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Reviewed by:
  • Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit
  • John Marx (bio)
Gillian Whitlock . Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007. 248 pp. ISBN 0-226-89526-2, $20.00.

Anyone who sets out to analyze writing from and about the world's hot spots faces the challenge of separating signal from noise without, as it were, ignoring the significance of the noise entirely. In the case of Gillian Whitlock's topic, autobiography from the Middle East and Islamic Asia, that noise is East/West rhetoric of the sort propagated by Samuel Huntington and his ilk. It would be foolish to imagine that one could conduct a close reading of Latifa's My Forbidden Face or Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran without acknowledging the field-defining force of such works as The Clash of Civilizations. And yet, the ludicrous superficiality of East/West-ism is such that to credit its power can feel like giving up on satisfactorily complicated analysis of geopolitical representation.

Whitlock stares down this problem in her second chapter. She describes a display at a Melbourne airport bookstore that featured multiple copies of Latifa and Nafisi's volumes as well as Jean Sasson's Mayada: Daughter of Iraq. "Stretched across the back wall . . . were multiple images of veiled Muslim women—the totally effaced woman in the burka on the purple cover of My Forbidden Face, the more erotic sexualized gaze over the chador on the glossy black cover of Mayada, and the dark monotone of the young veiled women in chador on the sepia cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran" (45–47). This "exotic display" effectively interpellated her, Whitlock recounts, "as a liberal Western consumer who desires to liberate and recognize Latifa by lifting the burka and bringing her alongside us, barefaced in the West" (47). A canonical dynamic if ever there was one, this is clearly not Whitlock's problem alone. She recounts numerous instances where the veil anchors just such a relationship between "us" and "them," the most spectacular of which features Oprah and Zoya (author of Zoya's Story) at a 2001 Madison Square Garden fundraiser for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Zoya describes the event in her book: "When the time came for me to go on stage, after Oprah Winfrey had read [Eve Ensler's poem] 'Under the Burqa,' all the lights went off save for one that was aimed directly at me. I had been asked to wear my burqa, and the light streamed in through the mesh in front of my face. . . . Slowly, very slowly, Oprah lifted the burqa off me and let it fall to the stage" (qtd. in Whitlock 52). [End Page 377]

"What do we 'buy into' with this kind of cultural exchange?", Whitlock asks (49). A veritable buffet of undesirable items is the answer, including portions of "exoticism and neoprimitivism," not to mention "propaganda" justifying "military intervention in the name of (among other things) the liberation of women oppressed by Islamic fundamentalism" (49). But, Whitlock cautions, "this is not the sum total" of the life narratives arrayed before her at the Melbourne bookstore (49). The veil is more than a figure for civilizational clash. It is also "a rich and nuanced phenomenon, a language that communicates social and cultural messages" (48). Autobiography transmits this language. But if we are to understand it, we need to figure out how and when to articulate the particularity of each discrete and idiosyncratic life story to the larger social narratives that autobiographies help to shape and that are shaped by them in return.

Thus, in her chapter on Afghani self-representation, Whitlock describes an array of strategies that play out through stories of veiling and unveiling. The default discourse of Orientalism may structure much of what goes on in these tales, but a book like Zoya's Story does not leave that structure alone. Even when she presents herself as the veiled woman so prominent in Orientalist word and image, Zoya also speaks as the member of an "organized resistance" opposed equally to the Taliban and a prolonged American occupation. "She visits the metropolis as an activist," Whitlock argues, who defends social...


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pp. 377-379
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