Bestselling Iranian-American author Azar Nafisi speaks to Sahar Soleimany on why reading is a form of resistance, from Iran to the United States.
Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Azar Nafisi has championed literature as an act of resistance against threats to freedom and imagination. To read dangerously, as Nafisi puts it, is to arouse curiosity and challenge the status quo.
Sahar Soleimany sat down with the critically acclaimed Iranian-American author to talk about the importance of resistance writers at a time of heightened threats to democracy, parallels between her own experience in revolutionary Iran and the recent Iranian protest movement, and how the act of “telling” can help keep this movement alive.
A version of this interview translated to Farsi can be read here.
Sahar Soleimany: You’re a writer, but you’re also an admirer of great authors. One that you cite often is James Baldwin. What about Baldwin’s life and work particularly speak to you?
Azar Nafisi: I first read James Baldwin in college. In the 70s, we were participating in all sorts of protests. Baldwin was part of those protests, but it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that he was much more important than just being a leader in the civil rights movement.
When I returned to the United States in 1997 and started re-reading a lot of the writers that I had read during my college years, my attitude had changed. At that point, I had lived in the Islamic Republic for eighteen years and could understand the oppression and the humiliation and the outrage and anger that I found in Baldwin's works. For Baldwin, the civil rights struggle was never just a political movement. The fight against racism was an existential one. His survival as a human being depended on it and that is what makes him so relevant to all times. Now in America, I see so many trends that move toward totalitarianism. I tell myself, thank God for James Baldwin, because his point of view is instinctively anti-totalitarian, anti-oppression.
SS: So many great works of American literature, including Baldwin’s, have become the subject of book bans across the country. You have written and spoken extensively about living under a totalitarian regime in Iran where authors were—and still are—often censored, jailed, or even killed for their work. What parallels can you draw from your own lived experience in Iran and how concerned are you about the state of democracy in the United States?
AN: One of the first symptoms of the totalitarian mindset is banning books because writing and reading entail a search for truth. Baldwin saw himself as a witness to truth and had to reveal that truth. Totalitarian mindsets, whether in the United States of America or the Islamic Republic of Iran, are scared of truth.
While we may not torture or kill writers and dissidents, there still is a totalitarian threat against liberal democracies—it’s what [Uguccione] Sorbello called “sleeping consciousness,” or atrophy of feeling. We have become intellectually lazy. We don't want to hear or see or have any connection with those who are not just opposed to us, but are different from us. We want to be comfortable.
People keep saying, "I'm not comfortable with that." These books that are banned—they're not comfortable. They disturb us. But as Baldwin said, "Writers are here to disturb the peace." Life is not about comfort. If you cannot tolerate being disturbed by a book, how can you tolerate being disturbed by life itself? In fact, imagination and ideas help us to confront the discomforts of life.
Right now, the most important thing for our democracy is to celebrate and return to the life of imagination and ideas, and accept that freedom is not something that’s given to you. Even when you live in a free and open society, you still need to nurture and pursue that freedom. You never reach it, but you constantly move toward it, and that is one of our great challenges today. Freedom and imagination go hand in hand. We are in danger right now from ourselves.
SS: Has there been any instance in your own writing where your right to free expression was challenged by a publisher or the public?
AN: I had that experience in Iran, but not yet in the United States. In Iran, when my first book came out, it was on [Vladimir] Nabokov, and it sold out pretty much the same year that it was published. They banned the book. They didn't allow it to be reprinted. My friends tell me that now they can't even find it on the black market. One of the reasons that I left Iran was because I wanted my freedom of expression. I wanted to be able to talk to my people without lying to them, without being censored. That was made impossible by the regime.
That is why I came here, and that is why I'm so sensitized about things that are happening here, because I have seen how it happens. It happens when we think it can't happen to us. I remind people that in the last century, Western democracies did not just bring us democracy. They also brought us fascism and communism. That can be repeated; everything that has happened before can happen again.
