Azar Nafisi

Azar NafisiI think I can safely stoop to marketing hyperbole (though it suggests a failure of imagination) by pointing out that a previously little known expatriate Iranian literature professor, Azar Nafisi, has written an international sensation, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Published last year and now in its 15th printing as well as being translated into 12 languages including two Chinese dialects, this book has tapped into deep veins of bibliophilia.

Azar Nafisi is a professor at John Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. She attended The University of Oklahoma and later Oxford University and taught literature at three Iranian universities, including the University of Tehran, from which she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil. Azar Nafisi left Iran with her family in 1997. She has written Anti Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov's Novels and written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Azar Nafisi lives in Washington, D.C. and is director of The Dialogue Project, and she will soon be at work on her next book.

From 1995 to 1997, before she left Iran, Azar Nafisi met with seven students every Thursday to discuss literature. Reading Lolita in Tehran is the memoir of that experience, where the conversations ranged from Jane Austen to Henry James to Vladimir Nabokov. To make a claim for the speciality of this book would be an understatement. Perhaps Paul Allen's notice in the Guardian will help my claim:

"The charismatic passion in the book is not simply for literature itself but for the kind of inspirational teaching of it which helps students to teach themselves by applying their own intelligence and emotions to what they are reading. When the group reads F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, there are plenty of puritanical students to argue that The Great Gatsby is a poor role model. Following the fashion of the time and place, she encourages them to put the book on trial. There are speeches for the prosecution and defense, but the only witness is the book itself -- and she plays the book."

Robert Birnbaum: Tell me, is talking about your book a little old hat by now?

Azar Nafisi: Well, not really. It depends on whom you talk to because talking about one topic is not necessarily old hat—the topic of this book was so much my passion.

RB: I take it that it has been surprising that Reading Lolita in Tehran has been so well received?

AN: Yes it has been. For me it has been surprising because I always think about it very negatively. I never, ever, think that it's going to be—

RB: —That what you care about will be interesting to other people? Or was it something else?

AN: In terms of it being a hit? The best thing that happened because it became a hit—as far as I am concerned, is that I can now genuinely have conversations about topics that I really love.

RB: [laughs]

AN: That, I really love.

RB: It's been a liberating experience?

AN: [laughs] I know that people who read—a lot of people might buy a book and not like it—but those who continue with the conversation around this book are people who are interested in the same stuff [as I am]. And I am getting a lot of really—not positive feedback in terms of saying "Oh we love your book"—but in terms of the topics [covered in the book].

RB: You mean Nabokov, James and Austen?

AN: Especially on Nabokov. I have had many people telling me about how they went back and reread Lolita.

RB: You have also written a book on Nabokov.

AN: That was my first book, actually. It was published in 1994. There were frustrations when I wrote that book—many things I wanted to talk about that I couldn't.

RB: Reading Lolita in Tehran is being translated into a dozen languages, including Chinese.

I would like to think of my own status as what you called 'citizen of the world' or a 'citizen of a portable world,' if not of the world.

AN: Yeah, in two different dialects. And in South Korea and Turkey and most of the European countries.

RB: Is it available in Iran?

AN: It is available through people going to Iran. And thanks to the Internet a lot of people are downloading parts of the book. But it is not allowed [in Iran].

RB: It's on a list of proscribed books?

AN: There is no real list. This is not the kind of book that is allowed, which is really a shame. Unfortunately for governments like that of Iran, when they forbid something, people become more interested. For my book that's good. People became curious.

RB: How do you define your own status in this country? Exile, émigré, a citizen of the world?

AN: [laughs] I would like to think of my own status as what you called 'citizen of the world' or a 'citizen of a portable world,' if not of the world. Lots of times you can feel as an exile in a country that you were born in. And you discover that there are people all around the world with whom you share the same values. My life has been the life of a vagabond for so long, so— [laughs]

RB: As I read your book—and learned about the commitment and concern of you and this group of seven women who gathered on a weekly basis—and then I consider the ubiquitous suggestion in this country that literature and its attendant culture is marginal, not essential. I wonder about the contrasting values. What do you make of it?

