Adrian Nicole LeBlanc:
Bronx Story (April 24, 2003)
A conversation with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, whose new book, Random Family, chronicles the struggles of an impoverished extended family in New York.
The Nature of Inheritance (April 11, 2003)
A conversation with Cristina García, whose new novel, Monkey Hunting, explores Cuban identity, immigrant life, and the way family history evolves.
Caught Between Places (April 2, 2003)
A conversation with John Murray, a doctor-turned-writer whose characters are often searching to reconcile their new lives with the ones they've left behind.
The Real Islam (March 20, 2003)
In The Two Faces of Islam Stephen Schwartz argues that in order to appreciate the pluralist, tolerant side of Islam, we must confront its ugly, extremist side.
Richard Brookhiser: What Makes W. Tick? (March 11, 2003)
The historian and journalist Richard Brookhiser weighs in on George W. Bush—his management style, his mean streak, his religiosity, and his recovery from alcoholism.
Richard Price: Shades of Gray (February 26, 2003)
In his new novel, Samaritan, Richard Price returns to Dempsy, New Jersey—a world where "lines aren't so strictly drawn."
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
More on books from The Atlantic and Atlantic Unbound.
Atlantic Unbound | May 7, 2003
The Fiction of Life
Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring
n 1979, Azar Nafisi returned to
her native Iran after a seventeen-year absence. From the moment she stepped off
the plane, she found herself in a place that was dark and unfamiliar. The
cheerful and cosmopolitan Tehran airport that she remembered from her youth,
with its terraced restaurant and stylishly dressed women, now seemed barren
except for giant posters of the ayatollahs tagged with menacing slogans in
black and red: "DEATH TO AMERICA! DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM & ZIONISM! AMERICA
IS OUR NUMBER-ONE ENEMY!" As a customs official searched her bags, he picked up
her books—most of them modern American novels—with particular disdain, as
though handling dirty laundry. "But he did not confiscate them—not then,"
Nafisi recalls forebodingly in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. "That would come sometime later."
While revolution was brewing in
Iran, Nafisi was at the University of Oklahoma, immersed in English literature
and leftist politics—the former with great conviction, the latter with some
ambivalence. When the worldwide Iranian student movement—a diverse league of
Marxists and anti-imperialists—reached Oklahoma, Nafisi joined it and entered
what she calls a "schizophrenic period." She would deliver rabble-rousing
speeches denouncing American imperialism, while toting books by
"counterrevolutionary" authors such as T. S. Eliot, Nabokov, and Jane Austen.
Her image of Iran was similarly divided—her country was both the enchanted place of her
childhood memories and the object of the student movement's increasingly
Nafisi longed to return home and
share her enthusiasm for the Western canon with the next generation of
Iranians, and she eagerly accepted a teaching position in the English
department of the University of Tehran. "Had I been offered a similar position
at Oxford or Harvard," she writes, "I would not have felt more honored or
intimidated." But she soon discovered the hazards of an ideology that insisted
on politicizing every sphere of life. The university was the epicenter of
revolutionary activity, and the fanaticism that fueled the bloody
demonstrations on the campus grounds and in the streets soon found its way into
Nafisi's classroom. As she tried to teach the literary merits of Fitzgerald,
Hemingway, and Twain, many of her students could see the literature only as a
proxy for the decadent West. After class, she found herself shadowed by
unsatisfied students: some attacking her for teaching such filth, others who
loved the books but were too intimidated by the Islamists to admit it in the
classroom. With the former, she argued in vain for the value of discourse,
going so far as to arrange to put The Great Gatsby "on trial" in class. With the latter, she formed
personal and often lasting bonds. In 1980, Nafisi lost her battle with the
revolutionaries; her continued refusal to wear the veil cost her her job. "I
have become irrelevant," she found herself thinking and saying repeatedly.
Trapped among the crude fictions of
the Islamic regime—the official lies, the Orwellian rhetoric, the pro-regime
demonstrations staged by rent-a-crowds, and the arbitrary executions—Nafisi
immersed herself in the works of fiction that lifted her spirit. She bought
books almost compulsively and read instead of sleeping. Reading and rereading,
she found resonance in unexpected places: Lolita's Humbert Humbert and Washington
Square's Dr. Austin Sloper both reminded
her in different ways of the ayatollahs, for instance. In the mid-1980s, she
sought out a brilliant and famously reclusive scholar of film and literature
and gradually made him her mentor and confidant; they spent hours, often at
personal risk as an unmarried man and woman, deep in conversation about the
relevance of art.