SS: The recent protests in Iran are arguably the most serious threat to the regime since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. You’ve spoken briefly about the role literature can play as an agent of change and also as an avenue for discovering our shared humanity. Is there anything about Baldwin's work that you find relevant to the Iranian people's struggle for freedom? Why is it important that his writings become known in Iran?
AN: As far as I know, Baldwin is not known in Iran, although I think once he is, he would be popular. Iranian people have experienced oppression in their daily life. Fear of oppression, outrage, and anger against oppression is like blood in their veins. It is that close to them. They respond immediately to someone like Baldwin. You see, this fight is not political. It is existential. People are fighting for their survival. Baldwin could become a very popular writer. He writes about matters that are public, that are political or social, with his heart.
You feel both his passion and his hatred and rage against oppression, against censorship, against racism. It is just amazing for me how much he speaks to us today, whether you live in a place called the Islamic Republic of Iran or a place called the United States of America. He said, "I write because I don't know. I write to discover." For him, writing was an investigation. It was never about imposing your own values and prejudices on your work, but going out of yourself and empathizing with others and going under the skin of others. That is what makes him so amazing.
SS: As someone who participated in anti-regime protests during the Iranian Revolution, what parallels or distinctions can you draw?
AN: The uprising you see today is the result of women and the Iranian people as a whole fighting for their rights for forty-four years.
I remind you that at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini gave a fatwa for mandatory hijab wearing. On March 8th, 1979, tens of thousands of Iranian women came into the streets. Their slogan was: "Freedom is neither Eastern nor Western. Freedom is global." That movement was suppressed. People were attacked with scissors and acid was thrown in their faces, but they persevered. This new generation, rather than obeying the edicts of the 1979 Revolution, has become its number one enemy. For them, life is equal to freedom. They too, like Baldwin, are looking at this not just politically but existentially. The women who tried threatening the revolution in 1979 are the mothers and grandmothers or even great-grandmothers of the women who are now fighting. This movement is amazing by virtue of the fact that it is not ideological. It is the first movement that speaks directly to life and equates it with freedom.
SS: At the start of the movement, there was much speculation that the protest could lead to fundamental change in Iran. In your October piece for The Guardian, you write that "the regime has discovered it has failed," but today, people seem less optimistic. Do you think the movement has lost its momentum, or do you still believe there has been a shift in Iran?
AN: I don't think that people have become disappointed or disenchanted with the movement. The movement will have its highs and lows, its moments of rest, and its moments of protest. Right now, many groups and individuals are taking a pause in order to formulate themselves better, to come up with manifestos explaining what they expect to happen, what a period of transition would look like. That is another kind of protest. We’re used to protests as all coming into the streets, but that is just part of it. It is not the whole thing, and this government has pushed itself against the wall.
The reason I think this movement is going to continue is the fact that Iranian people as a whole, and Iranian women in particular, have discovered their power. Just women, by the way they choose to clothe their bodies, are making a statement.
SS: You talk about how the regime has hijacked the Iranian people's identity. What do you believe these protests have taught the West about the Iranian people?
AN: One of the things that makes me really happy is the way this uprising has changed the narrative. Until this uprising, the dominant view in most Western countries, including the United States, was the view that the Islamic Republic and its apologists abroad put forward. I remember I would talk about the suppression of women, suppression of rights in Iran, and inevitably, somebody would get up and say, "Oh, but that's their culture, and you are being Westernized." They didn't realize how insulting they were to tell me that Iranians don't want freedom, because what we were complaining about was lack of freedom of choice, lack of freedom of expression.
Iranian women, since Táhirih, have been fighting the hijab. The first woman to take off her hijab in public, Táhirih did it in 1848. She was deemed by the reactionary clerics and the Iranian government as so dangerous that they first put her under house arrest, and then in the middle of the night, took her to the garden and strangled her and threw her body down a well so that it wouldn’t be a shrine where people would come. Little did they know that the Iranian people would create a shrine in their hearts that no one could take away.
I get really, really angry when in the name of respecting us, they call Sharia laws our culture. It's like me saying that fascism and communism are the cultures of the West.
