Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 May 2009
Issue No. 948
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Of Iran, Iraq and ire

The best-selling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran has published a second instalment of her memoirs, writes David Tresilian, while a new book casts light on the failure of the US administration to protect Iraq's cultural heritage

Click to view caption
A photo dated July 2003 of a US soldier walking in the Iraqi Museum in front of an ancient gold crown from the collection of Nimrud gold

Things I've been Silent About, New York: Random House, 2008. pp336

The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. pp216

Azar Nafisi's memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran describing her life as a professor of English literature in Tehran in the 1980s was published in 2003 some years after her departure for the United States. It was an international bestseller and added to her reputation as a commentator and university professor. Nafisi's new book, Things I've been Silent About, a further memoir, will be liked by those who liked her earlier book, though those who did not like it will not find their criticisms answered.

When the Iranian revolution broke out in 1979 Nafisi found herself back in Tehran after a period in the United States studying for a PhD in English literature. The situation was confused as the Shah had left the country in January and his government was struggling to maintain its authority in the face of growing street demonstrations. The religious movement associated with Ayatollah Khomeini, himself now back from exile, was gaining the upper hand over its competitors, most of whom had very different visions of the country's future. Under the circumstances Nafisi can be forgiven for taking refuge in the consolations provided by literature, discovering eternal themes in the works of Nabokov, James, Fitzgerald and the other authors discussed in Reading Lolita in Tehran.

In this book Nafisi explains how teaching at the university became more and more difficult following the Islamic revolution that took place some months later. There was the problem of personal freedom -- all women were now required to wear the veil in public -- and there was the problem of how professors were to teach since the new regime was eager to bring educational and other institutions into line with its vision of Iranian society. It cannot have helped, either, that Nafisi's solidly upper-middle-class family had strong connections with the previous regime.

She describes the febrile atmosphere of the time, with university classes being disrupted by student ideologues and professors scrambling to align themselves with the imperatives of the new regime. When her own teaching became impossible -- Nafisi is vague about exactly when -- she began to invite students, all young women, to her home for private classes. These apparently continued over many months or years and were an opportunity to discuss works of western literature in an environment free of the pressures of the world outside. Nafisi's commitment to the private space of literature in the face of what had become a heavily policed public sphere is a guiding thread of Reading Lolita, along with the liberal messages found in the works concerned.

Nafisi's earlier memoir is a hybrid work, a cross between a record of a literary reading group and a comment on public affairs during the early years of the Iranian revolution. On the first count, if Nafisi is to be believed, the kinds of things said about the books discussed were valuable to the young women who attended at the time. It is on the second count that the book is more unsatisfactory since there are many books in English on the Iranian revolution that give a better sense of Iranian politics and society.

In her new memoir, Nafisi continues her project of introducing Iranian society to western readers through detailing her relationships, this time with her family and not her students. The book focuses on Nafisi's relationship with her parents, with her father Ahmad Nafisi, mayor of Tehran in the early 1960s but later put in prison on charges of corruption, and her mother, Nezhat Nafisi, who comes across as the stronger character of the two. "Mother," Nafisi writes, was "at heart a public person and political meddler. She was not interested in exchanging recipes" like other upper-middle-class Iranian women of her generation.

Whereas Ahmad Nafisi is portrayed as an accomodating man, someone not eager to compromise his principles, but apparently also having friendly relations with hated members of the Shah's regime, Nezhat Nafisi is more abrasive and sometimes even unpleasant. Nafisi's verdict is that her parents "wanted the power to fulfil their ideals but they didn't want to be stained by politics." It must have taken some courage on Nezhat Nafisi's part to tell the tribunal that summoned her to answer allegations of corruption after the revolution in 1979 (she had been a member of the Iranian parliament under the Shah's regime) that she knew her religion better than the young men putting her on trial.

The form Nafisi has adopted for her new book -- family memoir rather than a record in books -- gives her writing chronology and direction and allows her to focus on a young woman growing up in the shadow of powerful parents. Among other things, Things I've been Silent About is a retrospective attempt by that young woman, now older and living in exile in the United States, to work out what made those parents tick. It is also a record of a political repentance of a familiar kind, the young student radical that Nafisi had been when studying in the United States in the 1970s giving way to the older woman who regrets her activism against the Shah's regime, not least because of what followed it.

"We welcomed the vehemence of Khomeini's rants against imperialists and the Shah and were willing to overlook the fact that they were not delivered by a champion of freedom...Too arrogant to think of him as a threat and deliberately ignorant of his designs, we supported him. And yet everything was there for us to see: Khomeini's book The Rule of Jurisprudence called for the creation of a theocratic state... he had denounced women's suffrage as a form of prostitution [and] he had made countless pronouncements against minorities."

While all this holds the reader's attention, the weaknesses of the earlier book are also in evidence. In Things I've been Silent About Nafisi reuses material already used in Reading Lolita, sometimes cutting and pasting episodes, and one cannot help being struck, as is perhaps often the case with memoirs written by those inhabiting a world of wealth and privilege, by how limited Nafisi's experience of her country seems to have been. Perhaps this is what Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University in New York, was getting at in the hostile review of Reading Lolita in Tehran that appeared in the Weekly in June 2006. Ahmad and Nezhat Nafisi are forever setting off for public functions, but public affairs in Things I've been Silent About play second fiddle to details of family life.

