Interview: Lila Azam Zanganeh
My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices is a slim essay collection published in 2006. Its editor, journalist Lila Azam Zanganeh, juxtaposed the narratives, interviews, graphic strips, photography and journalism of a formidable slate of Iranian artists and intellectuals. Marjane Satrapi, Azar Nafisi, Reza Aslan, Abbas Kiarostami, and Shirin Neshat are among those Zanganeh chose to challenge Western (mis)perceptions about Iran at the fiery modern moment of U.S. “wars on terror.”
Zanganeh dedicates the book to her parents, “who taught me to speak up.” And indeed, although her own voice appears primarily in her introduction and her essay selection, Zanganeh’s book is her personal response to the assumptions that she—as an Iranian women born in Paris who studied in the U.S.—moves among day to day.
Last week, Jill Morrison told us that “even one opportunity to challenge injustice serves as a catalyst for women to question the injustices in other parts of their lives.” In My Sister, Guard Your Veil, Zanganeh is both catalyst and a questioner for the high stakes that U.S.—Iran relations have for writers, artists, and intellectuals on both sides of the (unnecessary) divide.
Zanganeh studied literature and philosophy in France, before earning her masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She came to the U.S. in 1998 to teach literature, cinema and Romance languages at Harvard University, and has since become a regular contributor to Le Monde. She’s also been published in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Nation, and La Repubblica.
And—catch your breath—that’s not all: she’s currently at work on a book about novelist Vladimir Nabokov, a project she chose instead of pursuing her PhD because she “craved the freedom, the white canvas.” Zanganeh says that her book “is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, a narrative about a real and imaginary relation with an ecstatic writer, a book about happiness.”
That said, here’s Lila:
You’ve studied literature and international relations. Your writing and editing indicate passionate artistic and political interests. How have you come to balance—even conflate—what might initially seem mutually exclusive paths?
Simply because these are not at all mutually exclusive paths in my eyes! I remember, a few years ago, going back and forth with two ideas, two words, in my mind: humanities and humanitarian. I was teaching literature, cinema and languages at Harvard, at the time, and in the summer between those two years in Cambridge, in 1999, I was also a fellow at Human Rights Watch in New York. Everyone thought it was a strange, even ungainly, combination. To me, they were two faces of the very same interest—an interest, to put it bluntly, in the human. And I began to feel, quite intensely, that “humanities” and “humanitarian,” as ideas, fields, even intellectual and political postures, were 19th and 20th century offshoots of Humanism, in the Renaissance sense.
In the introduction to My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices, you write: “All in all, the gap between the multifaceted realities of Iranian political and cultural life and the simplified image one is often fed by politicians and mainstream media alike remains mind-boggling.” Was amending that gap your incentive in putting together this book? Were their other reasons?
Sure, to some extent. I believe that the only way to combat prejudice is one voice at a time, one face at a time. What this means, in effect, is that with every voice we hear, and every face we see, our point of view about a given culture, an ethnicity, a person or a sexual orientation may slide and shift, even just slightly, from prejudice to kinship. And that—sometimes barely perceptible—shift is, I think, crucial. Something happens, within the minute span of that shift, something which has been triggered by writing, or art, or a sheer human voice, but that is in essence of an entirely political nature. I make a point, for instance, whenever I am traveling—and even though I hold a “foreign” passport—to tell every single person I meet and speak with, that I am an Iranian. More often than not I catch the surprise in their gaze, and their eyes tell me: ‘really, Eye-ranian…?’ This is, at the end of the day, what this little book is about, with its ironic title: if you can’t take the human face of Iran, the varicolored, mottled, mosaic, the ironies and intricacies, then sister, guard your veil.
What does a ‘literary’ Iranian anthology have to contribute at this particular moment?
Literature lends the “other” a human face, and through this human face, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas tells us, begins the very notion of subjectivity and ethics These eyes looking at me right now, this voice speaking to me, is another “I” -and this gaze, this grain, are a human mirror in which I perceive my own subjectivity, my existence as a subject that begins only if the “other” is a subject as well. Ethics, the human face, the humane. Again, we come back to the same semantic family tree. Literature, you see, has everything to offer at this particular moment…
The contributors include a range of Iranian artists and intellectuals. How did you select what voices to include—and which ones to exclude? For example, although the subtitle to the book reads “Uncensored Iranian Voices,” many of the 15 contributors are expatriates. How would the anthology have been changed if there had been more essays by men and women living in Iran today?
I chose intellectuals from three generations. My grandparents’, my parents’, and my own, in a nutshell. I asked for the contributions of women and men who came from markedly different historical and political periods because I knew they would offer variegated perspectives. I chose a majority of expatriates after consulting with my publisher who felt as concerned as I was for the safety of our contributors. That is: we did not want to compromise anyone’s safety within the Islamic Republic by openly associating their names to well-known dissidents abroad. So the people I chose from Iran are, respectively, the most famous living philosopher, Daryush Shayegan, and the most famous filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami—who are, by and large, “untouchables,” in this regime. But then there is also Naghmeh Zarbafian, a former student of Azar Nafisi’s from Tehran University, who chose to take part knowing what she risked inside Iran. It was unbelievably brave of her and she wrote what, in my mind, is perhaps the most beautiful and touching piece in the book, “Misreading Kundera in Tehran.” But the truth is that I could not sleep for many nights thinking of what might happen in consequence…
But there are also Reza Aslan, Shirin Neshat, Azadeh Moaveni, Salar Abdoh, Negar Azimi, Babak Ebrahimian and Gelareh Asayesh who have traveled back and forth through the years and continue to do so. The only actual “asylees” in the book are Azar Nafisi, Marjane Satrapi, Roya Hakakian and Mehrangiz Kar, who do not travel to the Islamic Republic in order to protect their safety as outspoken artists, writers and lawyers. But regardless of these considerations, I think the combination of viewpoints is essential to such an anthology. Living within Iran, like the filmmaker Kiarostami, or in exile for the past 11 years, like Azar Nafisi, will lend different nuances, and a different texture of truth to your viewpoint. Neither holds the truth about Iran, nor pretends to. Iran is the coalescence of all their viewpoints.