Above all, she longed for an
opportunity to share her passion with students, away from the meddlesome
politics of Islamicized universities. In the fall of 1995, after leaving
another teaching position over a political conflict, she came up with a daring
way to realize that dream. She invited a group of young women from past
classes to form a private reading group that would meet weekly in her home. The
women she chose could hardly have been more diverse—privileged and poor, pious
and sexy, chaste and divorced, mothers and professionals; the only prerequisite
for group membership was a love of great books. With their veils off and in the
security of a private setting, the women were free to discuss intimate details
of their lives, to exchange ironic quips about the despotism that brought them
together, and to appreciate literature in their own idiosyncratic ways. In a
classic moment, Yassi, the group's "comedian," riffed on the famous first line
of Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth
universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be
in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife." The group continued to meet for two
years, until Nafisi emigrated with her husband and two children to the U.S. She
now teaches literature at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced
International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Nafisi pulls no punches in her
condemnation of political Islam—at one point she astonishes her husband by
comparing life in the Islamic Republic to "sex with someone you loathe." But
looking back now from her new home in Washington, D.C., she feels a wry sense
of gratitude toward the regime. By its confiscations, it taught her "to
love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom" in a way that she could
not have experienced elsewhere.
I spoke with Nafisi by phone on April 23.
The role of Nabokov's Lolita in your book is not what
readers might expect from the title—a risque book in a sexually repressed
society. For you and your students, Lolita was a kind of metaphor for the Islamic Republic.
I wonder what kind of reaction readers have had to that—and particularly to your comparison between Humbert Humbert
and Ayatollah Khomeini.
|Azar Nafisi |
Interestingly enough, when I talk
about how the ayatollahs, by imposing
their dreams on us, turning us into a figment of their imagination, did basically the same thing that Humbert
did to Lolita, it seems to resonate with a lot of my American readers. And my students in Iran connected with Nabokov
more than with any other writer. It's because of the kind of universe he
created, in Lolita and in other books,
in which the free individual always had to fend for herself
or himself, and the biggest crime was confiscation of another person's
reality. That was something that they connected with
I was surprised to learn which
novels the regime's censors and your Islamist students found most
offensive—not the authors who have been censored in the West, like Joyce, for
example, but authors whom we tend to consider delicate and restrained, like
Henry James and Jane Austen.
People would react to books by
authors like James and Austen almost on a gut level. I think it was not so much
the message, because the best authors do not have obvious messages. These authors
were disturbing to my students because of their perspectives on life. Henry
James really bothered my ideological students because he's so ambiguous,
because he refuses to simply take sides and relieve you of your duty. And I
kept telling them that Henry James in his life might have seemed like a very
complacent man—I always imagine him as middle aged, never as a youth. But in
writing he can be subversive of your perspective on life. His heroines are
usually, apart from Daisy Miller, very unassuming, very quiet, but at the same
time they are very committed to their sense of individual dignity. And from an
ideological perspective and a totalitarian perspective, that is where the
Islamists are hurt. They are not so much hurt by mere profanity; they are hurt
by that sense of individual dignity, by the temerity of people who say, We do what we think is
right, what we feel is good. I
think that is what bothers them at the core about James or Austen or
There is a perplexing character
in your book whom you call Mr
Forsati—he's an Islamist, a political insider, who is
a glutton for Western culture and particularly American movies. How can he wear
both of those hats, and how common a type is he in modern Iran?
Mr. Forsati and people like him are
the product of the mid-eighties. At the beginning of the revolution, not only
the Islamists but also the radical left were all very set in what they wanted
and the way they saw the world. As the revolution progressed, two things
happened to the young Islamists. One was that the Islamic Republic failed to
live up to any of its claims—apart from oppressing people and changing the
laws, lowering the age of marriage from eighteen to nine, it did not accomplish
anything economically, socially, politically, or in terms of security. So there
was this failure on the one hand. And on the other
hand, people like Mr. Forsati, people who were
leaders of the Muslim Students' Association, had much more access to Western
products than my secular students did. And by and by, they became familiar with
the Western world, and they found that this world was much more attractive and
had much more to offer than the closed world that their leaders were promising
them. They felt betrayed.
