A New Conception of

Ordinary Freedoms

In Search of Ordinary Freedoms

In 1979 Azar Nafisi left the United States and returned to her native Iran after being offered a position at the University of Tehran teaching English literature. Upon her arrival, Nafisi found herself in a country radically different from the one she remembered from her youth; the Iran she returned to was in the midst of its Islamic revolution and Nafisi was to soon find herself at odds with the clerical authorities who now ruled the country, and their delegates who ran the University where she taught.

In 1980 Nafisi lost her job lecturing at the University of Tehran after refusing to comply with the law requiring all women to wear a veil. Over the next fifteen years Ms. Nafisi was to hold a handful of positions at different Universities in Iran. In 1995 she left what was to be her last position in an Iranian University to share her love of literature in a less restrictive environment: an informal women's reading group. Two years later Nafisi emigrated back to the United States, where she now holds a position at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and has recently published a book about her clandestine reading group, Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The Atlantic Online has just published a fascinating interview with Ms. Nafisi, in which she discusses her experiences living under the totalitarian Islamic regime in Iran and the role that literature can play in cultivating a sense of freedom under such repressive circumstances.

In Nafisi's view, it is Nabokov who most perfectly captures the essence of living under a totalitarian regime, and she and her students came to view Lolita as a kind of metaphorical exploration of their lives under the rule of the ayatollahs.

Interestingly enough, when I talk about how the ayatollahs, by imposing their dreams on us, turning us into a figment of their imagination, did basically the same thing that Humbert did to Lolita, it seems to resonate with a lot of my American readers. And my students in Iran connected with Nabokov more than with any other writer. It's because of the kind of universe he created, in Lolita and in other books, in which the free individual always had to fend for herself or himself, and the biggest crime was confiscation of another person's reality. That was something that they connected with immediately.

And in the place of this confiscated reality the ayatollahs substituted a capricious and incoherent cruelty.

People always think that living in a tyranny is a cohesive experience. But living under a tyranny--and Nabokov does an amazing job of illustrating this in Invitation to a Beheading--you don't suffer just from physical oppression. You suffer because the regime is so arbitrary. Living in the U.S., when you wake up in the morning you know accidents could happen to you, but you sort of know what might happen when you go out into the street and go to work. In Iran, when you leave home you literally don't know what could happen to you. They might be very nice, very reasonable, or they might take you to jail. They live on that arbitrariness. They are not coherent, they only have the guns. And they are very scared of you.

In Nafisi's experience, literature provides a vital avenue by which the reader can rediscover her own sense of the personal, a private sphere within which a person can be free of the otherwise all encompassing reach of an ideology that makes political the must mundane facts and emotions of everyday life. For her, the freedom of the reader is as important as is the author's freedom of expression.

There's a sentence by Nabokov, "Readers are born free and they ought to remain free." I wanted this book to be not just about authors, and freedoms of speech for authors, but about the freedom to read for readers, the freedom for readers to communicate with their authors, with the books that they choose to read.

The most important lesson that we learned from the Islamic Republic, which connects directly to Nabokov and almost every single novel that he has written, is that freedom means nothing without first giving the individual the choice to fulfill himself or herself to the fullest of his or her potential. My generation didn't understand that. We were given this freedom. We didn't think about it. My daughter's generation has been going to jail for wearing lipstick in the streets. They have been flogged seventy-six lashes for not wearing the veil properly. They have been deprived of holding hands in public with the man they love. So love, personal emotions, personal choices, right now are at the center of the struggle for Iran. And one of the ways that we realized this, that we fought with our own inarticulateness, was through reading these books.

Austen told us that a woman has the right to choose the man she wants to marry, against all authority. Nabokov taught us that people have a right to retrieve the reality that totalitarian mindsets have taken away from them. That is why works of imagination, especially fiction, have become so vital today in Iran. And I wish that Americans would understand that. Their gifts to us have been Lolita and Gatsby. Our gift to them has been reasserting those values that they now take for granted, reminding them that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness belong to everyone.

As for the question of the West's relationship with Iran, Nafisi has this to say:

Some Iranians were so desperate that they would have wanted the foreign powers to come in, but I didn't feel that way. Each country is different. When you live in a totalitarian society, international support is integral to the blossoming of movements for democracy, because you are completely helpless and you feel lonely and that support gives you courage, gives you hope. But in Iran, I don't think that we needed foreign intervention at any point. Iran from the very first was a vibrant society. It never took this revolution lying down. From the very moment I first stepped into the Tehran airport in 1979, I remember, there was oppression and there was a movement against oppression. And we needed to go through a process of understanding democracy.

What we did need from abroad, and what we are not properly getting, is genuine support for democratic movements in that country, even just in terms of the media coverage. After September 11, I was so disappointed that when 40,000 Iranians came out to the streets in Iran under threat of jail or torture and lit candles in sympathy with the American people, it got so little attention. Why should other demonstrations, just because they were noisier, get so much more attention? What I'm saying is, Iran needs support, and the policy toward the Iranian government should be firm. It should be firm on human rights. It should realize that a totalitarian government would never give up weapons of mass destruction. We should defend democracy pragmatically, if not for humanity's sake.

Ultimately, for Azar Nafisi, one of the most important aspects of freedom is the freedom from the political:

This is something that a lot of people over here don't understand, that freedom for a great book is freedom from the tyranny of the ever-presence of politics. It makes me so mad that every time I talk about being a woman in Iran or about reading Lolita in Tehran people always assume that my purpose must be political. Reading Lolita in Tehran was a reaction against books and against people who always refer to my country or culture as though we are interesting only because of Mr. Khatami and Mr. Khomeini. I want to say that we are interesting because we are bringing Lolita to your attention in a way that some of you have never thought about. Forget about Mr. Khatami and Mr. Khomeini, or if you're not forgetting about them, look at them from our perspective rather than looking at us from their perspective.

None of the girls from that group, including myself, are political. None of them belong to a political group or want to overthrow the state. I doubt that most of these girls would even go to a demonstration. But these are the people who I am interested in, because when you are a political activist, everybody knows where you stand. And a lot of times in a place like Iran you pay for it by going to jail or being tortured. But the fact is that this is an existential fight for millions of people who have no political claims, in order for them to live their ordinary lives.