In Other Words

A Forgotten Civil Society

Reading Lolita in Tehran's Azar Nafisi discusses Iran's cultural crisis -- and how the West got it wrong.


When Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran came out in 2003, it offered the most potent glimpse yet, for many Westerners, of the vibrant intellectual life that still existed at the heart of modern-day Iran — and the many contradictions and struggles inherent for those seeking to live it. Nafisi has spent her own life balanced between the literary and the political. Fired as an instructor from Tehran University in 1981 for refusing to wear the veil, the English and U.S.-educated Nabokov scholar taught literature both informally and formally in her home country until 1997, when she emigrated to America. Now she teaches on the conjunction between literature and politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She spoke to Foreign Policy about the tragedy of Iran’s forgotten English majors and the signs the West missed that Tehran was about to boil over.

Foreign Policy: At the time of the elections last year, how did you start hearing about what happened?

Azar Nafisi: I was in D.C., actually. Those were very strange days for me, because I was having my first jury duty experience, very ironically. It was for me both interesting and sad because it was a murder case, and I remember I would run from my jury duty to home to find out the news. Part of my news came directly from what everybody else was watching from the Western media, and part of it came from inside the country, from friends and former students. As time went by, there were people who I hadn’t talked to in years, over a decade, who started emailing me. I remember a young Iranian filmmaker who wrote me, and he was telling me "something is happening here" that is different, and please, please, please let the world know.

FP: It must have been interesting for you to watch the media discovering those new sides of Iranian society.

AN: The American public was not aware that entire aspects of Iranian society even existed. Everybody was so flabbergasted that they all got involved in it  — and those same people would be disappointed later. When the demonstrations did not keep up their momentum — which was impossible — and since they did not lead to something climatic, now these people are saying, "Well, we told you so, there is nothing going on in Iran, people all like Ahmadinejad." No, the point is that there is always something going on in Iran.

FP: Do you think the media did a good job covering those aspects of Iranian civil society?

AN: For me, the more disturbing thing was the lack of context. Because the coverage before had been one-sided, everything now seemed so weird, so out of place. We’d never seen these people before. But these young girls, a girl like Neda, had been part of Iranian society as long as I can remember. They were there at the beginning of the revolution, there were demonstrations in Tehran where hundreds of thousands of Iranian women came into the streets saying, "Freedom is not Western or Eastern, it’s global." There have been student demonstrations from the very beginning; we went through a cultural revolution where they closed down the universities.

And since 1979, this regime has not been hiding its repression of these people. They are not the liars; we have just not been looking. They have targeted women and culture and minorities. The first things they did were undoing family protections against women and bringing in Sharia laws. If you go over [former Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s speeches, time and again he gives warnings against journalists and the universities. These were the institutions and targets that they associated with the West. It doesn’t take too much intelligence to understand that if these forces are the targets of the regime, these would be the forces that would come to the streets. To ignore these forces for the past 20 years, and all of a sudden think, "Oh what happened, where were these people?" They were here.

FP: What are the prospects of the movement going forward?

AN: From the moment I started being active myself when I was living there and when I left, one thing I was sure of was that if you oppose this regime only politically, you are doomed. It is very easy for Ahmadinejad to dismantle organizations, to put the leaders in jail and destroy the whole movement. But the fighting in Iran is not political; it is existential. It is impossible for Ahmadinejad to put millions of young Iranians — 70 percent of Iran is younger than 30 — to put millions of Iranians in jail because of the way they want to dress, because they want to listen to music, because they think they have no future. One of my former graduate students told me, if instead of getting an M.A. in English Lit. in Iran, if I had become a criminal, I would have more money and more future in this country. This kid is not an exception, he’s the rule. At that time he had been married six years, and he lived in a room with his wife, in his mother-in-law’s house. He couldn’t afford to move into a place of his own. These are not just political and cultural problems; it has deep economic roots. The kids in Iran today who are so bright and talented, just amazingly wonderful, have no future.

FP: It must be interesting to see the difference between the ones in Iran and the ones who have left.

AN: The ones inside Iran, like the ones outside, have many different views. We should just accept that diversity. For example, many women in Iran gladly identify as Muslim, despite the regime. They don’t think their religion has anything to do with the government that flogs them, or stones them to death. Muslim Iranians have come on their own to ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These aren’t just American things.

FP: Do you think the media’s sense of Iran has contracted since last summer?

AN: Since last summer, other interests have clearly taken over. I’ll never forget that, on the day when Farah Fawcett died, I gave two major interviews. One was immediately canceled, and the other one, which was a more comprehensive program, they kept writing and saying it was delayed and they said they would show it next week. But it wasn’t shown the next week because Michael Jackson died. Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson replaced the Iranian situation.

The media should also be giving us more analysis. I still think that we need to sit down and ask ourselves, OK, what happened, and what does this mean now? I don’t see much of that. I do know there is a lot of sympathy now for the Iranian people that did not exist much before.

Inside Iran, and again it’s very difficult to say exactly what is going on, but when you talk to people over there, there are two things that come up. First is that, of course, some segments of society have been deeply traumatized again. Some have become disillusioned. But there are others. There was one wonderful Persian writer who told me about a conversation she had with a young man. She said she herself was so excited and she would go into the streets, and then when the killings started, she was very frightened. She said she was talking to this young man, during one of the protests in the streets, and she asked him, "Why are you doing this? They’re killing you, and you have no guns," and she said he turned to her and said, "We are young and they are old. We will stay and they will go." That was interesting. I keep putting down all these tidbits into my notebook. I might never use them, but I want to remember them.

Read on: "What We Got Right," By Nazila Fathi

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor and columnist for Washingtonian magazine, as well as a freelancer for the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and Elle. Previously, she was an editor at Foreign Policy, where she oversaw the magazine’s culture section. Twitter: @brittkpeterson

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