“The Blind Censor”, “Keys to Heaven”, and the Orientalist Within

The occasion for writing this article was prompted by a moment of epiphany resulting from an exchange between me and one of my American colleagues. I had written my PhD dissertation on how the discourses of American captivity narratives and (neo-)Orientalism function in the memoirs of female Iranian-American authors and had then offered counter-narratives to some of the paradigmatic examples of Orientalist memoirs from the same diasporic community. In one part of my analysis of the Orientalist discourse, I discuss Azar Nafisi’s reference, in her (in)famous Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003),  to a man she insists was “the chief film censor” in post-revolutionary Iran. Here are Nafisi’s exact words:

The chief film censor in Iran, up until 1994, was blind. Well, nearly blind. Before that, he was the censor for theater. One of my playwright friends once described how he would sit in the theater wearing thick glasses that seemed to hide more than they revealed. (24)

In my discussion of Nafisi’s so-called memoir, I offer an analysis of the passage, arguing how the essentializing discourse of Orientalism makes possible the normalization of such absurd claims that, were they to be attributed to any white western polity, would probably raise more than  a few eyebrows. Coupled with the fashionable Islamic Republic bashing in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, and dramatically exacerbated by the Hostage Crisis (Nov. 1979-Jan. 1981), the seemingly omnipotent Orientalist discourse on Iran has had the mainstream western audience believe in literally anything — no matter how bizarre — about Iran, its revolution, culture, and especially its main religion, Islam. Since Iran has been, and woefully continues to be, persistently represented in the West as a country that epitomizes fanaticism and irrationality, nothing would be too unusual to expect from it. In analyzing the above quote from Nafisi’s tale, I draw attention to the absurdity of appointing a literally blind person— for Nafisi makes it quite clear that she is not speaking metaphorically— as a film censor. After all, in a country of forty million people (at the time), there must have been someone who was not blind and could still have been a censor, right? The professor begs to differ, though. I also try to illustrate that the comment seems to be primarily intended to disparage and ridicule, rather than to inform the readers of the actual condition of the censor’s eyesight.

All of this, nevertheless, apparently seemed irrelevant to my colleague, which then gave him enough reason to question: “But how do we know if the censor had not actually been blind?”

Judging, perhaps, by my wide-eyed incredulous gaze directed at no one and nowhere in particular, he thought it best to drop the matter and move swiftly on to his next set of questions. I thought, however, that now that the gauntlet had been thrown, it needed to be picked up or else it would leave its stigma on my magnum opus. Be that as it may, responding to that question, which since it had been uttered, was suspended in the air, hanging above my head like the sword of Damocles, proved to be more cumbersome than I had initially envisioned. Sitting across from me on the other side of the oval desk was a university professor, an esteemed academic, who had read an entire dissertation of, more than 250 pages of contextualization and in-depth analysis, and had not “got it”. How could I, then, get the point across to him in the very short time that I had, especially now that he had preferred, somehow triumphantly, to move on? To cut a long story short, I recapitulated the above arguments, tried to question the logic of appointing a blind person tosuch a position, referred to the fact that such dubious figures in Nafisi’s narrative always remain nameless caricatures, and then proceeded to link the censor to other instances of irrefutable fabrications and fallacies in the memoir. What I wished to have added, but brushed it off as an exercise in intellectual self-restraint, was that “That exactly is the power of Orientalist discourse, which makes one question not the accusation, no matter how absurd it might be, but the critique of it, no matter how convincing it might sound”. My colleague seemed convinced, or at least he pretended he was, and the gauntlet was not thrown down again in the course of our conversation.

