The literature of otherness

Ibrahim Farghali, Tuesday 21 Apr 2020

Novelist Ibrahim Farghali quizzed the Iranian-American literary superstar Azar Nafisi on her recent visit to Kuwait

Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi

I didn’t read Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Iranian-American writer Azar Nafisi—despite the great attention paid to this book—until the Arabic translation of it appeared a few years after its original 2005 publication. After reading her other book Things I’ve Been Silent About—a memoir about her childhood and family—I was genuinely amazed by both books and reviewed them for Al-Ahram.

I was first touched by the ideas in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and by its eloquent style. The book was written in the form of diary entries of an Iranian professor—Nafisi—who was Tehran-based and banned from teaching at her university because she refused to wear the Islamic hijab, as all women at the university and in post-Islamic revolutionary Iran are required to do. She organized a weekly gathering with her female students at her home to discuss books of English and American literature. Nafisi tackles these discussions and how they reflect on her and her students, which helps the readers to have a better understanding of the book’s characters and Iran’s post-1979 society. I think of Nafisi as an extraordinary writer who hasn’t received the attention she deserves. 

The second reason I was touched by Nafisi’s work is her autobiography, Things I Have Been Silent About, in which she opens up her family life. Nafisi shares with us the bond between her parents and her relationship with her mother, which was quite sophisticated. At the same time, in the background, we learn more about society and social life in Iran over the past century. In addition, we see the spectacular beauty of the nature and landscapes of Iran, and how it affects people’s lives is beautifully described through Nafisi’s memories.

At last, I was introduced to her third book, The Republic of Imagination, in which Nafisi describes her relationship with the United States of America, the relationship of the Americans with their own culture and literature, and her career as an Iranian-American writer.

The day I heard that Nafisi was going to visit Kuwait, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, my happiness turned into disappointment when I learned of the cancelation of her lecture—with no explanation. However, I was so lucky to meet her by chance at a very important popular bookstore-café in Kuwait, “Takween.” Nafisi was invited by the Kuwaiti novelist Buthaina Al-Essa, the owner.

Meeting Azar Nafisi was a pleasant surprise. I had the chance to tell her my opinions on her books, and I didn’t hesitate to ask her for an interview with her for Al-Ahram. Hearing the name of the newspaper, she asked: “Al-Ahram of Mohammad Hassanein Heikal?”

I replied, smiling: “Yes.”

During my reading of Reading Lolita in Tehran, I felt your intense interest in American Literature. Although there is prominent English writer, Jane Austin, mentioned in Reading Lolita in Tehran, the impact of American literary models, including James, Nabokov, and Fitzgerald, are highly remarkable in the book. I do wonder about the role of Jane Austin in Reading Lolita in Tehran.  

Well, the books that I chose were not based upon the fact that they were British or American, but because they fit the experiences that I was describing. Therefore, for each chapter, I chose the books I had been teaching and that captured the kind of reality I was experiencing. That was why I picked them. However, there are many books of British Literature that I love, of course. I also love books from other countries. I chose these books because I was teaching English and American novels, that was my specialty, so I limited myself only to the British and American fiction.

I also noticed a lot of concern with Henry James, who is not well known here in the Arab World. Why were you very much concerned with his writings in the book?

Well, James spent most of his life in Britain, but he is an excellent example of how much you can come to embody a cross-cultural identity. I mean, he was very much concerned with identity in his work, and what it means to be American and what it means to be European. Moreover, as you might remember, one of his books was The Americans, and another book had the title The Europeans. I wanted my students to understand that literature really does not have any boundaries. James was born in America, but he was very much under the influence of European Culture. Like someone who was born in America, but fell in love with Iranian or Arabic culture. Moreover, many Europeans were fascinated by eastern ideas, thoughts, and imaginations. I like the idea of cultural exchanges—not just politics, but cultures.

Through my reading to your book Reading Lolita in Tehran, I had the feeling that this is a novel or a fiction. I also think that the idea of the book itself is a fictional idea, although it was dealing with so many tough issues about the daily life of people there and their fears; still, the book was interesting. Do you think that you have a hidden novelist inside you?

