Excerpted from Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Copyright © 2003 by Azar Nafisi. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Azar Nafisi
Random House Reader’s Circle: In Reading Lolita in Tehran, you wrote about how it was not until you returned to the land of your birth, Iran, that you realized the true meaning of exile. Can you explain that seeming paradox, and do you still feel that way almost ten years after returning to the U.S.? Are there layers or levels of exile, just as, perhaps, there are of home?
Azar Naﬁsi: Well, I think there are deﬁnitely different levels to exile. Physical or geographical exile is the most obvious, but I think the most excruciating is feeling exiled or out of place in your own home. For instance, when I went back, I had been dreaming of returning home to Iran since I was thirteen–which meant that the Iran I had created in my mind would already have been very different from the one that actually existed. In addition, I was returning to revolutionary Iran, where everything that I had called home–the streets of my childhood, their names–had changed. Some of the movie houses where I had gone to see ﬁlms with my family had been burned down. Everything that I had considered to be a part of my life and my identity was now being questioned or challenged by the new regime. And I was told that even my faith, the traditions and the religion of my parents and ancestors, had now been conﬁscated and redeﬁned. Everything that had been so familiar was taken away. It was like living in an alien movie.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno says that the highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home. One thing that the Islamic revolution taught me is that we should never feel too smug, too much at home. You can lose your home in a war or a revolution or, as we experience it here in America, in an earthquake, a ﬁre or a tornado, or it can just simply be taken away from you. The only way you can truly, permanently preserve your home is to constantly question and redeﬁne it for yourself, to keep it alive inside you. You can preserve it through memory. One reason I wrote this book was to retrieve the home that I had lost, through narrative and through telling the story.
RHRC: That’s really beautiful–can you talk a little more about how the role of reading and perhaps how sharing these stories with these women was a sort of stab to exile?
AN: You know, the ﬁrst time I really had the feeling of exile was when I left Iran at thirteen. The moment that the airplane door closed I realized that nothing I could do would take me back to Iran, to my own home, to my parents and relatives. I understood that the only way I could keep my home with me was by preserving it through memory–because no one has the power to take away your memories–and through maintaining a connection to its language and literature. I had brought with me several books by Iranian poets, and every night I would just open them at random, books by Hafez, Rumi, and this contemporary Persian woman poet, Foroguh Forokhzad, and simply reading these words would bring back to me everything I loved about my country. Ultimately, that was also how I made myself at home, ﬁrst in England and later in America. As I read Dickens or Austen or Mark Twain or Virginia Woolf, their books became ambassadors from the new world that I was traveling to.
So language and literature were incredibly important to me, but when I went back to Iran during the revolution, it was very difﬁcult to publicly communicate what I wanted to say because so many things were censored, so many things were not allowed. Because of this, the books I read with my students became a means of communication, of conveying what we wanted to say to one another. The books became our world, and they became our home, and they opened us up to ourselves. You ask whether, after ten years of living in the U.S., do I feel the same? Yes–I think that this connection to my home and to myself through literature is one of the most constant things in my life, something that I will always have. I haven’t lost Iran; I have Ferdosi and Hafez and Rumi–and now books have allowed me to feel at home in the U.S. as well. In fact, I basically have not changed much at all: in Iran I taught and wrote and was concerned about women’s rights and human rights; my ﬁrst book was on Vladimir Nabokov. Here, I also teach and write, have the same concerns, and my ﬁrst book was about reading Nabokov, among others, in Tehran. Now, of course, I worry about reading Lolita in Washington, D.C., or in fact not reading Lolita in Washington, D.C.!
This reminds me of an anecdote: When my family migrated to the U.S. in 1997, my children were in their early teens, and at ﬁrst, of course, they were not feeling at all comfortable, and they pined to go back to Iran. But my daughter, like me, loves to read, and the ﬁrst work of Shakespeare’s that she read in school was Romeo and Juliet. She was so excited that she came home and said to me, “Mom, listen to these words!” She quoted a line about Rosaline, where Romeo says, “She’s fair she’s wise, she’s wisely fair,” or something like that. When I heard that note of excitement about Shakespeare in my daughter’s voice, I knew she was going to be all right, that she’d found her home. The real home we have transcends ethnicity and nationality, gender, sex, and religion. It is a universal space where we can all live.
RHRC: Reading Lolita in Tehran was originally published ﬁve years ago. If the book is a lens through which Western readers can view Iran and also themselves, how has the perspective of that view changed with the distance of time and intervening events? And how have your perceptions of the book and of Iran changed?
