Us & Them: Breaking Free from Cultural Branding & Identity Politics

Us & Them: Breaking Free from Cultural Branding & Identity Politics


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington D.C.>>Joan Weeks: good afternoon
ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of all my colleagues,
and particular Dr. Mary-Jane Deeb, who is Chief of the African
and Middle East Division I’d like to welcome everyone. I’m Joan Weeks, I’m head
of the Near East Section, the sponsor of today’s program. And we’re very pleased to
present this titled Us and Them, breaking free from cultural
branding and identity politics. Before we start today’s program
and introduce our speaker I’d like to give you a little bit of
an overview about our collections, in the hopes that you’ll
come back and use them. The speaker today is writing
about Iranian Americans. And I did a quick search
in our catalogue and found 43 books on that topic. And some of them are in Persian
and some of them are in English; so you’re welcome to come
back into our reading room and please use our collections for your future enjoyment
and for the research. We are a custodial division and we
build collections and serve these to researchers from
around the globe. We cover over 78 countries and
more than two dozen languages. The Africa section includes all
the countries of Sub-Sahara Africa. And we’re going to have a follow
on program to this, so please stay if you can to hear our program on
the conversations with Africa Poets that will immediately
follow this program. And we also have the Hebraic
section that covers Judaica and Hebraic worldwide and our
Near East section covers all of the Arab countries,
including North African, Turkey, Turkic Central Asia, Iran,
Afghanistan and the Muslims in Western China, Russia
and the Balkans. So, it’s a very extensive
research collection area and just a few housekeeping
items before we get started. We like to have you know
that if you ask questions, this program is being videotaped,
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if you’re interested in our blog or Facebook, if you subscribe
to the Facebook you’ll hear about other future programs as well. So, without further ado though I’d like to invite my colleague
Hirad Dinavari who is our Persian specialist,
to introduce our speaker. Thank you.>>Hirad Dinavari: Thank
you everyone for coming on difficult traffic
day from what I hear. It’s wonderful to have
our speaker here today; this would be her second book
that she would be covering at LC. We love her so much with the
first book that we’ve invited her for her new book, which is a very
timely book on immigrants living over you know, in different
countries essentially. I will do a short bio, although
she really doesn’t need a bio, she’s well known. Ms. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani
grew up in Uganda, was educated in the
United Kingdom and then in the United States,
and now lives in France. She is author of the Women who
Read Too Much, which was a book on the poetess and
woman leader if you like Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn
19th century icon, also she’s written The Saddlebag. Her novels have been published in
French, Italian, Spanish, German, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew,
Russian, Korean and Chinese. And I hope to this Persian and
Arabic soon will be added as well. A nice quote from one of her books
is “We abandon our true homeland when we cannot identify
with others”. I think that captures the
essence of this talk and instead of me blabbing on; I would love to
have Bahiyyih herself entice you with her wonderful
wisdom and her welcome. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: It would
have been fun to hear him blabbing on rather than me blabbing on. But I would first like to begin with
all my gratitude to Mary-Jane Deeb, to the Near Eastern Section,
African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress, to Joan
Weeks for her kind introduction and above all to dear
Hirad for his generosity in maintaining correspondence
with me, all through this last
couple of years. I’ve been delighted
to hear from him. I’ve given the title of Breaking
Free From Cultural Branding. Because of something which
happened last year in Britain and you have had your elections here and this is certainly not
a political discussion, but it affected me deeply
when I heard Teresa May saying in October last year that citizens of the world were citizens
of nowhere. And it really struck me
because she was speaking about a very particular elite who
are well represented in capitals like Washington with the
international institutions. I live in Strasburg where there
are all also international elite if you like in Europe. And there is a kind of gap between
such people and the ordinary people in the street, that
is certainly the case. But I was thinking of all
the billions of people who are not international
elite, who also find themselves as citizens of the world. And to be told that you’re a citizen
of nowhere when you are a refugee, when you have gone through heroin
conditions of war, of famine, of deprivation and finally
find yourselves stripped of everything seemed to me to
be the last gesture of ravage. It didn’t seem fair. So, it occurred to me that one of
the reasons why we’re so worried about being labeled one way or
another is because we are looking for labels and maybe people
think that to be called a citizen of the world is a threat;