First, I learned a great detail through listening to stories, reading stories, so for me it is more desirable to tell what I want to say about reality through stories. I do not like to write in a dry academic way, where you only talk about novels in a very rigid manner. I think that I prefer to talk about my own experiences, and how reading a great story helps me in shifting my view of reality, and changing my perceptions. Nevertheless, I wish I could be a novelist.

In your other memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, I felt these types of efforts to get to the internal feelings of the people you were talking about, compassionately. Especially the mother-father complicated relationship, and also describing the father-daughter relationship. You relied not only your memory, but on many other tools usually used by a novelist. Do you agree?

I think that part of this is because I become interested in the characters. During writing the book, I realized that there were many things I did not know about the people who were very close to me, and also about myself, and through writing, I discovered them. I mean, my view of my mother totally changed. At the beginning, I was writing about a little girl whose mother was an authoritarian, but by the end of the book I was a grown-up woman and my mother was an old woman, and I understood how much she suffered in life. Through writing, I explored many things. I do not think that book are  about things we see and know; they are about things that go beyond appearances, things you want to know.

I think the readers of your memoir might come to understand how traditional Iran’s society was, but at the same time very modern and Westernized. Some of your readers might think the Iran you wrote about was described from the point of a progressive woman, though in reality, it wasn’t very modern, and you might be exaggerating. Through reading your book, I came to this conclusion that although Iran is a closed society, Iranians are very open, especially the young generation who were born in post-revolution Iran. Am I right?

You know, my own family are mostly very modern. Still, my grandmother, for example, as I describe in the memoir, was a traditional woman wearing hijab and chador. She was a very religious woman. However, we loved one another. We were two different people, with very different lifestyles but she loved me and I loved her—we respected one another’s beliefs and principals. When the Islamic Regime of Iran came into power, my grandmother cried a lot. She said, this is not Islam. She believed that there is no compulsion in Islam, for young girls to wear the hijab through punishment and force; she felt people had to choose wearing it not be forced into it. But when I returned to America I realized that and my view and experiences of Islam and Iran is very different from what people outside Iran understand. The reason I wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran was to challenge the negative view of Islam and the Iranian people in the West, to reveal that we in Iran as well as in most of the other Muslim majority countries have all sorts of people. That Islam like other religions was open to many different interpretations. For example  most of my students in my private class were muslims, but most of them did not wear the hijab and were quite modern; only one of them was very religious, but she loved the books I taught.  Iran was and is a modern, but at the same time a traditional society, also very sophisticated. You’re right.

Moreover, that is why after 40 years of this revolution a lot of people and a new generation are still modern and sophisticated. People who made the revolution wanted to make a change,  but rather than being able to change the people, many among those who used to be loyal to the regime were changed themselves, becoming disillusioned with the revolution. Despite censorship and being imprisoned, the people of Iran, especially the young generation, want to explore the world and different cultures. They reach out to the world through ideas and imagination. This is what I’m proud of.

In The Republic of Imagination, you mentioned a conversation you had with a young Iranian man who told you that it’s worthless to talk about your books in the U.S and the Americans don’t even bother themselves with their own literature. He believed that Americans don’t need writing, as many people do in Iran. Is that the reason made you write this book?

Well, I think books and literature belong to people who appreciate them, no matter where their origins are, and my critique of the U.S was that we live at a time where people in America do not appreciate even their own culture, never mind my culture or your culture. When I first came to the U.S, I was angry because they did not know about the Middle East. They talked about it, but they did not know it. Then I got mad because I noticed that they did not even appreciate their own literature. I believe the charm of America and the reason a lot of people love America is that the United States is built on an idea. Education, imagination, and concepts were critical in the construction of this country. Now the country is becoming obsessed with money, and some Americans have forgotten the civil rights and other movements and freedoms that were achieved after the Civil War. Now it seems like America is neglecting those values and principles that are foundations of a democracy. Meanwhile, since I’ve been visiting Kuwait over the past few days, I’ve had the most amazing discussions about literature. What I enjoyed most about the conversations I had in Kuwait was the openness towards the world, such appreciation of ideas and imagination from different parts of the world.

Sounds excellent. By the way, have you ever been to Egypt?

I’ve never visited Egypt though I wish I could. I’ve never been there, but I met some Egyptians in literary festivals. I remember meeting these Egyptians in Brazil at the Flip literature festival, and I had a very long literary conversation with them. We stayed up the whole night talking about International literature.

