Azar Nafisi: Resisting Tyranny through Literature
Seven years ago, after reading the bestselling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, I heard the author, Azar Nafisi, give the keynote address at the annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She was more physically striking than I had anticipated: her face was somewhat angular; her lipstick intensely red; her shawl—am I remembering correctly?—royal blue; her jewelry, bigger and brighter. But she was as emotionally riveting in person as she was in her book: her passion was bracing; her authenticity, compelling; and her intelligence, keen. She held me spellbound in a swirl of images and ideas. I found what she said vitally important. And I’d like to explain why I think you will too.
When Nafisi was 13, she left her parents and home in Tehran, Iran, to study in England, Switzerland, and the United States, eventually earning her doctorate in English and American literature at the University of Oklahoma. At 30, newly married, she returned to Tehran, glad to be home, excited to take up her position teaching literature at the University of Tehran. But the Iran she had known and loved was being torn apart by revolution. After massive demonstrations and strikes, the pro-Western Pahlavi monarchy had collapsed; Ayatollah Khomeini had returned from exile and was amassing power; book stores and movie houses were being shut down; women were losing the rights they had fought hard and long to obtain; and the universities were being purged of faculty and staff, including, eventually, Nafisi herself, after she refused to wear the veil.
In 1995, immured in what had become a theocratic, totalitarian, and chauvinistic state, Nafisi resisted in a highly personal way, a way that both honored her values and fit her circumstances. She resigned from her second teaching position and invited seven of her best female students to continue studying with her. They met on Thursday mornings, in the living room of her second-story apartment, with its sparse and eclectic furnishings and its windows looking north to the Elburz Mountains. Here, for the next two years, her students would take off their black robes and head scarves, revealing their colorful clothing underneath, take their seats around an iron and glass table, drink coffee, eat pastries, and discuss their reading—including Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Washington Square, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In this safe place, Nafisi and her students engaged both with these complex, imaginary worlds and with each other. Through this engagement, they gradually became able to see their personal experiences from new perspectives, feel with greater depth and immediacy, claim more fully their longings and dreams, and risk reaching for newly perceived possibilities. In this way, they subverted the tyranny outside their safe haven, resisting its black and white thinking, its stripping away of individuality, its constriction of choice, its dismantling of basic rights, and its imposition of rigid ideologies—ideologies that denied complexity, humor, ambiguity, irony, diverse voices, true conversation, and individual freedoms.
In 1997, Nafisi emigrated with her family to the United States, a most difficult decision, to continue teaching and writing at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Here, she continues to explore questions of fundamental importance: What is the place of the poetic vision in our tumultuous, often cruel world? How can we use the worlds of fiction to both see and respond in new ways to the real world? How can we harness imagination and empathy to help safeguard a vital, inclusive democracy? And how can we use the humanities to enlarge our perspectives, increase our ability to see and hear “the other,” develop the courage to choose authentically, and create the psychological space from which to resist totalitarianism and its cruelties?
These questions are big and important. They have no final answers. But if we refuse to grapple with them or fail to fit our answers, however provisional they may be, to our individual and political lives, then we risk losing our way, both as individuals and as a society. Nafisi asked her seven students to delve into these questions. She will do no less, I’m sure, with us.
Dyer P. Bilgrave, Ph.D., is a licensed practicing psychologist and Professor of Psychology is Stevenson’s School of the Humanities and Social Sciences. He teaches courses in basic and advanced counseling as well as theories of counseling.