AN: Unfortunately you have to be deprived of something in order to understand its worth. I keep telling people, it's like your arm, if you have it, you are not thinking about it—being thankful everyday it exists—but if it is chopped off—[pause]. It is a shame because I think if a civilization or a culture does not take its own works of literature seriously it goes downhill. You need imagination in order to imagine a future that doesn't exist. One of the things that really made me feel good after this book came out was the discovery of book groups. The official culture, both in the universities and elsewhere, are paying attention to books the way they should—but we have all these subversive book groups where people are doing reading on their own. I think we should encourage that.

RB: I marvel at the regularity with which book groups—what could it be five, 10, maybe 15 people contact me to get in touch with writers. These people are quite serious.

AN: That's what happened to my book as well, and I try to accommodate as many as possible. Of course, it becomes impossible—there are so many small groups, and you have just so much time. I wasn't aware of this before my book came out, and I looked down at it. I wasn't sure what it was all about. But then later I thought, “It is wonderful that a group of people who could earn more money or watch TV or do what ever they do, gather and spend their time just talking about books.”

RB: Well, sometimes. Maybe.

AN: I know that there are always other factors that come in. But still I rather it be about books than—well I have nothing against people watching football games—I prefer that at least some people would be doing [something with] books.

RB: In your book you very clearly state that your husband Bijan loves Iran. I didn't notice you saying that. If you didn't, I understand. What does your husband feel like being here, being an exile?

azar nafisiAN: Well, at first it was a very depressing experience for him, but as time went by that has—I can't say, I hate to be saying it on behalf of someone else, but I think he is happy that we left. Especially for the children. The kind of work he does was much more independent than mine was. And that he is a man helped [him]. I am sure temperament helps also. He is a very private person.

RB: Isn't that the fault line? It's so relentlessly apparent in your book that the oppression and depravation of women. One can hear people talk about inequities and sexism and dual standards—but Iran's horrific tyranny stares you right in the face.

AN: I very much resent it in the West when people from—maybe with all the good intentions or from a progressive point of view—keep telling me, "It's their culture." It's like telling people—actually, we are in Boston—it's like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches. First of all, there are aspects of culture which are really reprehensible, and we should [all] fight against it. We shouldn't accept them. Second of all, women in Iran and in Saudi Arabia don't like to be stoned to death.

RB: [laughs]

AN: It's not part of their culture. There are other things that are part of their culture that should be cherished and exchanged and it makes me very angry. Or people tell you, "Oh but you're Western." Why, because I don't wear the veil? Is there a formula for all women who are Christians? Should they all look the same? Or Jewish women? So, it is a very fundamentalist discourse, and many people buy into it—which is very condescending, about people in my country.

RB: What is the wrong turn or the deviation that occurred in Islam that got to this harsh fundamentalist position? I am told Islam is not a harsh and hateful, negative, destructive set of values.

AN: No, you are right. There are, of course, high points in Islamic civilization where it brought a lot, not just to the Islamic countries but to the world. Another thing is that all of these countries that we now brand as Islamic come from such different places. Iran and Saudi Arabia have very little in common—much less than France and the US. We still call them Islamic. The last thing is that this particular phenomenon that is happening to us right now is very much—it takes very much from Stalinism and from fascism. The issue of the veil and the use of religion in the manner that they do are to impose a uniformity on the society. In Communist China, everybody had to wear those uniforms, women had to not wear makeup. So it is an assault on individual freedom, which parades under the name of religion. Religion is part of it, but it is not the whole thing. And many Islamic high clerics in Iran at the start of the revolution were against the state and religion becoming the same. Actually, in Shia Islam, you cannot interfere in politics—so they are going against the grain of the religion they say they are part of.

RB: I had talked to Saira Shah late last year and Beneath The Veil certainly brings home the horrors of this brand of Islam. I had asked her why the loving and tolerant human version of Islam is not promulgated and accepted.