AN: Well, this is a rather difﬁcult question, because a book is like a child. Once it leaves you, once it’s out and interacting with the world on its own, there isn’t much one can do to control it. But in terms of my own perspective on the book and whether things in Iran have changed, I have two things to say. One is that my purpose in writing this book was not to talk about just politics. What I really wanted to investigate was how people cope when they live under an oppressive reality. How do they create for themselves open spaces through their imaginations? That is really the main theme of the book–imagination’s role in opening spaces, in resisting tyrannies of both politics and time.
That was the ﬁrst purpose, and the second was to address the question of breaking down boundaries. I wanted to show how a girl who has never left the Islamic Republic of Iran, who has never seen the U.S. or France or England, can, through these books, connect with places she has never been to. And then not only connect with them but interpret them in a way that feels fresh. That, I think, is how we become equal to one another–if we can interpret and imagine those we have never seen. So that was the main purpose of the book. Politics and political transformations are secondary to it.
As far as changes in Iran go, the system is still the same. I mention in the book that the Islamic Republic is like the month of April: you have periods of sunshine followed by storms and rain, you have open periods of liberalization and then you have tighter, more closed periods again, as we’re seeing right now. But the basic structure has remained the same. The laws are basically the same, which means that people’s reactions to these laws and to this system are also basically the same. The most important change, I think, is that more and more people are using nonviolent, increasingly democratic means for resisting oppression. Some of the students in the book have become teachers; they have been working within the society to try to change the system, and they have affected society. Some of the revolutionaries, who at the beginning wanted to expel people like me from the universities, have been expelled from their places of work–these people are now calling for secularism and democracy. Some of them have been jailed and tortured, and some of them, like me, live in exile. They are also writing about issues that relate to freedom and democracy. And so those changes are happening.
RHRC: Mentioning a novel in your title that was and still is controversial here in the U.S. was an inspired choice because of the novel’s overt subject matter. Humbert Humbert’s pursuit and abuse of the nymphet he calls Lolita clashes with Western ideas of the Islamic fundamentalism that characterizes the Iranian state. But really, as you go on to demonstrate, it’s not just reading Nabokov in Iran that is a subversive act, but also reading Austen, James, Bellow, and others. Could you expand a bit on this conﬂict between the Islamic Republic and what you call the Republic of the Imagination, and what separates the two?
AN: I focus on the conﬂict between the Islamic Republic and the Republic of the Imagination because I’m talking about a speciﬁc place and time. But conﬂict with the Republic of the Imagination is not limited to the Islamic Republic. We’ve had so many examples of it in oppressive societies, both in the East and the West. The most obvious would be Fascism in Europe, or what went on in Eastern Europe, or what is going on in China right now, or in Cuba. It is even more important, though, for us to remember that this sort of oppressive and absolutist mindset can also exist in a very democratic society such as the U.S. Here we have “Banned Book Week,” and many books in this country are banned from certain libraries, or certain schools do not teach them. The whole idea is that imagination is always subversive, and it’s dangerous to absolutist or narrow-minded mindsets. As you say, it is obvious why Lolita is subversive, but even writers like Jane Austen or Saul Bellow or Henry James, writers who we may think of as socially or politically conservative, even their works are subversive. Every great work of ﬁction not only reﬂects the themes and the events that it explains but it also, at the same time, resists and questions them. Fiction explores not just how reality is but how it could or should be. The whole structure of the novel is democratic. I think that ﬁction is based on what has been called “Democratic Imagination,” because it is multi-vocal. Take a novel like Pride and Prejudice, or any of Jane Austen’s novels–each one is ﬁlled with voices of different characters who are in constant conversation and, most of the time, disagree with one another. And because the author is not dictatorial, and does not impose her own voice or opinions upon her characters, she allows them all to discuss and debate from different points of view. It is that polyphony, that democracy of voices, that becomes so very dangerous to an autocratic mind-set. Jane Austen herself was the daughter of a clergyman, and was supposed to have been a very prim and proper lady. Yet in her books she makes fun of everyone, including the clerics themselves. I was once told that Jane Austen was antireligious because of Mr. Collins’s character–but in her books she has both ridiculous clerics and very upright and lovable clerics. She shows us that, as human beings, we can be so many different things. Great writing usually transcends not just the prejudices of its times but also that of its own author. Fitzgerald might have loved wealth and the wealthy, and in one sense was the victim of this obsession, but in Gatsby his most pointed criticism is against the very wealthy– Tom and Daisy–and the careless way they use other people. That is why it is narrow-minded and wrong to judge a work of art by where its author comes from. The text is a living entity that is the product of its author’s mind and at the same time independent of it.
