FEATURE—Fall 2007


Sharing the Spirit of Iran

In Jasmine and Stars, Professor Fatemeh Keshavarz strives to give Westerners a more balanced look at Iranian people—and to share the sophistication of contemporary Persian literature.

With hopes of improving cultural understanding, Professor Fatemeh Keshavarz wrote Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran—stories of ordinary, peace-loving Iranians who share the same hopes and aspirations of us all. Through her new work, she also hopes to demonstrate the sophistication of contemporary Persian literature.

By Candace O'Connor

On sultry summer nights in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where she grew up, Fatemeh Keshavarz and her family lay in the courtyard of their home, waiting for sleep and watching the stars. Often, a dervish walked past in the darkness, singing beloved ghazals of 13th-century Persian poets Sa’di or Rumi. In the morning, she awoke to the sounds of her parents at prayer and to the fragrance of a gift from her grandmother: a cluster of jasmine blossoms, left on her pillow.

Keshavarz, professor of Persian and comparative literature, has not lived in Iran since 1979 when she left to do graduate work at London University, but she recalls with great fondness the warmth of its people and the richness of its culture. Many Americans don’t know this side of Iran, she says—and don’t realize that it still exists today, despite the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the rise of religious fervor in some segments of society. Books such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT, as she refers to it for short), which focuses on the repression of women, only fuel these misunderstandings.

“Sometimes it is hard for people to admit that there are good, ordinary, sane Muslims living in Iran, because it feels as though they are supporting the actions of the government,” says Keshavarz, who is also chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures in Arts & Sciences. “But I think we have to overcome that. There are good Muslims—ordinary, peace-loving people—out there, and we have to let them come into the picture.”

The Mausoleum of the King of the Lamp (Bogh’e-ye Shah-e Cheragh) is a beautiful shrine in Shiraz, Iran; as a child, Keshavarz, her mother, and entire family visited it frequently.

So she has written her own book, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran, to give Westerners a more balanced look at her native land. Unlike her previous books that deal with such academic topics as the poet Rumi or expressions of spirituality in Iranian poetry, this one is a blend of personal memoir and literary analysis—a counterpoint, she says, to the “RLT”-style “New Orientalist” narrative that feeds our stereotypes of Iranian Muslims.

“Even the most positive programs about Iran start with the image of blindfolded hostages. We have lost our visual vocabulary to think of Iran in any other terms,” says Keshavarz. “I think it is time that we touch each other in a physical and cultural sense. So this book is a kind of cultural handshake, to help people feel the physicality and presence of the other side.”

In her professional life, Keshavarz bridges this cultural gap daily: teaching classes in the Persian language, in Orientalism and literature, in women and family in Islam, and in Persian lyric poetry, which she also writes herself. Her first book, published in 1976 by her undergraduate alma mater, Shiraz University, was a volume of her own poetry. Lately, she has been improving cultural understanding in other ways: for example, speaking at the U.N. General Assembly and at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Forum on “Preventing War with Iran.”

“She is extremely generous with her time,” says Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences, and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor. “After 9/11, she put a lot of effort into helping our community understand Islam. When she teaches courses on the Middle East, they attract large numbers of students, and what she teaches is very important for us to understand.”

One of those students was Omid Ghaemmaghami, who took six courses with Keshavarz at the University from 2003 to 2005. “Students can see in Professor Keshavarz a devotion to ideals,” says Ghaemmaghami, now a Ph.D. student in Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, “in that her search for inclusiveness, respect, and the myriad manifestations of truth forms the basis of her own scholarly work and her teaching.”

To convey the truth about Iran, she says, authors must stop writing “ghost stories” that banish whole groups of people to the fringes, unable to speak. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, for example, author Nafisi shows “only those five or six girls who are her friends, but in the bigger picture Iranian women are all ghosts. They don’t have a face or name; we don’t know much about them; we just think of them in terms of victims.”

Professor Keshavarz, front right as a young girl, dedicated Jasmine and Stars to her uncle (seated), a creative man who gave her “a shining example of goodness.” Others in the photo also are family members.

One prominent woman ghost, missing from Nafisi’s book, is 20th-century woman poet Forough Farrokhzad, who died in a 1967 auto accident at age 32. In Jasmine and Stars, Keshavarz devotes a whole chapter to Farrokhzad, whose poetry is still widely popular in Iran but little known in the West. Far from demure and compliant, she was passionate, daring, and critical, taking aim at patriarchy and politics.

Just as important in their own way are ordinary Iranians, also ghosts unheralded in the West. Keshavarz chooses several examples from among her family members—three of the brightest stars in the firmament of her childhood. Like the real stars she once gazed at overhead, these relatives illuminated and graced her life.

Chief among them was her uncle the painter, to whom Jasmine and Stars is dedicated. A complex person, he was a former army officer and an artist, an Iranian male of a previous generation yet an excellent cook, a gentle, broad-minded man whose devotion to his Muslim faith infused his entire life. Most of all, he gave Keshavarz a shining example of goodness without saying a word. As the poet Rumi put it in a famous poem:

“If you are lost in the desert,
You look at the stars to find your way.
Do the stars ever talk to you?”

This uncle, still alive today at age 86, taught her another profound lesson. “I remember thinking in my childhood, without ever having discussed God with him, that God must exist because otherwise how could a person as beautiful and creative and loving as my uncle be here?” she says. “I even took it further and thought that God must love me a lot because he gave me an uncle like this one.”

A second star, Keshavarz says, was her father (“Baba”), whose intense love of poetry first sparked her own. The two had endless, often heated, debates about authors. “He liked very much to compare poets, and I said, ‘No, no, no, let’s just look at each one separately,’” she says. “Now I am in comparative literature, of course.”

Among the “stars” in Keshavarz’s life was her grandmother, “the soul of love and acceptance.” Her grandmother associated prayer with jasmine and would tuck sprigs of the flower under her granddaughter’s pillow.

Third among her “stars” was her grandmother, the soul of love and acceptance. When Keshavarz divorced her first husband—a cousin, with whom she had an arranged marriage—her grandmother offered full support, despite social disapproval. Also religious, she somehow associated jasmine with prayer, so she tucked sprigs of the star-like flower into her prayer rug to sweeten the scent.

Today, the stars in her American heavens are her husband, Ahmet Karamustafa, professor of history and of religious studies at the University, whom she met while pursuing her doctoral studies; daughter Atefeh of Chicago; and daughter Ayla and son Ali of St. Louis. Ayla is a freshman at Washington University.

On her annual trips to Iran, Keshavarz is reminded of things she would like to see change there. While she wears a headscarf on these trips, she strongly favors freedom of choice for women in the way they dress. Yet, she is also unhappy with the trend of U.S. policy toward Iran. A military strike would be a “total disaster,” she says, which could escalate and “easily become the beginning of World War III.”

Understanding one another would be a step forward, she says. In Jasmine and Stars, she tells the story of an incident that took place in London during the fall of 1980. An archaeologist colleague had just sent her an article about a recently discovered object: an exquisite silver spoon, dating from the Iran of 500 B.C. That same day, a lady sharing her lunch table asked whether modern Iranians ate food with their hands. Keshavarz was speechless with surprise.

“I hope people here will see from my book the creative and humorous side of the Iranian people: in other words, their ordinariness,” she says. “They are not the ‘other’; they have the same hopes and aspirations and wonderful things to contribute to world culture. For us not to understand that is a mistake; it deprives us and them of benefiting from each other as human beings.”

Candace O’Connor is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis and author of the history book Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853–2003.