so we try to undermine it. Because of the rise of nationalism
that we see in the world today, because of the extremes and phobia,
perhaps like in a previous age where anyone who seemed
to be cosmopolitan, the word cosmopolitan
became a slur in the 1930’s. Cosmopolitanism became
something like globalism and it was considered a threat
to the nationalism of the times. I thought maybe we could look at
the real meaning behind a citizen of the world and see it as an
inclusive kind of identity, see it as a way of bringing
people together rather than imposing wars between them. Citizens of the world
and those of us that don’t necessarily carry one
name label, that have a brand which seems to be multiple,
very often find ourselves sort of without a singular identity. And it seems that part of the reason
I needed to write this book was because of the fracturing of
identity that I’ve noticed in the Iranian diasporic community. We’re not just one group
of people, we’re multiple. We seem to have identities
that also reflect the cultures and the countries from which,
in which we find new homes. So, I’ve set this story in
a kind of ping pong world between the French Iranian World
and the American Iranian World. And I follow the life of the old
lady who has emerged from Iran, almost by accident
really, not by desire. She had wanted to stay in her
country which I think is the case for most refugees and migrants. It isn’t an act necessarily
of choice. And she finds herself rather like a benign King Lear
bouncing between two daughters. Now my two daughters are certainly
nothing like Goneril and Regan. They have every reason, and
maybe Goneril and Regan did too, for having chips on their shoulders. But, we see their lives through
the lives of the old lady. We see her through their eyes;
so we’re given a chance to look at the Iranian coming from
Iran, from the point of view of the diasperin Iranian. And we looked at the Diasperin
daughters from the point of view of the Iranian mother. Every since I started writing, people have called
me an Iranian writer. And I don’t see how I could
possibly be called an Iranian writer if I grew up in East African. I don’t see how I can also be called
an Iranian writer if I’m not living in Iran talking about Iran today. I’ve written about Iran
in the 19th century, which is not what Iran is now. And so I realized I had to
write a story about what I knew, which was the experience
of being outside Iran. And not only outside from one
perspective, but since I’ve lived in several countries myself and since I’ve met the Iranian
Diaspera all over the place I wanted to capture something of that
diversity, that fragmentation. The title, the cover of
this book is interesting because it reflects broken glass. It reflects fractured glass; it
reflects prisms of mirror or glass. They’re not just giving
you one image, but are giving you different facets
of the image and of the light. And I’m particularly
pleased with the cover because of an interesting quote
that I discovered by James Joyce. As you know he had
difficulty publishing Ulysses but he also had difficulty
publishing Dubliners. And it took him something like nine
years before the book came out. And in the process, in his
frustration he wrote the following, now I’ve lost it, one second. Here we are. He wrote to his publisher
saying “I seriously believe that you will retard the course
of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from
having a good look at themselves in my nicely polished
looking glass”. Now looking glass and
mirrors are something that Iranians absolutely love,
you can’t go to an Iranian house without seeing reflections
of yourself and everybody else on all sides. But I think particularly fragmented
glass is something very intimately associated with Iranian culture. They have a way of making
the most remarkable mosaics out of pieces of broken mirror. And I’ve often wondered whether
they first have to break the mirror in order to make the
mosaic, or whether there’s so much shattered class
all over the place that they have found
creative ways of using it. But in any event broken
mirrors, fractured mirrors, balls of broken glass reflecting
refracted rays of light is a met of very close to the
Iranian psyche I thought. And since I have no
pretentions of writing a book that could retard the course of
civilization if it was not read by the Iranians, I thought it best to present a fractured
vision of this community. I’ve done it in several ways. One is because it’s simply the
subject matter is fractured. It’s about a scattering of
people all over the world. But I’ve also chosen
a narrative structure which is reflecting
that fragmentation. So, you will find in this story the
threat of the lives of the mother and her two daughters, the King Lear
threat, which I vaguely described. The story of the mother
going from one country to the other meeting
the French daughter, meeting the American daughter and
her own experiences in between. And between the chapters which
tell you the story of BB John and her daughter LiLi in Frane
and her daughter Goli in America and her yearning and aching
heart for her absent son who disappeared during the
Iran/Iraq War as a young boy of 14 with the Keys of Paradise around his
neck, Ali who has never been found, who has never been
confirmed dead or alive. And who hovers all the way
through this story as a sort of yearned for Messiah figure. A kind of promised, who