Something else about the novel that is so dangerous to an autocratic mindset is its use of humor and irony. Of course, the most tragic example is the case of the fatwøa against Salman Rushdie. Rushdie was being tried, not because he insulted Islam–he didn’t–but because his novels are so playful. They don’t ﬁt within any category or within any norms or within any rules. And with imagination, the only thing that is sacred is the permission to be profane. In the novel, you have to be true to yourself, you have to be funny, and critical, and self-critical, and allow even the villains to have a voice. That is why, I think, imagination becomes so subversive of any absolutist mindset, whether it belongs to someone in Iran or to someone in the United States. They would both react to it in the same manner.
And there is one more thing about the novel that I’d like to mention, and that is the issue of ambiguity. Absolutist mindsets want everything black and white–and you don’t have to be a ruler in the Islamic Republic to see the world that way. We see it every day in our own society here in America, especially in terms of the politicizations and polarizations that are going on, where we constantly demonize one another, and we believe that what we do is always good because we belong to the “good guys.” It’s so easy to abdicate responsibility, to always have someone else take responsibility for everything that is bad. Self-righteousness in all its forms, and no matter what viewpoint it presents, right or left, is one of the great villains in great works of ﬁction. The novel explores ambiguity and paradox and contradiction and doesn’t let you get away with anything, because every individual in a novel is responsible for his or her actions. If Elizabeth Bennet in the end is happy and marries Darcy, it is because she has been the most compassionate character in that novel. She is sympathetic because she is self-critical, she sees that she has been blind, and she has suffered for it. So novels teach us about self-reﬂection, self-criticism, and ambiguity, and all of these become very dangerous to the black-andwhite mindset, this kind of politicized and simplistic attitude that is so prevalent today, and not just in political circles.
RHRC: Can Western readers who take so many freedoms for granted truly understand a writer like Nabokov? It seems as though the experience of life in a totalitarian state that is structured along religious lines is central to his novels. And by the same token, then, can Western readers truly understand what it’s like for a woman to live in a place like modern Iran?
AN: I think the whole point of reading is not to read about things we are familiar with that make us feel safe and good. It is so boring to read just about ourselves. And once Western readers take freedoms for granted then they’re really in trouble. One of the things that has bothered me since I’ve come to the U.S. is this idea, in a lot of colleges and universities, or even high schools, that everybody likes to read or talk only about themselves. So if you’re African American, you teach African American literature and you read African American literature and you write about African Americans. Now, I believe the whole point of writing and reading is to learn about things and people that you don’t know. As a writer, I start with a topic I think I know, and of course in part I do know, but for me writing a book always becomes a journey of discovery. You are discovering that stranger within you, and for readers, when they open a book, there are two faculties, two miraculous faculties that the act of reading and writing depend on, which form the basis of our imaginations. The ﬁrst one is curiosity. We read because we want to know what we don’t know. Both science and literature have that magic about them, that idea of discovery. And the other great thing is that as soon as you enter this world that is both familiar and unfamiliar and you set out on this journey of discovery, then you discover empathy. Empathy is as much an integral part of writing as curiosity is, because this is the only way we communicate as human beings. As individuals, how much do you and I know about one another? Stories put us inside the experience of others and make us feel and see what we have not felt or seen before. Through this, you come to the shock of recognition, that there is this universality of experience. And that is why when Western readers read Nabokov they have this shock of recognition–they realize that both the best and the worst that his characters represent can exist inside themselves. They can be both Humbert and Lolita. They can be both Pnin and Pnin’s horrible wife, Liza. They can empathize with women in Iran because when they read about women living in Iran, they realize that those women are not very different from the women living in the States–they both dream about a future for themselves and for people around them; they fall in love, are jealous, are betrayed, love music, love poetry, love to hold hands. And so I think that reading Nabokov and reading Rumi, reading any great work of literature, always brings us close to one another. That is why it is so marvelous that so many people in Iran are now reading and becoming enthusiastic about writers and thinkers from other parts of the world, and the same should happen here. When a British man named Dick Davis, who teaches at Ohio State University, translates and writes about some of the greatest poets and writers in Persian literature, I, as a Persian who has lived with these texts all her life, ﬁnd insights about my culture and myself that I had never thought about. This is how a genuine exchange of cultures should be: a constant dialogue about ourselves and others, a constant critical observation and questioning as well as a celebration of ourselves through the eyes of others.