As an introduction to revolutionary Iran Nafisi's second book is neither more sympathetic to those who took part in the revolution nor more probing than her first. One comes away having learned little about the demonstrators shouting outside the Nafisi family's windows. There is the absurd suggestion, carried over from Reading Lolita, that they would be better off reading Henry James. About Nafisi's view of literature there is little doubt, and in a provocative phrase she thanks the new regime, since "by depriving us of the pleasures of imagination, of love, and of culture it had directed us towards them."


US academic Lawrence Rothfield, author of The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, has previously edited a collection of essays, Antiquities under Siege, on international cultural-heritage protection after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. In his new book, he turns his attention to the events immediately before and after the entry of the US military into Baghdad in April 2003 and the wave of looting of Iraqi cultural and other institutions that accompanied it. How much of that looting could have been avoided, Rothfield asks, and how much could reasonably have been planned for by the invading forces?

While the story Rothfield tells will be familiar in outline to anyone who followed events at the time, from the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad to the burning of the National Library and Archives and the destruction of state and other institutions up and down the country, Rothfield breaks new ground in reconstructing thinking in the US administration regarding risks to Iraqi cultural-heritage sites and institutions in unprecedented detail, these coming both from the invasion itself and from the chaos that it was thought could follow it.

The initial US response to the looting that did in fact take place was almost breathtakingly flippant, with the then US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously telling television viewers that "stuff happens". However, as Rothfield reveals, had the occupation been better planned for, and had the warnings of many individuals of different nationalities, including American, Iraqi and British, been heeded, then much, possibly most, of the destruction that occurred could have been avoided.

Rothfield begins his story by detailing steps taken by many US and international organisations to raise awareness among officials in the Bush administration about the possible effects on Iraq's cultural heritage should an invasion of the country take place.

These effects, he writes, were predicted with a fair degree of certainty. Not only had Iraqi cultural-heritage sites and institutions been damaged by looting during the earlier 1991 war, but the country as a whole has suffered from unprecedented damage to its archaeological sites, many of them still unexcavated, during the previous decade when international sanctions had made policing and other activities to protect them more and more difficult.

Rothfield describes the mostly fruitless attempts of a handful of individuals, among them officials of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the UN educational, cultural and scientific organisation, UNESCO, in Paris, and, from the British side, from the British Museum -- the Blair government at the time was, of course, wholeheartedly behind the war -- to gain a hearing from the Bush administration officials and military men responsible for planning the war.

Letters were sent, phone calls made, and opinion pieces published in the US and international press. Lower-level officials in Washington eventually took notice and meetings were held to which archaeologists specialising in ancient Mesopotamian archaeology were invited, along with representatives of art dealers and prominent museums.

How seriously these meetings were taken at higher levels of government is a moot point. Rothfield believes that they were mostly a way of occupying the time of those involved, while giving the impression that the administration intended to honour its obligations to protect the cultural heritage of the country that it would shortly invade and occupy.

As he points out, the material produced by the Future of Iraq Project, a series of working groups set up by the US State Department to plan for the government of Iraq after the US-led invasion, was subsequently ignored by the Department of Defense and Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority. "Some cynics even argue that it was nothing more than a make-work exercise designed to keep the [Iraqi] exiles busy."

These chapters of his book, the second, third and fourth, repeat a familiar story of official delay and stone-walling, and one marvels at Rothfield's stamina in following the dismal paper trails produced by the officials concerned before these ran into the sand, nothing concrete achieved, once the invasion itself began.

As he notes, neither the US nor the UK were signatory at the time to the most important of the international instruments protecting cultural heritage during wartime, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its 1954 and 1999 Protocols, though both countries have subsequently ratified it.

Nevertheless, Rothfield is able to produce a letter sent by the US Defense Department's Office of General Counsel to the SAA three days before the war began setting out the Department's intention to conduct operations "in accordance with the law of armed conflict, including those provisions of the 1954 Convention and 1999 Protocol that reflect customary international law."

What this meant is that although US forces sheltered cultural sites and institutions from the direct effects of warfare, no mention was made of any intention to protect sites and institutions from civilian looting. Apparently no one having sufficient authority thought to do so, with predictable results.

Later in his book Rothfield refers to the "slow- motion disaster" of the looting of Iraq's archaeological sites, many of them still unprotected and even unexcavated, with finds being spirited abroad and sold on to unscrupulous dealers and collectors.

No one knows the extent of this continuing disaster, partly because of the difficulties of working in Iraq and partly because the US military has refused to share satellite images of Iraq with archaeologists. (Rothfield does not make it clear why they cannot use Google Earth.) However, those sites that have been visited in many cases show signs of extensive looting, some resembling strange, pitted landscapes of holes and trenches made by looters in an attempt to reach lower archaeological layers.

One estimate, quoted here, suggests that between 400,000 and 600,000 artefacts were taken illegally from Iraqi archeological sites between 2003 and 2005 alone, "an astounding figure, three to four times the number of artefacts gathered since the 1920s by the National Museum of Iraq." In the absence of meaningful site security at outlying sites, and with looting now being "one of the few roads to riches in Iraq," it seems that this looting is continuing.

In an interview with Rothfield published earlier this month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, house journal of American academia, he notes that this second disaster at Iraq's archaeological sites, following the first-round of looting of the country's institutions that took place after the 2003 invasion, has had, and is having, incalculable consequences for knowledge of early civilisations in the region.

"Most of what we know... has come from piecing together fragments and reconstructing contexts," he says. " The Epic of Gilgamesh was pieced together from fragments that looters today would have crushed underfoot."

While Rothfield's book recounts a mostly sorry tale of official failure and insouciance, he is to be thanked for his own painstaking work of historical reconstruction, interviewing many of the actors concerned and writing up his findings clearly and elegantly.

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