But you know, the name I used for
him, Forsati, has allusions in Persian to
opportunism. Mr. Forsati would use his power as a
student in the Muslim Students' Association to have special privileges. The revolution brought out all the contradictions in us. But
more than in people like me, it brought out the contradictions in those who
were ruling us. They became captives to the culture
they were renouncing. You see that in Iran today. You see that in the older
revolutionaries who were hostage-takers, and who were quoting Ayatollah
Khomeini then. Now they're quoting Hannah Arendt and
Karl Popper and Kant.
You include an ironic anecdote
in your book, about an Islamist student who quoted Edward Said to denounce
certain decadent Western authors—an anti-modernist invoking a postmodernist.
But haven't these sorts of contradictions been part of the revolution since the
beginning, in the collaboration between the Islamists and the radical left?
This is something that you were involved in as an activist at university in the
U.S., and it's something that continues even today. How do you explain it?
One thing that I have been
insisting since I came to this country, and it's hard to get it across to
people, is that what is being touted as Islam by the Islamic state is not
genuinely religion; it is religion being used as an
ideology. Basically, fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. In the same way
that Hitler evoked a mythological religion of German purity and the glory of
the past, the Islamists use religion to evoke emotions and passions in people
who have been oppressed for a long time in order to reach their purpose. Look
at Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution and the slogans that they used:
anti-imperialism; anti-colonialism; the struggle of the have-nots against the
haves; the state monopoly over economy, which was very much patterned after the
Soviet Union. All of these things did not come out of Islam. Islam is not that
developed. Religion was used as an ideology, as a system of control. When they
forced the veil upon women, they were using it as an instrument of control in
the same way that in Mao's China people were wearing Mao jackets and women
were not supposed to wear any makeup. It was uniformity that they were after.
The left aligned themselves with
the Islamists, firstly because they thought that after the
revolution, once things had settled down, they would take over, which
was wrong, and secondly, because the left genuinely were fighting against what
they called liberalism. The term "liberal" does not exist in Islam. They
thought of liberalism as an American term. And I remember how many of my
leftist friends argued with me when I went to demonstrations for women's
rights. They said, This is bourgeois individualism.
Our fight should be against American imperialism right now. This is secondary.
You make it clear in the book,
in part by revealing the diverse backgrounds of the women in your private
class, that it is a profound misconception to see the great divide in Islamic
society as religion versus secularism. In fact the politicization of Islam is
offensive not only to secular people, but to devout
Muslims as well.
This is something that I thought
about a great deal as I was writing this book. I didn't choose
the students in my private class based on their beliefs, on whether they
believed in the veil or not. We were of very different backgrounds—religiously and ideologically—and scarcely did we all
agree on these points. But what drew us together were
these works of culture. For both my religious and my secular students, this was
the point where they could converge.
In a sense, the revolution took
away people's right to worship. My grandmother, who wore the veil all her life,
used to cry and tell us, "This is not Islam." One of my Muslim students told me
that before the revolution when she wore the veil it
was a statement of her religious principles. But now that the veil is forced on
everyone it has lost its meaning for her—it has
become a political symbol rather than a religious
I would like to say how much I
resent people who say of the Islamic Republic that this is our culture—as if women like to be stoned to death, or as if they like to be
married at the age of nine. No one thinks that American
culture is about burning witches. America's greatest strength
comes from fighting against evils within itself—like slavery, like extreme
fundamentalism within its own ranks. The same is true
of our own culture. And I wish people would realize that. I'll tell you one thing,
many high clerics, clerics who were
much higher than Khomeini, were from the very
start against mixing religion with the state. They said that it
would be to the detriment of Islam, because people would identify everything that goes wrong
politically with the religion.
Your depiction of the war with
Iraq of 1980-88 really drives home how devastating it was to Iranians, from the
relentless bombing and the regime's deception of people at home to the feelings
of betrayal among the young men who fought and came home defeated. What changes
did you see at that time, in popular attitudes toward the regime and in the
intellectual climate in Iran?
