Breaking the Mold: Attempts to Circumvent Western Ideologies in Middle Eastern Literature
Marjane Satrapi and Mohsin Hamid, both Middle Eastern transplants (Iranian and Pakistani, respectively) now living in Europe, each have achieved some mixture of popularity and notoriety in the West as they attempt to portray their home countries to Western audiences without the distortions brought on by the sociopolitical disparities between East and West. The works of both are subtle and nuanced, but in the highly politicized context of the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world, the authors are faced with an audience determined, one way or another, to use simplistic interpretations to support their own agendas. In a 2005 essay on Satrapi’s Persepolis, critics Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley argue that the popularity of the graphic novel is based on the “liberal humanist model” of understanding the Middle East, or foreign cultures in general, which encourages a belief in the fundamental universality of human qualities. They continue, however, that this model is generally “formulated as ‘they are like us’ rather than ‘we are like them,’” claiming that this assumption of similarity to the West is a relic of the imperialist project of transforming “the radically other into the domesticated other” (226). In his 2010 review of Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, scholar Stephen Chan criticizes this desire to see sameness, but replaces it with an equally inappropriate desire to see difference. Chan complains that Hamid’s narrator “has no discernible Pakistani or Islamic equivalent habits” (829) and seems troubled by the fact that he is “someone capable of negotiation, of discourse, of politesse and protocol” (830). These two contradictory political views polarize Western audiences; authors like Satrapi and Hamid must take steps to address the prejudices of their readers. Whereas Hamid negotiates these opposing ideologies with a complex protagonist in an ambivalent cultural position between the U.S. and Pakistan, Satrapi does so simply by not giving Western political ideas anything to latch on to in her text.
Changez, the narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, ceaselessly takes care to emphasize the ambiguity of his emotions. When, on assignment in the Philippines, he learns of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, his first reaction is to smile at America’s symbolic defeat. As he describes this, however, he is puzzled. Not only did he feel “remarkably” pleased (72), he also states: “So when I tell you I was pleased at the slaughter of thousands of innocents, I do so with a profound sense of perplexity” (73). Changez forces his audiences (both within the novel and without) to acknowledge that he himself does not understand his emotions. The complexity of Changez’s character is too great to be understood as representative of either Western political agenda — he is neither just like us nor radically different from us, but somewhere in between.
In addition to revealing the dual nature of his own emotions, Changez also conscientiously attempts to reach across the gap between himself and his audience and interact with the perspective of his nameless companion. When his mysterious interlocutor is upset by his reaction to 9/11, Changez asks: “But surely you cannot be completely innocent of such feelings yourself. Do you feel no joy at the video clips — so prevalent these days — of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies?” (74). Hamid takes care to make Changez’s reaction to the attacks reasonable and even universal at the same time as it is repellant. Changez certainly is, as Chan complains, “capable of negotiation, of discourse, of politesse and protocol” (830) — Hamid uses Changez’s careful, even-handed narrative voice to negotiate politically charged themes and the large gaps between his perspective and that of his readers.
In contrast to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrative voice in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is quite simple. Marji, the narrator, is not a simple character, but her thought processes themselves are straightforward. In the form of a graphic novel narrated in the first person, the illustrations complement the narration as representative of the protagonist’s internal monologue, and Satrapi deliberately assumes a spare, black and white visual style throughout the book. Her illustrations are comprised simply of contrasting shapes, with very little in the way of fine, linear detail. The content of the illustrations, as well as the form, frequently shows Marji’s simple perspective on her complex world: when Marji is conversing with God, they often talk while she is in bed (9) or at the kitchen table (13). Satrapi juxtaposes a complex theme — Marji’s relationship with religion — with a prosaic, childish background. Given that religion is one of the key grounds on which we define the distinction between East and West, this takes on particular significance — to Western readers the question of religion has political significance, but here is Marji grappling with it over glasses of milk. By situating Marji’s religious development in such a domestic context, Satrapi emphasizes that religion is a question which Iranians must answer for themselves. Affiliation with Islam is not an anti-Western political statement, nor is disavowing Islam pro-Western. The decision occurs solely within an Iranian context; it has little to do with the West.
Marji’s narration, as well as the illustrations, is straightforward and direct. Even as she describes the tensions in her development — between God and Marx or Islamist and French schools, for example — she is almost bluntly simple. When discussing the introduction of mandatory veil-wearing for women, Marji says only: “I really didn’t know what to think about the veil. Deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde” (6). While this does represent a tension within Marji’s identity, she approaches it in a much simpler manner than does Changez. Marji simply states her ambivalence and carries on, where Changez tends to dwell on and explore his ambivalent feelings. Instead of using a careful examination of ambivalence itself to erode over-defined notions of East and West, Satrapi uses a blunt tone to hammer home her points.