AN: Of course, it's like any totalitarian mind set. It imposes itself on a society. Iranian people in multitudes of ways have shown they oppose this whole system. This is a totalitarian system. This is a minority speaking in the name of a majority. Ordinary people don't come out and act the way these people do. Still the religion needs to be reformed. That is what you see in Iran, you see a reformation from within.

RB: What is an example of an Islamic country that is a shining example of tolerance and democracy—from Indonesia to Sudan? None of those countries rise to the level of a humane view of Islam. Is that coincidental?

AN: Indonesia or Malaysia—these countries go up and down in that the degree of suppression is very different. But you could say the same thing about Latin American countries—where there is a great deal of oppression. Those countries are in a constant state of flux. These are countries that are undergoing a transitory period. The U.S., of course, is different, but you look at EuropeÔit went through the period of the Inquisition and bloody wars.

RB: What's different about the U.S. [laughs]?

AN: The U.S. has gone through the Puritan culture, but I was thinking of the Revolutionary War, The Civil War—in terms of religion—fundamentalism in [the] U.S. is also very strong. Whenever religion, no matter where it comes from, when it claims to spread the word of God through [the] State it becomes dangerous. I think in these countries, corruption in the Middle East—oil has done the Middle East more harm than it has done it good. It has given these horrible dictators like Saddam—it was only in his later years that he turned out to be a Muslim. The Ba'ath Party or the party in Syria, they are Socialists, not Islamic. They are all dictators, regardless of religion, and people in those countries are paying a high price. That is why Iran makes me feel optimistic. Iranians have gone through a tremendous revolution—the young people in my country have been flogged and jailed for just wanting to dress the way they want to—so they know about individual freedom, instinctively. Many times I tell my American students my Iranian students understood how valuable [freedom] is because they had been deprived of it. Sometimes in the West we need to be reminded of the fact that blood has been paid for what we have.

RB: Back on the cusp of the Revolution in the latter days of the Shah, he wasn't getting good press here and probably the most prevalent linked was Shah-Savak [the regime's infamously cruel secret police] and the attendant human rights abuses. Does anyone look back fondly and nostalgically at his reign?

It is a shame because I think if a civilization or a culture does not take its own works of literature seriously it goes downhill. You need imagination in order to imagine a future that doesn't exist.

AN: Unfortunately, yes they do. People do. At its worst moments it was nothing compared to what happened to us. And also people were much more prosperous and individual freedoms were not threatened.

RB: And looking to the West was encouraged?

AN: The problem with the Shah was not that his modernism destroyed his regime; it was that he still carried vestiges of totalitarianism and tyranny. At the end of his rule he decided there would be only a one-party system in Iran, and he crowned himself, like an emperor. Many things he did especially in the last years of the '70s were things that people could not accept.

RB: He wasn't legitimate to begin with, right?

AN: [laughs] God knows how many shahs are. But that was a modern state, and it was a state that both the shah and his father had modernized. And had brought a great many institutions to my country, which were very important. And these people [fundamentalist mullahs] destroyed these institutions, so people do look back fondly. They look back fondly at their secular leaders. Of course, Mossadegh, a nationalist prime minister, he is also very popular in Iran. I will never forget that on the anniversaries of the revolution these people would show pictures of the Shah and his coronation, to show the people how extravagant he was. My 4-year-old son was watching the Shah's coronation, and he turned to me and said, "Mom, how beautiful and clean these people are." [laughs] Because people like color and variety and these are things—

RB: In Reading Lolita you mentioned the showing of a Russian film. It wasn't subtitled or translated, people didn't understand it, but it was a spectacular visual display on the screen that excited people. What stood out for me was that any cultural event would bring out huge crowds and attention, because there was so little of it in Iran.

AN: Yeah, there is so little of it, and public spaces are so limited that any for most public gathering, especially cultural there huge crowds. Usually the film festival in Tehran, where they show mutilated foreign films—every time there is a riot. Every time! I gave a talk once on Madame Bovary, on Flaubert—there was almost a riot.

RB: Can you imagine that in the United States?