There were some who saw that the
regime had betrayed them, and they just couldn't take it, they didn't know
where to turn. Many were suicidal or just paralyzed, because they felt the West
had won, and they were incapable of change.
But there were others who began to
ask questions. You know, the Western media has covered what they call the
reform movement as though it began with Mr. Khatami. That movement actually started in the late 1980s,
near the end of the war, because certain groups of Muslim
intellectuals began reading the work of secular
intellectuals like Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt
in addition to Islamic texts— when they looked to their own past for insight,
they found it was a dead end. I remember that many of the founders of what you
now call the reform movement started a magazine at that time—a magazine that
closed down just last year. They proposed to me that I write something, and I
refused at first, because I thought, These guys are with the regime. And the guy who was the editor said to me, "You
won't work with us because you think that our hands are stained with the blood
of martyrs, but we want to start a dialogue and to create a bridge—and one day
we will be more of a threat to the regime than you are." And so of course I
wrote for that magazine and I really appreciated many of the people there who
were genuine and with whom I could be absolutely open, even though they might
disagree with me completely on many points. I always look at them with a lot of
respect. Out of that reform movement came a lot of people who now believe that
we should not have a theocratic state, we should have a secular state.
You did not seem to be
optimistic about the reform movement on the whole. You made a particularly
memorable remark in your book, that times of hope are often the most dangerous
in a place like Iran. Would you elaborate on that?
This occurred to me at the time of President Khatami's victory. I
was pessimistic. I thought it was great that the Iranian people—and not just
those who opposed the revolution from the start, but
those who were children of the revolution—started
questioning it, and that they were wise enough to want to change it from within
rather than having another revolution. But it was so obvious to me that Mr. Khatami was a paradox. In order to get
elected, he had to have an agenda that was attractive to the public, but he
also had to have an immaculate record. And when he talked about the rule
of law … what does this law mean? Does it mean that,
as my student Manna said, I wear my scarf a little higher now? That I show a
little bit more hair? The rule of law in Iran is not the Magna Carta. The
rule of law in Iran is the rule of the supreme jurisprudence. It is about women
being flogged. These are the rules. And for people to pin
their hopes not on themselves but on some outside force coming to rescue them
is wrong. And for the West to immediately create a good guy-bad guy
distinction between reformists and hardliners was a grave mistake.
The most devoted and most committed
in the reform movement, the ones who made it possible for Mr.
Khatami to come to power, are now in jail. And
many others, mainly secular, but many committed religious dissidents too, are
now dead. The journals that helped Mr. Khatami to come to power are now extinct.
That is what I mean about hope. When you hope,
you all of a sudden become careless. You all of a
sudden don't see all of the ambiguities and paradoxes
of the situation at hand. I'm not saying that I don't have hope. I know that
this country is going to change. But I'm not pinning
my hope on Mr. Khatami. I think that we pay every time we become carelessly
hopeful or optimistic.
I remember a couple of your
students joking that Khatami's version of reform was like making a government
that was "a little bit fascist" or "a little bit communist." There seemed to be
a lot of that sort of humor in the discussions in your private class—a sense
of dark irony that tends to develop in totalitarian societies.
When your reality is so absurd that
the country's chief censor for film is a man who is literally blind, what can
you do with it? At least you have to have a good
laugh. Even now, some of my students who are still in Iran will call me
sometimes and we will just laugh our heads off.
I used to think that life over
there is so fictional, so unreal, that it really stunted our creative powers.
If I were going to come up with a metaphor for the Islamic Republic, I would
use the blind censor, but the blind censor is already
there. What could I make up about a system that censors Desdemona out of Othello? It is very frustrating to be a fiction writer in
In one passage you actually
compare life in Iran to a piece of bad fiction. Is that in a way what makes a
tyranny so difficult to overcome, that it is so incoherent?
