Opening ‘windows’ to a nation in turmoil: Scholar decodes Iran

| Staff Reporter

The contested Iranian presidential election this summer and its bloody aftermath radically altered how many Americans view the Middle Eastern country.

In light of the violence and unexpected displays of rebellion, many Western news sources turned to experts with an understanding of both Iran and the United States. Washington University scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz was one of those experts.

Keshavarz, a professor of Persian and comparative literature who chairs the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature, granted interviews and commentaries to news sources, including CNN, NPR, Fox News, Democracy Now and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But Keshavarz has been speaking publicly about Iranian culture for years—as an author, blogger and commentator who focuses on combating misperceptions about Iran and highlighting its diverse voices.

Keshavarz said her roots in Iranian and American culture make her an effective cross-cultural communicator.

“Being a student of Persian and American poetry gives me deep love, and roots, in both cultures,” Keshavarz wrote in an e-mail to Student Life. “As a poet and literature specialist, I do have a vital role in the cross-cultural communication between Iranians and Americans. I show each culture the multiplicity of the voices of the other, the depth that must not be overlooked.”

Keshavarz said she sees her work as a public figure as a natural extension of her work as an educator.

“I don’t do [media appearances] as an activity on the side,” she wrote. “I deeply believe it to be an extension of my role as an academic/educator. It is in the nature of the global culture, unfolding before us, to remove borders and to put us on each other’s doorsteps.”

“On one level this is tremendously exciting because it gives us unimaginable opportunities for exploration and for getting to know one another,” she added.

Keshavarz has written articles for publications like the Post-Dispatch and Counterpunch since long before the election, and has for years maintained a blog, Windows on Iran, that provides a multitude of voices, news and perspectives—“windows”—from Iranian sources.

“I decided instead of being frustrated with misrepresentations and the unfounded news about Iran, I should do something to counter them,” Keshavarz wrote. “I received massive thank-you messages every week, and the list grew so large that I soon realized it should be converted into a blog.”

Keshavarz believes her work is a necessary corrective to what she sees as the U.S. media’s one-sided representation of the Iranian people.

“For a long time, the average American has had little access to news, and analysis, reflecting the complexity of the Iranian society. Until the recent post-election events in Iran, most of what we saw on TV and read in the papers portrayed Iran as a one-dimensional rather lifeless country that was interested only in religion.”

Keshavarz thinks that the election coverage, which portrayed the generally young Iranian protestors as sympathetic, is helping to change that view.

“When an image gels in the popular imagination, it is really hard to undo it except by a major shake-up. The good news is that this shake-up has now happened. Suddenly, the multitude of young, old, rich and poor Iranians did not seem like strangers any more. After all, they were asking for the same things we value here: freedom, democracy and change. Reading dozens of books could not have been as educational.”

Keshavarz is not the only voice on campus interested in broadening the discussion about Iran. Mitra Haeri, president of the student Iranian Culture Society, is one of many students who has been involved in opening the communication.

“In such a complicated area [the Middle East] with such a rich culture, the history of the region is absolutely critical to understanding the issues and possibly working towards a solution,” Haeri said. “The undergraduate population of Iranians and Iranian-Americans is very small in this community, but I feel like in the past few years we have made relatively large strides. Our events and film screenings are attended by non-Iranians for the most part, and I can’t help but feel like this does nothing but strengthen our presence on campus.”

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