may or may not ever come. He’s dangling in the story all the
way through; so BiBi, Goli, Deli — oh Sorry, LiLi — sorry
I’ll say it again. BiBi the mother, LiLi
the French daughter, Goli the American daughter. Goli’s daughter, Deli because the
Persians absolutely love ending names in the family either with
the same vowel or starting them with the same set of consonants. And Ali who is the absent son. Between the chapters
that tell you the story of this somewhat dysfunctional
family, I have fragmented images of Persians from all over the world. So, you go in and out of the
story by meeting fragments of other Iranians in different
countries all over the planet. And I explain why I’ve done that in the first chapter,
which is called “Us”. In this chapter, I
define the meaning of that first personal
plural narration. Who is the us that is taking us
into these different chapters? And I start off by saying that
we, we’re waiting for this book to come out for quite some time. And it doesn’t come out. We keep waiting for it, we keep
looking for it, it doesn’t come out. Who is going to write it? Well whoever, it is
that writes it has to do so in the first person plural. The first person plural is
mandatory in such situations. We use this point of view in
Persian to show our modesty, to demonstrate our humility. At times it has to be admitted we
also use it to evade responsibility, but that’s another issue. And I wanted to clarify that so that you wouldn’t think
the we, was a royal we. And you wouldn’t imagine
that it was an editorial we. This is a very specifically Iranian
we and we use the word “Mahi” in Persian to sort
of disburse the ego. We say, “Oh we are so grateful
that you were able to come. We are honored that you invited us”. And it’s a kind way in its
purist form of showing humility, but it’s also sometimes
a wee bit hypocritical. And at times can be as I said a
way of avoiding responsibility. We didn’t know, we were
only aware that we were — so all the way through
you can get fluctuations of this different versions
of the we. And the other reason I did it, I
did use this we was because and I’m so delighted to hear that there
are 40 other books on the subject to the Iranian diaspera
on your shelves. But maybe you can tell me
whether I’m correct in saying “There was plenty of evidence of
first person singular Iranians on the book shop shelves. But we were not the
focus of attention. Subjective stories abounded
in the chain stores, but these were not
about the real we. They were about individuals
we could barely identify with. A country that no longer existed, a past of aesthetic sensibility
belonging to the academic few, or a place for the very rich, the
very religious, the very feminist, or the anti-feminist, the
anti-rich, the anti-religious. There were biographies of those
associated with the peacock throne or conspiracy theories
about the fall of Mossadegh, or the true confessions of
those who still remembered oil in World War II and Hitler. Or, the fictional memoirs
of pivotal figures of the constitutional revolution. But none of these stories
actually were about the hydra-headed
contradictory, paradoxical us. The multiple first person, plural
us in Toronto and Sydney, in Bogota and Beijing speaking
Persian all over the world”. I decided that it was time to
write about that paradoxical, contradictory multiple faceted us. And so in this book you’re going
to discover that us and one of the other reasons as a writer I
felt a sort of urgency about writing in the first person plural
was captured in the words of, if I can find her, Aminatta Forna, a marvelous sierra laonian Scottish
writer, don’t know if you’ve come across her work.Sieranaonian
wonderfully black and beautiful and Scottish, speaking English
with a strong Scottish accent. And she wrote the following, “The
way of literature”, she writes, “Is to seek universality, writers
try to reach beyond those things that divide us, culture,
class, gender, race. Given the chance we would
resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes
to be described as a female writer, a gay writer, a black writer, an
Asian writer or an African writer. We would prefer to simply be
called writers”, and i would add if one were able a human
being, trying to write. That is the greatest accolade. And because I think writers have
this capacity for universality and don’t necessarily
want to be branded. I decided to write a book about
the suffocation of branding really. The impossibility of
branding the free human spirit in one single label. And it led me to really
wonder why we do have brands. I remember in fact, the last time
I had the privilege of coming to the Library of Congress
and was talking about the Woman who read too much. I had a conversation
with a wonderful friend, who is sitting here
today and we were talking about political identity
and identity politics. And how strongly it is
influencing our modern society. And I found myself
wondering why is it so influential in everything we do. And I concluded that it has
something to do with the way in which tribalism has sort
of married with marketing. And I first came across
this phenomenon when my own daughter was going
through the passage of adolescence, like so many adolescents wanting
to wear black at all times. And I found that there
were shops providing for. It had been industrialized,
the gothic period of puberty had been seized upon
by marketing forces and exploited to sell to young vulnerable