AN: [laughs] That would be the day. In one sense it's wonderful, that intensity and that enthusiasm. On the other hand it shows how starved people are. And sometimes I feel that even though I had spent so much of my time in the West I would become reactionary, you would just love the West because these [the mullahs] people hated it. You just pined for things that would almost make you obsessive.

RB: Recently an expatriated Iranian woman wrote to me to express her disdain for Andre Dubus III because she had read my 4-year-old interview with him and she was angry about his novel House of Sand and Fog, which was turned into a film. She called him 'arrogant'. I don't agree—I felt his errors are errors of ignorance. Have you read Dubus' book?

AN: I read it a long time ago. Iranians, because of this image for over a quarter of a century, Iran has been identified with everything that is negative, and that is not true of Iran and Iranian people. It's true of a bunch of thugs who are running Iran. But Iranian people are rather proud and sometimes unreasonably so. But they have become very sensitive about their image(s), and I think part of this reaction comes from the fact that we have been so much always portrayed as obsessive, as unreasonable. The portrait of the colonel in that book again comes out as obsessive. And sometimes you miss the finer points. As an Iranian I say you miss the fact that these people become like that because of the conditions which have made them lose so much. It wasn't my favorite book, but not because of that.

RB: My sense is that the U.S. is not the mythic land that opens its arms to the poor and homeless of the world and that there is a bedrock of xenophobia that—especially toward non-Europeans—makes life here a little less congenial for immigrants. Perhaps this Iranian woman was responding to her experience with the greater society's resistance. Dubus was just trying to fashion a character—

AN: Sometimes it becomes very difficult to cast these characters. When a foreign writer writes about another culture, two things could happen simultaneously. One is you need to have deep knowledge of the context of that culture to create characters. Not necessarily negative or positive—sometimes when I read books about Iranian characters, I don't feel these characters become real for me. I don’t mean real by meeting them in real life but within the context of the book itself. So they become a little artificial, a little staged.

RB: The job of a fiction writer is always to imagine—

AN: Yes, you always do. Actually the best thing about writing is that you can empathize with the characters who are not you and of course when a novel is successful that is what is amazing. And sometimes you discover things about yourself that you never knew—that other person imagining you has been able to [uncover]. One of the most interesting books by a foreigner about Iran—a lot of people might call him an Orientalist, but I think he is fabulous—James Morier's book called [The Adventures] of Hajii Baba. It's a very picaresque novel, and the character is a Persian rogue going around and stealing and doing all sorts of things. It is both very Persian and very, very funny and many Iranians reacted to that because this was a negative portrayal of Persia. But that's not true. A novel, unless it's bad and it's ideological, goes beyond this good and bad portrayal. I think that you have to judge a book on its own merits.

RB: It strikes me that you are given to making very bold, definitive pronouncements.

AN: [chuckles]

RB: Like, "The greatest crime in fiction is blindness." [both laugh]

azar nafisiAN: Yes, well. I think I can back this up. Look at English literature, almost from the beginning the plot in most of these stories, not surprisingly enough, is around a woman and it is usually—I am looking at the first English novels apart from Defoe, who didn't have a woman. You have Richardson, Fielding and then you come to Brontes and Austen and George Eliot, right up until the present. All of these characters are concerned with a woman who says, "No, I will not marry this kind of man." The most horrible characters in each of these novels are those who can not empathize. In Tom Jones, Littfield is the villain and then Squire Weston who loves his daughter but he cannot understand what she wants from him. He becomes a figure of fun. In Jane Austen, all the characters whom we laugh at— these are people who are completely blind—all the comedy of manners is not just about being polite. It's about having consideration for that other person.

RB: It's time for my regular confession that of the writers that are mentioned in this book I have only read Bellow and Scott Fitzgerald. No James, Austen, Bronte, Nabokov or Melville. Looking back I think that it had a lot to do with the way they were presented and not just adolescent rebellion. You said something about James that really caused me to be more interested in him. You quoted Henry James on feeling.

