Thanks to the advice of a kind friend, I read this book over the past couple of weeks -- as a kind of antidote or supplement to my reading of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi has been attacked vociferiously for her pro-western, pro-capitalist point of view, and it's said that she does not show women's lives adequately and makes their powerless situation out to be much worse than it is. I have previously read another book, Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening in an attempt to find another view point; there she is certainly talking about Iranian life from the perspective of someone who lives and works there, and fights for women's right (along with other groups). I found Ebadi reinforced what Nafisi claimed, if anything much stronger by focusing on real life cases, where for example, a horrifically abusive man gets control of his children against a wife who wanted to protect them. One of the children dies a cruel death. Ebadi shows that the problem for women in Iran is not individual men per se, but the power structure that gives them controls over women with impunity that no human being should have.
Well, Susha Guppy's The Blindfold Horse: Memoirs of a Persian Childhood similarly validated Nafisi's presentation of women's lives from within a middle eastern perspective. I'm putting my postings on it to WWTTA into a coherent blog because it is not well-known enough and is perceptive book that gives the inner life of the culture. After a short introduction on her earlier years, Ebadi tells of her activities in the public arena. Guppy gives a full family history and shows herself as a young girl going to school within this and then leaving Iran for Paris. Further, as read the book, even though the English style is felicitious (harmonious, slightly old-fashioned without being pastiche), I felt it also had an indefinable French quality, an outlook which shaped it throughout. So it has the extra dimension of taking us away from the UK/US Anglo-west perspective into something more European generally.
More: it shows that the upper classes in the country could and did give their daughter's a European style education up to 1979 (and perhaps today in part too). I had thought I would see an insider's view because Guppy was a rare writer to have been educated in Iran for much of her life. She only came to Paris for her college years. What I discovered is her education as a girl and adolescent young woman was also strongly Eurocentric, French style.
It persuaded me we don't know enough about middle eastern or traditional life here in the west. It needs to be contextualized further; with fiction, non-fiction and screenplay writing by (writers like) Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Kamala Markandaya and women who escape the traditional life through western education and go back to it to write about it: Tsitsi Dangarembga (Nervous Conditions), women who lived inside, Bessie Head (A Question of Power) and harsh candid critiques like Asne Seierstadt's Bookseller of Kabul.
Elisa Kay Spark, Seraglia
What follows is first a description of The Blindfold Horse; Memoirs of a Persian Childhood in the context of these women's books, and then an evaluative critique in the context of psychological studies of women's psychology (two of them, Gilligan's In a Different Voice and Chantal Thomas's meditative autobiographies), and Nafisi, Lahiri and Jhabvala. I concentrate on the latter two because I've read a number of texts by both of them.
I'll begin with the title, The Blindfold Horse: Memoirs of a Persian Childhood. It's telling. The first half refers to the powerful opening. When Guppy was a girl she saw the way power was gotten in Iran in non-technological places. A poor blindfolded horse was enslaved to a contraptino that made it move in a circle for its whole life, chained to a treadmill, never seeing the sun. Perhaps it could not have endured the life it led, would have gone crazy, beating would not have been enough. It's an image which brings the burka to mind too.
And then it also partly misleads. This is not a memoir of a young girl's childhood: until near the last third when Guppy is before us as a schoolgirl and on vacation with her family, it's a family history and only partly evaluative and critical.. From the second part of the title, I hoped it might be something like Chantal Thomas's La Vie Reelle des Petites Filles, and thought to myself since that is an eye-opener on western-European young girls, so this would be on Iranian, middle Eastern -- giving what lies hidden, Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voicea kind of by a sense of young female's sexuality shaped into a narrative.
But no. For the first half of the book, it's a history of her family where she weaves together what was told to her and what she has been able to find out since growing up. She's still alive as are I suppose numbers of the people she describes, or their immediate descendents so there's a limit to what she can tell. The mood is often strongly nostalgic: she regrets in part leaving the place to go live in Paris, but she also does not regret it for she could not live the kind of independent life or had the education she has had if she had not left.
That's the impression she leaves and it immediately reminded me of many women writers I've come across who are not western. They are educated in the west, UK, US, France, Germany and then live outside their country of origin for a long time or for good: Tsangambera whose Nervous Conditions was itself first published outside Africa, went to school in England, and lived in Germany for a while; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was also schooled in England, and lives between New York and New Delhi; Jhumpa Lahiri is American-Indian, and lives in NYC; she visits Calcutta and has spent so much time there, it's almost her second home, but not quiet. Kamala Markandaya lived and wrote in London (e.g. Nector in a Sieve). Unlike Nafisi, they don't feel they have lost their identity and are an internal as well as external exile.