people an identity that sort of imposed itself on
their individuality. And I thought that this
is happening everywhere. This is happening on all
levels of our society where you’re using these branding
labels to tell us who we are, perhaps because of an
anxiety about who we are, perhaps because we fear a
kind of erosion of who we are. But it is extremely, it is making
a commodity of us I decided. It is truly turning us
into a sales object. I wanted to read to you if I
may, the beginning of a chapter in America where the character
Goli finds herself undergoing a lot of stress. I have to find the
chapter, excuse me. and she goes in order to relax
and have a bit of calm time. She goes to a pedicure
clinic as it were. This is Los Angeles, this is
bimbo blonde Persians worrying about their appearance with
nose jobs and so forth. “Goli was upset and
her feet knew it. They were in desperate need,
that’s how the brochure put it. Are your feet in desperate
need, and they were. There was a solution of course as
there was for everything in America. Step inside pedicure perfect and we’ll change all
that said the brochure. So, Goli stepped inside,
sat herself down on one of the slippery pink chairs of pedicure perfect
and took a deep breath. The girl who was going to change
all that was called Simberline. The tag on her left breast said so. Americans had this habit of printing
or repeating their name everywhere, and expected you to do the same. Goli looked at the spelling for a
long time, not sure of the word. She’d heard of American and
even Persian girls called Kim, but this sounded like the name
of a logging company in Canada or something, or a product to keep
household germs at bay as they said, or a multi-national
that made sanitary pads. She hoped the girl didn’t think
she was staring at her breasts, she was only trying not to cry”. I want to compare that if you don’t
mind, with another little passage which comes from the experience
of the old lady coming to France. And in this chapter BiBi John
finds herself alone in Paris, her daughter LiLi has
gone off to be an artiste. LiLi is a photographer and
takes pictures of nude ladies, which is something her mother
seriously does not understand. So BiBi John is left alone and
in order to have a little bit of company she leaves the apartment, which I have to tell you is an
extremely strange place in her mind because it’s up a serious of very narrow stairwell
going round and round. And she gets to this tiny little
apartment on the top floor, in the marray with low ceilings and
the smell of drains and everything that a Persian lady
would not like to have. So, here she is and she
decides to go to the hairdresser and then sit in the park. And she’s going to the Plaste
Voge which is of course, one of the most exquisite places in
Paris 17th century, you know Louis, the glorious kind of
architecture all the way around, which is something she
does not see at all. “Dimly through her thick
lenses Bibi saw that one of the benches was partially
free, with only a single occupant. She approached it hopefully, but as she drew near the
elderly French woman sitting in the middle threw
such an indignant glance at her that BiBi hesitated. She was only going to sit on
the corner, but the woman seemed to think she was intended
upon a takeover and making a bid for independence. She was only wearing scarf, duty free as a protection
against frizzy hair. But this apparently made
a French colony of her. She pushed the scarf back
carefully and tried to smile. But the French woman
looked pointedly away. She had blue tinted hair that obviously did not frizz
although she may have used the same hairdresser as BiBi. She gave off the air of
stale cologne and disapproval as BiBi John sat gingerly
down, half-way — sat gingerly down beside her
feeling foreign and resigned. There was nowhere else to sit anyway
given the pile of pigeon droppings at the other end of the bench, so
much for her hope of meeting people. Bon jour she nodded
timidly at her neighbor. It sound like “Bon Jour”. She couldn’t even get
a handle on the accent. The French woman turned
slightly away ignoring her. In fact, she looked rather
nervous as well as disapproving and who could blame her trapped in
the middle of a seesaw of a bench with an elderly lady and her
headscarf sitting at one end and a pile of pigeon
droppings at the other. She sighs because she’s thinking
about her daughters and the fact that she’s a burden on
them, and she sighs again. Her French neighbor with tinted
hair flinched at the sigh. It was clearly intolerable
to hear a foreigner sigh, not only once but twice. And she must have interpreted it as
a criticism towards the Republic, for she rose abruptly at
that moment and moved away. BiBi was flustered but
she wanted to apologize, but didn’t have the words. It was useless anyway because of her
accent and the lack of vocabulary. “Oh ravah” she called out faintly as
the French woman turned on her heel and ground across the gravel. But it was clear from the woman’s
enraged back as she stopped on towards the gate that the
effort towards reconciliation and politess had not been enough”. You realize in the
course of the story that it is not only the foreigners, however that treat the
Iranians as other, as them. It is the Iranians themselves
that treat each other as them. And many times it’s the Iranians
who treat the foreigners as them. We have circles and circles of us
and them in the Iranian community and I thought it might make you