But one last thing about Western readers–in the book, I mention Saul Bellow’s quote about the characters who survived the ordeal of the Holocaust: “Will they survive the ordeal of freedom?” Bellow talks in his books about how what threatens the West is its “sleeping consciousness.” I do think that what is most dangerous for Western readers is when they take freedom for granted, when they feel too much at home, when they don’t look at themselves through the eyes of others. So I deﬁnitely think they should start reading their Nabokov and feeling a little bit not at home. That has become my obsession since I came to the U.S., the way we belittle imagination at the expense of sound bites and simpliﬁcations, and how politicization and polarization and the cult of celebrity has overtaken genuine thinking and imagining. Without the poetic vision to look at the present critically and to envision its future potential, without embracing the paradoxes and complexities that thought and imagination place in our way, how can we thrive as a dynamic and growing culture? What I fear is that through dismissing humanities in our system of education, through politicizing every ﬁeld to the extent that we neglect to read just for the pure sensual and intellectual pleasure of reading, we will be trapped by what Bellow calls “the atrophy of feeling.” And this is what should worry us–the inability to feel and to think.
RHRC: You write about the “myth of America.” Is there a “myth” of Iran that we have here in America, and do you think that these two myths are on a collision course?
AN: One thing I can tell you is that when I came to the U.S. I was really surprised at how politicized the view of Iran had become. It was really very frustrating at the beginning because when I lived in Iran I felt as if the government had conﬁscated all the images we had of ourselves and had reduced them to one image, its own image. I had hoped that when I came here, people, because they are free to read and to know, would see the multiplicity of images that exist in Iran–the contradictions, the paradoxes. But unfortunately I felt that the dominating images of Iran were those that the government had talked about. It was a very “reductionist” mythology, the myth about Iran. First of all, one thing that bothered me was that, since the Iranian Revolution, since 1979, all of a sudden these different countries that have very different backgrounds and histories and traditions like Malaysia, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia–all of them are now reduced to one component, which is religion. And so they are all now called “the Muslim world.” We never do that with, say, Europe and America. France, Germany, Britain, and the U.S. are all Christian majority countries, but we don’t call them “the Christian world.” But we do call all those other countries that have much less in common than Europe and the U.S. “the Muslim world,” and then we reduce the religion itself to the most extreme form of it. It is like saying that all of America is what Mr. Jerry Falwell said it is, because it is a Christian country, without realizing that religion itself, in order to be dynamic and thrive, has to leave people free to interpret it in different ways. It cannot be an affair of the state. The state cannot tell us that there is only one religion, one ideology, and all of you should act accordingly.
So when I came here, when I would talk about my country or myself, people would say, “Oh, but you’re Western.” You know, as if “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was just something that Americans had invented, and women who lived in Afghanistan or Iran didn’t want to be free or pursue happiness. Or the fact that I dressed the way I did–or talked the way I did, this was all “Western.” Well, a hundred years ago, women who lived during my grandmother’s time, they also were asking for the same kind of freedoms that the women in the West were asking for. They fought for their freedoms. Iran had a constitutional revolution; at the time of revolution we had two women ministers–one a minister for women’s affairs–and these were not freedoms that the government had given us or that the Shah had given us–these were freedoms that the Iranian women had achieved after decades of struggle.
So there was a “myth” of Iran in this country, and it was a very politicized and distorted mythology. It has little to do with the Iran that I know, or its history. And Iran has existed for at least 2,500 years. Half of the history was not even Muslim, it was Zoroastrianism. And even when we talk about Islam, what Islam are we talking about? Whose Islam? In my book, which only depicts a very small portion of Iranian society, several different characters are Orthodox Muslims, and they’re all so very different. My student Razieh, who was a believer, an Orthodox Muslim girl who never took her veil off, was murdered by a regime that calls itself Islamic. My student Mr. Bahri, who belonged to the Islamic Student Association, defended me and tried to keep me at the university while my own secular colleagues were trying to expel me. So whose Islam are we talking about? Why am I less Muslim than the women who are married to the rulers in Iran, or who hold ofﬁce? My family was there for six hundred years, they served Iran the way theirs did. So these are the questions that come to my mind when I talk about the “myth” of Iran in America. These are the questions that are troubling, and I think that the only way we can do away with this sort of mythology is, in fact, to go back to focusing on a people’s culture and history. And that is why stories become so important.
