For six years I have been speaking about the Middle East in schools, libraries, and community centers in the U.S. I discuss my novels set in Iran, and my experience at Iran's first International Children's Book Festival. I also show photos of the Iranian school children, teens, and college students I've met -- young women who asked me about their career paths. "Should I be an electrical or mechanical engineer?" Yet, every time I give talks, people ask, "Are girls really allowed to attend school in Iran?" Some have even said, "Who teaches them?" Perhaps the right question is, who is teaching Americans to think this?
Is it the media that focuses on conflict in general and within the Middle East in particular? A media that portrays the Prophet Muhammad lewdly and grossly misrepresents Islam as we've recently witnessed in the French magazine and the anti-Islam YouTube video. A media that served us Newsweek's cover image "Muslim Rage," and the new Hollywood film Argo, which has brought tumultuous images from 30 years ago of the Iran hostage crisis to the forefront of our minds. All of this is enough to convince most of us to distrust new information we see with our own eyes -- images of young women in Iran going to school, art centers, museums, book festivals -- because we've been "mediawashed" into imagining that part of the world as backward, anti-women, anti-American and undereducated.
When I think of the Middle East, I see a Turkish girl in flowered pantaloons racing her father to the top of an apricot tree. I hear the lively conversation among computer science students -- men and women -- huddled with backpacks alongside the metro tracks at Istanbul Technical University. I smell the hand-dipped candles inside the chapel dedicated to St. Paul in Damascus, and witness Muslim pilgrims reaching out to caress the marble shrine of St. John the Baptist. I marvel at the Syrian metal artisans tapping poetry into red brass with coils of silver. Not least, I feel the slant of light on the plush red carpet inside Mahmet Pasa Cami, the cozy mosque amidst the clamor of Istanbul's Sultanahmet district, inviting residents and guests of all religions, and no religion, inside for a moment of peace. Yet when I try to convey this rich beauty to others, they respond as one librarian did, by saying, "But strife is all that there is over there."
I am met with similar views and wariness as I navigate the literary world, too. While I have published a novel set in Iran with a mainstream publisher, a book that received national recognition, I am faced with challenges as I continue to write and speak about the Middle East.
I submitted a picture book to an editor for consideration that was set in Granada, Spain's, Alhambra Palace during the time of the Moors. In this tale Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities celebrate their common taste for a scrumptious Mediterranean meatball dish. The editor's response to my manuscript was, "Since 9-11, no one in New York will publish this."
Months later, I was uninvited to a school where I had planned to discuss my novels set in Iran because of concerns that a presentation about the Middle East would be too controversial.
And most recently, when submitting a time travel novel to a literary agent that features an American high school student living in London, and a Medieval Syrian astrolabe maker (the story takes place in London and Damascus) the agent remarked, "Is there some way to set the story in the U.S.?"
Themes I have found prevalent in trade market literature on the Middle East written for youth and adults are mostly related to wars, refugees, revolutions, martyrs, or terrorists. Often fiction portrays male characters who are patriarchal or neglectful fathers, husbands who possess more than one wife, and brides who work their fingers to the bone for unappreciative mothers-in-law. Perhaps these books represent aspects of the story that is the Middle East. But this story is incomplete.
At a time when so much misrepresentation of Islam and the Middle East pervades the media, one would hope our publishers, literary agents, and educators would embrace books on the region that would educate Americans about the varied, accomplished, and artistic cultures in that part of the world. The Middle East is filled with people whose family lives and aspirations are much like our own. One would hope for access to fiction and nonfiction (preferably translated works from the region) that like the Oscar-winning movie A Separation, would enlarge our context beyond insular views or unexamined assumptions.
The photograph that accompanies this blog post is a collage of some of the men I met in Iran in 2005 and 2009. It depicts a provincial minister of culture, a poet who is also a children's television programmer, two book translators, an interpreter, a publisher, and a father and child I chatted with on a plane to Esfahan. Unlike the angry men depicted in the Newsweek cover, the smiling faces of the men I met in Iran are representative of those I've encountered during the twenty-seven years I have traveled and studied in Turkey, Iran, Syria, Qatar and Uzbekistan. If only others could experience this warmth, be it in person, or through stories that take us to places we've never been and introduce us to people we come to know and love. Perhaps such a warmth could refine the stoniness of our perceptions and transform it into something more beautiful and translucent: a ruby able to reflect the abundance of light surrounding all of humanity.