laugh just a change of voice to hear the wee voice
interrupting the story of BiBi John. And telling you from the
point of view of a mother in law what she thinks
of her daughters in law. “We have both kinds in our family. The Eastern ones and the Westerners. And we can promise you the first
lot caused all the problems. Getting into moods at every moment, taking offense at the
drop of a hate. Forever overreacting to
inferences, inventing reasons to be hurt or assuming that we are. So sensitive you can’t say a thing
to them without risking insult. Communicating with the [Inaudible]
girls, that is the foreigners. It’s frankly much easier with them
at least you know where you are, in spite of the language barrier. It’s straightforward, it’s blunt. They say exactly what they mean,
everything is cut and dried with them, but with our Persian
daughters in law, God help us. We have to walk on
eggs the whole time and imagine all the
things they aren’t saying. In some ways it’s a blessing
of course, it’s an advantage that the harangues don’t always
understand what we’re saying. You know what we mean, at least
there’s no harangues with them, no endless compliments, no
twisting into insistent knots to say what you don’t
actually believe. There’s none of that
with the foreigners. But in other ways it’s hurtful too. You know they can be quite
tactless at times and take candor to such an extreme that you wonder
whether they lack imagination or are simply stupid. No courtesies, no compliments,
everything at face value. A no is a no and a yes
means they should fix it. Fixing things is what
harangues are good at. But that’s where it ends. There you are half blind,
feeling for your cane and they ask “Do you need anything”? And of course you say, “No”. And it doesn’t go one inch further. Of course they bend and pick the
cane up for you when it clatters to the floor, that’s not the point. But then they go off
with a peck on the cheek and a cheerful good bye dumping
you for the rest of the afternoon as if the cane was really all
that you’re not asking for”. Well how can I tell you a little
bit more about this story? It could be that you may
have looked on the blog site for Stanford University Press and
you may find there are several of the chapters that I’ve
already read on that, and that could be intersting. But there is one that I didn’t read and I might just quickly
give you a taste of that. And that’s in the — towards
the end of the book again, when we have a section on
marriages or weddings, excuse me. I should have put my little stick
it things on this, but I didn’t. Oh maybe even this would be better. This is a little bit
about a reflection on why I’ve used this
structure in fact and it’s a small chapter
called “Losing the Plot”. And it’s about the way in
which Iranians write stories. You know we’ve got great
tradition of poetry in Iran. We’ve also got a most fascinating
tradition in passion plays but we don’t’ necessarily have the
same tradition in novel writing. We don’t’ have that wonderful
western psychological realism tradition which we have learned
because we’re good at imitating. There’s a chapter in this
book called “Imitation” about the way we know
how to imitate. But we have borrowed the
psychological realism structure of the novel. It doesn’t come natural
to the person psyche and in this chapter called “Losing
the plot” I explore that idea. “The old film ended as such
films do with a drum roll of a sunset, or was it a sun rise? Which faded into the
chant of an opening rose. It was a splendid climax. We liked the grand finale
of a sunset or a sunrise. We love a film resolving in a rose, all our fears melt
with that lovely image. All our hopes blossom
with that stirring sound. There is something
characteristically Persian, classically Iranian
about those symbols. You really can’t go wrong with
them as far as we’re concerned. Of course there is the reed
too, the other metaphor of ours, yes we can’t do without the reed. More anguished than the rose. More visceral than the
sunset, expressive of suffering of martyrdom, of existential
pain in the old poems, rude hangs grasped me, slashed me to
the core, brute fingers plucked me from the soft river floor. Such images are appropriate to our
heritage, our religion our history. They recall the anguish and ardor of
the nightingale that ultimate icon of our culture and our art. They remind us that the golden
lion on who’s back the son of the old regime rose and set bore
a loft of curved and cruel symatog. We’re referring to the
older regime naturally, the regime of the 19th century. The one before the one most people
now call old, or rather what we used to call old before we
became it ourselves. Persians think, people think
that Persians are good at plots. They think we are masters
of storytelling, the then and the and then of charizod. But it’s not metaphorical
logic we prefer. Metaphors are our forte, we love
the way metaphors and similes shift and change, ignoring consequence
reversing temporal direction. Conspiracy theories we have no
trouble with, but we are not so hot on plot, at least in
the narrative sense. What we look for in the film are the
roses and the sunsets, and the reed. My skin they fluid until I was raw. My lips they split, my
throat they cruelly tore”. I won’t go on because that’s
just a taste of this book and it’s also an apologies for
why I haven’t fitted the brand of a normal novel telling you
