Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Countering Orientalism: Sara Farizan's IF YOU COULD BE MINE

If I say the words "romance" and "Middle East," what are the first images that pop into your mind? The harem or seraglio, overflowing with women all poised to sexually serve one man? Warrior sheiks in flowing robes, kidnapping and seducing/raping European women? Or something a bit more modern? A sheikh category romance? A woman enveloped in a burqa, her sexuality carefully hidden from view?

I'm betting the words "lesbian" and "transsexual" were not at the top of your list. But these are the very words Sara Farizan, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, challenges Western readers to consider when they pick up her young adult novel, If You Could Be Mine. Eschewing stereotypical western constructions of eastern love and sexuality, Farizan asks us to imagine living in a country in which homosexual relations are forbidden, even punishable by death, but simultaneously where sex-change surgery is governmentally sanctioned: modern-day Iran. Her novel's narrator, seventeen-year-old Sahar, has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for as long as she can remember. Their emotional connection has recently shifted toward sexual exploration, although Nasrin insists "We aren't gay, we are just in love." Smart, ambitious Sahar dreams of becoming a doctor, and works hard to win a coveted place at Tehran University. Nasrin, the child of well-to-do parents, has rarely had to work hard for anything, and avoids thinking about the future whenever possible.

But the future arrives far more quickly than either Sahar or Nasrin could have imagined, in the form of a formal offer for Nasrin's hand in marriage by an eminently-eligible older suitor. Pleased by the attention and wary of disappointing her family, Nasrin accepts, unwilling to believe that such an act could push Sahar from her life. But Sahar isn't willing to share Nasrin with anyone. How can she keep the girl she loves more than anyone from leaving her behind?

After meeting Parveen, a woman who has recently undergone sex change surgery, at a party thrown by her unconventional cousin Ali, Sahar grabs onto one final hope: by becoming a man, might she be able to prevent Nasrin's marriage?

Clip from Be Like Others
Farizan, likely inspired by Tanaz Eshaghian's 2008 documentary, Be Like Others (also known as Transsexual in Iran), explores both the freedoms and the oppressions of living in a society in which transsexuality is seen as a curable illness, but homosexuality as a moral abomination. Through Sahar, readers are asked to consider not only the conventional questions of romance (How important is love to a successful romantic relationship? Sexual attraction? Compatibility? Personal integrity? Care for the other?), but also less conventional questions, questions about gender, sexuality, and the often confusing intersections between the two.

While Sahar's story is more coming-of-age than happily-ever-after-romance, Farizan's novel offers a welcome alternative to the stereotypes of both the dominating sheikh and the oppressed and repressed burqa-enshrouded woman that all-too-often haunt western popular culture, and especially the romance genre.

Photo credits:
Valentino as the Sheik: Rae Summers
Be Like Others clip: AllMovie

If You Could Be Mine
Algonquin, 2013


  1. Wow this sounds very interesting.

  2. hey nice post meh, I love your style of blogging here. this post reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: Guy Talking With Girl .
    keep up the good work friend. I will be back to read more of your posts.