We’re part of the crowd. Alas.

by Yule Heibel on January 22, 2004

Margaret Atwood has a few words to say about some recent Iranian literature written by women. (The reference to this new magazine, The Walrus, also via The Dominion: thanks!)

Setting the initial scene with a pointer to three books — by Bernard Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Amin Maalouf — on the history of the Arab/ Muslim world, Atwood notes that “All political leaders bent on suppressing their own people need a Great Satan, or an axis of evil, or something of the sort, so that resistance to the leader can be portrayed as not only futile but heretical.” She quotes from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 1982 book, Shah of Shahs on the benefits accruing to despots when people are reduced to a crowd — or as they used to say at the height of the cold war, a mass: “A person, an individual being,…is riches without end, he is a world in which we can always discover something new. A crowd, on the other hand, reduces the individuality of the person; a man in a crowd limits himself to a few forms of elementary behaviour.” Atwood adds that the despot’s desire to eliminate individual voices goes some way toward explaining his/her hatred of literature (and, dare I say it, free-wheeling blogs?), for despots “love the crowd and hate the individual, and literature is, above all, singular.”

(Why am I thinking of Stavros the Wonderchicken at this point…? Perhaps because, even though the Cold War is over, the logic of reducing individuals to a crowd or a mass is still virulently alive — even [sic!] in the blogosphere, even [sic’um!] in corporatism and advertising? Thanks, Stavros, for telling homogeneity to go to hell.)

Atwood then reviews three recent books by female Iranian writers: Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood); Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books); and Farnoosh Moshiri (The Bathhouse). The three books have common themes, not surprisingly focussed on the mullahs’s prevailing anxiety over all things sexual:

[Nafisi], too, resisted the veil and the suppression of women it symbolized to her—under the Shah, for instance, the legal age for marriage was eighteen, but under the mullahs it went down to eight-and-a-half lunar years. (She tells of an interesting ruling by the Ayatollah Khomeini concerning chickens you’ve had sex with, a practice permitted so men would not vent their urges in illegal ways, on women. Are you allowed to eat such chickens? No, said the Ayatollah: Neither you nor your next-door neighbour may eat the chicken, but the family two doors down is allowed to do so. One envisages a lively local street traffic in chickens. This incident is emblematic of the weirdness of matters sexual in Iran at this time, a weirdness encountered in all three of these books.)


Both Persepolis and Reading Lolita mention the obsession of the mullahs with sex, and both refer to one of the more hideous practices of the revolutionary guards: If a woman to be executed was a virgin, she was “married” in a bogus ceremony, then raped by one of the guards, because virgins go to heaven and the guards wanted to prevent that. In Farnoosh Moshiri’s novel The Bathhouse, this motif moves from the sidelines to centre stage, for the bathhouse of the title is a holding pen for female political prisoners. The narrator of this spare and courageous novel ends up in the bathhouse as many did—through being related to someone who was politically involved—and is subjected to a number of grisly experiences, narrowly avoiding execution at the Wall of the Almighty.

Her escape, like her arrest, is a fluke: The revolutionary guards aren’t what you’d call methodical. There’s a large component of sadism and opportunism among them, not to mention superstition and borderline lunacy: It’s a firm belief among the bathhouse officials that if you can see the Great Leader’s face in the full moon, you’ve been blessed and are therefore saved. Many of the tormentors are women, including ex-prisoners who claim to have been “converted” and are terrified that they will be tortured again if they don’t participate.

Those familiar with Holocaust literature will find themselves right at home, for as with crowds, so with tortures: The range of expression is limited. As Sartre pointed out in his introduction to The Question, which examines French behaviour in Algiers, the lesson most frequently learned by those who have been brutalized is how to do the same to others. [More…]

The other theme running through Atwood’s discussion is the mutability of any social and political status quo, which for me brings it to a discussion of the West, too: how easy it is to lose freedoms, how rapidly religion can be instrumentalised into a tool of political oppression, and how deeply all things sexual figure in men’s affairs.

Most men are clearly very proud of that fact: unless they’re repressed, their sexual power gives them vitality and energy, and this energy has moved mountains in a positive sense. (And women are not essentially different: we feel our sexuality just as strongly.) But don’t pretend to be so secure in the saddle, messieurs: there’s vulnerability in real sex, and there’s always the possibility of irrational fear for your virility. There’s age, too, if you’re lucky. Think of the chicken. Think of your neighbour two doors down. Think how much better it would be if we owned our sex ourselves, and didn’t let feathers and religious leaders and retrograde politicians and irrational fears and endless desires to quantify (“too much!” “too little!” “has he got more?” “is this enough?”) get in the way.

And think about how cool it would be if women everywhere were treated as individuals instead of as an anonymous mass that needs crowd control. That would be quality. The other stuff is quantity, and we’ve got that in spades with our mass media culture surround sound totality.

Resume the position, as you were…

{ 1 comment }

Lynn January 27, 2004 at 12:50 am

Chickens? And here I’ve been hearing that it’s same-sex marriage that is supposed to lead inevitably to condoning bestiality.

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