The Fiction of Life
This is an invigorating interview of Azar Nafisi published in The Atlantic this week, who is a writer of a stimulating book titled, Reading Lolita in Tehran. She has touched the very basic foundations of freedom’s definition. What does freedom really mean? Even in the West, many finds Nabokov’s Lolita as “repulsive” and “scandalous”, even in many circle it is still considered as books for the “bad tastes”, a single search on this particular book would provide hundreds of links on positive and negative criticisms, cracker jokes and religious prohibitive prep-talks. And there are admirers of Nabokov who finds it one of the masterpieces in literary world.
In a free world people have choice. They have the choice of not reading Nabokov’s controversial work, or they can choose whatever they love to read. In a free world people do not have to worry about their ventures in library or bookstore, or they don’t have to look behind to see long bearded Mullahs lurking or peeking from shadowy places on the title of the books they are about to read. In a free world there are no clean-shaven Ashcroft imposed new Patriot Acts that snoop’s bookseller’s database or good old librarians’ list on library card holders’ checked out book list.
Ms. Nafisi writes, “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.”
In the oppressive states fundamentalists deny citizen of their basic democratic rights, where dissents are met with brutal repression and never ending jail time or worse. Still the West is maintaining and going through a continuous inner struggle for preserving the sanctity of freedom for all, not for the selective few. The liberals are out in force protesting against all new bags of tricks that espouse to smash people’s privacy in the name of “infinite justice” cultivated by West’s own home-grown clean shaven Falwellian Mullahs.
Ms. Nafisi writes on Iranian revolution, ” 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 one.”
And this has become the symbol of oppression. If one chooses to wear veil, it is her freedom to wear veil. But the moment strict enforcement is imposed on people’s life, that’s not democracy though the Mullahs color them as “Islamic Democracy” forgetting so conveniently that Islam prohibits “compulsion” in religion. And Ms. Nafisi asks rightfully, “And I don't know what "Islamic democracy" means. I mean, do we have Christian democracy or Judaic democracy? This is open to debate.”
And indeed it is open to debate. Based on any religion, can theocracy be the cornerstone on a nation’s governance and everyday life? And if it does, can it be called democracy? Like the “Islamic” theocracy controlled Iran and other states, has the self-proclaimed greatest democracy of our world, America been able to completely turn back from Judeo-Christian theocracy? What good “dead-end” theocracy can provide for the progressive world? Is their any earthly need for theocracy in the modern time?
Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
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
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
288 pages, $23.95
In 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 militant fantasies.
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.
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 immediately.
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 Fitzgerald.
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 one.
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 Iran.
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.
The most 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 ourselves.
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 do.
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 understanding democracy.
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 leave.
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 political intrusion?
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 perspective.
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 ordinary lives.
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