AN: It's about the war (WWI). And he says we have to create our own counter-realities and feel against it. It's amazing he was such a compassionate man. And he seemed like a mandarin, not dirtying his hands but god, he felt and that feeling comes through.

RB: It's something that in spite their instruction people end up reading these great writers.

AN: [both laugh] Well it is such a shame. It is because of the way it's being taught. I remember in Iran, one of the books I mentioned but I don't talk about in this book was Huckleberry Finn, of course. And with Huck, again there is that question of empathy. You remember that scene where he and Jim are sitting there and Huck says, according to tradition he is going to hell, if he doesn't tell on Jim. And I loved the fact that he says, "I'll go to hell." I was thinking of a more contemporary writer, not too contemporary but some one I discovered when I returned to the U.S.—Zora Neale Hurston. Again, the main issue for her, for the character, is to be able to discover herself, to see herself through interaction with others. So for me, reading the novel becomes a process of discovery. Many plots in novels, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, are based on this process of self-discovery. And I love it—then nobody gets off free. You didn't have heroes who are pure and good and then the really bad guys—

RB: The first fiction that I liked was by Nelson Algren and James Baldwin and happily Heller's Catch-22. I would have thought given the circumstances of being deep into a totalitarian society that somehow writers like Kafka and Camus would have been guideposts for you and your students.

AN: Actually, I did teach Kafka a great deal. In this book I mentioned books that I was analyzing and those were books we discussed a great deal. Camus was a hero since I was a teenager. Among young Iranians at the time Camus and Sartre were sort of heroes. We read almost everything by them. Camus was so humane. My own initiation into the novel was actually Russian and French. English [novels] came later.

RB: I have no doubt that you told the truth, but I find it hard to believe that Khomeini wrote that it was okay for men to have sex with animals.

AN: Just read it. It's in the book. It's not just Khomeini, each of these people has to write dissertations and these are questions that either they are asked or believe that will be asked. Oh, there are so many bad things in there—

RB: Was he crazy, to use an unscientific word?

AN: It's not just him. That is the whole point. It is a crazy ideology. People who pander to it -- some of these people don't believe in it, but do it in order to feed on people's ignorance. That is what hurts so much—to be ruled by such—

RB: Absurdity.

AN: Yeah. We didn't believe it but that book [Khomeinis'] would be used at parties and everybody would be quoting him. At first the embassies used to have translations but then they discovered what people were doing with them. Everything that I mention about that aspect of [the mullahs' rule] is very well documented. I made sure.

RB: What does it mean to have an Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate [Shirin Ebadi]?

AN: Well in many ways it is positive because it also breaks the stereotypes. This woman appeared in Paris looking the way I do, without the veil and she mentioned she believes in human rights and democracy. And that she is also a Muslim. That broke the stereotype people have of what a Muslim should be and they realized that she represents the majority of Muslims who believe that human rights and democracy are universal values. That you can have your own faith and that has nothing to do with the way we look. And it creates a positive model also for people in the country to latch on to. Because the regimes in these countries bring in so much violence and we need to create models which are nonviolent models of change.

RB: Somewhere you had mentioned your disappointment that post 9/11 you were deeply disappointed that 40,000 Iranians marched in the streets in sympathy with the U.S. and no one covered it or noted it. Which is a reminder that people, at least, that what people don't want to see they won't see—

AN: That was really maddening. I don't know if you remember the coverage at the time—because even if two people in Pakistan were raging—and here are these people who came out despite government warnings. They were beaten and taken to jail and if was such a beautiful thing, lighting candles and bringing roses and they didn't show it. Because that image then would break the stereotype of Iranians as all being against the Great Satan. I don't know what it was. Around that time whenever the Iranian government staged demonstrations against the U.S., they [media] would show that.

RB: So what do you conclude from that?

AN: It surprises Iranians too. It goes beyond political dealings. It is sheer laziness.

RB: I don't think someone like Noam Chomsky would say that.

