Fiction: Open Space in a Closed Society
Azar Nafisi is the Iranian author of the best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran.
What most of the mass media offers the public about Iran or Afghanistan or even about America is not knowledge; it’s just soundbites. But, to look at it another way, what kind of a culture relies for knowledge just on media? The media is supposed to serve one aspect of our needs. The other aspect must be satisfied elsewhere, which is through imaginative knowledge.
Part of the reason people liked my book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was because they could experience through reading it what a young girl experienced in a country called an Islamic Republic. And they realized that her desires and aspirations were not very different from their own. As a result the rather homogenized image of women from Iran has partly changed.
The media have tended to reduce Iranian society into the Khomeini Era or the era of the Shah. The Iranian society was there before the revolution and before the Shah. If we gained certain liberties at the time of the Shah—whether women’s rights or the openness to literature from Byron to Wordsworth to Victor Hugo—it was mainly because various forces in Iranian society wanted it. Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie was a very popular writer. His first two novels were translated into Persian and became best-sellers. That’s why this Islamist system cannot force the Iranian people to give them up.
For a while it seemed like the only one who was talking about classics in America was Oprah, and I’m happy she did so. People are reading Anna Karenina again, and that’s promising. I am not trying to turn this into a mass movement. Reading literature has not at anytime in history been a mass phenomenon. But we need to guard the quality of our knowledge; otherwise we will become a very empty culture.
OPEN FICTION: I actually did teach Western literature to Iranian women in real life. Some people criticized me and said, "Why didn’t you talk about Persian literature?" I tell them that I was an English professor, this is what I studied. Secondly, I told my critics that people should not be put in boxes. A white male from Milwaukee should be talking about Iranian literature and the woman from Afghanistan should be talking about French or Armenian literature. This is how we grow.
Living in a country which has deprived its people any actual contact with the outside world for a very long time, I have seen that the literature and culture of that world as a whole became a genuine means of connection. Many of my students really were hungry to know about what happened outside Iran. Further, works of fiction have a power to create images on their own. They make you imagine life not just as it is, but as it could be, or it should be. So for us living in Iran there were so many closed spaces there, and fiction opened those spaces.
My book has not been published officially in Iran. But the electronic era transcends restrictions! People in Iran have downloaded reviews and sections of my book from the Internet. Also there are many people, so I hear, who take the book with them when visiting Iran and then it goes from friend to friend. Just recently there was a lovely review of Reading Lolita in a Persian magazine—even though the book hasn’t been published in Iran. That was very encouraging..
BEYOND THE VEIL: I was expelled from the university for refusing to wear the veil. Later, in 1997, I decided to leave the country. Now, my book has been a best seller in America. This is the irony of life. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to be deprived of what we have in order to appreciate it. This experience keeps coming up. But what I wanted to convey in my book was that my situation was not that exceptional. I wanted to talk not so much about myself, but about so-called ordinary people in Iran—those whose voices we don’t hear as much because we always hear about the elite. I wanted to express the kind of ordinary courage a young woman or a young man has in the face of an oppressive situation.
AT HOME IN THE BOOK: My home is a portable one. I used to quote to my students Vladimir Nabokov saying that a writer’s books are his identity papers. And this is really good because on one hand we live in a world with boundaries and nationalities and specific identities, on the other we need the world of imagination, which is without boundaries. I call it the Republic of Imagination.
This is a romantic and, at the same time, a universal ideal. We all need ideals that seem impossible in order for us to continue. Otherwise we will stop striving.
REFORM WITHIN: One of the good things about the revolution in Iran was that it made us look at ourselves critically. We could not blame the world for all the things that happened to us. Because this new system came in the name of religion, there was a movement from within the religious community, especially among the young and religious intellectuals who began to reevaluate their views, who recognized that Iran needs to adapt to our times, that we need to reinvent certain aspects of our religion. This makes the religious discussion in Iran very vibrant and more tolerant. Sometimes when you live under dictatorship you become reactionary. If the government comes in the name of religion, then you want to destroy religion. We have to prevent that. We have to turn that desire for destruction into a desire for debate. We don’t want to destroy religion. We want to make it an integral part of society.
In this context, the issue of the veil is not that simple. Traditional women in Iran, like my own grandmother, wore the veil because they felt this was the symbol of their faith. And they wanted respect for that. But when the veil becomes a symbol of politics, then it loses that sense of respect and dignity because anybody can come and attack it the way we attack our political opponents. People who insist on the veil as a political sign don’t really have respect for their own religious beliefs. If you want to have a political fight, go into it. Fight it on a political front. But don’t use the veil. It’s like a woman saying, "I must go naked into the street because I want freedom." These sorts of statements are reactionary. They distort reality.
Many young women are under severe pressure from their families to wear the veil. They become ostracized if they don’t agree to what they’re being told. What we need is a free space so that issues like the veil can be discussed. We can’t discuss it anymore. Every time you say something about the veil it seems as if you’re either engaged in a political campaign or insulting somebody. It’s a taboo, and that is so wrong.