Laetitia Nanquette / Middle East

Orientalism Versus Occidentalism

Have literary and cultural imagings between France and Iran since the Islamic Revolution overcome the processes of othering?

Orientalism versus Occidentalism

In 2005, while studying Persian at the University of Isfahan, I stumbled across a group of Iranian students who had formed reading sessions of French poetry. Their enthusiasm for French literature—which echoed my own for Persian texts—was what first sparked my interest in Franco-Iranian cultural relations.

I wondered from where this perception of a common spirit between these two quite different traditions had arisen; perhaps the link could be traced to a shared history of once regionally pre-eminent civilisations? Later, back in France, I discovered Iranian writers and their texts in exile. A whole new aspect in the field of Iranian literature then opened itself up before my eyes: one partly decentralized after the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war that forced many intellectuals and writers to go abroad, and one into which I knew I had do delve deeper.

If it is neither possible, nor perhaps desirable, to avoid constructs in representations of the Other, I believe, through analysis, readers can use—rather than be swayed by—their stereotypical and clichéd forms. Many representations that both France and Iran have of one another rely on media-circulated orientalist and occidentalist discourses, but in the large body of texts composed by contemporary French writers one can find nuances of Iran and also by contemporary Iranian writers, based both at home and in exile, of France. Let me give you two examples, one from each country.

Ghislaine Schoeller’s Marie d’Ispahan [1992] (Marie of Isfahan) is an historical novel that narrates the extraordinary life of Marie Petit, a washerwoman in the French provinces who comes to Paris and, thanks to her wit and beauty, is eventually accepted at the court of the King Louis XIV of France. [1] She is chosen for an embassy mission to represent the court and the princesses of France in Persia, where she accompanies her lover, the French diplomat Jean-Baptiste Fabre. The Persian character in this novel is always a far-away Other. He is never described at length, nor is he a character close to the French reader, thus he is rendered alius (other). Iran is similarly always portrayed as an abstract setting. The effect of narrative elements of time, space and lexicon work together to produce a tale that appears oriental. This characteristic is shared by many historical novels mainly written for the reader’s pleasure; part of that pleasure comes from knowing what one is going to read. I think understanding how this reading pleasure works, and what exactly those expectations are, when one reads an historical novel on the Orient, contributes greatly to one’s understanding of literature.

There are also books that subvert the tropes. They do use some occidentalist images, but twist them to depict a France that is not exactly what is expected. An example is the texts of Goli Taraqi, written in Persian and published in Iran. Most have been translated into French and English. One, Anar Banu va Pesar-ha-yash [2009] (The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons), is an autobiographical short story in which the narrator leaves Iran to return to France, where she lives most of the year. [2] At the airport in Tehran, she meets an old woman leaving her village in the province of Yazd for the first time in order to visit her sons, who have lived in Sweden for twelve years. The narrator is a modern occidentalised woman, hurried and intolerant of the failure of the old lady—who represents the traditional Iran lost by the narrator—to understand her surroundings. Yet, through their exile, the two female characters realise that they both represent Iran and are longing for it. Representations of France in this short story are nuanced and plural. Because of the narrator’s state of exile, there is no one single vignette of the host country: a subtle image always comes to break an earlier stereotype.

The very existence of these few texts of resistance is a counter-argument to Edward Said’s thesis that Europeans are ontologically unable to represent the oriental Other as anything else than an alius. I believe that it is only that they seldom do so. But what matters for Franco-Iranian relations is that these texts overcoming processes of othering do exist, and as such they transform French and Iranian characters into alter ego. ■

Orientalism versus OccidentalismLaetitia Nanquette is Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. In 2011-12, she was Fulbright Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar at Harvard University. She holds a PhD in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, for which she received the 2011 Honorable Mention of The Leigh Douglas Memorial Prize from the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies.

You May Also Like:
The Age of the Image
Iran and the Making of an Atomic State
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[1] Schoeller, Ghislaine. Marie d’Ispahan. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992.

[2] Taraqi, Goli. ‘Anar Banu va Pesar-ha-yash.’ In Ja’i Digar. Tehran: Nilufar, 2009.

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