I am rereading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. I enjoy this book, which is an odd mixture of memoir and literary criticism, among other reasons because it reminds me a little of my own life. Don’t get me wrong. Life in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is very different to life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. We enjoy much more freedom here; for example, it is not the law for women to veil, although all Mauritanians do because it is their culture. Mauritanian women don’t fit many Western stereotypes of Muslim women—they drive cars, own businesses, work in the government. But I see many similarities in our students.

Unlike Nafisi, I don’t teach literature. I taught Writing to the 4th-year English students at the University of Nouakchott for 3 years, but this year I’m only supervising 15 thesis students. To better understand the quality of Mauritania’s only university, instead of “thesis” you should think of it as a 40-pg research paper that has to be defended orally. And even though I don’t teach literature (it’s not that they haven’t asked me), because of my background in lit most of my students are doing literary topics.

Papers are due April 30, which is soon. (In fact, I’m not really blogging right now—I’m correcting papers) In the time-honored tradition of students around the world, the procrastinators are only now getting serious. One of my students chose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; perhaps the most famous love story in English history. About a week ago, he flung the beginning to his introduction on my desk one evening, and left. Reading his work later, I was startled to read that the fault of the whole tragedy lies in the person of Juliet, instead of in circumstance, chance, and the pointless feud between the families Montague and Capulet. No, according to my student, Juliet was a corrupt woman who had no business marrying someone of whom her family didn’t approve. She should have recognized that, as a member of the weaker sex, she couldn’t possibly go against her father and expect to succeed. As a result, she basically killed Romeo.

Now before you spew your coffee all over your keyboard (ick!), let me explain a little about marriage in this country. First of all, Juliet’s age (14) wouldn’t be a problem. That’s a good age for a woman’s first marriage. This is changing, of course, but in the villages and certain areas of the city, it’s still the norm. Her husband, however, would typically be about 35—it takes a lot of money to get married. Secondly, although women are given the right to refuse a marriage to a specific person, they can’t just go out and marry anyone they choose. Marriages take place within families, extended families, tribes—but not usually beyond that. Muslim men can marry Western women, but Muslim women can’t marry Western men. Their families simply would not allow that.

But, I argued with my student, if you are going to say this about Juliet, wasn’t it equally Romeo’s fault? No, he said. Juliet was a corrupt woman. Romeo was good, he killed Juliet’s cousin in the feud, he was swayed by this evil woman. He was innocent.

I explained that from Shakespeare’s point of view, the family feud wasn’t a good thing that must be upheld. Instead, love, forgiveness, unity, peace were ideals. The tragedy lies in the fact that through their marriage and happiness, the feud could have been ended, once and for all, and this pointless killing stopped. Oh! he said. This was obviously a new idea. In the second (typed!) version of his paper, he has changed to my point of view. I don’t know if he’s convinced, or just wanting to make me happy.

When you plan to move overseas you take courses and seminars on learning to deal with another culture, and they talk to you about “worldview.” This has to do with the unspoken assumptions that we all make, based on our culture and family background and beliefs, when we view the world—the grid that we filter our experiences through. So that one could read a great love story and blame the woman, or read The Scarlet Letter and miss Hawthorne’s scathing indictment of the townspeople’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and see only a woman’s adultery. And yet, what does literature do if not provide us with a mirror to see our world, to see ourselves? The challenge is to help them see it, instead of leaving unchanged, their lives unexamined, looking only at fictional characters and not at themselves.

The reason I said typed! was because first versions are usually written by hand on unlined paper, which tells you something else about resources available to most students.