Of Book Foisting and Opinionated Persians 

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

When my boss lent me Honeymoon in Purdah by Allison Wearing, I knew I had to put down all the other books I was reading - books foisted on me by insistent friends, books I have struggled through for months and sometimes years, books I took out from the library with the idea that their presence will fuel the urgency of getting through books faster, of reading as much as I can of the important literature before death.

I pushed aside the book I am supposed to review, our book club book, and the 400-page paintbox travelogue. I will procrastinate on In Cold Blood for another month. Matt's presents of Catch-22 and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell remain on the shelves. My project of reading The Exploits of Moominpappa simultaneously in English, Chinese and French would likewise have to wait. Honeymoon in Purdah it would have to be.

A travel memoir of Canadian Wearing's visit to Iran, ostensibly on her honeymoon, the book thankfully pays little heed to adjective-dripping descriptions of the tourist sites. It instead concentrates on the conversations with Iranians, most met through chance encounters.

Honeymoon in Purdah
was always a book I wanted to read. It remained, however, in the second tier, a book to read once I'd consumed the classic Western Canon. It isn't merely because of brown-nosing that this book has moved to the forefront of my book list.

Though I do have to admit: for the first time in three jobs, I am not at the height of my career powers and I need to improve my prospects.

Luckily, this book was very enjoyable. Thus lessening the guilt associated with snubbing the other books. In fact, I have already bookmarked four conversations from the book that I want to quote on this blog. Thus:

In one of her unnamed towns, Wearing and her husband meet an old man in a mosque. The old man - a mollah - invites them to a free lunch, in what seems to be an everyday occurrence in Iran. After the meal, the conversation begins. The mollah gives his opinions on Western culture.
"....I have lived with these people, these comfortable people, with their houses and cars and televisions and foods from packages. I have seen the eyes of these people, and my friends, I did not feel happiness. Pleasure, yes, pleasure they can buy on every corner. But they are not happy. They eat and eat and eat and are not nourished. They talk of a future time when they will be happy, when they have this, or when that is finished, or when they will be able to afford this, or when they will look different, or when they will have more time to enjoy, or when they are more comfortable. But there is no today. Today is always unsatisfied." (Page 95-96)
He goes on to say:
"In death is the vision of life. I have watched your people die. And they do not die in peace. They do not want to die because they feel they have not lived. They have not done enough to make them satisfied with their lives. They live in regret and hurried efforts to make their lives complete. They do not accept their death, because they did not accept their life. Even in death their souls are not free." (Page 96)
Earlier in the book, Wearing recalls a Pakistani artist wasting away in Montreal, "tired of living in such a violent country." This poor friendless man shows us Canadians how we truly are:
"Canada is full of violent cowards. People believe they are gentle, but they attack in quiet ways. They use their intellect, their knowledge, always trying to prove they are smarter, more important. The man with no ego is the gentle man. Canada is a land of civilized barbarians." (Page 11)
Though many of the women understandably complain about the hejab, the chaador, the morality police, and the mut'a marriages (quickie marriages, early in the revolution arranged to deflower young female prisoners so that their virginity would not exempt them from execution), one complainer points out:
"After revolution, everything is different. Many things are much worse, oh much worse, but some things, some important things are okay, more true. It is a difficult life, but some things are more honest. People are more clear, less artificial." (Page 241)
Now that I finished reading my boss' book, a coworker has been threatening me. "So, have you read The Historian? Ah yes, the vampire novel about Vlad the Impaler that's "a fine Bordeaux to Dan Brown's overcaffeinated Diet Coke [i.e. The Da Vinci Code]."

"You know," he went on, "Everyone in our section has read it. Including the big boss."

Alrighty! The Historian it shall be. One day.


These quotes from this book remind me of a mot juste I recall from that great dramatic character, Heathcliff Huxtable:

"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard!"

One one hand, we have vague assertions that westerners fear death, that Canada is a country of people "trying to prove they are smarter..." and that in revolutionary Iran, people are less artificial.

I'm not even trying to take this stuff at its worst or decontextualize it: note that I didn't even touch the "violent cowards" line.

If I may take the contrary positions, westerners fear death because their lives are worth living; Canada is a country of remarkably clear-eyed meritocracy*; and daily life in Iran is like a hanging in a fortnight.

The odd part is I find even these quotes fascinating (the excerpts make me believe this would be an enjoyable book), I just can't extract any meaning from them. Not individually, and not in a collective sense. They do not seem to survive a critical reading.

What theme do you tease out of these quotes? Why did you pick them?

*I argue the positive version of our ex-pat artist's quote; Canada is pretty meritocratic by global standards, but considering the careers of Ben Mulroney, Justin Trudeau, and the Ceeb's ongoing role as a GG recruitment system, I thought meritocracy was the least of our vices.
I'm not sure what to think about the violent barbarians (because that's sort of a subjective observation), but the first quote about "never satisfied" is dead on.

There are a lot of benefits of a heavily capitalist society to be sure, but one big disadvantage is the constant barrage of advertising whose sole objective is to convince us we're not happy unless we've purchased X Product. On the surface, we claim we know better, but with so much training, it's hard not to end up believing it.

Why i'm glad to watch so little television these days....
Dissatisfaction is optional in the west in a way that the hijab is not.

