- Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit
Gillian Whitlock has written a timely book that should be required reading for courses on the Middle East and global cultural studies. Responding to a post-9/11 fixation on the Muslimwoman,1 she reviews a broad array of autobiographical writings primarily by Muslim women in order to explore their political uses: “Life writing has played a major role in the global com-modification of cultural differences that has been a boom industry in the recent past” (p. 54).
The numerous stories women tell of suffering behind the veil—some genuine, others concocted for political purposes—lead Whitlock to characterize autobiography as a “soft weapon” because it is “easily co-opted into propaganda” (pp. 3, 105). However, these life narratives are also vitally important because they can perform “small acts of cultural translation in a time of precarious life” (p. 23). The challenge to the autobiographer is to walk the fine line between co-optation and cultural translation.
Distinguishing among testimony, autoethnography, and memoir, Whitlock spans the spectrum of life narratives from subalterns who have no cultural capital to the public intellectuals who do. Whitlock observes that the information revolution has allowed new voices to be heard and “new possibilities for political action” to be created (p. 25). She begins with Pax, a blogger in Baghdad who chronicled the creeping U.S. occupation of his city, and the generally collective and pseudonymous testimonials by Afghan women that flooded the literary market in 2003. Identifying the reader of these texts as American and probably female, Whitlock criticizes the publishers’ insistence on the ghoulish burka covers that invite the reader to enter into the mysterious realm of unknown women’s lives, to unveil the victim, and thus to bring her into “our” civilization. The “mass marketing of these images of absolute difference in times of resurgent fundamentalisms” is politically instrumental, and it is a trap that the wary reader needs to avoid (p. 47). She concludes that while these narratives may have been useful to Afghan feminists because they have served to broadcast the story of Afghan women’s resistance and “campaign for a secular and democratic sovereign state,” they have also allowed empathic Western readers to wallow in their privileged status (p. 67).
The goal of such subaltern texts is to speak truth to power; however, in order to gain autobiographical authority and readership, they must enlist endorsements. Whitlock exposes the motivations of endorsers like Jean Sasson whose lucrative, voyeuristic recording of the victimization of women in Iraq and Saudi Arabia allowed her to establish the wildly successful Sasson Corporation, which brands and markets narratives to a mass audience. Such processing of suffering dovetails with hoax texts that do so [End Page 190] much damage to the rights of those who have really suffered from, or who are campaigning against, the injustices that the fraudulent author claims to have undergone.2 While Whitlock laments the reduction of Islamic Arab cultures to “an estranged ahistorical land of Bedouin custom and ancient tradition,” she does not condemn the hoax outright (p. 129). It provides a corrective to unthinking empathy: “As parasites, hoax texts draw attention to the processes of syndication and legitimation of subaltern life story and the global economy and commodification of trauma and testimony” (p. 128).
Since 9/11, a wave of memoirs has hit the market. Some are written by embedded Western journalists witnessing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and others by Iranian women in exile, none more extraordinary than the “autobiographical performance of professorial authority” by the notorious Azar Nafisi (p. 21). So familiar has this Iranian author become that Audi employed her, unveiled and therefore as a symbol of an Iranian woman’s liberation in the West, to promote their cars (for an amazing image see p. 167). Not only does she sell cars, her emphasis on the clash of Western and Iranian civilizations serves to reassert “the universality and greatness of the Western canon” (p. 22). Whitlock concludes with a contrasting case: the graphic autobiography. Iranian Marjane Satrapi uses the...