Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Liberty Watch - Reading Lolita in Tehran

Sanaz has missed the last couple of the literary meetings of Azar Nafisi and seven of her best female students. They meet in her apartment to read Western literature. Sanaz comes late into the meeting. Nafisi writes in Chapter 21:
Her story was a familiar one.

I was stunned, after reading her story, to realize that it is a familiar one. I just posted about Eva Ósk Arnardóttir [I've learned it's Erla, not Eva] early Tuesday morning. But first listen to Sanaz' edited story.

A fortnight earlier, Sanaz and five of her girlfriends had gone for a two-day vacation by the Caspian Sea. On their first day, they had decided to visit her friend's fiancé in an adjoining villa. Sanaz kept emphasizing that they were all properly dressed, with their scarves and long robes. They were all sitting outside, in the garden: six girls and one boy. There were no alocoholic beverages in the house, no undesirable tapes or CDs..
And then "they" came with their guns, the morality squads, surprising them by jumping over the low walls. They claimed to have received a report of illegal activities, and wanted to search the premises. Unable to find fault with their appearance, one of the guards sarcastically said that looking at them, with their Western attitudes...What is a Western attitude? Nassrin interrupted. Sanaz looked at her and smiled. I'll ask him next time I run into him... The guards took all of them to a special jail for infractions in matters of morality. There, despite their protests, the girls were kept in a small, dark room, which they shared the first night with several prostitutes and a drug addict. Their jail wardens came into their room two or three times in the middle of the night to wake up those who might have dozed off, and hurled insults at them.
They were held in that room for forty-eight hours. Despite their repeated requests, they were denied the right to call their parents. Apart from brief excursions to the rest room at appointed times, they left the room twice - the first time to be led to a hospital, where they were given virginity tests by a woman gynecologist, who had her students observe the examinations. Not satisfied with her verdict, the guards took them to a private clinic for a second check...

Erla Ósk Arnardóttir, an Icelandic national, purportedly was searched, ask about her last period, not allowed to contact anyone, paraded through JFK airport chained and handcuffed, treated rudely, and eventually held overnight in a jail cell for the minor infraction of having overstayed a visa by 3 weeks, more than ten years earlier.

I had just written that I was reading this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, but while it was interesting, I was having trouble getting through it. I think I figured out my problems with the book.

1. Each chapter is almost an independent vignette. There is a connection, but one isn't compelled to read the next chapter. Reading it in bed before sleep, I found myself hoping the short chapter would end and I could sleep. This is unlike some books where I had to find out what happened next.

2. The book doesn't challenge what I know. A student once gave me a one-page article and said it helped him understand why he was having trouble in my class. The article said there were two kinds of learning - happy and unhappy learning. Happy learning is when you learn something that reinforces what you already know. Unhappy learning is when you learn something that challenges what you already know. Reading Lolita's author is Iranian, but her perspective is a Western one, and her issues are the ones a Western professor might have teaching under the Ayatollah. They confirm our stereotypes about Iran. That is not to say that I want to read something that says Iran is really a wonderful place to live, but rather I would like to read something that would help me understand the mindset of those who support the regime. How do they think? Are they similar to Americans who blindly support the Bush regime? Or is it a totally different reasoning?

But last night's story gave me a new reason for why Americans should read this book. It illustrates stories of repression, large and small, which we see going on in the US today. That George W. would bring democracy to Iran, let alone Iraq, is ludicrous given that he's already introduced a police state in the no-man's land of airport security - particularly before one gets out of customs - where people have no rights, cannot contact friends or relatives or attorneys, can be held indefinitely without apparent reason. Erla Ósk Arnardóttir's story as well as those mentioned by Naomi Wolf and our own experiences with TSA tell us this. The story was also told in the short film Security that was part of the Anchorage International Film Festival.

A least Nafisi and her students could read Lolita, albeit getting copies was not easy, but it was not illegal as it was in the US not all that long ago. And among some circles in the US the book is still condemned.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a reminder about those who zealously protest their loyalty to America and condemn as traitors those who would criticize the US government. How are they different from the 'morality squads' or the guards who dealt with Arnardóttir?

I would make it very clear, though, that most of the TSA I have dealt with have not slipped over into the dark side. They've tried to do their task with humor and understanding. They've not been thoughtless automatons. Even Erla writes,
another jail guard took pity on me and removed the leg chains.

And they are restrained by their instructions and the lack of resources and by facing irritable people late for their planes. But for the most part I see this as a terribly expensive - in time, money, and degradation of freedom - facade to make us feel like our government is protecting us from the enemy, an enemy that I believe is a lot less formidable than the current administration would have us believe.

Note: I did try to find more on the Icelandic tourist.
  • The site I initially found the information on mispelled her name. It should be Erla, not Eva.
  • There isn't a lot on this in mainstream new media. I guess for most surly and inappropriate treatment by TSA is not news. However the International Herald Tribune
has an AP story:
REYKJAVIK, Iceland: Iceland's government has asked the U.S. ambassador to explain the treatment of an Icelandic tourist who says she was held in shackles before being deported from the United States.

The woman, Erla Osk Arnardottir Lillendahl, 33, was arrested Sunday when she arrived at JFK airport in New York because she had overstayed a U.S. visa more than 10 years earlier...

She was deported Tuesday, she told reporters and wrote on her Internet blog.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir told U.S. Ambassador Carol van Voorst that the treatment of Lillendahl was unacceptable.

"In a case such as this, there can be no reason to use shackles" Gisladottir said. "If a government makes a mistake, I think it is reasonable for it to apologize, like anyone else."

Van Voorst has contacted the officials at JFK airport and asked them to provide a report on Lillendahl's case, Gisladottir said.

12/20/2007 | 12:02

US Authorities Regret Treatment of Icelandic Tourist

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir received a letter from Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy for the US Ministry of Homeland Security, yesterday, saying he regretted the treatment of an Icelandic tourist earlier this month.

The letter states that the incident gives the US Ministry of Homeland Security a reason to review work procedures regarding how foreign tourists are being received in the US, Morgunbladid reports.

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