SS: That's why books like yours and Baldwin's and the publicity the movement is getting are so important—they demonstrate to the West that the presuppositions we harbor about the way the Eastern world works just don’t generally apply.
The Biden administration hasn't demonstrated much interest in the protest beyond releasing statements of support. What more, if anything, can we be doing to help Iranians?
AN: Well, I was both surprised and disappointed that President Biden didn't even mention Iran in his [State of the Union] speech. By now, the American government should have a strategy regarding Iran. It is really simple—this government will never be an ally or a friend of a democratic country. There will always be this gulf between a democratic society and a totalitarian one, and yet, some in the administration are still hoping to have negotiations with Iran, for example, regarding nuclear weapons.
Look at the role of Iran in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon. Look at the fact that they give shelter to Al-Qaeda and now they are even interfering in Ukraine. In all these places, Iran is playing the role of America's enemy, and yet, we are still not sure how we want to treat this regime. The first thing that I think America should do is delegitimize this regime and accept the opposition. It has been done in Europe in certain cases, like Munich, but it needs to be a consistent policy. Also, there has to be a way of freezing and blocking the money that the leaders of this regime and their cohorts are bringing out, and sanctions should be targeted against the propaganda machines of the regime, like the television and radio plus the military wing of the regime, especially the Revolutionary Guards.
Giving money to the Islamic Republic, it will only go to further strengthen itself militarily in the region. It won't get to the mouths of the Iranian people who are literally starving to death.
SS: Outside of politics and the administration, what is it that we can do to keep this movement alive? How can we continue leveraging the Internet, for example, in the absence of on the ground coverage to support the Iranian people?
AN: When I was living in Iran, my mother told me, "Tell them. Tell them." By that, she meant tell them about how we live. Tell them about what's happening to us. People over here should realize that one of the worst things that can happen in a country like Iran is the belief that the world doesn't care about them; that the world has forgotten them.
Iran's case is like South Africa. It is gender apartheid, and we should treat it as such and we should try to bring the cause of the Iranian people not just to politicians, but to the American people. Try to use everything, social media, the media itself, to let the American people know that what the Iranians are doing inside Iran will help strengthen what Americans want to be doing inside America. It will be one more place where democracy has won. I can't believe any American not wanting that. Ukraine and Iran each in their own way are teaching us that we need to involve ourselves in the fate of others because at one point, their fate can become ours.
SS: It's been over twenty-five years since you left Iran and you've since devoted your life to promoting the importance of American literature. What has been your experience of watching the movement unfold now as an Iranian American?
AN: Living in the Islamic Republic, I felt so alien. I felt as if I was a stranger who had been stranded. I would look at the revolutionary people from the revolutionary committees or even some of my colleagues who supported the regime and I would think, where are they coming from or where am I coming from, because this home doesn't look like home to me. But being active in support of the Iranian people's struggles, which I have been trying to do all these years, gave me hope.
It also put me in touch with everything about Iran that I love. At the end of Reading Lolita, I say, "I left Iran, but Iran never left me." I appreciate America because it allows me to bring Iran with me to America. I think one of the best things about this country is the fact that it doesn't take away your previous identity. It enriches itself through new blood that is constantly coming to this country. I feel like an Iranian-American, it is a metaphorical existence where each home, Iran and America, each of them looks at the other and enriches the other by bringing the experiences to these two homes.
What I feel most secure in is not my material home. Reality is so fragile. It is so easy to lose everything that you call home. You need a portable home that you can take with you anywhere you go, and for me, that portable home is the portable home of imagination and ideas, where a man named Ferdowsi who lived in Iran over a thousand years ago has affinities with a man called James Baldwin who lived in the 20th century in a country called America. I feel those affinities in my portable world and I know that no one, no power on earth until the day I die, can take away that world from me.
Azar Nafisi is an editorial board member of American Purpose and author of the national bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), which spent over 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated in 32 languages.
Sahar Soleimany is a Middle East research associate in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image: A woman wearing a chador. (Unsplash: Ramin Kaa)
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