Azar Nafisi is the author of the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran and most recently Things I’ve Been Silent About. She was kind enough to field a wide-ranging interview with Jacobin earlier this month.
After the success of Reading Lolita in Tehran you were attacked by some intellectuals on the Left, Hamid Debashi, among others. He called you “the personification of that native informer colonial agent.” Were you surprised that the book was stridently criticized by the Left and not just by supporters of the regime in Iran?
You know, in one sense I don’t take that sort of criticism seriously because it doesn’t take itself seriously. It claims to be based on fact, but it’s fantasy. Things that have been attributed to me, for example about the war in Iraq or other military interventions, are false. Even before the war in Iraq I was publicly against it. It’s in the record. It’s in the talks I’ve given, it’s in the articles I’ve written. Being a staunch supporter of human rights I would never back military intervention in another country, especially Iran, because for me democratization means change from within.
Apologists of a regime like the Islamic Republic, even “Left” apologists, always underestimate the readers. They the underestimate the public, who are not dumb. So that part of it I don’t take seriously and I never try to to respond to them because that is how they make their names known, by people engaging in this sort of “debate,” which is not a real debate, I always always welcome [real] debate.
Your time in Iran might have prepared you for denouncements . . .
That language is actually the kind of language that was used by the officials when I was back in the Islamic Republic. Everything they opposed was immediately portrayed as “American” or “Zionist,” and everyone became a “counter-revolutionary.” And much of this is still happening in Iran today.
If you are genuinely progressive, if you come from a position of what I think the real Left should come from, then you would always, whether it is the case of something happening in the US or Iran or any other part of the world, take the side of the truth. And this sort of condescension towards the people would live in a country like Iran or what they call the “Muslim World” under the guise of supporting them is really, I don’t know what kind of word I can use, it’s terrible.
To say that to be Muslim means that you don’t want freedom of choice. To say that to be Muslim means you don’t want the pursuit of happiness and that such notions are Western ploys. To say that when young men and women in Iran read Lolita or other works of Western literature they turn themselves into agents of imperialism, these are things one hears in the West more than among regular people in Iran. We didn’t have these debates when I was living in Iran and if the regime accused people of something like that everybody knew that this accusation was false.
And, anyway, my book was brought to people’s attention, not by people on the Right. The first real attack on my book came from Norman Podhoretz’s [neoconservative] magazine Commentary, his grandson wrote a scathing article on my book. From The Nation to The New York Times to Susan Sontag and Margaret Atwood they thought this book was . . . well I don’t want to summarize what they individually thought, people can go and read . . .
But I think that it’s not healthy for the intellectual community to create this atmosphere of guilt by association, a sort of intimidation and thuggery.
You allude to a construct developed by Western commentators between the so-called “authentic” Muslim versus the “inauthentic” Muslim, so you being a secular student of English literature . . .
Yes, which in itself is very essentialist in nature. Muslims are like the rest of the world. We have progressive Muslims, reactionary Muslims, fundamentalists Muslims, we have secular Muslims. In Iran’s history, Turkey’s history, Lebanon’s history, the history of these countries — especially in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century — many of the changes in terms of modernization in these countries came not because of the local intellectuals were kowtowing to the West, but because of internal dynamics of struggle and change, in the same way change came to the West.
It’s not as if women in the West were enjoying fantastic rights. If you go to the history of the West, women in America in the late nineteenth century when they were asking for their rights, they were called all sorts of names and were told that the Bible didn’t accept this sort of behavior and that women should stay at home. In Switzerland women weren’t granted the right to vote until 1971.
This sort of segregation and imprisonment of what they call “Muslim” in a formula, is in itself very dangerous and it seeps to the extremes of both Left and Right. My duty as a writer and as an intellectual is to bring out the variety, bring out the contradictions, bring out the paradoxes in the world. There are so many people that are Muslim, some of them are terrible and some of them are fantastic. Some of them are imprisoned by this regime. There is no one portrait of what a Muslim is.
Being really progressive, being faithful to the ideals of the Left, its revolutionary essence, means to see the world in its variety and not to impose formulas on it.
Speaking of the Left, you were initially attracted in your youth to Maoism and radical Third World nationalism. What attracted you to this kind of politics in the first place?
Yes, it was during my student years and I learned a lot from that. I never abandoned those principles. These are for me, not political questions. I do not like as a writer and a teacher to belong to any political group. I like to keep my independence. It’s not merely from a political agenda or a political grouping, but I think it is essential to establish that where we went wrong was not where we wanted more political freedom for the Iranian people, that we were for human rights, we went wrong with our authoritarian mindset. We wanted democracy and equality in Iran and I don’t think, in hindsight, Maoist China was the best model for us to look at.
There was something essentially wrong with our theories and that was something I learned when I went back to Iran. I realized that that authoritarian mindset is dangerous and the first thing you have to do is criticize yourself. Some people claim to be on the Left and then ask, “Why is she criticizing the movement she was a part of?” It is exactly because I first question myself before I first question others. And I don’t think you could trust me as a writer who writes about democracy if I didn’t question my own attitudes, which were authoritarian.