RHRC: Turning from myths to dreams, you have described the Iranian Revolution–or rather the Islamic Republic that evolved out of the revolution of 1979–as a terrible, beautiful dream. I’m reminded of the American dream that Gatsby pursues or embodies, which you so memorably put on trial in Reading Lolita in Tehran.
AN: Yes, that is wonderful. I remember there is a gorgeous scene in Gatsby where Nick talks about how Gatsby’s dream was tainted by reality. It sort of ruined the dream and destroyed him. And that is the thing with dreams–we should be careful with them. Pursuing dreams, having a dream is wonderful. But imposing a dream upon reality is very dangerous. So although I am absolutely in love with imagination, and I think that without imagination reality does not, in fact, exist, at the same time I think that we should be careful not to impose our dreams upon our own reality or the reality of others. (Humbert is a good example of what happens when we do that.) Revolution was beautiful because the Iranian people wanted to change their lives. And they wanted to better their lives–they wanted to have more rights, to have more rights to political participation. It became terrible when a group of people conﬁscated that dream and tried to impose their own image upon the whole of society. That is when the dream becomes destructive, and that is what makes it so dangerous. I mention in the Gatsby chapter about how, when I was a student and a dissident, I also was living inside that sort of dream. Fortunately I survived it. Some didn’t.
RHRC: I was struck by the almost schizophrenic attitude toward Western, speciﬁcally American, culture depicted in your book. For example, at the same time that repressive measures were at their height in the country at large, you were still able to teach your classes in English and American literature. And not only teach them, but teach them to students–young men and women who were hungry for this literature, even if, like your student Miss Ruhi, they didn’t realize it at the time. What accounts for this love-hate relationship?
AN: Well, you mention the schizophrenic–one of Iran’s best thinkers, Dariush Shayegan, has written an entire book on this schizophrenic perspective, so I will not go into that. But just to answer the question brieﬂy–this just shows that what the government was trying to impose on the society was not accepted by the society as a whole. Iran had a past, and that was a past when both girls and boys would go to college. They would sit together, they would study together, and they would study English and French and German literature as well as Persian literature. This was a country where its women had been active in all walks of life and had been ﬁghting for their rights to have jobs and be equal to men for almost a hundred years, so these values were so ingrained within the society that the government could not completely change them. It could distort them, but it also had to accommodate them. For example, they tried to segregate the universities the way they are in Saudi Arabia right now. But it didn’t work, so they had to have universities where both girls and boys participated in the same class, but the girls sat behind the boys, or sat in a different part of the room. And everything that came from the West– English literature had been taught at the universities for many decades–they couldn’t just take it out.
And that is the most important thing about ideas and imagination: that people who tried to eliminate them at the beginning of the revolution were infected by them as time went by. So Miss Ruhi and a lot of my students, who at ﬁrst were very much opposed to Western literature, when they read the books in class they discovered them to be enlightening and eye-opening. For that, we have to be thankful to the Islamic Republic because a lot of people who were traditional and who would not otherwise have sent their sons or daughters to the universities did so, exposing them to these new thoughts and ideas. But this shows that the people wanted one thing and the government wanted another. So you do have repressive measures, you do have censorship of these books, you do have teachers who would delete the word “wine” from Hemingway’s stories–but at the same time you have debates about great works of Western literature. The same is true, of course, of Iranian literature. Even more than Western literature, some of our greatest, especially contemporary, writers were also banned and censored. And the more they were censored, the more there was a thirst for their books, especially among the young.
RHRC: Perhaps the most difﬁcult thing for a Western reader, male or female, to come to grips with in your book is the hostile, effacing style of the Islamic Republic toward women. Was this aspect of the revolution inevitable, and have things improved at all in recent years?
