Friday, 19 October 2007

Contesting Taheri's review of Mirrors of the Unseen

I found Amir Taheri's rather uncharitable review of Mirrors of the Unseen. Taheri, a figure not without controversy, is the author of Nest of Spies.

At the core of Taheri's critique are two key themes: Jason Elliot's failure, in Taheri's eyes, to denounce the Islamic Republic and separate the majority of Iranians from those who have "created the poverty, despotism, corruption and cynicism he so accurately describes" and his attempts to find something esoteric and mystical in Iran:

As he moves through Iran the shocking truth dawns on him — the country he had dreamt of does not exist. Iran today is a largely westernised society with the same pizza parlours, hamburger joints, traffic jams, mobile telephones and Chinese-made shoes everywhere. True, women are draped in the hijab and many men sport designer stubble. But these are mere props for a people who seem to be too enamoured of the “decadent West” for Elliot’s taste.

Elliot, in fact, finds the opposite. The people that Elliot meets are either nostalgic for the boom-town Iran that prospered (for a minority) under the Shah or are content with the way things are. People quote Hafez, Ferdosi or Khayyam. They invite him into their houses and lives. Only one person seems to raise his ire and disappoint him - a young Iranian-American man Elliot describes as being totally disconnected from Iran and self-deluded by his "insights" into what Iran really is like.

Whilst Taheri does highlight some errors and poor copy editing, he is sloppy and misrepresents Elliot when he says

The Persian greeting is “Salaam”, not the Hebrew “Shalom” Elliot was offering to people in Iran (one wonders what their reaction was).

Elliot quite clearly states he only used shalom when greeting Jewish shopkeepers and that their reaction was warm surprise and hospitality. Elliot speaks Persian and a closer reading by Taheri would have put this all of this in context. But for Taheri, the rot goes even deeper:

[A]ll travel writers ultimately write about themselves and the way their culture sees "the other". And Elliot has done a good job of illustrating that the English need a new kind of writing in which the “other” is not typecast, and patronised, in the way Byron did.
Mirrors of the Unseen which, although focused on Iran, is also about the death of the kind of travel writing of which Byron was a popular example. Byron came from a civilisation that was self-assured, not to say arrogant, and was looking for the exotic, which he found aplenty, running into colourful characters representing the “mysterious Orient”. Elliot, by contrast, comes from a civilisation riddled by self-doubt. In Isfahan he encounters a group of European women and finds them loud and aggressive — “like navvies” — that is, they behave like men.

Taheri tries to reverse Elliot's exploration of Iran and argue that he's really exploring his own "otherness" and his own society which is less sure of itself than when earlier travel writers and explorers went to Iran. Essentially, what Elliot says he saw, heard and experienced wasn't really what he saw, heard or experienced.

The problem is not that the Iran of reality did not live up Elliot's "orientalist" imagination, but that Elliot's experience of Iran did not conform to Taheri's imagining of what Elliot should have experienced. Elliot's experience was not the one what Taheri would have liked him to have and he didn't write the book Taheri wanted him to write. For Taheri, Elliot didn't visit enough of the right monuments, meet the right people, or express the right sentiments. But Elliot wrote about what he saw, the Iran that he experienced. And that is more important than whatever Taheri wanted.

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