…the young people in my country have been flogged and jailed for just wanting to dress the way they want to—so they know about individual freedom…

AN: Partly sticking to a formula or a stereotype relieves you of responsibility. If you change that and show that Iranian as are not doing what we claim they are doing then you have to change a lot of things alongside of that. I discovered that many elites in this country as well as in my own, they prefer not to do that. I discovered quote unquote ordinary people have much more common sense, and they understand and connect much better than many of the so-called experts. I have given up on experts.

RB: You have mentioned here and other places that you are hopeful about things that are happening in Iran. Are you also optimistic about the role of the US in that region and in world affairs?

AN: One of the things that worries me is not having a strategy based on an understanding of the region.

RB: Perhaps had the U.S. understood the region there might be totally different set of circumstances.

AN: Yes, of course. Right now, post 9/11, we are paying for a lot of mistakes that were made of the past two or something decades. What I hope—far be it from me, because I genuinely believe that we should promote democracy and human rights, so far be it for me when America claims to be promoting democracy for me to say, "No you shouldn't." And I am also not naïve to think that these totalitarian states just go on their own. I understand that outside support is needed. But how you give the support and what kind of strategy and what forces you are dealing with and where you go, all of this comes in to play. It worries me very much that the U.S. ignored Afghanistan so quickly. And now we have an Islamic constitution. Before the U.S. was going into Afghanistan, women were all over the place, women were central. This should not have been just a slogan. And now we have an Islamic constitution. What is going to happen in Iraq? Another Islamic state? Then if that, Iran is going to thank the U.S. for going there and turning this regime into an Islamic republic. And so, goodwill or desire to change is not enough.

RB: The idea that supporting human rights is a paramount concern to the U.S. is naïve and deluded. The list of thugs, monsters and war criminals that the U.S. government has supported is far too long to support that claim. It doesn't strike me that official policy and commitment to human rights has changed much.

AN: I think that western countries are mistaken if they think that they can just use human rights as an instrument. I genuinely believe, especially at this time, the way the world is turning, the West and not just people, governments should take human rights much more seriously. I keep telling my friends in Washington that "If you want to prevent terror in the streets of Washington and New York, do not support those countries giving in to terror. These countries are killing their own people, why should they not want to kill you if they can? Why would they be accountable to you if they are not accountable to their own people?" So it is a very crisis ridden time right now and I think we need to—

RB: When wasn't it?

AN: This is just a newer crisis.

RB: At some point you are going to have to return to Washington after having criss-crossed the U.S. to talk about Reading Lolita in Tehran and then what is next?

AN: I have put a time limit in this and by summer all this will be over [laughs] because I am thinking about my other book. It’s not healthy to concentrate on one book. Actually, as soon as this book was ending I was thinking of another one. I have two projects in mind. One is to translate and change some the book I wrote on Nabokov. In that book I had had a lot to say which I hope I could share now. There is another book I have had in mind for a long time— on the topic of loss. When my mother died as I was writing this book, I keep coming back to it. How we retrieve through writing, through imagination what we lose. Life is a constant loss. I don't know how autobiographical it will be. I kept wanting to retrieve for my mother what she lost. I thought, "Can I invent what she never had?"

RB: Please say more about the autobiographical aspect of this?

AN: There are many ways of thinking about it. You know how it is when you want to write -- something keeps coming back and not leaving you alone. I became very obsessed with her when I left Iran, and I stole from her all her old photographs that she had. And when she was ill and I couldn't get back, I kept looking at her pictures and imagining what was it that she lost. And she was a very active woman. She could have been so much more than she was because of the way she lived. I felt I wanted to write about her and my grandmother within the context of that history. And to recreate the history and how did each age or each era changed and what it meant for a woman like her to live in each of these eras. So I am not sure how much of it will be personal biography and how much will, be history. I seem to be constantly drawn to this boundary between fiction and reality [laughs] because in this book I did it and in my Nabokov book I wanted to mix them. So that is what has been going on in my mind.

RB: So maybe we will see you in a few years?

AN: Well, I hope so [laughs], if only for that I should write another book.

RB: Well, thank you.

AN: Thank you.

© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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