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Transcript: David Brancaccio Interviews Azar Nafisi
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Azar Nafisi, photo by Lili Iravani

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The media spotlight has been on Iraq. That shouldn't blind us to the important developments right next door to it. In Iran recently student demonstrations escalated into mass protests calling for the overthrow and even death of Iran's religious and political leaders. The children of the revolution are behind the push for change.

Nearly half of Iran's population was born after the Shah was overthrown in 1979. Author and literary scholar, Azar Nafisi, was in Iran during and after the revolution. A professor of English angered and frustrated by the harsh restrictions placed on women there. She resigned her university position in 1995 but was determined to keep teaching for two years in secret. Seven of her best students came to her living room and quietly studied subversive Western authors: Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov.

Now director of the Dialogue Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies in Washington, Azar Nafisi has written READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN about her underground study group and life under the reign of the Ayatollahs. Welcome to NOW.

AZAR NAFISI: Thank you.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Tell me about the Iran that you lived in around the time of the revolution.

AZAR NAFISI: You know, before the revolution I had an image of myself as a woman, as a writer, as an academician, as a person with a set of values. When the Ayatollah came to power by saying that the way I looked, I mean, I had never thought that way I look as part of my identity or not.

I just left home a certain way every morning. And even my gestures — like shaking hands in public, was forbidden. I mean, and I automatically when I saw a colleague or a friend I would, you know, stretch out my hands to shake. And then I realized that if all of these small gestures and details were taken away from me I would become someone who was a stranger to herself.

If I had to excise the word "wine" from the book I taught, if I had to think that kissing my husband on the cheek in public was something that would, should make me feel guilty then I didn't know who this...I was who was doing these other things that were alien to her being, you know? So, both identity and reality become very fragile under such circumstances.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Actually, we have a couple pictures that you brought of...different versions...

AZAR NAFISI: Of myself.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Of yourself? I mean, I don't know if one of these other ones really is yourself. This one here, was that the real you?

AZAR NAFISI: This was the real me. I mean, this is the way I looked. And when I first went to Iran, this is the way I would appear in public. I wore the red lipstick like many other women in Iran as a reaction almost because it was so forbidden, you know? But this is the way I looked, yes.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And here's another version of yourself. That's you?

AZAR NAFISI: That is why I felt so alien. That when I went to my classes, and felt ashamed. Because I felt that here I am teaching my students and I'm teaching them about ethics and imagination and honesty to yourself. And here I am looking like a person who I don't know myself.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You felt that image was dishonest?

AZAR NAFISI: This image was definitely dishonest. And the other ones, like a Satanic power, was trying to come out of this one. You know? So I would show a strand of hair. Or I would kiss a male colleague in the hall, you know? Just because I guess I wanted to prove to myself that the real me is really this, you know? It's not gone away forever.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Yeah, the strand of hair that might peep out from behind a veil comes up a lot actually in the book. What is the threat of a strand of hair, for heaven's sake?

AZAR NAFISI: Well, first of all, I want to mention that the regime used the idea of the veil, the fact that women's hair is supposed to tempt men. Now what kind of men would be tempted by my strand of hair? I mean, they really have got problems they should be thinking about.

But that's beside the point. They use it as an ideology, in fact, to impose a uniformity upon the population in the same way that in China people had to wear Mao jackets. And women couldn't wear makeup. And they had to wear their hair short. This was not really religion. This was ideology — using religion as an ideology.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Used as a tool of oppression.

AZAR NAFISI: Yes, as a tool of control. Because you would all look alike. And you would all look the way that the guy who was ruling your country told you to look. This was extreme form of control. And you see it in all totalitarian states.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Tell me about Thursday mornings back at your house in Iran. Who would come?

AZAR NAFISI: Well, that was in 1995 when I resigned from my last academic job. I couldn't take it anymore. And I thought that I can now fulfill a dream and have a group of students who just love literature — who are in it not for the grades, not to just graduate and get a job but just want to read Nabokov or Austen. And so I asked seven of my best girl students to come to my home every Thursday morning.

From nine to 12 it was first. And then it just went from nine to whenever. And we would read and discuss these works. And one of them, the youngest, she was a freshman. But she would audit my graduate classes. And just because she wanted to read MADAME BOVARY. Now, I thought, "Well, these are the people who are really committed. For whom MADAME BOVARY is a world that they want to pay a price to enter."

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And just to underscore, I mean, MADAME BOVARY is going to be a text about adultery that you're teaching in post-revolutionary Iran.

AZAR NAFISI: I remember once I gave a talk on MADAME BOVARY and of course it was standing room only. I mean, whenever you gave talks on literature it would be almost a riot. People would just come from all over. And it became very heated discussion because some people were making the point that you made. That MADAME BOVARY is all about adultery, you know?

How could justify-- and, of course, there were-- critiques written of MADAME BOVARY as an adulterous book that should be banned. And that was our discussion. That you don't read books to be morally led towards the right path. MADAME BOVARY is not about adultery.