The attacks of 9/11 spark complex emotions in Changez which he studies carefully (indeed, all of his emotions seem complex), but equally significant is his position in relation to the United States — whether he is a beneficiary of American largesse or a tool of American imperial interests is left ambiguous. Even as he is still introducing himself, Changez reflects on his position relative to America: “Students like me were given visas and scholarships, complete financial aid, mind you, and invited into the ranks of the meritocracy. In return, we were expected to contribute our talents to your society, the society we were joining” (4). From the beginning of the novel it is established that to America, Changez is essentially a resource — a vector for economically relevant talents to flow into the country. At the same time, however, Changez is the recipient of vast largesse — a world class education, entry into a world of wealth and power. Changez himself reflects on this as he prepares to leave America: “It was then that I was hit by the enormity of what I was giving up” (157). In addition to taking care to create a character of complex, ambivalent feelings, Hamid situates Changez in an ambiguous place between Pakistan and the United States — he simultaneously feels gratitude and resentment towards America. Changez’s complex circumstances align with his personality, further weakening simple readings of the novel.
Marji has no such tortured relationship with the West — Western concepts (Marxism, French education, American pop culture) occasionally intrude into the novel, but Marji herself is firmly rooted in an Iranian context. The emphasis on Iran as central is seen in Marji’s habit of identifying political tensions with her family members — this intimately entwines Marji’s life with the history and politics of Iran. While we, as Westerners, would tend to see the replacement of the old emperor with the Shah’s father as a step in the evolution of international relations in the Middle East, Marji views it as a story told by her father, starring her grandfather as a prince. Marji appears to be dubious of her father’s story, even bored by it (see images 22-23), until the introduction of her grandfather as a prince visibly thrills and distracts her (24-25). For Marji, what we view through an artificial, academic lens is viewed as family history and even a source of entertainment. This level of casual familiarity with the history and politics of Iran — playing fast and loose, as it were, with subjects Western intellectuals must approach with learned and weighty manners — tightens Satrapi’s focus on to Iran in its own terms, rather than Iran as it is defined by the West.
While Satrapi’s approach with Persepolis is different than Hamid’s, it too allows the novel to negotiate the space between contradictory ideologies. There is simply nothing for Western ideologies to latch onto — the novel resists interpretation in support of either prevailing interpretation of U.S.-Iran relations. We see this from the beginning of the book: Marji’s thought process about the appearance of the veil in her life ignores the enormous political significance the veil has in the West as a symbol of Islamic backwardness. The veil is introduced nonchalantly: “Then came 1980: the year it became obligatory to wear the veil at school” and Marji continues blandly “We didn’t really like to wear the veil” (3). In the illustrations of these panels, the girls of the school play various games with their new veils. The veil is representative of change and tension in Marji’s life, but in the face of its nonchalant treatment by Marji’s schoolfellows, it loses the dread significance with which Westerners imbue it. Satrapi forces her material into her own terms, refusing to let it be appropriated by Western ideologies.
Middle Eastern authors who write to the West face an audience divided amongst themselves, all bringing firm assumptions to the text. The two dominant Western modes of understanding the Middle East are that critiqued by Naghibi and that embodied by Chan: as a culture that is fundamentally similar to the West or a culture fundamentally different from the West. Mohsin Hamid and Marjane Satrapi both attempt to negotiate these ideologies and represent the Middle East in a new way; Hamid by using a very subtle narrator ambivalent about East and West, Satrapi by carefully grounding her entire work in an Iranian context. Hamid’s novel clearly frustrates the expectations of those who would see difference — Stephen Chan’s critique of it ultimately devolves into little more than insults (832). Satrapi’s Persepolis has been perhaps less successful in avoiding appropriation by a Western narrative. Despite the measures Satrapi takes to avoid this, the reaction to the novel in America has largely been one of liberal universalism (Naghibi 228). Careful reading reveals, however, the differing steps that each author takes to create a new representation of the Middle East, not colored by existing political agendas.
Works Cited —
Chan, Stephen. 2010. “The Bitterness of the Islamic Hero in Three Recent Western Works of Fiction.” Third World Quarterly 31: 5, 829-832.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.
Naghibi, Nima and O’Malley, Andrew. “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” ESC 31.2-3 (June/September 2005): 223-248.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.