avoiding embarrassment for anyone.

Orientalist art exhibition
Ta-arof may often strike our Western sensibilities as flowery and impractical (even Iranians will sometimes scoff at it). We Americans value informality and equality; we say: “don't stand on ceremony;” we judge according to achievement rather than ascription. Yet, a traditional culture maintains a space for each of its members by making the rules and the roles predictable. These provide security not only for those on the top of the heap, but for those at the bottom as well. While monarchs, feudal lords or clerics are privileged in a hierarchical system, the chaos that can come in a break-down of such a system can be a frightening prospect – witness the upheaval we witnessed in Iraq, in the aftermath of the dismantling of a brutal Baathist dictatorship. The arrogance of the West often takes the form of our believing that we can make things better (overnight, if not sooner) – even when we don't yet understand what is there already. Then, like the sorcerer's apprentice, we unleash forces we can't control. I realized that such core cultural systems have been evolved, in part, to maintain the dignity of human beings in that society, without which all are at the mercy of the basest drives of human nature.

In her new book, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Iran, gifted writer and scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz exposes what she calls a “new Orientalism.” She points out the fatal flaws in its skewed narrative about the culture of non-Western lands. This insidious interpretation has several features: true information that carries lies in what it omits; emphasis on the depth of the differences which divide us, rather than our commonalities; and use of value-laden language that subtly warps our reactions to an unfamiliar culture in the direction of disdain, rejection and fear. Keshavarz gives a number of examples and offers advice on how to resist this dynamic; let me quote from her book, and paraphrase a few of her points:

“The emerging Orientalist narrative...simplifies its subject. For example, it explains almost all undesirable Middle Eastern incidents in terms of Muslim men's submission to God and Muslim women's submission to men.” Keshavarz offers examples of Iranian women who are anything but meek and cowed; I could offer my own. Yet, the strong, creative and indomitable women of the Islamic world are nearly always lost to view in both news coverage and fictional treatments of that world; most often, we find only victims inhabiting the space where they should be.

Iranian-American youth learn ta'arof at a leadership camp
“We are blessed with access to multiple voices. Recognizing the value of this multiplicity and putting it to good use is our hope for breaking out of totalizing narratives.” In this context, Keshavarz uses “totalizing” (in a way that contains, appropriately, an echo of “totalitarianism”) to connote a tendency among the Orientalists to make their interpretation all-encompassing and “silencing” of other perspectives. A colleague of mine who lectures on the topic of stereotyping sometimes begins his talk with this studiedly casual lead-in: “I was traveling recently in Latin America. I was surprised to find that the clergy in that part of the world always walk in single least the one priest I saw did.” Yet, “scientific observations” of cultures like that of Iran are often not much more empirically sound than his ironic one-liner.

“What is happening in the non-Western parts of the world, and in this case Iran, is a result of decades, at times centuries, of unresolved issues...the part that powerful nations of the world have played in sustaining – at times exploiting – the mess is by no means negligible...The explosive situations that result in revolutions do not go away with denial and exaggeration. They do not go away until they are understood and dealt with.” This does not mean that everything bad in the world is the fault of us in the West, but it does mean that we tend to view those other countries as though their problems were born yesterday, their impressive cultures were dead long ago, and the future is primarily ours to shape.

“The approach to the Eastern Hemisphere as great in the past and ignorant/dangerous at present is a perspective with significant social, political, and even military implications.” Keshavarz' warning makes clear it is hard to sit down and negotiate seriously with people that one has first stripped of all claims to humanity, rationality and creativity. (Really, what would be the point?) Limbert's Negotiating with Iran, which I treated in several earlier posts, drove that point home forcefully.

“Listening to grievances that erupt into revolutions might in fact prevent them from happening. Part of what makes the New Orientalist narrative troubling is that, through its polarized version of the world, it denies the value of listening.” Many ostensible attempts – half-hearted and permeated with foregone conclusions – to “make sense of strange cultures,” in fact renders them unknowable and unapproachable. As Keshavarz points out: “The saddest part is not the degrading of two-thirds of the world, but the self-deprivation of the one-third that views itself as too superior to learn from traditional societies.”

It was an Armenian bishop who brought the first printing press to Persia, to publish The Holy Bible for believers there. His flock had first converted to Christianity in the year 310 CE. The current spiritual leader of most of the Christians in Iran, Archbishop Sebu Sarkissian said, in February of 2007 (speaking to a delegation of American church leaders):

"It is not as has been imagined by people outside will soon realize that Iranians are quite open-minded people [who] always welcome people from the States or other countries...they are very much keen [about] cultivating a good relationship with people of other faiths here in Iran or outside of Iran. That's why there are centers that are involving dialogue. They have enlarged their scope and have ecumenical relations...with outside, with Russians, with Catholics, with Protestants of different denominations, Armenians, Jews, with Hindus. Because we don't know each other, you won't be able to dialogue, to talk, even to love. We say knowledge generates love; and love generates mutual respect, mutual understanding – and these elements generate peace."

This will strike some as a “Potemkin village” sort of statement, but all the scores of recent American visitors to Iran with whom I have spoken have had just that sort of experience of Iranians. Donna Jo Napoli, a Bryn Mawr College professor and children's author, wrote in 2005: "I recently returned from eleven days in Iran. Before I went, friends told me I was crazy to go. They said I'd meet a lot of anti-American hostility. I'd be in danger, even. I met zero hostility." She went on to say:

"In Kerman [a city in southeastern Iran] we visited an orphanage. There I asked the double question that had become my standard by then: what are your fears, what are your hopes? One girl told me her worst fears were earthquakes and George Bush.
"...At some point, the discrepancy between the rhetoric of 'axis of evil' and the reality of openness and willingness to engage in dialogue should, at the very least, lead us to take the official 'line' with a grain of salt, to question our leaders, and to attempt to find out for ourselves where the truth lies."

Interested in knowing more of her impressions, I drove to Bryn Mawr to speak with Donna Jo after reading her account of the trip. She expressed to me her bafflement that almost no one on the faculty of her well-reputed liberal arts college shared her concerns about the prospect of our wreaking havoc on the country that had welcomed her so warmly. “It is my fervent hope,” she said, “that we Americans do no harm to this superb country.” Even now, some 500 Americans travel to Iran each year; most of them have similar concerns, despite the arbitrary and brutal actions of the ruling group in Tehran, and the differences we have with them on a host of issues.

No comments:

Post a Comment