the psychological realistic story of one individual all the
way through to the end. This is a story about a
family and a fractured family. It’s a story about a whole
culture that has been scattered and fractured across the planet. And I do hope that in reading it
you might find something in it that you also associate with. I came across a marvelous
statement by Mossan Hamid, the writer of the reluctant
fundamentalist who has also come out with a fascinating
book called Exit West, on migrants which maybe you
have on your library shelves. He said, “even people who stay
in the same place undergo a kind of migration through time,
everyone is a migrant”. And I do hope that this
book really does appeal to many other kinds of groups. Aminatta Forna, the marvelous Siera
Leonian Scotts writer I mentioned says something about branding, which I thought would
be useful to remember. Sometimes she says, we
need labels just to be able to describe the thing
we’re talking about, but labels confirm the
limitations of language and when they are overused
they become limiting. And perhaps the last quote
I could use for today is one from marvels Marilyn
Robinson who I greatly revere. “When people draw a bright line
between us and then”, she writes, “Those on the other side
of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect
or hearing. And are in fact regarded
as a huge problem to the us who presume to judge them. When this assumption takes hold,
the definition of community hardens and becomes violently
exclusive and defensive. Definitions of us and them begin
to contract and as they shrink and narrow becoming increasingly
inflamed or dangerous and inhumane, this tedious pattern has
repeated itself endlessly through human history. And it is the end of community
and the beginning of tribalism”. I think we’re all quite aware of
the fact that we’re living at a time when those definitions have
contracted, have hardened, are producing notions of narrowness
that divide us from one another. And this has happened before
and we’ve known it in history and we have noticed that when there
is that recoil that retraction, that reaction against being open
it is inevitably followed by a kind of turning of the tide and the
wave comes rolling back again and we find ourselves
being far more inclusive, it was a recoil in the 30’s. It was an expansion again
after the second World War. I hope we don’t have
to have another war but the recoil is certainly building
up to a Tsunami type proportion now. I can only hope that we will reach out to each other even
more as a result. Certainly the recoil
has been repeated but so has the positive reaction
to it, the desire to be inclusive. If my book can promote that movement
even slightly, I will be grateful. And very grateful indeed to have
this opportunity to talk to you. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Hirad Dinavari: Thank you
very much Dr. Nakhjavani. We have some opportunity
for questions. Mary-Jane has a question
for you, go ahead.>>I want to thank you so
much, it was a very, very — it was a fascinating
book presentation. I am wondering, I wonder
what you think about another way of
looking at labeling. Is it a way also, in
addition to explaining that which is not easily understood? Because if you have a label you
can add all kind of attitudes and all kinds of values [Inaudible]. Just explain the other who is
not, who doesn’t fit into one of the categories that
us or the other.>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: Yes.>>So can it be also a lazy
way of saying “Why do I have to understand that person”? I can just [Inaudible] and then
I don’t need to understand.>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: I
think you’re absolutely right. It’s an easy shorthand. It’s a form of shorthand. It doesn’t have to be nefarious. It’s got a kind of innocence to it. A substitute for explaining. but I think that it’s been exploited
and it’s been used to divide. And I think that’s also been in
some ways the act of separation and distinctiveness of our
identities in terms of culture; in terms of gender have been a
necessary process for our society. We’ve been thrown in into
each other’s laps in a way that never happened before. We were always in our little
bubbles until war and colonialism and expansion of empire
and exploitation of differences have forced
us to confront each other. And with the 20th century I
think we find ourselves jostling in these conditions trying to
figure out where do I belong? So it’s been a — I’ve always
thought of it as a process of adolescence that we’re
having to go through. As adolescents we need to define
ourselves from our families, from our siblings to distinguish
ourselves as individuals. It’s very healthy to do
so and I think we have, and are in the process
of doing that. But I think you can
see the beginning signs of where it becomes what
Marilyn Robinson is describing and then the laziness becomes
dangerous and then we begin to need to question how far we can push
that, how far we can let it just go because we need to have more of the
unites while keeping our distinction than more that differentiates, yes. Yes please.>>I just finished an article
[Inaudible] it’s one of the things as you were just speaking
that I wondered about. There’s the question of who
is defining universal, right? It’s the branding, if there
is this universal is it an expansive universal? Or is it universal that is
like the colonial powers of understanding the universal and