Farghali with Nafisi

You mentioned in one of your books that while writing Reading Lolita in Teheran, you used to write inside “Borders.” Is it a bookshop? Besides, are you writing mostly outside the home?

Borders was a chain of bookstores/coffeeshops. However, it no longer exists. I was going there to buy books and then sit to write in the bookstore’s coffee shop. What I liked about this place was writing among people that I do not know, people sharing the same concerns while surrounded by books. Another area where I like to write is the coffee shops inside museums. I sit in front of one of my favorite paintings and write. This is all in Washington D.C., where I live. Nevertheless, unfortunately, most of those bookshops are not there anymore, like Borders and Barnes and Noble.

Why do you think these kinds of bookstores disappeared?

The internet, as well as people losing their love of reality being seduced by virtual reality. While, for me, I like the feel of books, touching the books, holding them and writing in their margins. They bring back memories, and I sometimes think that this new technology is destroying our minds—we need it to complement and enhance our sense of reality, not divert us from it. Now in America, during the last 3 or 4 years, there has been a surge in independent bookshops, which is very good.

As a literature professor, you taught Iranian students in Iran, and American students in the USA. What do you think are the differences between American and Iranian students?

First, my experience in teaching has always been fantastic. I mean, it is refreshing. You are learning from your students; it is not that you only teach. However, in Iran, there was this thirst for studying literature. People come not only from Tehran, but also from nearer cities. They were so excited, whereas in the U.S the students were not like that. They were saying we read Gatsby at high school, why should we reread it. However, one thing I like about my students in America was that they were very open, and they were not afraid of me, they were not afraid to speak their minds. However, in Iran, even if I did my best to not look like an authority, they were afraid of authority. It took a long time to get them to be open about their thoughts. They were afraid of criticizing the books that I recommended them to read, and I told them you might not like those books, and I would like it for you to say to me that why you do not like them. Gradually, they started to share their opinions with me, but it took a long time.

You chose certain books to talk about in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and you chose other certain books for your last book The Republic of Imagination, what were the reasons?

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, I chose books that explained how we felt in Iran during the revolution. One of the reasons that I loved America was through the books I read. I mentioned that in The Republic of Imagination, that before I actually came to America, I had been there through its books. It was crucial for me that how much revolutionary the American literature is. When you read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, you will find that it is about the most marginal, poor, and least powerful people, Huck and Jim. That is what I like about American novels. All the marginal people are at the center of the books. They become heroes.

Moreover, I wanted to discuss this with American society, how American literature is discussing the flaws of American society without directly involving politics, without politicizing. Besides, not just American, but all great novels teach us democracy, because books represent all voices. A lousy story does not allow characters to speak; it speaks for all of them. But a great novel allows all characters to have a voice, including the villain. By giving everyone a voice, you create a democracy of voices. This is why people should read, because their minds expand.

What about Philip Roth’s books? Have you ever read, The Human Stain?

Yes, of course, I read it a long time ago. Why are you asking? Is it because it is an excellent example of what I am saying?

Yes, because it is a perfect example of the democratic ideal. Have you taught this book to American students?

 One of the problems, when I teach, is the massive number of good books to choose from because I want the students to read them all. When I generally start to teach literature, through either Scheherazade or Alice in Wonderland, it is because Scheherazade shows you that in order to change another person’s mind, you do not need to resort to violence. The king was violent; he killed women because he believed that all women are traitors. Through telling stories, Scheherazade made the king interested and curious about others. He wanted to know what happens next. Then step by step, he got to this point that not all women are traitors, nor all kings are faithful. He felt empathy.

Moreover, the critical point I always tell my students is what the story is all about: stories are not about judging but about understanding. And every great novelist, like every great general, knows that in order to defeat the enemy you need to understand them.

What about the other example, Alice in Wonderland?