And if I read MADAME BOVARY I don't become an adulteress. It's like saying that reading MOBY DICK would want you to go whaling, you know? People read in order to look at the world differently. They don't read to be given these preachings.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: It's not a moral fable.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: That's the wrong reading of literature.

AZAR NAFISI: That is the wrong reading of literature. If you do that, it closes its world to you. You can't enter the world. You have to become like Alice. Jump into the hole. Don't think. Think that there can be a white rabbit who talks and jump after him.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Professor Nafisi, LOLITA? I mean, what's the polite thing to say? I guess professors like to say it lacks a moral center. At the very least it lacks a moral center. I have young girls and I find it icky looking at that book.

But the students found this account of an old creep's rape of a 12 year old somehow evocative of their experience.

AZAR NAFISI: When you think like that it's icky. I mean, that is the whole point that good literature can take something that is very sacred-- that is very profane and turn it into sacred and vice versa. A bad author can take the most moral-- issue and make you want to just never, ever think about that moral issue.

The first page of Nabokov's novel s about the fact that he was in love with a young girl when he was 13. And that love is not consummated. So what does he do? He turns that unconsummated love into the dream and obsession of his life. And when he meets Lolita, he wants to turn Lolita into Annabelle Lee.

The biggest crime in Nabokov's LOLITA is imposing your own dream upon someone else's reality. Humbert Humbert is blind. He doesn't see Lolita's reality. He doesn't see that Lolita should leave. He only sees Lolita as an extension of his own obsession. This is what a totalitarian state does.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But Lolita, it's hard to understand that character because the author doesn't give you much of a sense of her own identity.

AZAR NAFISI: The whole point is that Lolita, like my girls in Iran, would be constantly defined by their oppressors. And this is the heart-breaking part of LOLITA. And Nabokov is such a great writer that he makes you see it. He makes you see that even the name Lolita is a name that Humbert chooses for her because she's called Dolores in real life.

And some people call her Dolly. But in his arms is always Lolita. And that is the heart-breaking aspect of these systems. That they make you so much yours-- theirs that-- that they rewrite you. And that is why fiction is so powerful because we rewrite them. When my girls wrote about their experiences in the Islamic Republic, the way they felt, they were rewriting what the Ayatollah had said. And they were revisiting it. And in this way, they were gaining over control over their life, and that is what Nabokov was doing.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Do you think the class ever put your students in danger?

AZAR NAFISI: Talking about that, and-- I refer you again to Nabokov. Life in those societies is not dangerous because you know that this is against the law, and this is not. The most dangerous thing about ordinary people living in these countries is the arbitrary nature of the law. They might not pay any attention to you, or they might raid you.

If they raided that house, there was enough for them to make them happy . You know? And this was the constant fear that I haven't even given up, after having lived here for six years. The fact that when you wake up in the morning, you don't know if you go out into the streets and you wear a little bit of make-up, and your hair shows, they might not do anything to you.

The next day you go into the streets, and you might wear no make-up, and wear your veil properly, and they'll get you. It is arbitrary. It is based on the will of the individuals who decide at one moment or another what to do.

So, in that sense, it was dangerous and what they wrote was dangerous. They talked about being harassed, sexually molested by religious men in minibuses. They talked about all sorts of sexual harassment that happened to them. And one of them who wore the veil, was saying that she questioned the veil now. And she did not believe that this anymore represented her faith, but represented a set of politics. Those things were dangerous.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: I want to fully understand your attitude toward Islam. You talk about, you find wearing the veil offensive to you. But what about the notion of Islam itself?

AZAR NAFISI: You know, I think today, and that again is why Iran is so important. I think Islam is in a sense, in crisis. It needs to question and re-question itself. And it is undergoing-- a period of turmoil and crisis, because it is in this process of transition.

Now, the point about religion is that this religion is going to undergo transformation. And you see many of the clerics and religious people in Iran discussing it, and being self-reflective and self-critical.

What I'm saying is that if you live in a country which the majority of people are Muslim, that doesn't mean that there should be one version of Islam, and that no other version should be practiced. People talk about Islamic democracy. I don't understand it. It's like saying Christian democracy, Judaic democracy. There is only one form of democracy which protects the life and the right of all citizens. To worship, to realize their fullest potentials.

In my country, that right is taken away from us.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Do you think we're approaching a key moment in Iranian history?

AZAR NAFISI: I think that we have been moving towards that, I felt that from late 1980's, that this illusion with the revolution began with the youth who had been very revolutionary, who were even hostage takers, they were quoting Imam Khomeini before, and now, they're quoting Hannah Arendt, and Karl Popper, and going to jail for it.

And this new generation you have to understand that they have been flogged for showing a bit of hair. They have gone to jail, came back, show their hair again, and gone to jail. So, much more than my revolution, my generation. They understand the price of freedom, and the price of individual freedom the way my generation could never understand.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The book is called READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN: A MEMOIR IN BOOKS. Professor Azar Nafisi, thank you very much.

AZAR NAFISI: Thank you so much.

© Photo by Lili Iravani.

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