Like Nafisi and Lahrir, Guppy comes from the highest ranks in Iranan society, and her direct grandfathers and great grandfathers were big people in government and social life, before, during and after the Shah. And she gives no real sense of the poverty-striken majority of the era, only the impoverishment of their surroundings until the Shah started his secularization of the public environment and modernization.
The disappointment but after all to be expected is how much she emphasizes the men. It shows how important they are. Chapters on the eldest son of the eldest son, and in one case a man whose violence is terrible but accepted because of primogeniture. At times I think of Bookseller of Kabul in that the younger sons are so subordinated. Also Paul Scott's Jewel in the Crown where Hari Kumar's father is forced into marriage at a young age, to live inside this family group and just can't get any pesonal fulfilment. What happened was Susha Guppy's father, a third son of a first marriage rebelled. He refused to marry; he was smart and could network from a young age and so managed to find a place in a school where he could live when his father threw him out becuase he wouldn't marry who the family wanted at a young age and proceed to have children.
Honor killing is in a way an extreme instance of subjugation of everyone in the family to the eldest male. It's an attack on women too.
This is not to say she doesn't do justice to what is done to women. She does and strnongly. Her father's mother really committed suicide when her husband decided to marry again and she was to be subordinated to a 13 year old girl. That's not quite admitted to but is there.
I do appreciate how she rationally frames the mad irrationality and cruel hypocrisies of the myths and customs that so imprison people. She exposes the lies gently but exposed they are. The way people are manipulated is the powerful ignore what they say, present a false moral reason for what they are doing and you dare not rebel openly. She also (unlike Christopher Bellaignes whose book on Iran I just couldn't read) tells the crazy myths people live by and present as reasons for things form a rartional standpoint; if she didn't I couldn't have read it. She keeps the paranoid fantasies that control some tribal lives at a distance. I did live with a person who was like this: my grandmother who believed in the evil eye and other crazed ideasm and have no sentimentality about its results or origins.
Her father was helped by the kindness of an aunt married very young, forced to go live with a mean husband, impregnanted by him but then she does refused to stay and went back to her father's house. Not great but not with that guy. Her life is so small, so little opportunity to learn anything but gossip and kept so narrow. She never grew propertly and Guppy says this is common when a girl is married at 12-13 and then is impregnated continually.
Her father did finally give in. He went to Paris but found how hard it was to make it and came back and went to become a student of religion in a modernized college. What was there was what he took. Her mother was 23 years younger than him, an arranged marriage but it did work out (in the way of Namesake, both decent people) and of cours the family supplied lots of money and goods.
Thus she gives the inner life of the culture in ways neither Nafisi or Ebadi do, but I come away with something of the same response. I can't sympathize with her descriptions of weddings and certainly not these childbirths with midwives and the traditions and ceremonies that (I think) enforce conformity and obedience to the suffering and labor of women. I would dislike being treated the way they are, and would not succumb to it, especially the way the woman is treated after the child is born. No. If anyone pushed on me what they do (for example, after hours of painful life-threatening labor, a baby is pushed onto a woman's breasts), I'd push back. It will be said well Ellen you are brought up in the west, in NYC. In reply, I'll say I've seen that sort of thing in NYC hospitals and myself refused well before it came to that, point-blank. I won't be pressured -- there it's to please nurses who gain much power this way.
After all are women treated so very differently in the "east" and "west". Yes and no. They can marry freely, go to school, go to college, get jobs, but for the rest they are as hemmed in -- so still I see sex as at the heart of this and now family and social power. There's a growing school of hyphenated Anglo-, literature growing up -- which I often enjoy. I like the outsider's view but this is the insider.
About half-way way through the books changes perspective and brings us up closer to present time: the world of her mother and father after they marry. She shows how like the lives of an upper class young woman in Iran before the Shah lost out could be to upper class lives of young women in Europe and the US -- if (a big if) the father or family was of the enlightened enough, educated type.