I do not, however, wish to be misunderstood as insinuating that there was, or there is, no censorship in Iran and the whole idea is a figment of Nafisi’s phantasmagorical imagination. Rather, I am trying to illustrate how Orientalism as a dominant western discourse has made possible the production, promotion, and almost unquestioned reception of such absurdities. A thorough discussion of censorship is, indeed, beyond the purview of this article. However, one could argue whether censoring western books and films considered by the State to be antithetical to Perso-Islamic Iranian culture in the Iran of the 80s (and in today’s Iran, too) is more insidious or, say, the censorship— in the form of a disturbing silence, apathy, or distortion— in the mainstream U.S. media about the massacre of Palestinians by the Zionist regime, the genocide  in Yemen by allies of the U.S., or the plight of the Rohingya for that matter, in all of which the U.S. is either directly or by proxy implicated.

Let me now, for the purposes of my discussion, and for this example not to look like a rare, isolated instance of innocent blunder, move on to a similar anecdote that will hopefully set the stage for the crust of my argument.

One common myth that appears in many writings on Iran is the “golden keys to heaven” (in some accounts, plastic keys) given to young Iranian soldiers during the Iraqi imposed war on Iran, so that they could open the doors of heaven and access its pleasures upon their arrival. Nafisi, for instance, writes in Reading Lolita in Tehran of the young soldiers “who had been mobilized by the excitement of carrying real guns and the promise of keys to a heaven where they could finally enjoy all the pleasures from which they had abstained in life” (209). In Iran Awakening (2006), Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Peace Nobel Laureate, claims: “Every night, the television showed footage of young recruits, wearing red bandannas and their keys to heaven around their necks, boarding buses for the Iraqi battlefields” (p.61). In a similar vein, the Stanford University professor, Abbas Milani, writing for Boston Review in a 2007 essay claimed that “Plastic keys, ostensibly good for opening the door to heaven, and to erotic and culinary delights, were … given to these young men, who walked to their deaths”. In a letter addressed to the former Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, published on National Review, Michael Ledeen, “an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer” and “a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense”, according to the website, writes: “Indeed, you were so certain they [the young soldiers] would be killed, that these little children were provided with plastic keys that were said to open the gates to paradise”. One could go on with many other instances of the same concept perpetuated in academia, pop culture, and literature on Iran.

In an article submitted for publication to an American journal, Professor Mohammad Marandi, himself a war veteran and a survivor of two western-backed chemical attacks, critiques the myth of the golden/plastic keys, which he says never existed and which he has never seen during his long time on the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, he was asked by the journal editor to furnish evidence that such keys did not exist. Anyone with as little as a rudimentary knowledge of argumentation and logic would most probably know that it is upon the propagators of the myth to provide the evidence that the keys did exist, not the contrary. Interestingly, in my research for this article, I came across requests by other researchers to see even a single photo or footage of such keys. None, indeed, is to be had. The myth, however, continues to enjoy a life of its own.

Let me now proceed to the crust of my argument, which is twofold. Firstly, as I have hopefully made clear by now, such instances of myth, fabrication, or exaggeration attest to the dominance and power that Orientalist discourse still hold both in the popular imagination and in more seemingly intellectual circles, such as the academia (as evidenced by the Princeton Professor’s regurgitation of the keys-to-heaven myth). By attributing irrationality, fanaticism, barbarity, bloodlust, perversity, excess, and corruption of all sorts, the Orientalist discourse dehumanizes the Oriental/Muslim Other and renders him essentially inferior to their civilized, logical, rational, and ‘normal’ western counterparts. Irredeemably reduced to figments of a western colonial imagination, constantly and consistently perpetuated through a complex nexus of media linked to institutions of power and finance, anything can now be attributed to them with absolute impunity, authority, and credibility. Thus, when in May 2006, Canada’s National Post published a sensational piece by Benador Associates and Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born U.S. neoconservative, claiming that the Iranian Parliament had passed a sumptuary law requiring Jewish citizens to wear a yellow insignia – reminiscent of the policies of Nazi Germany– few people in the west questioned the veracity of so egregious a fabrication, which, for damage control purposes, had to be eventually discredited and Benador Associate admitted to planting the piece. Therefore, accusations that are considered offensive, racist, sexist, xenophobic, or outright preposterous if imputed to any western country or culture, can be safely attributed to non-western countries and peoples without much ado. This reminds us of Said’s observation in his Orientalism that “Orientalists know things by definition that Orientals cannot know on their own” (300). In the context of our discussion, we can say that Orientalists know the full extent of the Orientals’ fanaticism, irrationality, etc. better than Orientals themselves and, as such, are anything but surprised by such instances as mentioned above.