People always think that living in
a tyranny is a cohesive experience. But living under a tyranny—and Nabokov does an amazing job of illustrating this in Invitation
to a Beheading—you don't suffer just from
physical oppression. You suffer because the regime is so arbitrary. Living in
the U.S., when you wake up in the morning you know accidents could happen to
you, but you sort of know what might happen when you go out into the street and go to work. In Iran, when you leave home you literally don't know what
could happen to you. They might be very nice, very reasonable, or they might
take you to jail. They live on that arbitrariness. They are not coherent, they only have the guns. And they
are very scared of you. I try to make my American friends understand that when
the fundamentalists flew into the World Trade Center, it was not merely because
of their fear of the U.S., it was because of their fear of their own people
wanting to become more democratic.
When we in the free world think
of totalitarianism, we normally think in terms of the suppression of
dissidents, of the right to speak out and act out against the regime. Your
description of the Islamic Republic shows how much deeper the repression went,
that the regime dictated not just opinions, but emotions in every aspect of
life—when and how you could express love or fear or grief. Can literature
provide readers with a kind of substitute emotional life?
There's a sentence by Nabokov, "Readers are born free and they ought to remain
free." I wanted this book to be not just about authors, and freedoms of speech
for authors, but about the freedom to read for
readers, the freedom for readers to communicate with their authors, with the
books that they choose to read.
important lesson that we learned from the Islamic
Republic, which connects directly to Nabokov and
almost every single novel that he has written, is that freedom
means nothing without first giving the individual the choice to fulfill himself or herself to the fullest of his or her
potential. My generation didn't understand that. We were given this freedom. We
didn't think about it. My daughter's generation has been going to jail for wearing lipstick in the streets. They have been flogged seventy-six lashes for not wearing the veil
properly. They have been deprived of holding hands in public
with the man they love. So love, personal emotions, personal choices, right now are at the center of the struggle
for Iran. And one of the ways that we realized this, that we fought with our own inarticulateness, was through reading these books.
Austen told us that a woman has the
right to choose the man she wants to marry, against
all authority. Nabokov taught us that people have a
right to retrieve the reality that totalitarian mindsets have taken away from
them. That is why works of imagination, especially fiction, have become so
vital today in Iran. And I wish that Americans would understand
that. Their gifts to us have been Lolita
and Gatsby. Our gift
to them has been reasserting
those values that they now take for granted, reminding them that life,
liberty, and pursuit of happiness belong to everyone.
You mention that you worried at
times that you might be giving your students an overly idealized picture of the
West, that you might be aggravating their dissatisfaction with their lives in
Iran, or setting them up for disappointment elsewhere.
A lot of times I get so
enthusiastic about these books, I sometimes feel that
I'm presenting fiction as some kind of cure-all, which of
course it is not. I was afraid that my students would become reactive
because they had been deprived. Everything that has happened in Iran, the
regime has blamed it on the West. Everything that they have been deprived of, from Tom Hanks movies to Spinoza and Kant, has come from the West. People under too much
oppression react to the government. If the government
hates something, they love it. If the government
loves something, they hate it. So right now the U.S.,
the Great Satan, is the most popular entity in Iran. But this relationship
should be a critical relationship. I don't want my
students to look at the U.S. as a place of pilgrimage. I want them to understand its ambiguities. That
is why I taught them Saul Bellow's novels, like The Dean's December, like More
Die of Heartbreak, where he talks about the
sufferings of freedom. Where he talks about how a vibrant culture like America
is also in danger of losing its poetry, of losing its heart. In More
Die of Heartbreak the protagonist says,
"More die of heartbreak than of radiation." This is also
a warning, and I want my students to know that we constantly have to fight—not just in the Islamic Republic but in Washington,
D.C., as well—that we have to fight for the soul of our nation, and of
What is the atmosphere in
Iranian universities like now? There seems to be a
very strong democratic movement.
There is a lot happening in the
universities, in part because young people can afford to be fearless. And also
because the students who go to the universities have no cultural freedom, they
have no social freedom, and they see no economic future for themselves. One of
my students, Nima, said to me, "If I had become a cigarette vendor I would have
a much better chance of making a living." That in itself radicalizes the
students. Their parents have more to lose than they
Another thing is that they are
educating themselves. They don't get most of their information from classes,
many of which are so low in quality that they know more than their professors.