Her mother is an example of the older traditions carrying on. She was married by arrangement to Guppy's father, a man then 23 years older than she, and the whole disposition of life for the father and mother was under the aegis of the older traditions and religions Her mother was fortunate to be given to a man who was and is kind and enlightened. Their way of life left him to be alone and read and study and she spent her time much like Ashima in Lahiri's Namesake: continual socializing with familiy and a very few close friends who intermarried with her family too.
She does tell of the politics in an inner way. Shortly after WW1, there were two groups in Iran who formed a kind of two party opposition. One group called the absolutes wanted no change and to remain traditional with the family and religion in control; the other wanted strong change though not necessarily in the direction the Shah took them. She suggests the parallel of what happened: the Shah was a kind of Napoleon, a man who emerged from strong conflicts, gets control of the military and then imposes his vision on the nation. The Shah forbad the veil, put in places all sorts of requirements which forced modernization technically; he passed the Family Protection Act which protected women from beating, child-marriage and other abuses (or was supposed to). He ignored the outcries from those who wanted to keep families in charge. This section of the book was the most literally instructive for me.
Then she turned to her own nuclear family at the time and her life begins to unfold before us. Not her earliest childhood and not as a private intimate experience of perception (as Chantal Thomas's) but rather the schoolgirl growing up (what shall I call it) 20th style in Iran. She describes a lavish upper class life style, Iranian version. There are ghettos of poorer people and she doesn't know about them, only lives in the equivalent of say some upper class suburb in California. The food, dress, customs are colorfully Iranian, but the wealth makes for an analogous life.
She is sent to school during the day. Not a boarding school, but it dominates her existence for the part of the last third of teh book. I was almost (not quite) startled to find her descriptions of the teachers, studies, relationships among the girls, their hopes except for the near expectation of flirting/dating/presence of young men, very like what we found in Mary McCarthy's Memoirs of a Catholic Childhood. This book should be read alongside Mary McCarthy's. The curriculum was heavily Eurocentric and followed French customs, and educational practices: she learned to speak and read French; she learned to read and love English literature; the subjects are those familiar to me from my high school (I went to a public high school in NYC which was then very good, it had been founded in 1897, Richmond Hill High and was still conducted along high-minded lines in the later 1950s and early 1960s). She talks of going to the movies and the world outside.
Competitions in plays &c. She has a good relationship with the unlucky aunt who was forced into marriage at 12 and then came back home; the aunt was lucky in Guppy's father who protected her. He was lucky too, and ended a mullah who spent his life in quiet study after that early rebellion.
One of the ways the book remains pleasant and is nostalgic is that it bring us up to 1979, and goes not much further, and occasionally what you get are passages (like punctuation) lamenting how much this or that has changed for women since 1979. These are all about sex, marriage, family life, which of course are central to women's freedom. For women the question of marriage is a question of freedom I'd say. And there we see that she did leave to live a liberated existence.
I was very interested particularly in her account of one subject: Persian literature. How Farsi is an Indo-European language much influenced by Arabic, written in Arabic characters. I'm going to be teaching a book which has a long chapter on linguistic and the history and development of language next term and this is an old interest of mine. She uses the term "Persian" in her title since older Iranian literature is called Persian literature. Persian and Farsi are cognate words. She also talks of the pre-Islamic world and its writing and culture.
She ends on a recreation through nostalgia of summer vacations she knew with her family where they lived in traditional ways in tents. Nowadays she says, people either have air-conditioning so need not flee the cities or in the country live in modern cottages -- though upper middle class people still have servants.
I enjoyed the recreation and thought she made an important thematic point: she says that all together as they were, they were not lonely and talks of the group spirit. In one line she seems to me to indicate part of the motive fo the book: she speaks of the terrible loneliness of living in contemporary western cities (Paris seems to be the reference). I've heard peopel from traditional cultures make this argument on behalf of the culture. They take care of one another; they are not lonely. It may be shew wrote this book to assuage her own existential losses -- of religious beliefs too.
At the same time, the price is so high for so many of the people living side-by-side and what from a distance seems safety and harmony, is a controlled surface. She does show the price for women: the suicide of her paternal grandmother; her aunt's ruined body and life and impoverished mind. And from my own experience I know such families can be ruthless in ejecting a girl who loses her "reputation" through chance (her husband in the west divorces her). Honor-killing is an example of subjugation in the name of maintaining this mythical reputation: for what do you get from it? It seems only that you fend off exploitation and ill-usage.