A good number of the contributors have broken cultural and artistic taboos in their lives and work. What do American feminists have to learn from this boundary breaking? What does it mean for you?
I think what Iranian women are doing within Iran should be—quite ironically—an enormous source of inspiration to American feminists! American feminism, at times, seems in its dying throes. So much has yet to be conquered and is treated, in this country, as though it has already been conquered. To this day, I think that the price of, say, sexual freedom for most women is silence, whether in America or in Iran. So I feel that looking Iran’s way, we might be able to see, as in an eerie fun-house mirror if you will, the strange reflection of American women’s own phantoms and fears. In this sense, the extraordinary courage of women like Naghmeh Zarbafian or Mehrangiz Kar as portrayed in this book, the stories of Azar Nafisi in her essay “The stuff that dreams are of” or those of Azadeh Moaveni in “Sex in the Times of Mullahs,” should, I hope, encourage more and more boundary breaking on the other side of the ocean as well. This is how these voices resonate with me.
What has been the range of responses to the book have you received—both in the U.S. and outside of it?
It has been quite incredible. The book came out in the US, Canada, Italy and Japan -just this past month in fact—and I have been extremely surprised by the genuine curiosity it has sparked. I think the interest it’s generated is largely due to the unusual choral of voices that are present in the book, spanning issues from pornography to liberal Mullahs to Iranian Jews…
In your introduction, you indicate the deep—and dangerous—misunderstandings and mistrust exist in both Iran and the U.S. What would a counterpart anthology—“Uncensored American Voices” released in Iran—look like? Would it have the same purpose and place as My Sister, Guard Your Veil?
I don’t believe so, simply because I know for a fact that Iranians are far less ignorant of American culture than Americans are of Iranian culture…! Iranians are mostly wary of the American government, especially in its current avatar. But many Iranians, of all social backgrounds, have cable television, watch Hollywood films and CNN, read, browse the internet, and basically observe America from afar… I think it would be fair to say that they have a good sense of the many intricacies—and contradictions—of American culture. Most Americans cannot even place Iran on the map. Show them Iraq together with Lebanon, Syria and Iran, ask them to place country names, and see for yourself.
In the fire-hot talk about Iran in U.S. politics and media, Iranian women are often evoked…often in quite pitying tones, particularly in the talk of veils. How have the mediated images of Iranian women personally affected you, as an Iranian woman born in Paris and now living in the U.S.?
Well, you are constantly seen as either Exotic, or Representative of a culture that is, in reality, totally schizophrenic and very difficult to grasp. As I said earlier, I feel my duty as a foreign-born Iranian is to never conceal my origins, so as to make progress one person at a time, and reveal, in my own humble way, through dialogue and literature, the human faces of Iran.
How can Iranian voices—particularly the voices of Iranian women—influence the larger public conversation? Are the worthy books and articles written by you, Marjane Satrapi, and Azar Nafisi, for example, effectively preaching to the converted?
My book is extremely small in comparison with what Azar Nafisi and Marjane Satrapi have accomplished. As far as they are concerned, I have no doubt at all that they have influenced the public conversation. Nafisi’s book was on the NYT bestseller’s list for over two years, and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels have just been turned into a feature film that won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival last month. The masses of readers and viewers come out—as I’ve observed time and again—with a shifted perception of Iran. And I can tell you that for this little book alone, I received hundreds of emails and letters from all over America, thanking me for having opened a window, given life and flesh to a world as yet unknown to many readers across the country.
What is your greatest hope for Iranians, and for Iran-U.S. relations? What can U.S. feminists, writers, and activists contribute to that vision?
Dialogue and Democracy. Not political Islam cum some semblance of democracy. Just democracy. Iranians, at core, want a secular government. And U.S. Feminists, writers, and activists can do a great deal to help by engaging in a dialogue with Iranian women through the internet, cultural exchanges of every kind (such as conferences, anthologies, radio broadcasts), and even trips to Iran which are possible and safe for non-Iranians. Dialogue will, I ardently believe, pave the way towards democracy in my country.
“Our objective through this medium is to offer a fresh perspective (on Forugh Farrokhzad) to encourage all thinkers, scholars and all of those who are interested on various levels to immerse themselves in this open forum to facilitate further understanding of her poetry and philosophy.”
Women’s Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran
“The Women’s Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran (WFAFI) is committed to promoting a greater awareness of the challenges women face living under fundamentalist regimes such as that of Iran. “
“The Missionary Position,” by Laila Lalaimi. The Nation, 6/1/2020
“Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about “our plight”—reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern.”
Modern Persian Poetry—Iranian Women Poets
The Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation
” The history of Iran has consisted, for the most part, of male-dominated narratives and accounts of men’s exploits and achievements. IWSF attempts to offer a different perspective on Iran’s history by protecting, preserving and propagating the works of Iranian women. “
“The Persian Novel,” by Houra Yovari, 2002.