So they read on their own. They are curious about
what they are deprived of—as soon as they had access
to Joyce or to Virginia Woolf
or to Kant, they would go
after it. That is why universities now are the hotbed of the movement for
democracy. And the students are fantastic. Sometimes I
go on their Web sites and I'm so impressed by the things that are published
there and the kind of arguments that they put forward for democracy. I was
amazed one time to find that they had reprinted an article from The Atlantic Monthly, an
article by Bernard Lewis from 1993. I don't even know
where they find these things.
From the archives:
"Islam and Liberal Democracy" (February 1993)
Is Islam by its very nature antithetical to the development of democratic institutions? A distinguished historian contemplates this difficult question, one whose answer is fraught with consequence for several troubled regions of the world. By Bernard Lewis
The Internet must be making it particularly difficult for
the regime to control the flow of media in and out of the country.
Yes. Some people here criticize
this—they say that most people want only McDonalds
or Baywatch. It's funny, David Hasselhoff bragged in 1996 that Baywatch is the most popular show in Iran, and it's true; but
that is what democracy is all about. If you don't want to watch Baywatch you switch to PBS or you can write against Baywatch. I think it is unfair to say that that is all they
want. They want a choice.
Is it patronizing for us to
argue that the influx of Western pop culture is detrimental?
Yes, just as it's patronizing to
say, "It's their culture. Let them flog one another.
We don't want to impose American democracy on them." No one wants you guys to
impose anything on us, but support us when we are saying that we want
democracy. And I don't know what "Islamic democracy" means. I mean, do we have Christian democracy or Judaic democracy?
This is open to debate.
Was there ever a time, when you
were living in Iran, when you would have welcomed the
idea of a regime change implemented by foreign forces?
Some Iranians were so desperate that they would have wanted the foreign powers to come in, but I didn't feel that way. Each country
is different. When you live in a totalitarian society, international support is
integral to the blossoming of movements for democracy, because you are
completely helpless and you feel lonely and that support gives you courage,
gives you hope. But in Iran, I don't think that we
needed foreign intervention at any point. Iran from the very first was a vibrant society. It never
took this revolution lying down. From the very moment I first stepped into the
Tehran airport in 1979, I remember, there was oppression and there was a
movement against oppression. And we needed to go through a process of
What we did need from abroad, and
what we are not properly getting, is genuine support for democratic movements
in that country, even just in terms of the media coverage.
After September 11, I was so disappointed that when
40,000 Iranians came out to the streets in Iran under threat of jail or torture
and lit candles in sympathy with the American people, it got so little
attention. Why should other demonstrations, just because they were noisier, get
so much more attention? What I'm saying is, Iran needs support, and the policy
toward the Iranian government should be firm. It should be firm on human
rights. It should realize that a totalitarian government would never give up
weapons of mass destruction. We should defend democracy pragmatically, if not
for humanity's sake.
The generation gap in Iran is in
a sense the opposite of what it is in the West—the post-revolutionary
generation has grown up in a much more repressed, closed society than their
parents and even their grandparents did. Does this put a particular strain on
relations between parents and children, or teachers and students?
It sometimes makes the youth
resentful. One example that comes to mind: we had a satellite dish at home, and
my daughter, at the age of eleven or twelve, became addicted to the program The
X-Files. When our house was raided by the
authorities and they took away our satellite dish, my daughter was crying. She
started getting on my nerves. I told her that she was spoiled, and she got mad
at me. She said, "You don't understand. When you were
my age, were you punished for wearing colored shoelaces?
We have nothing. This is all we have and you call me spoiled?"
I encountered those kinds of feelings often when I was teaching. Sometimes I
would forget myself, and I would talk about my days in college, going to Bergman movies and sitting out and playing guitar, and I
would sense this bitterness from my students. Their youths were devoid of such
public freedoms. One of them told me that when she visited Syria and was able
to go outside without her veil and feel the wind on her hair, she got so angry
at what had been taken away from her.
So it is a very bitter generation,
but it is also a very courageous and fighting
generation. Mine is too soft. We would demonstrate in front of White House,
knowing that nothing would happen to us. They would
get flogged because of the way they wear their hair. I have more faith in them
than I do in myself.
Your children must have a
different perspective on the U.S. from yours and your husband's.
It's funny, I don't know if you
remember that a few years ago there was this debate here about rap music, whether it
should be censored because it made children violent, and my son said to me,
"Mom, they think we're stupid, that we don't know the difference between
reality and a song. It's like the Islamic Republic."