The second point is perhaps a bit more subtle. In his “A Sermon on Kristallnacht”, (published in Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich– Edited by Dean Stroud, 2013) delivered on November 16, 1938 following Kristallnacht (i.e., the violent persecution of Jews in Germany) Helmut Gollwitzer writes:

There are enough indications alerting us to the fact that the current fronts do not fall simply into categories of guilt and innocence, black and white. We have been trapped in the same great guilt and our faces also turn red with shame and we are afflicted by a common disgrace. It is inside us all; this truth that upright men and women can turn into horrible beasts is an indication of what lies hidden within each of us to a greater or lesser degree. All of us have done our part in this: one by being a coward, another by comfortably stepping out of everyone’s way, by passing by, by being silent, by closing our eyes, by laziness of heart that only notices another’s need when it is openly apparent, by the damnable caution that lets itself be prevented from every good deed, by every disapproving glance and every threatening consequence, by the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves. In all these ways we are exposed as the guilty people we are, as men and women who have just enough love left over for God and our neighbor to give away when there is no effort or annoyance involved.

Gollwitzer, of course, was speaking about a different occasion, but one that bears striking resemblances to the condition of non-western peoples, particularly Muslims, both in the Middle East (and other non-western countries) and also in the so-called first world countries, particularly in “the land of the free”, and more specifically in the Trump era. As Gollwitzer argues, it is not enough to merely point out the totalizing and totalitarian binaries that have for so long divided the world into the civilized west and its inferior Oriental Other, or as Niall Fergusen has (in)famously termed it, “The West and the Rest”. Nor is it enough, although it is necessary, to lay bare how the dominant Orientalist discourse serves to dehumanize and delegitimize entire nations, religions, and cultures. Rather, one only needs to look no further than inside themselves to see the Orientalist within. The mentality that allows us to hold racial prejudice against other minorities whose only fault happens to be their different complexion. There is a great deal of power—  cultural, religious, political, and even military— implied by and embedded in the very act of looking down on people of other colors, nations, and faiths. Discrimination does not necessarily need to come from an Adolf Hitler, a Donald Trump, or an Aung San Suu Kyi, for that matter. Nor does one need to join the ranks of Bernard Lewis or Azar Nafisi to qualify as a (neo-)Orientalist. Any act that reinforces the binary perception of the world and authorizes one to assume moral superiority (and by extension responsibility) over the other is rooted in an Orientalist mentality. And Orientalism need not be necessarily applied to the people of Orient. What has been termed Occidentalism — even though it has never existed as a systematic totalizing attitude toward the western other— is Orientalism in reverse, i.e., applying the same Orientalist clichés, oversimplifications, and sweeping generalizations to the west. The “horrible beast” that Gollwitzer cautions us against has its ways of justifying not only its existence, but its horribleness, too. It is incumbent upon us as members of the larger human society — for any real change cannot but originate from the grassroots— to challenge, resist, and fight back to the polarizing discourse that seeks to further separate people, demonizing one and valorizing the other. It is only then that we can begin to keep the beast in check, not letting it determine and define for us how to perceive and receive the myriad “others” constructed for us consumers by morally bankrupt institutions of power, wealth, and privilege. Unless and until we dethrone the Orientalist beast within— that urges us to believe in a blind censor or keys to heaven or numerous similar gibberish— from its undeserved long-held dominion, and reinstate in its place rationality, critical thinking and analysis, sympathy, and self-consciousness, and unless we can care enough to pause and ponder, not to sit passively or pass by apathetically, there will be little, if any, hope for a better world ahead of us and our posterity.

Hossein Nazari is an Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Tehran.