Azar Nafisi

Nafisi: “As soon as I came to America, I realized that one of the biggest problems is that the country wants to be comfortable. It doesn't really want to face the truth. And one way of facing the truth is through knowledge.”

Azar means December in Farsi, and Azar Nafisi was born in December. It is also the name of the Persian deity of fire, and Azar keeps our inner fire alive.

Nafisi, author of international bestseller “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” was a visiting fellow and lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) from 1997 until 2017. She was recently named a Georgetown University/Walsh School of Foreign Service 2018-2019 Centennial Fellow. She studied in the US in the 1970s and earned her Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma.

“Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” paints a “compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran” and describes its effect on Nafisi as a university professor in Tehran, as well as the effect it had on her students. After being expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil, Nafisi started a book club at her home with her young, female students. The memoir details the discussions held by Nafisi and her students, and is like a melting pot where the East and the West meet, argue, disagree and challenge each other.

The book “has spent over 117 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 32 languages; it has also won diverse literary awards.”

Our conversation will take you to the wonderland of love, religion, freedom and America through our reflections on two of my favorites of Nafisi’s books: “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and “The Republic of Imagination.” She is coming to Reston Community Center’s CenterStage on Nov. 6 to discuss and sign copies of her latest book, “That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile.”

We had this conversation over the phone:

I know that you like to look inward before looking outward. So, I would like to start with our bodies as Muslim women. Why did you refuse to wear the veil in Iran rather than think of it as a dress code?

NAFISI: Well, first of all, I don't think that the dress code for women should be decided by the government. It should be a woman's personal choice. And second of all, I don't think that imposing the dress code on all Iranian women, regardless of what their beliefs were, was a religious act; it was a political act. It was to control the citizens, especially women, who are always the first target, and to impose uniformity upon them. And to do that, they used, or it might be better to say, abused religion. And it has nothing to do with religion. I mentioned that my grandmother was an orthodox Muslim woman and she never took off her veil. She wore her veil before the Islamic Republic, but she objected to the way this regime was treating women because she believed that if I, as her granddaughter, wear the veil, it should be because I want to. And she felt that this was doing damage to Islam by making people go away from Islam, rather than come to it.

So many countries have their own dress codes. Like here in America, for example, there is a dress code that states that women can't expose their breasts in public.

NAFISI: That is true, but that is not government mandated; it is something that people generally accept. What I disagree with is a government mandate that actually turns people into objects controlled by the regime. That is what I object to, but I don't object to...certain societies are more conservative, others are more liberal. Certain societies allow women to, as you say, come with their breasts naked, certain societies don't.

Even breastfeeding in public in America is a big deal.

NAFISI: I agree with you, but America right now has many traits that dictatorships do in terms of what Mr. Trump and the Republican Party are doing to this country, but apart from that, you notice how women in different parts of the country are trying to break that taboo about breastfeeding in public.

Yes.

NAFISI: So it becomes an action from the bottom up, and not an order or a command from the government that by tomorrow, all women should stop breastfeeding in public or should breastfeed in public.

Yes. I understand your point. I want to tell you that I grew up in a similar environment as the one which the girls in your book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” grew up in. Even though I broke many barriers, I'm still afraid of embracing my body. In “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” you mentioned that Nasrin, for example, was uncomfortable with her body when she attended one of your classes without her robe and her veil. How serious is this fear? I started to be more and more aware of it and I just think...we don't talk about it.

NAFISI: I understand what you're saying. I was surprised, for example, in my private class with these women, [they] were so intelligent and it was so easy for them to talk about great works of imagination, to read philosophy and talk about it. They were fluent and confident in all of this, but when it came to themselves and their bodies, when it came to their personal relationships, they acted like five-year-olds. And that is where...one of the interesting things about Iran--because the country has gone through all of that--is how women are discovering themselves and they are...deciding how they want to be treated, rather than fearing the way others would look at them.

As I began to understand my own fear, I became aware that the Islamic dress code isn't enforced simply as a dress code, although it is only meant to be a dress code, because it affects Muslim females in their private lives. The way it is enforced creates fear in us as females and this can...impact our ability to love.

NAFISI: Yes, you're right. Yes. It does affect everything we do, in terms of our personal lives, and it makes us afraid of love. Love is such an integral part of being human. And it should bring you freedom. But a lot of times, it makes us not free, but fearful.

And this is serious. Honestly, I'm still working on this myself. And I want to tell you one part of your book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” that transformed me was the realization that there is no real freedom for a woman before falling in love and following its path.

NAFISI: That's beautiful. It is not accidental that in so many works of fiction, love and freedom and writing and reading all become intertwined.

Exactly.

NAFISI: Because love, in a sense, is freedom from yourself and the ability to see yourself and to like, love yourself, but through the eyes of another person...to treat that as if it is a sin, that in itself is a sin.

It is actually very important to look at freedom this way, because some women can be deceived, thinking that they are free because they have certain rights, but honestly, inner freedom starts with falling in love.

NAFISI: That is so true. What you're saying reminds me of, for example, the history of English novels at the beginning of the 18th century, when most of these novels were based on a woman who says “no” to conventions...and disobeys her parents and the society and says, "I choose the man I want to marry, and I want to marry not because I want to be rich, not because society tells me to, but because I am in love with the man that I want to live with."

You also mentioned in your books and other interviews that religion is a victim. Do you see Islam as a victim, and how?