In a way he has a more
sophisticated view than children who were born here.
He doesn't buy these arguments
here, because he's had the experience there. And my daughter said when we first
came here that her American classmates didn't appreciate what they had. She was
so glad just to be able to talk in class and to speak out against the teacher
and not be penalized.
I wonder about the relations
between emigres and their acquaintances who stayed behind in Iran. You mention
in your book that as you were preparing to leave, a close friend told you he
didn't want to stay in touch with you or anyone who was fortunate enough to
There is a lot of resentment
against people who live here, a feeling that this is a much softer life, that
why should their countrymen have things here that they don't have and leave all
of the problems to those who stayed behind. But that resentment really belongs
to the older generation. The youth merely want as many
good things as they can get their hands on. And then on the other side, a lot
of emigre friends that I run into here look at Iran
with nostalgic longing. They say that life here is so empty that even going
back to the Islamic Republic and tolerating the hardships would be better than
carrying this emptiness with them. Of course they don't go back, but they say
it. What I appreciate and find most important is that among both groups there
are those who are making an effort to keep in touch, to fill one another in. I feel that bond with my students and with
many young writers who are communicating by e-mail and fax
and sending books and articles.
What kind of literature has Iran
produced since the revolution, apart from the state-controlled variety? Have
any underground movements or new forms developed?
For the first two or three decades
of the twentieth century, we had a
great literary movement, which had its roots in our own traditions and
languages but at the same time was modern. A few great works came out of that
period. But after that, especially from the mid-century
onwards, the influence of socialist realism and the politicization
and polarization of Iranian society reached such an extent that by the time the revolution came about, a form of socialist realism
was dominant. And that was very convenient for the revolutionaries. They only
took all the characters and gave them Muslim names
and Islamic causes. If a character with a Muslim name
had a role that was negative, it was censored. Nobody
with a beard was supposed to be bad.
Then by and by, especially
with the fall of the Soviet Union and the failure of
the leftist movement in Iran, a vacuum was created.
On the one hand, the old forms of articulating
yourself did not work. On the other hand, we did not have access to any new
forms. I think that right now the state of fiction in Iran
is one of creative void. Writers, and especially
young female writers, are looking for a way to find a
language or a form to express themselves. And so I think that this is the
period where things have not yet come into fruition. I know that there are a
lot of novels being written. There are so many new names, and so many sparks. Especially because there is now more articulation of personal life.
Many women are writing about the state of invisibility that they feel, or
about their personal relations. This is all starting
to come out. But we're still waiting for that great Iranian novel.
You write that "at the core of
the fight for political rights is the desire to prevent the political from
intruding on our individual lives." Is it fair to say that your mission as a
teacher and writer was not political rebellion so much as resistance to
One aspect of democracy is that
different areas and fields can be free from politics. Of course they are
interrelated. But it is such a great freedom for me as a writer to be able to
think only about the books that I'm writing about and not to have to worry
about what Mr. Bush or Mr.
Clinton might do to me. If Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton are constantly in my thoughts as I'm writing, already their dictatorship is over me. This is something that a lot of people over here don't
understand, that freedom for a great book is freedom from the tyranny of the ever-presence of politics. It
makes me so mad that every time I talk about being a
woman in Iran or about reading Lolita in
Tehran people always assume that my purpose must be political. Reading
Lolita in Tehran was a reaction against
books and against people who always refer to my country or culture as though we
are interesting only because of Mr. Khatami and Mr. Khomeini. I want to say that we are
interesting because we are bringing Lolita to your attention in a way that some of you have
never thought about. Forget about Mr. Khatami and Mr. Khomeini, or if you're not forgetting about
them, look at them from our perspective rather than looking at us from their
None of the girls from that group,
including myself, are political. None of them belong to a political group or
want to overthrow the state. I doubt that most of these girls would even go to a demonstration.
But these are the people who I am interested in,
because when you are a political activist, everybody knows where you stand. And a lot of times in a place like Iran you pay for it by going to jail or being tortured. But
the fact is that this is an existential fight for millions of people who have
no political claims, in order for them to live their
What do you think? Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer based in Montreal.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.