then how do people react to that? And one of the ideas that I was
reading about that as I was working on this encyclopedia article, I’m
curious whether this rings true in some way, not as a good thing
but like accurate description is that part of what you’re struggling
with his how to retain a sense of a cultural identify from whatever
piece of the bubble mattered. In this new place consumption,
and therefore marketing, is it really easy quantifiable
way to do it? I can — I don’t know
I am the daughter of the [Inaudible]
daughter in law, right? And so I can be here in my mother’s
culture except when I want to put on a [Inaudible] or
something like that, and a piece of my father’s
culture and wear it. Until I want to take
it off again, right? So that I can go back to being
and that would be true too if I weren’t the daughter of
a [Inaudible] daughter in law. If I were one of my
cousins, two immigrants. It’s this way and it doesn’t really
work because it’s not necessarily — but I’m wondering if that
makes sense, push and pull?>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: Yes, well I think what you’re describing
is something all immigrants have done putting the hat on, taking it
off, wearing this costume when we’re in this group, taking it
off when we’re in another. But I do believe wholeheartedly in
the organic process of civilization. I think the human species has
extraordinary capacities to absorb and to maybe it’s because I look at
what the English language has done. It is an absorbing process
that happens in language. And that is an extension
of the human mind. It’s what’s going up on here in
the neurons, the new patterns and pathways that we’re creating. The English language has this way
of sucking in all the differences. There is no universal culture that
is imposing itself on the new word. It is that word that is influencing
the use of language as a whole. And so I don’t think it’s either
you get imposed upon or you impose. I think there is an organic
process going on here, and I think the artificial
divisions of colonialism and even industrialization
and commodify — these are artificial
processes to buy and sell. There is a buyer and a seller, so
as long as we can shift the focus so that everybody is selling
and everybody is buying, you know if we’re going to use that
metaphor, it has to be more organic. It has to flow across
the boundaries. I wrote a chapter in
here about assimilation, it’s called “Assimilation” and
it starts off with a new comer from Iran, confronting
Iranians who have been out of the country for a long time. And when she first
comes she’s very anxious to be accepted by the old comers. So she’s trying very hard to
be terribly modern and secular and disregarding what is in
Iran and identifying herself as totally atheist and
non-connected with Islam as it were. And as the story progresses, I don’t want to give the
game away completely. But we see the shift
in her assimilation and we see her assimilation
affecting the fact that she’s out of the country,
is affecting her. It’s affecting her
interlocutors as well. Their position is being affected
by her reactions to begin abroad. And so it’s that osmosis
which I think is interesting and the constant reminder that
we are not mechanical creatures, we are not parts of some
artificial organism. We are an organism,
we’re not man made. We have the capacity to
change extraordinarily and to affect change. So I don’t know who the
universal us is going to be. I don’t know what the universal
language is going to be. I hope it’s a little bit more
interesting than Globish is at the moment, you know what I mean? I have hope that we can
perhaps enrich rather than impoverish who we are.>>Quick comments and
then a question. [ Inaudible ]>>The second thing
I was going to say in many ways what you were
describing is a universal feeling not just particularly in the
acceptance of people in France. Everybody who has gone to
France has undergone that.>>Absolutely.>>I know they pretend like they
don’t understand what I’m saying and look at me quizzically. But I have a question
that I’ve always wondered. I have a lot of Iranian friends
who only associate themselves with begin Persian but not being
Iranian, what is that phenomenon where they’re not associating with
the country but with a culture?>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: Well
somebody asked me that same question when I was in San Francisco
and it really is interesting that we’ve subdivided
Iran and Persia. But bear in mind that
Persia was also the name of the country before it — there have been fluctuations in
the historical naming of this land. I don’t know, I think
the people who prefer to call themselves Persian are
making a branding statement about their non-identification
with the present regime. I mean people have
all kinds of reasons for why they put symboline
on their left breast. I went through a period where
I liked being called Persian. Because I liked the sound and I
remember the little pink country on the map when I was growing
up and it was called Persia, but it wasn’t necessarily
for political reasons. But I think you’re right we
associate the word Persia with nightingales, roses,
music, literature and we imagine that Iran does not mean that. But that similarly come
across young Iranians and very often they’re young,
not necessarily only young but who are very very
patriotic about the word Iran and the greatness of
