Exiled author Azar Nafisi, whose Reading Lolita in Tehran was an international bestseller, talks with The Daily Beast's Salameh Nematt about her new book, digging up family secrets, and her hopes for Iran. Read an excerpt from her new book here.
Azar Nafisi’s second memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, is not a sequel to her internationally celebrated Reading Lolita in Tehran, which has been translated into 32 languages. But it is not a prequel, either. The sequence of time is not relevant; what animates her new book is a desire to comprehend the complicated lives of her parents, who both died shortly before she published Reading Lolita.
Her father, Ahmad, became mayor of Tehran but was then arrested and jailed in 1963 on charges trumped up to settle political scores; her mother, Nuzhat, made history by being one of the first women to win a seat in Iran’s parliament. But their marriage was a knot of myths, secrets, and bitterness that Nafisi strives to unravel.
Dealing with the Islamic Republic is like “playing chess with a monkey. At one point, the monkey swallows your queen.”
Was it cathartic to write it, or was it therapy? I asked her in a phone interview this week. “Writing is always a form of catharsis that comes out of some sort of a deep emotion that doesn’t let go of you,” she said. But therapy? “Not in the sense that you’re going to be cured.”
Nafisi says the deaths of her mother and father brought regrets that “did not leave me alone.” She admits she probably wouldn’t have published the book if she were still living in Iran, but she was forced out of her teaching job in Tehran 11 years ago by the repressive Islamic theocracy. For the past decade she has been a visiting fellow and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Baltimore. Just six weeks ago she became a US citizen.
“I see citizenship as accountability,” she says. “The country I live in is accountable to me, and I am accountable to the country.” Hers was an involuntary exile, and she sees America as the only country in the world where you can come from outside and feel comfortable.
“It was difficult to lose my home,” she says, but “I have a portable world I can carry with my memories.” The US “is a country that sees itself through the eyes of other cultures, and while it is being changed by these cultures, it is also changing people—a dynamic thing.”
In other ways, though, her life today is not so different than it was in Tehran. “I was teaching, reading, and writing literature in Iran, and I am still doing it here,” she says. “What motivated me is the same drive to fight against social and political repression.”
When the Iraq war broke out in 2003, a few days after her first book was published, Nafisi, now in her mid-50s, opposed it, but she also disagreed with the motives of some who stood against it. “There were those who opposed the war, but appeared to be defending [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi people,” she says. “He was a terrible man, but [removing him] needed a lot of thought that was not there.”
I found it fascinating that, throughout the interview, she used the term “we” interchangeably, both to refer to herself as American at times, and as Iranian at others. She has, subconsciously, become one and the same, transcending nationality.
In the new book, Nafisi’s mother, Nuzhat, comes across as angry and bitter. Her own mother died when she was young, leaving her to be raised by a stepmother. Her first husband, whom she loved, died of a disease he concealed from her until their wedding night.
It was the impact of her father’s political misfortunes, however, that set the course for Nafisi’s future. “When my father went to jail, I felt very insecure—it is a kind of political insecurity that stayed with me, making me unable to trust any stability in a political system,“ she says.
She became active against the shah’s regime but concedes that she was politically naive to believe that removing the shah would necessarily bring about a better government: “You want to change a bad system, but you don’t know what to replace with.”
She felt equally oppressed by the ayatollahs because “religion should not be a matter of state or confiscated by a state.” Soon enough, “I found myself reluctantly resisting because I had no other choice. I was fighting for human rights, under the shah and under the Islamic regime.”
Describing the current regime in Tehran, Nafisi quotes a friend who likens dealing with the Islamic Republic to “playing chess with a monkey. At one point, the monkey swallows your queen.”
But Nafisi sees signs of change coming to Iran, in young girls defying the laws against showing their hair, holding hands with a boyfriend, or wearing lipstick. “They are not being frivolous…they are resisting by preserving their dignity," she says. "When citizens refuse to become like the system, it means the system has failed.”
Nafisi recalls how, at the beginning of the Islamic revolution in Iran, young people sought to eliminate everything modern. “Now many of these very people are among the most prominent seculars," she says. "The sons of the revolution have now realized how wrong they were, and some are active against it.”
Salameh Nematt is the international editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al Hayat, where he reported on US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the US drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.