Or at least, let's say that the compromise in Canada to largely disengage from dissatisfaction is to not watch much TV. The compromise in Iran to not wear the hijab is to not leave your house much.

The constant barrage of advertising is one of the biggest disadvantages of a broadly laissez-faire economy (except, of course, when it's used to tell you about things that you actually want to buy...) but it creates a false dichotomy between noting there's a lot of commercial advertising in our society, and noting that there's a committee that arbitrarily decides whether or not you can stand for election.

And instead of advertising, you get this. (courtesy Travel Earth.

That said, I've thought more about these quotes, and it occurs to me is that what is attractive about them is the outsider's perspective. Whatever false dichotomies may be created by hearing critiques and comparisons from such a flawed society, the insight from a fresh perspective is always welcome.

We don't see our society the same way Iranians see us.

But there's a great book called "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" about soccer in Italy. The writer is a soccer-mad American journo who ends up pestering the coach with opinions on his tactics after each game.

At the end of the season, the coach says how much he appreciated the feedback, as it tested his own sense of the right strategy.

The American asks him if the coach ever took his advice.

"Not even once!"
I am getting over the flu, so no chance of squeezing whole sentences out of me, instead only point form:

1. Yes, Iran does have it pretty shitty for women.

2. However, like we should talk in North America. The Girls Gone Wild/girl raunch phenomenon is just the most extreme example of the fashion extremes women are forced to choose from. And plastic surgery - when parents give their 16-year-old daughters boob jobs for their birthdays, I say we're just as bad. At our most benign, we've got What Not to Wear.

3. No wait, at our most extreme for women, can I point out our very sexist rape laws? That very few cases here ever result in a conviction. That when there is a conviction, it's less than 3 years. (Unless of course the perpetrator is non-white.)

4. While the chaador sucks to wear, most awfully in hot weather, the hijab used to be the sort of formal wear you could slip on if you had nothing to wear. In that form, it seems to be the Persian version of the little black dress.

5. Western culture sometimes forgets that Europe had consumption laws for centuries. Until a generation ago in parts of Europe, traditional women still refused to go out without their kerchiefs on their heads. In the twenties in North America vice squads specifically went after women who didn't wear coats over their bathing suits.

6. Using the right of women as a way to point out the condition of women in "those" countries is not a useful argument for pointing out that "those" people are bad because we're just as guilty with our own women. Besides, after the Taliban was ousted, the US refused to get involved in helping women in any way (if you need the reference, I can spend a couple days next week tracking down the quotes). So why should we argue for the rights of Iranian women if we're not going to do anything about it and turn our backs on them if we were to be in a position to help them? (And I doubt you're ever dated Canadian men, so how can you know how badly they behave?)

7. My point in bringing up these quotes is that there is a lot wrong with Canada. Well, every country has something wrong with it, but I live in Canada, so I speak only of my experiences.

8. While Canadian society has much that Iranian society lacks, Canadian society lacks a culture. We don't have any real holidays - Christmas is laughable and Halloween (a real community event) is on the wane. Without a culture, I see a group of people with no direction. I see this in the new generation of children who communicate with their friends via email or text messaging but not speech, the de-cluttering craze (which has popped up because of the rampant materialism as people buy what they don't need), that we don't know our neighbours, etc. Obviously, essays can be written on each topic. But whatever. I'm just as addicted to the internet as teens today. Plus it's not like I'm baking cookies for the brownies or anything either. Yeah, I am an integral part of Canada's soullessness. I'm more interested in the next point.

9. Canada's worst offense is that we believe ourselves to be the best country in the world and the nicest one. Materially, yeah, this place is nice. I love having a warm house and good public libraries. But nicest - ha! My own experience tells me otherwise. Canadians are as racist as anyone, but it is veiled, hence "People believe they are gentle, but they attack in quiet ways." From personal experience, Canadians also attack in loud ways: I've been spat at, told to go back to my country, been told to my face I won't get a job because I have a foreign name, have had dogs sicced on me, have had teachers beat me, have had people refuse to shake my hand, have been kicked out of houses because as a foreigner I am obviously a thief, have had my mail thrown at my door with nasty notes attached, etc.

10. I have blue eyes the most aryanest of aryans would envy, although the rest of me is rather semitic. If this sort of stuff happens to me, what the hell must visible minorities go through in this country?

11. Because white Canadians are so smug, we fail to realize that some of us are real bastards to immigrants and visible minorities. Canada a meritocracy? Hardly. No country is, so we better be a little modest in our self-assessment as the nice guys of the universe. Some people are treated very badly in Canada and we choose to perpetuate our collective awful behaviour by not acknowledging it.

Anyhow, read the book. Iranians are so nice, we Canadians will piss with shame. Those Iranians in the book will upstage us in the nice department any day.

It's not just that I have some sort of a wish to move to Iran, or that outsider's perspective. From travelling and living all over, I know we Canadians have a long way to go before we can claim the hero cookie.

Heck, Ryan, you sound as travelled as I am. Let's take the Philippines, we've both been there. Have you as a Canadian ever treated a foreigner as nicely as a Filipino has treated you? I can't say that I, a representative Canadian, have ever shown anyone as much courtesy and generosity.
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