When she ended on her going to Paris without quite telling us why she chose to go herself individually I was ambivalent. She says she had second thoughts and almost decided not to go, so hard was the struggle to live in the modern way and so much courage was needed. That was moving but I partly wished the book had gone on to tell of such struggles. She married an Englishman not a French man but either would have been a rebellion were it not that her father was educated, a rebel to start with, they let her get an education outside the country. She ended an editor of a Paris journal from England it may be self-protective habits to keep her own career going (an awareness of the conventional marketplace) as well as having so many members of her family still living and thriving in Iran that keeps her from telling the sort of thing one gets from Nafisi, Ebadi and in her fiction, Lahiri and Jhabvala.
It was another instance of where I felt the book had not gone where it should have gone to make the impact or have the meaning or function it could have had -- though it might be she thought of a sequel. Revealingly, the sudden ending is very like that of McCarthy's Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, which is itself circular, cyclical in structure, and thus we come back to the blindfold horse.
Chantal Thomas, cover to Coping with Freedom
An evaluation: this book does not contradict what I came away from Nafisi feeling; it widens the purview, is sympathetic to Iranian culture, but in some ways reinforces Nafisi's (and Shirin Ebadi's) books with respect to women. For example, Nafisi talks of her studies of Persian literature, her writing in it and presents the same view of pre-Islamic world, only saying the new regime hated this subject and fired or killed people who tried to teach it. Now Guppy does not disagree with this :). It validates what Lahiri shows us of older Iranian women in her books: they got along by not seeking individual fufillment when they were lucky enough to have kind men.
But unlike Lahiri say in her Interpreters of Maladies and Jhabvala in a number of her novels as well as collections of short stories, Guppy only presents the tragedy and intense misery of some of these existences within a context which de-emphasizes them. Here I'll instance Lahiri who has a story which reveals how one widow does not have to endure sati, but by the time her family is finished with taking advantage of her (as she is not trained to withstand their demands), she is so vulnerable and without power or control over her wealth, she might as well have committed suicide. 'The Real Durwan" about how flimsy "obligation" can be, if people want to ignore it. We think of Indian society as rigidly structured, where obligations are strictly encoded. But Boori Ma's system disintegrated around her--she has no claims, no rights, no status, but not by her own doing--she's flotsam. The residents of the building tolerate her, and for a while it seems she's found an alternative social net--but she hasn't. The idea of looking for a real gatekeeper sweeps her away again, and into oblivion. For Jhabvala I recommend the novel, A Backward Place, and my entries on her collection, East into Upper East. as well as Lauire Sucher's The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: The Politics of Passion.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
It lacks the intimate touch of Chantal Thomas's book and its subversive subtext which by presenting the younger girls' inward life undermines our present male hegemony and way of describing childhood without showing how girls would take other choices if they could even if these are very feminine ones. Guppy does not go so far to bolster Gilligan's famous book on the psychology of women to show their caring altruistic suppotive network approach towards life is natural to their pyschology and superior to men's. This Chantal does as well as try to help the reader cope with freedom and suffering in this society while leading an independent life. The books I've read here are Souffrir in French, and Coping with Freedom in English
Probably this lack of subversion and the fact it does not reinforce the western pro-capitalist agenda in the way of Nafisi accounts for its relative lack of wide fame :) Internal exile is what I've known and one of the sources of my enjoyment of Nafisi.
I do recommend this book because it's a rare look into Iranian culture from the inside and yet a reasonable, rational, contemporary-feminist point of view. It's superior to so many better known or widely-distributed texts, e.g., the graphic novel, Persepolis by Majane Satrapi (which has been turned into a film adaptation, partly because it bolsters the capitalist western view) and many many of these recently published "memoirs of survivors, " imitations of Nafisi (like Marina Nemat Prisoner of Tehran which at once sensationalizes what happened to her in prison and overpraises without at all critiquing the tradtional life she knew in Iran and the capitalistic marginalized one as a housewife writer she knows now) from women now living in western countries and seeking to cash in on the agenda which (as I wrote about Nafisi) Nafisi's book does unfortunately help to serve. On all this see, Rastegar, Mitra, Reading Nafisi in the West: Authenticity, Orientalism and liberating Iranian Women," Women's Studies Quarterly, 34:1/2 (2006)108-129.
Guppy alludes a number of times to Scheherazade and I've come to realize when women do this, it 's a good sign they have understood what is it to write from a woman-centered point of view intelligently, not exploitatively.
Out of India, another collection of powerful stories by Jhabvala