And since we’re talking about change and woman’s rights, I left the US in ’79 and at that time nobody would have dreamt that Hillary Clinton would run for president or that someone named Barack Hussein Obama would become president. Someone named Barack Hussein Obama in the seventies would not be allowed into certain clubs or places. Countries change. If change is good for America, I don’t know why change is not good for Iran.
You mention the Iranian left and its faults. That left, in a way, helped facilitate the Islamists’ rise to power and even supported some of their reactionary social policies. At what point did you decide to break with the traditional Iranian Left?
I mentioned in my book that when I lived in the US I had become quite disenchanted already. Because if you consider yourself as a writer or an intellectual, independence of mind would be at the forefront of your concerns. I went back to Iran with the realization that I did not want to belong to any political group the way I had when I was in the US as a student.
And of course, at the time, politics was everywhere. At every step politics would confront you. What you taught in class, how you rank your students, whether or not you shook hands with a male student became a political statement. It was what I saw in practice then which led me to criticize this mode of thinking. I thought having this sort of slavish attitude was very dangerous.
Do you see the generality of movement of the Green Movement as a good thing? Or do you have a problem with people like Mousavi who played such a hand in some of the earlier crimes of the regime having such prominent roles in the opposition movement?
There are many interesting things about the Green Movement. About Mousavi and Karroubi, people who were once officials of this regime and now are the “opposition,” I remember during the cultural revolution in Iran when people like myself and hundreds of thousands of students were against the closing down of the universities, obviously Mr Mousavi and his wife were on the other side. For me, the fact that they have been forced to take sides with civil society shows that that movement, which from the start resisted the laws of the Islamic Republic, was a legitimate movement. It also shows the ideological failings of the Islamic regime. It is not just liberals or Christians or Jews or Marxists who are criticizing the state, it is people who might find it in their immediate interests to support it. From that point of view I see it as something positive.
We’re not here to merely change regimes; we’re here to change mindsets, because if you don’t change people’s mindsets, if they don’t understand the benefits of an open society, there is always a danger there will be another repressive regime. So it is to the people’s credit that the movement is so diverse.
But that does not mean that now that Mr Mousavi is an “anti-revolutionary” we’re all in the same boat. There are many groups who have brought about what is called the Green Movement. They are very different from one another and at some point Mousavi and people who were part of the regime need to be answerable for the part they played. And this is not just for revenge, which I don’t believe in. If we want to believe what people say now, we have to know how they treat their past. If they accept that there was something wrong with the past and what they participated in was wrong, then you can believe that they want real change. That debate and discussion is very important and it should not be whitewashed and sometimes people do attempt to forget about it or whitewash it.
And for me, some who is not ideologically inclined one way or another, for me whom the life of ideas really matters, I think these debates and discussions are very vital and should be at the heart of the movement.
One of the parts of Reading Lolita in Tehran that struck me was your discussion of the era of “proletarian literature” and writers like Mike Gold, writers who are often forgotten. After an initial fascination with authors in this genre, you began to think that writers like Fitzgerald, more “bourgeois” writers, were in fact more subversive than the consciously revolutionary ones. Do you care to explain?
You know, I learned a lot by writing my dissertation on what was called “proletarian literature.” What I realized from writing that dissertation was that writing in one sense goes against everyday politics in the sense that politicians try to simplify everything; they try to formulate everything, and in a sense, condense your life. Writers try to complicate things rather than formulate and give answers. They pose questions.
A writer like Fitzgerald, who always had this fixation on wealth and this desire and urge to be rich and live that that kind of life, was naturally going to criticize the people he surrounded himself with. He transcended his own impulses in his books. Who are the real villains in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? It is Tom and Daisy, the wealthiest characters, who are blind towards others. The whole book becomes, ironically, a condemnation of the sort of blind wealth that makes people not see others, that makes people use others as instruments.
This makes Fitzgerald very relevant in today’s America and the problems that we face now, in terms of replacing passion and meaning with a utilitarian sense of success.
For me, to be democratic means that each area of human endeavors should be both independent and interdependent. Literature becomes genuinely subversive and critical when it is independent, because when it’s independent it has to reveal the truth and the truth for me is always a call for action.
I quote in Reading Lolita Theodor Adorno who says the highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home. And that is why I choose deliberately books that were not political to show how they could become politically subversive. It was far easier to choose [more overtly] political novels, but I wanted to show why ideas and imagination matter. And why we cannot take them out of our lives and have an open and democratic society.
I think right now this is one of the problems we have in this country. The crisis we are facing is not just economic, it’s also a crisis of vision and imagination.
Are there any contemporary Iranian writers you’d like to recommend?
At the end of my most recent book I put together a list of authors who have been translated into English. It’s older, but one book I always recommend is My Uncle Napoleon. I also mention Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men, but some of my favorite Iranian writers, including some fantastic poets, have unfortunately not been translated into English.