Veiled irrelevance: a surprising point of connection?
As ever slow on the uptake, but I finally got round to reading Azar Nafisi’s beautifully written 2004 book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a rich, highly thoughtful and thought-provoking memoir from an Iranian English literature professor about her life and students (in particular the small but diverse group of women in her reading group). She meditates deeply on her culture, on their favourite authors and their books, on the simple wonders of reading. She makes extraordinary, unexpected connections – which aid understanding of both the literature and life in Tehran.
I loved the fact that we got to know these women for who they are (one or two religious, one or two radical and left-wing, others trying to get on) – it does wonders for dispelling caricatures and misapprehensions about Iran.
There’s so much that could be picked out. But let me just settle for this peculiarly lateral line of thought.
For a non-religious women, foreign-educated and teaching English literature at university level, it’s surprising perhaps that Nafisi was able to get any jobs at all – but she did teach in a number of institutions. It wasn’t to last of course, because eventually, she lost her job for refusing to wear a veil in the lecture room at the University of Tehran. She did wear a scarf when out and about – moral enforcement teams cruising the streets in their Toyota pickups made that imperative. So for Nafisi, the veil became symbolic of everything she was struggling with.
She looks back on her reading group, from her US exile:
The two photographs should be placed side by side. Both embody the “fragile unreality” – to quote Nabokov on his own state of exile – of our existence in the Islamic Republic of Iran. One cancels the other, and yet without one, the other is incomplete. In the first photograph, standing there in our black roles and scarves, we are as we had been shaped by someone else’s dreams. In the second, we appear as we imagined ourselves. In neither could we feel completely at home. (p24)
In her mind, the veil renders her invisible, indistinguishable, and ultimately irrelevant:
I wrote, rather dramatically, to an American friend: “You ask me what it means to be irrelevant? The feeling is akin to visiting your old house as a wandering ghost with unfinished business. Imagine going back: the structure is familiar, but the door is now metal instead of wood, the walls have been painted a garish pink, the easy chair you loved so much is gone. Your office is now the family room and your beloved bookcases have been replaced by a brand-new television set. This is your house, and it is not. And you are no longer relevant to this house, to its walls and doors and floors; you are not seen.” (p169)
This is not to say that she has no sympathy with those who cover up. She’s far too nuanced and sensitive to culture for that, appreciative as she is of what the veil meant for her grandmother for example:
There is something peculiar about the way they wear their chadors. I have noticed it in many other women, especially the younger ones. For there is in them, in their gestures and movements, none of the shy withdrawal of my grandmother, whose every gesture begged and commanded the beholder to ignore her, to bypass her and leave her alone. All through my childhood and early youth, my grandmother’s chador had a special meaning to me. It was a shelter, a world apart from the rest of the world. I remember the way she wrapped her chador around her body and the way she walked around her yard when the pomegranates were in bloom. Now the chador was forever marred by the political significance it had gained. It had become cold and menacing, worn by women like Miss Hatef and Miss Ruhi with defiance. (p192)
But here’s the random thought.
There is a New Testament phrase, (over-)familiar to all who know Paul’s letters well, which I have never ceased to find haunting or be drawn back to.
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing (Phil 2:6-7)
That last phrase has perplexed theologians down the centuries – all manner of kenosis theory has been proposed, but to my mind, they often miss the point. For Paul does not seem (to me at least) to be wanting to plumb deep Christological conundrum here – instead he’s focusing on the cost and sacrifice he made at his incarnation. 2:6-8 depict a cosmic descent, albeit a deliberate one.
And the most astonishing aspect of his becoming human was the sheer ignobility of it. He became nothing – not in terms of existence but status. He was as nothing. Invisible, irrelevant. He… the cosmic creator. It’s an utterly bewildering suggestion.
I’ve spent years trying to find analogies to grasp this: in my Cross-Examined, I picked up on Primo Levi’s extreme experience of nothingness in Auschwitz, as recounted in If This is a Man. A more mundane but nevertheless dehumanising, daily equivalent might be the way we repeatedly walk past the homeless on London’s streets. It is ‘easier’ simply to pretend they’re not there, than to do something about it.
And then there is Nafisi’s own testimony.
And this is what Christ became… the lowest of the low: deliberately… whole-heartedly… prodigally… for all the visible AND invisible ones…
For the one who made the invisible One visible, himself became invisible for the sake of the world’s invisible… for the truth is that in His eyes, even the invisible are visible.