Wednesday, January 07, 2009
By far, one of the most pleasant offshoots of my life in Toronto has been getting reacquainted with reading fiction. The last I did that with some degree of seriousness was in the 1980s. Thanks to my friends at The Village Terraces, I now have an almost unlimited supply of fiction – both old and new.
I recently read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. It's a simple story of a man’s journey from boyhood to manhood, made interesting because the protagonist is from Afghanistan. It is a sentimental tale, compelling told.
One of the most interesting critiques of Hosseini’s novel is by Matthew Thomas Miller, a graduate student in Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Writing on the film made in 2007 Miller ('The Kite Runner' Critiqued: New Orientalism Goes to the Big Screen) argues: “This adventurous and engrossing story neatly functions as an allegorized version of the colonial/neo-colonial/imperial imperative of "intervening" in "dark" countries in order to save the sub-human Others who would be otherwise simply lost in their own ignorance and brutality. These magnanimous interventions, of course, have nothing to do with economic or geopolitical concerns; they are purely self-sacrificial expressions of the superiority of the imperial peoples' humanity and ideology.”
Miller’s contention is a continuation of the idea developed by US-based Iranian writer Fatemeh Keshavarz-Karmustafa, also the professor of Persian Language and Comparative Literature and chair of the department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. (I guess Miller must be her student).
In her book Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran, Fatemeh Keshavarz-Karmustafa notes that books such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul have come to represent a new trend which she categorizes as the New Orientalist narrative.
Edward Said’s Orientalism laid the foundations of alternative worldview that contended that the Western world’s (England, France in the 19th century and the US in the 20th century) understanding of the Orient remains clouded by a deep-seated mindset that views “European cultures as the norm and those that are different as an aberration. Its main proponents were 18th and 19th century European philologists who viewed the Orientals as great in the past and devoid of agency, self-awareness, and critical ability at present.”
Said explained that most scholarly works about the non-Western regions of the world were done from a colonial perspective, and followed a four-stage process by the conquering colonialist: expansion, historical confrontation, sympathy, classification
In an interview Foaad Khosmood (on http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/14811), Fatemeh Keshavarz-Karmustafa contends that this New Orientalism as illustrated by most of the new writing from the Middle East "reduces the contemporary Muslim Middle East to an uncomplicated black and white world of villains (usually Muslims) and victims (usually sympathizers with the west). A vast number of people and events, that don't fit either category, are simply left out of the picture."
From this perspective, Hosseini’s story of Amir and his brave efforts to rescue his friend’s son from the clutches of the Taliban is simplistic rather than simple.
As Miller’s scathing review observes: “The profound guilt that Amir suffers from his inaction during the violation of his innocent friend Hassan seems to represent the collective guilt of all "good" western or western-oriented people who watched idly while the Islamic bullies-epitomized by Assef-violated Afghanistan and the innocent western-oriented people like Baba and Amir. Of course, the implication then is that we also must redeem ourselves by returning and "rescuing" the people there from the Assefs of Afghanistan-this is our "way to be good again," in the words Khaled Hosseini's character Rahim Khan.
"This new recapitulation of the old "white man's [now, western] burden" narrative, when combined with the "Westernization of Goodness" and "Islamization of Evil" clearly present throughout the novel, provides a superb ideological framework upon which to justify our present occupation and future military interventions in Afghanistan.”