Iran and the glory of the past civilization so Iran. So they were also being proudly
Iranian and it had nothing to do with the present regime. So I think it really
depends on the temperament, the personality whoever
it happens to be. We’re always looking for identity
and this is the whole issue. Is our identity actually
helping others also be included or are we making a statement that
excludes or is this just a phase or you know it’s all good,
it’s all good so long as it doesn’t make us feel
nervous about anybody. [ Inaudible ]>>People kind of label to what they
[Inaudible] Now if you actually look on those books, there are
minute shades of differences across the meaning of
those books on the shelf. And this would be true of
yours, it covers a unique slice. this is what I think is interesting
about this whole process. Is that I’m kind of a
[Inaudible] Iranians like yours, you’re Iranian you
must like mirrors. Wrong?>>Wrong.>>But you get into
these problems and that’s where I think there’s
some kind of conflict and I don’t’ know how
you see this with the, I think you address it
well in the beauty parlor or this person perceives
some kind of other and does’ like it because of the labeling.>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani:
Well I think the labeling; I myself have been
constantly shifting around not knowing
how to be branded. I mean I get branded
by the publisher, you know they want to
fix the label on you. The women who read too much
suddenly became a feminist novel. Or I become an Iranian
writer because I happen to be speaking about Iran. And I think the genre of
categories in book shops force you into these little pockets
and this is something, this is a new phenomena. This is about trying
desperately to sell books. 150 years ago we never
had these categorizations. We were just trying to write,
and writing about what we knew. Can you imagine Jane
Austin being labeled? First of all she would have cringed
at the thought of being identified on a market shelf, but I think
this is something that we have to question because
it goes very deep into our politics how money
is influencing our choices of who we are, who we elect, what
kind of country we want to have. It’s so profoundly
deep in our society, everywhere including France. So yeah. [ Inaudible ]>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani:
I’m so glad you said that because economics is
fundamental to this story and you see people who have had a
great deal, who lose everything. And people how have a great deal
but don’t feel connected to those that don’t have in this community. And I particularly
wanted to look at the way in which people how have had a lot
and lose everything, react to that. Some who spend the rest of their
lives in mourning and in lamentation for what could have
been and what was. And others who pull themselves up by
their socks and become something new and create a new creation
out of themselves as a result of this deprivation and this loss
and shaping up and separation from all that is familiar. and in particular I’ve
been fascinated by how that affects the women here. I hope that doesn’t
make me a feminist, but I really have been interested because in traditional Iranian
society women especially in the wealthy sector were
ornaments and were there to grace the lapel of the family. But when they find themselves
deprived of everything and end up working in a supermarket
and through toil and hard work getting their kids
raised, that’s strength of character and that’s reality in who they are. It’s not their brand, it’s
their strength and side. And I was hoping to break
through the us and them in order to show that inner strength. This is a book called us
and them with the connected in the middle of us and them. It’s not us vs. them,
it’s not us or them. It’s not even us, gap, and gap them. It’s us and them. So I hope that that new word that combines the two illustrates
the sort of strength that we need to rise above these and to
bring together the extremes that are pulling societies apart. Yeah. [ Inaudible ]>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: Exactly and
that’s the beautiful irony you know? You find that the deprivation
is actually the opportunity for growth sometimes. [ Inaudible ]>>Bahiyyih Nakhjavani:
That’s so interesting. First of all I must say
that universal element, that rootedness in our identity. I played with that through the
metaphor of smells in this book. So all the way through you’ve
got a thread of feno Greek and wherever you happen to go
there is Persian [Inaudible] and it does not change no matter which country you’re
in or anything else. The symbol of that thing which
keeps us always Persian or Iranian but what you said about
Iranian film I think is so important and so interesting. In that chapter that I read a little
bit of called losing the plot, at the end of that
chapter because it starts if you recall about a film. It says the old film ended as most
of these old films do with a sunset and a rose and it ends up
talking about modern film, modern Iranian film and you realize
that the voice of the we here as clearly distinguished in
the beginning that we are old. The old we has great difficulty with
modern Iranian film, and the reason for it is maybe I could just
read one little tiny paragraph to clarify what I mean,
or is there no time. No time, you have to read the book.>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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