NAFISI: Well, I felt that in countries today, like Iran or perhaps Saudi Arabia and places like this, religion has been confiscated by the state. Religion is a very personal thing. No one can tell you to believe in God or how to believe in God, it's between you and your God. I feel that the best way of looking at religion is, for example, the way our poets did, like Rumi, where there is a one-to-one relationship between the individual and his or her beloved, which is God. And so, I felt that to come and use religion as a tool of the state is to reduce religion into its worst aspects.

Because you know better than I do that Islam, like all other religions, like Christianity, like Judaism, it comes in so many different forms. You have the Sufis and the Mystics who are the least violent people in the world. And then you have ISIS and Al Qaeda, who are the most violent people in the world. So, you cannot tell all the people in one country that they should conform to the way the government, the state, sees religion. And so, again, I felt religion was confiscated and used as an ideology. When religion becomes an ideology, whether it's Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other form, it can become dangerous. And that is what I felt Iran was moving towards.

When I look at Islam, I also think that it is widely misunderstood internationally. What do you think?

NAFISI: I do agree with you that it has been misunderstood. It has been misunderstood in two different ways. One, because these political groups and governments have so much power and they spread what they want us to hear about Islam. That is one thing, so people only hear about Islam in the most violent terms, as if it is an inherently violent religion. And the second thing is ignorance. When I came to America, I was so surprised by how little--not just ordinary people--but by how little our policymakers knew about the religion, about these different countries. I mean, just look at the countries they call Muslim. You have Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Tunisia. These are very different countries, with very different histories and cultures. You can't just generalize them all into the Muslim world. We don't generalize Britain, France and the United States into the Christian world. Yet we do that with these countries. And that ignorance is so dangerous. And unfortunately, I think religion is also the victim of ignorance.

Earlier, you mentioned Rumi, the Persian poet. I think that in one of your interviews, you shared that you don't like the way Rumi’s poems are translated.

NAFISI: No. Maybe I speak too much, but Rumi, the amazing thing about Rumi is that his poetry is purely music and dance. I mean, you can't just reduce Rumi to a few wise words. I feel the form of the poems, the structure of the poems is also the content of the poems. And I think some people have taken advantage of him and have turned him into a series of very simple, wise words.

I see your point. Also, something that I found funny and interesting is that you were able to see the Trump mindset spread throughout America even before Trump was elected. You talked about this in your interviews and in your book, “The Republic of Imagination,” you started with a quote by Langston Hughes: “Let America be America again.” I mean, you somehow foresaw this before it happened. How?

NAFISI: Yes, because as soon as I came to America, I realized that one of the biggest problems is that the country wants to be comfortable. It doesn't really want to face the truth. And one way of facing the truth is through knowledge. I mean, that is the main way of facing the truth. And I was looking at the universities and our school system; so little attention was paid to our children's education. Well, apart from the fact that education was so expensive that the majority of Americans cannot get a great education...there is this focus on making money. … In the second chapter, I talk about the mentality that brought Trump to power. Where the main character talks about how what this country needs now is a businessman.

I mean, they don't talk about what the president needs to be: the moral leader of the country, the guardian of the idea of America. What the country needs are policymakers who, rather than thinking about their pockets, think about the soul of this country. And that book you mentioned, “The Republic of Imagination,” came out of my frustration with what I saw was going on in America. At the end of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” I mentioned a quotation from the American novelist, Saul Bellow: "Those who survived the ordeal of Holocaust, how will they survive the ordeal of freedom?"

Yes.

NAFISI: The majority of us have forgotten that freedom is an ordeal. They take it for granted. And this is where you and I come in, because as immigrants, we see these problems. We left our country because we were fighting for freedom. And when we came to America, we see the problems because we are so anxious about preserving freedom. And that is where the immigrants play such an important role in the preservation of values, and the preservation of freedoms that are so endangered today.

But thinking about immigration, you made me think of... Like you said, "Imagination and ideas are not accessories, they are essential to the preservation of identity." And when it comes to immigrants, I feel that they are... They spend a big part of their lives in survival mode and they don't read; they don't have time to read.

NAFISI: No, you’re right. And that is why it is important that the system as a whole in the country should encourage people to read, should help immigrants. For example, in some countries in Europe, like Germany, if you're an immigrant, the government finances your education of the language, sends you to classes; there is free education for your children. So, the immigrants who come to those countries don't have to do it all on their own. They have help from the society that they entered.

You mentioned that some of your friends who have been here for a long time, they always feel an emptiness. What about you?

NAFISI: I finally decided that my real home, I call it my portable home, is in the values that I carry. And so, no matter what part of the world I live in... I mean, I do feel homesick for Iran. I feel homesick for the way the sun sets; I feel homesick for the taste of the truth, to hear the language, to see my friends and the people that I loved whom I left behind. But no matter where I live, whether it is America or Iran, I still can speak my mind. I still am free to say what I want to. But no matter where I live, I want to remain faithful to a set of principles and values that I carry with me.

And one thing for me is, imagination is so important because imagination has no boundaries. I mentioned in “The Republic of Imagination,” that from childhood, when my father would tell me stories from different parts of the world, I learned that I could be in my small room in Tehran and the world would come to me through books. And I mentioned in “Reading Lolita in Tehran” how when I left Iran for the first time, I took with me the best Iran had to offer, which was books of poetry. So, I have the best of Iran with me, no matter where I go.

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