AN: One aspect of the Islamic Republic that comes in the name of religion is conﬁscation of religion and the use of it as an ideology. Women have now become the canaries in the mine in Iran, as well as in many Muslim majority societies. If you want to know how free a society is, you look at its women (in this country, too, women, gays, and minorities are the canaries in the mine) because they symbolize individual rights, which are the most dangerous thing for a totalitarian state. If you remember, during the times when the Soviets were in power they used similar measures. They would say that wearing makeup was Western and decadent. Women’s clothing had to be very uniformlike and without ornaments. In China, men and women were supposed to wear a speciﬁc kind of clothing. Western books by authors such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Sartre, and Camus were banned in the Soviet Union–they were called bourgeois. This is the same kind of mechanism that is working now in the Islamic Republic. Women have become symbols of democracy and of openness.
I think this is a good time to mention that the question of the veil in a country like Iran is not whether the veil is good or bad. The issue of the veil is that the veil should be a symbol of faith.
And as such, every woman should have the right to choose whether she wants to wear it or not. No government or state should tell its people how they should worship God, and in fact no government or state should tell its people that they should worship God. It should be completely free and private. So the issue of the veil in Iran is the issue of choice. My grandmother never took off her veil until the day she died, and she lived a long life. She always wore the veil. But she was very much disturbed by the way the government was imposing the veil upon not just Jews and Christians and atheists but also upon Muslim women like my own mother, who did not want to wear the veil. For her the veil was a symbol of faith, but if every woman was forced to wear it, whether she believed in it or not, then it would become a symbol of force and a political symbol of the state. Many of my Muslim students who wore the veil before the revolution also rejected this imposition. For thirty years now, the Iranian government has used every method it could to make women adjust to its rules, but women have found ways of evading it–women in the streets wear lipstick or show their hair, wear colorful clothing and listen to banned music, hold hands. So they have resisted without using violence, without using political protests. They have just refused to comply.
Have I made it clear enough that people, no matter where they come from, all like to be free? That freedom is not a Western idea? There was one more thing about that myth, the myth of America, that I wanted to mention. The way that some people talk about so-called Muslim societies as if they are sort of trapped by what they call culture and religion, and there is no way that they can change. But this is a double standard, because we should remember that in the West, in the mid-nineteenth century, women did not have the right to vote, that there were many people in the U.S. and Europe who were saying that a woman’s place was in her home, and that the Bible says so. America has a history of slavery; until the late 1950s and early 1960s the buses and restaurants were segregated and a lot of blood was shed in order for African Americans to gain equality. And the arguments that were used against women and against abolition are the same kind of arguments that are now used against change in relation to women’s rights in Muslim majority countries. Because, if Sharia laws are Muslim culture, then slavery and burning witches in Salem are the culture of this country, not Emerson and Thoreau and Martin Luther King. And the Inquisition is the culture of Europe, not St. Thomas Aquinas or Dante or CortŽs. People should understand that we have our Hafez and Rumi and great poets and great philosophers, and that we also have a set of traditions that are regressive and oppressive and need to be changed. There are so many apologists for this sort of thought who say that people over there, you know, the “natives” over there, they deserve what they’re getting. This is their culture and the West should not criticize it because, you know, we taint it. They do not differentiate between the state and the people, and take the state’s view of religion and tradition and history and culture as the only one. So if you criticize the Islamic Republic, according to some, you are criticizing Islam and Iran.
RHRC: In describing Iranian women, you wrote, “What was alien to us was Eros, true sensuality.” Is that because of the veil and Chador and the attitudes they both symbolize and embody, or for other reasons, and how might this insight apply to Western women?
AN: I think that every culture, especially a Puritan culture, has had this trouble with Eros, or true sensuality, because usually the views on women go from one extreme to another: either they idolize women and worship at their altar, or they see them as sluts and objects for sexual fulﬁllment. So it has been a struggle and a challenge for women to articulate themselves as sensual human beings. To gain complete equality you need to also be able to articulate who you are, what your desires are, physically and intellectually and emotionally. That has been denied in Iran in a much more obvious manner. In the West, sometimes it has been distorted, sometimes it has been overemphasized, but I think that it still remains a challenge. The advantage in the West is that if we feel that one aspect of our lives has been deleted or ignored or banned, we at least can express it. In Iran, for women to be able to express their sensuality, this is still a challenge.
RHRC: In the epilogue of Reading Lolita, you brought us up to date on what had happened to your students and friends. How are they doing now? Did you ever learn more about the fate of Mr. Bahri? What about your magician? And Mahshid, who believed that she could affect change from within the system, from behind the veil?
