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Azar Nafisi: Literature Highlights "Uniqueness" (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 04)

by Anna Flanagan

How many times have you walked into a bookstore and marveled at your good fortune in having such a variety of literature available to you? More likely, we who are used to having so many choices take abundance and easy access for granted.

Author and educator Azar Nafisi says this was true of her, and it wasn't until the Islamic Republic of Iran began to restrict those choices that she realized it. In the face of intolerance, repression, and uncertainty, Nafisi turned for comfort to the very books that were being condemned by the Republic.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2003), she recounts her experiences leading a small group of young women in clandestine discussions of classics of Western literature. Why take such risks under a regime in which people were jailed and executed for the crime of being too Western? Nafisi replies that some things, when taken away, leave you little reason to live.

"I think the main point of a repressive system is to take away your sense of individuality, your uniqueness, what human beings cherish and hold sacred," she says. "Going back to literature, or to works of imagination, makes us retrieve that sense of uniqueness."

It wasn't until her own reality was "confiscated," Nafisi says, that she was able to fully appreciate a novel like Lolita, not only for its beauty, but for the sense of compassion she felt for Lolita's predicament. She believes this compassion is often lacking in the novel's Western readers.

"I don't like to propagate the victim culture, where the victim is absolved, because once you become absolved of any form of complicity, you also become absolved of any form of responsibility," she explains.

"On the other hand, it's really amazing how people could miss empathizing with the fact that Lolita was completely helpless. No matter how seductive she tries to be, she doesn't deserve the fate she gets."

Living under the rule of the Islamic state, Nafisi says she often found it difficult not to get caught up in the role of the victim herself. "In some sense, it becomes almost consoling, it becomes a privilege, because everything you do is not your own fault. You fall into this lazy position. So becoming alert to the fact that you have a will and that no matter how repressive things are, that will can be exercised is really the most difficult part of it," she says.

In writing Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi didn't want to elicit readers' pity for her and her students, but to help them understand how people become resourceful to save themselves. One of the most surprising aspects of many accounts of people living under extreme conditions, she says, is how ordinary people find creative ways of keeping their spirits up and resisting.

"You want to preserve that sense of humanity, and then you want to share it with others. This universal chord is very important and it's something missing in today's world," she says.

Educating Vigilant Citizens

Nafisi now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, where she also directs the Dialogue Project, a Web-based initiative dedicated to bridging the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, and to promoting democracy and human rights in Muslim countries [http://dialogueproject.sais-jhu.edu/].

She is far from the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but she believes that no one should feel smug about their freedom. The history of the United States alone--in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement--shows that rights have to be negotiated, sometimes "paid for literally by blood." Iran's experience serves as a reminder that rights can be taken away.

"In times of extreme confusion and chaos, it becomes easier to do that, and that is why I think we can never take our freedom for granted," she says. "If we're not vigilant, then why should others be? Why should those in power be vigilant if they think that we are sleeping?"

She also believes that preserving rights at home requires us to nurture them elsewhere as well. One has to be willing to criticize other governments for human rights abuses, rather than excusing the abuse as part of "their culture."

"Since I returned to the United States, I have seen two presidents, a Democrat and a Republican, who have been seriously questioned. How come we do it to our own presidents? Because we think they should know better, and because we think they are responsible. How come other people are not?" she asks.

She attributes part of the problem to intellectual laziness and what she sees as a troubling lack of curiosity about others. Eventually, this complacency can lead to political simplifications and polarizations, she says. It also opens the door to censorship--of the news, for example--and to manipulative and deceptive uses of language, what George Orwell called "doublespeak."

"The whole act of teaching becomes so important because you need your children to become curious about others," Nafisi says. "Through imagination, you always begin to doubt the reality that you live in. There needs to be debate." She laments that people aren't debating important public issues. Instead, she says, they take positions and make assertions. She believes the process of creating the conversations that are needed within a vibrant democracy starts in the schools.

"It starts with creating students who are curious, who want to know, who want to doubt, who want to question," she says. "We should reintroduce those values now more than ever, more vehemently."

It's part of what she's trying to do through her Dialogue Project, "promoting not just reading," she says, "but a questioning form of reading." So far, she's encouraged by the number of people who are interested in what she's doing. She's also encouraged that not everyone agrees with her ideas, that some are challenging them and returning to the forum time and again to raise new issues and share new perspectives.

Nafisi says she once "tried hard" to make policymakers understand her point of view. But she discovered that one of the wonderful things about a democracy is that "you genuinely can go to the people and talk to them."

Azar Nafisi will deliver the keynote address at the Opening Banquet of NCTE's Annual Convention in Indianapolis. For more information about the Convention, visit http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/annual.

Anna Flanagan is a freelance writer for The Council Chronicle.

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