Shakespeare in Wonderland – not Tehran

American scholar turns Orientalist and leaves his Iranian hosts startled.

Stephen Greenblatt [Getty]
Stephen Greenblatt [Getty]

What happens to an otherwise exquisite scholar with a stellar record of critical thinking when he is suddenly stricken with a rather late middle age crisis of wanderlust and turns into a belated Orientalist entirely, unbecomingly, oblivious to a vast body of scholarship before or after the signature text of his own towering literary colleague Edward Said? It is quite uncanny.

In April 2014 Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and one of most prominent literary scholars of our time, received an invitation from Tehran University to deliver a keynote at a Shakespeare conference. He accepted the invitation, attended the conference, delivered his keynote, did some additional sightseeing on the side, and retuned to Cambridge to publish a travelogue of this visit at the New York Review of Books about a year later in its April 2015 issue. 

Old rituals course through Iranian zurkhaneh

Before I had even seen or read this essay, but immediately after its publication, I began receiving heartbroken messages via email and Facebook by students in Tehran University who had attended Greenblatt’s lecture, wondering what I thought of his account.

Broke the salt shaker

“He ate our salt and broke the salt shaker,” one student wrote, referring to a Persian proverb marking the ingratitude of a guest who partakes freely in a people’s hospitality and then leaves to badmouth them. 

“It reads like a freaking 19th century picaresque,” another senior professor of English (though not from Tehran but from another major Iranian university) told me in Melbourne where she and I were attending a conference when Greenblatt’s piece hit the Internet.

I have encouraged these Iranian students and colleagues to write their own versions of the event and responses to that travelogue and publish them. I was not present at this or any other conference at Tehran University. I am a persona non grata in my own homeland, its institutions of higher learning now entirely under the militant ideological control of a clerical clique and their administrative apparatchiks.

I soon read Greenblatt’s account and was more than anything else deeply saddened, disappointed, embarrassed even that a leading American literary scholar could sign his name to that unfortunate prose. It is, alas, James Morier’s “Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan” (1824) redux. 

As a literary scholar I continue to hold Greenblatt in highest regards and regret to see his good name affiliated with a deeply flawed and distorted vision of something that could have awakened him to a far clearer and more ennobling reading of my homeland, its dearest virtues and its nastiest vices.

James Morier, British diplomat and author (1780-1849) [Getty]
James Morier, British diplomat and author (1780-1849) [Getty]


The essay begins with an aging man’s adolescent reminiscences about his fascination with things “Persian” – and thereafter it is bejeweled with Oriental fantasies from “Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes” to Robert Byron’s (oh God Almighty where is my pillow) “The Road to Oxiana”.

The infantile Oriental fantasies eventually yield to sophomoric snapshots of the counterculture of the 1960s when our distinguished colleague entertained the idea of “pooling funds to buy a used VW bus and driving across Persia and Afghanistan and then, skirting the tribal territories, descending through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and on to India”.

I so wish he had done so and gotten the bug out of his system there and then. 

Social condition in Iran

Greenblatt accepts the invitation to go while fully cognisant of the official abuse of Iranian citizens, the absence of liberty, and the prevalence of censorship. From these critical assessments of the social condition in Iran he moves to the anti-Zionist statements of his own immediate host, which he reads as anti-Semitic and as “reminiscent of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'”.

I have no clue who that host is, and when I searched the references Greenblatt makes to him, he is still Hecuba to me, and what his credentials are either to convene a conference on Shakespeare or opine on the Israeli-Palestinian disaster is even more Greek to me. But equally bewildered I am by Greenblatt’s own conflating the legitimate and now global criticism of the inordinate power and influence of Zionists in the US with anti-Semitism. This is too much of a Zionist propaganda cliche to come from a leading literary critic.

Does Greenblatt who rightly and elegantly preaches 'the humane complexity of Shakespeare's tragedies' not see his own implication in the systematic thievery of Palestine and the slaughter of Palestinians?


Does Greenblatt actually read the news when safely back in Cambridge? Has he witnessed the obscene spectacle of Netanyahu and Adelson at the US Congress or even the more pugnacious power of career opportunists like Senator Thomas Cotton and 46 other US Senators on the AIPAC and other Zionist outfits payroll, and this according to the perfectly New York liberal Nation magazine and not by any “anti-Semitic” idiot in Iran? 

Does Greenblatt who rightly and elegantly preaches “the humane complexity of Shakespeare’s tragedies” not see his own implication in the systematic thievery of Palestine and the slaughter of Palestinians? Does marking and dismissing an Iranian demagogue (whose invitation to go to Iran he has readily accepted) really exonerate the corrupting power of the Zionist lobby in the US? Where is the Shakespearean “humane complexity” here? 

Greenblatt continues with his wide-eyed Alice in Wonderland visit to Iran, returns home obviously disappointed that his Oriental fantasies were not satisfied: “A twinge of disappointment is built into the fulfillment of any desire that has been deferred for too long, so it is not surprising that my experience of paradise, in the form of the Bagh-e Fin, was a slight letdown.” 

Condescending attitude

Letdown indeed – from more than one side. The most disappointing aspect of the account is the condescending attitude of Greenblatt towards the young Iranian students who attended his lecture: “Most of the questions were from students, the majority of them women, whose boldness, critical intelligence, and articulateness startled me. Very few of the faculty and students had traveled outside of Iran, but the questions were, for the most part, in flawless English and extremely well informed.” 

Why “startled?” There is the rub. Am I to be startled by my students, from around the US as from around the world, in my classes and lectures at Columbia or on any other US campuses by their command of English or critical intelligence, and perhaps write an ethnographic account of my amazement to be published at NYRB?  This is where the critical intelligence of the scholar himself fails catching him with his oblivious hands sneaking into the cookie jar of patronising Orientalism. 

There is nothing startling about the command of the colonised world over English, whose leading writers have produced some of the most magnificent literary masterpieces of English literature. It is the provincial amazement at the heart of the colonising cultures that is indeed startling. 

I am now convinced that the fears of cultures alienated on the spectrum of self-raising, other-lowering topography of “the West and the Rest” can never overcome its absolutist metaphors. They have been embedded in the youthful and adolescent fantasies of aging scholars and one quick trip to their Orient they gush out against all their otherwise critical judgment. 

Greenblatt’s official hosts may in fact be all he says they were, and Iran is indeed in the nasty claws of a garish tyranny, but those beautiful minds, those grateful, defiant, magnificent, aspiring young scholars who sat reverently in front of him and engaged with him so joyously and critically deserve much more – and yet right now they are bouncing their proverbial Persian and their idiomatic Shakespeare together and murmuring: How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless guest!    

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.