AN: One of the most amazing things about books–and I have mentioned it several times whenever I talk about my book–is the way they connect you to people you should be connected to. They connect you to strangers, who all of a sudden, through your book, come into your house and become close friends. One thing about Reading Lolita is the way it has connected me to my past. Since the book came out, there have been e-mails and letters in which people remind me that they used to be my students. Some of them are from Iran, some are from other parts of the world. And the strangest thing is that I sometimes go to a meeting and give a talk, and suddenly a face rises from the past, someone who has been a student of mine. I had this experience at Rutgers University; I had it in San Francisco, where my student Azin was sitting in the front row as I gave a talk on my book. That has been an amazing experience. As for Mr. Bahri, I have not heard from him; I don’t know what has happened to him. I hope that I will at some point. And the magician is still the magician, as reclusive as he had been before, since he still does not belong to this club. And Mahshid, the last time I heard from her–she used to call me on birthdays and on New Year’s–she was doing ﬁne. She was as wonderful as ever. So they are all doing ﬁne from what I know.
RHRC: Do you ever regret your decision to leave Iran? Do you think you will ever return?
AN: Well, of course, I always think that I will return. I don’t know if I will stay or if I won’t, but the right to return is of course a thing that I reserve for myself. And no, as I mention at the end of the book, and I was not exaggerating or just saying it, I don’t think that Iran has left me. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I left Iran when I was so very young; I was about thirteen. Since then the idea of returning has sort of deﬁned my life. But I learned that you cannot rely on geographical location. I genuinely believe in that portable world. And I also feel very much at home in America. America has been very generous to me and, although this might sound like a clichŽ, I believe this generosity is possible because America is still unique, because it is still a country of immigrants. One of the signs of feeling at home for me is not feeling at home, not being complacent. Once you start criticizing things and questioning, you know that you’re feeling at home, and I am questioning and wanting to change things, in fact, I want to help organize a march on Washington demanding support for humanities in our education system and reading, and although I hate slogans I think one of our slogans should be: Readers of the World Unite!! so I think that I feel good over here as well. But I haven’t left Iran; I never did.
RHRC: And what of Iran? What future do you see for your homeland and for the generation of men and women coming of age there now?
AN: You know, I do not like to be unreasonably optimistic; I have to be really cautious and careful about that, because I think that that sort of optimism is very cheap. But I think hope is very important, and very precious. I do have a great deal of hope for Iran, mainly because of the young people. My generation was actually the generation that took too many things for granted. At least I myself was too ideological to see the world the way I wish I had seen it. But this generation has had to ﬁght for every right and bit of freedom that they have, and hopefully they will have far more in the future. When we talk about individual rights, they have suffered with their ﬂesh and blood. So many of them have been ﬂogged and jailed and ﬁned and penalized for just wanting to dress the way they want to, or to see the kinds of ﬁlms that they want to, or to express their love for one another freely. So on that very basic level, this young generation has felt the preciousness of individual rights and has paid a high price for it, so I think that they will really cherish it.
And another thing that I saw in Iran, and unfortunately I did not see an awareness of it here, was the way this new generation connects to the world. When I was in Iran teaching, when it came to ideas and imagination, there was no east or west there. The kinds of philistine and narrow-minded arguments and debates that go on here in some circles did not really exist there. People appreciated Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper as if they were their fellow citizens. They read Bellow and Nabokov as if they were their relatives. There was a genuine desire to connect to the world, and the way that they connected to the world was through the best that the world had to offer. And that is where my hope for Iran lies. If you read the news about Iran you ﬁnd two trends: one is that the former revolutionaries, who have now become distant and who are now asking for democracy and for openness and for secularism, are questioning the very system that they themselves were part of. Then you see the children of the revolution who are also going in a different direction, who are also questioning and who also want to create a life that is open. And at the forefront of these struggles you see the women. I mean, Iranian women have been amazing in trying to retrieve the rights they had, and also in linking not just to the world outside but in bringing to our attention the fact that they have a history of their own. The idea that if they want to be free, if they want to have a choice, they don’t have to simply quote people from the West. They can just reference their own past. And so there is a new dialogue with the past that is very healthy. In this I have my hope. I have always said that I hope change will come to Iran through democratic means. There will be a lot of terrible things happening as well, but also a lot of good things. So I would like to end with hope. That was the whole purpose of Reading Lolita in Tehran, to show that we lived in a society that was oppressive but that the hope was in these young people who saw the world differently, and because they saw the world differently they were changing themselves and the world around them. They were never victims; Iranian women have never acted as victims. The ﬁrst step to take to come out of this situation that makes you a victim is to understand that you are not a victim, that the power is with you. I mention this in the ﬁrst chapter of the book, especially when discussing Invitation to a Beheading, when the ﬁrst step toward liberation is to refuse to dance with your jailor and to ﬁnd your own unique way of expression. If Iranian women were not that powerful, why would the government have to spend so much energy and so much power and so much force to change them? They are dangerous because they are powerful, and so therein lies the hope.
I want to remind you of what Nabokov wrote when he was asked to tone down his criticism of the Soviet Union during World War II: “Governments come and go, only the trace of genius remains.” That statement certainly came true for Eastern Europe. When you tell your own story, you take control over reality. In Iran, reality had power over us. And one way of negating that control was by telling our own stories. When you tell your story from your own perspective, then those people lose their power. It’s like Scheherazade, in A Thousand and One Nights. She changed the King through telling the story, and that was the whole idea of my book.
1. On her ﬁrst day teaching at the University of Tehran, Azar Naﬁsi began class with some questions: “What should ﬁction accomplish? Why should anyone read at all?” What are your answers to these questions? How does ﬁction force us to question what we often take for granted?
2. Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation upsilamba (18). What does the word upsilamba mean to you?
3. In what ways had Ayatollah Khomeini “turned himself into a myth” for the people of Iran (246)? Discuss the recurrent theme of complicity in the book: the idea that the Ayatollah, the stern philosopher-king who limited freedoms and terrorized the innocent, “did to us what we allowed him to do” (28). To what extent are the supporters of a revolution responsible for its unintended results?
4. Compare attitudes toward the veil held by men, women and the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran. How was Naﬁsi’s grandmother’s choice to wear the chador marred by the political signiﬁcance it had gained (192)? Also, describe Mahshid’s conﬂicted feelings as a Muslim who already observed the veil but who nevertheless objected to its political enforcement.
5. In discussing the frame story of the murderous king in A Thousand and One Nights, Naﬁsi mentions three types of women who fell victim to his unreasonable rule (19). What is the relevance of this story for the women in Naﬁsi’s private class?
6. Explain what Naﬁsi means when she calls herself and her beliefs increasingly “irrelevant” in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Compare her way of dealing with this irrelevance to the self-imposed exile of the man she calls her “magician.” What can people who “lose their place in the world” do to survive, both physically and creatively?
7. During the Gatsby trial, Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to “distinguish ﬁction from reality” (128). How does Mr. Nyazi’s conﬂation of the ﬁctional and the real compare to the actions of the blind censor, who retains the authority to suppress performances when he cannot even see? Discuss the role of censorship in both authoritarian and democratic governments. Can you think of instances in the United States when art was censored for its “dangerous” impact upon society?
8. Naﬁsi writes: “It was not until I had reached home that I realized the true meaning of exile” (145). How do her conceptions of home conﬂict with those of her husband, Bijan, who is reluctant to leave Tehran? Also, compare Mahshid’s feeling that she “owes” something to Tehran to Mitra’s and Nassrin’s desires for freedom and escape. Discuss how the changing and often discordant inﬂuences of memory, family, safety, freedom, opportunity and duty deﬁne our sense of home and belonging.
9. Fanatics like Mr. Ghomi, Mr. Nyazi and Mr. Bahri consistently surprised Naﬁsi by displaying absolute hatred for Western literature—a reaction she describes as a “venom uncalled for in relation to works of ﬁction” (195). What are their motivations? Do you, like Naﬁsi, think that people like Mr. Ghomi attack because they are afraid of what they don’t understand? Why is ambiguity such a dangerous weapon to them?
10. The conﬁscation of one’s life by another is the root of Humbert’s sin in Lolita. Discuss how Khomeini likewise acted as a “solipsizer,” robbing individuals of their identities to promote total allegiance. What does Naﬁsi mean when she says that Sanaz, Nassrin, Azin and the rest of her girls are part of a “generation with no past” (76)?
11. Naﬁsi teaches that the novel is a sensual experience of another world, that it appeals to the reader’s capacity for compassion. Do you agree that “empathy is at the heart of the novel”? How has this book affected your understanding of the impact of the novel?
12. Naﬁsi’s account of life in the Islamic Republic transcends national and geographical boundaries. Discuss how the experience of censorship, fundamentalism and human rights, as well as the enjoyment of works of imagination and the desire for individual freedoms, may be similar in totalitarian societies and in democracies such as ours.