Alice is an exceptional little girl, because she is not satisfied with her surroundings, and she dares to go after a rabbit and jump down the hole. Not many will risk following their imagination and drop down the hole. So many academics in America, and maybe in Egypt, simply tell you what to expect from a novel. And if the book does not agree with them, they don’t like it. Now what I think is excellent with Alice is that she doesn’t know what she is going to find down the hole, but she wants to know. Then, once she jumps, everything she finds in that hole is similar to the things we have in our ordinary lives, but the combination is different. And the character I like best is the caterpillar because Alice asked him, “Who are you?” and he replies with “Who are YOU?” Therefore, this is the role of the novel: to make you question your identity. You learn that the people who are different from you are not always wrong. They are just different. And when Alice comes back, she sees the world in a different light.

How can you sense the difference between the impressions of your audience? I mean, how have your readers in both Iran and the States reacted to your books?

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, I wanted to do two things; one, I wanted to tell Americans that Iranians are different from the way they are dominantly portrayed in America, and that there are many amazing Iranians. Also, I tried to tell them how great literature opens doors when oppressive conditions have closed them; it also connects us one to the other. Surprisingly, people got it, and it was terrific. They would come and ask about the girls in the book. What happened to them? In The Republic of Imagination, some Americans got angry at the book because of my criticism of America and some Iranians get mad at Reading Lolita in Tehran because of my criticism of the Islamic Republic. I did not criticize Islam or Iran but felt that both Islam and Iran were victims of the totalitarian regime of the Islamic Republic. They said I defended Western and colonial literature, but I did not see it in that way. I believe that great literature is always critical of established rules and norms and is subversive of politics as usual; it generally exposes Colonialism not defend it.

Politically, I am very liberal, and I speak against policies in the U.S that I do not like, from the U.S invasion of Iraq to Donald Trump’s presidency. But I think culture is supposed to be free, and literature is always about otherness. We want to explore others; we do not want to talk only about ourselves. It would be boring if we only speak and write about ourselves. However, many Americans reacted well to my criticism of America. Some of them come to me after my talks and say we feel the same way, but we were born here, so what can we do? Of course, I do not know what we have to do, I mean there are different ways of doing things, but we have to do what we can do, we cannot remain silent. I am amazed at how books create connections with people, whether they are Americans, Egyptians, Iranians, or Kuwaitis. Everywhere I go, when it is the language of literature, I immediately connect to people. In America, I feel at home with my readers. There was a lieutenant in the army who wrote to me, and she said, “I am in Iraq, and I read your book, and I want to know how to connect to the Iraqi people? How can I understand them?” I felt so touched.

What is your latest book about?

My new book is about how to deal with your enemy. It is about understanding the person ‎whom you consider to be your enemy. We should realize that we ‎are all humans. We all have the best and the worst. By ‎following this, we avoid wars. When there was a war ‎between Iran and Iraq, I kept thinking as soon as I heard a ‎victory march announced on the radio that they have bombed another ‎place in Baghdad, for me, it meant that  another family like mine in ‎Iraq is dead. When America invaded Iraq, I thought about how much ‎the Iraqi people have suffered. And now they are still suffering. I ‎feel very close to Iraq, although we were in conflict with them. I ‎really think I know the people, although I have never been there ‎before.

‎I chose books from authors who talk about difficult subjects. Like for example, James Baldwin, whom I love. I ended Republic of Imagination with him, and I start my new book with him. Most of his books are about racism. In a time when they would kick black people out of restaurants, he said, “What I was most afraid of was not them, but the hatred within.” Because he said, “Hate is more dangerous than the enemy.” And yet he fought. He was writing in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, and sometimes he became very disenchanted, but he never gave up. Then I have Atwood, because she talks about totalitarianism. I write about an Israeli author, and also a Palestinian writer. The Israeli is David Grossman. He is a serious critic of Israeli policies and the occupation. One of the things he criticizes about Israeli government, is what he calls its dehumanization of the other side. The Palestinian playwright, Amir Nizar Zuabi talks about a Palestinian guy who wants to dedicate his life to invent a rocket to go to the moon. And his reason is, “Because everybody thinks that Palestinians are oppressed people who cannot do anything, so I wanted to show them that we can go to the moon.” I love that idea. The play was called Grey Rock. I want to tell how writers fight the most profound problems in their society.

Do you have any idea about Arabic literature? Do you read any Arabic literature?

I read some of Mahfouz’s novels, and I read The Yacoubian Building, by Al Aswany, Taha Muhammad Ali, Kamel Dauod, Fatema Mernissi, and Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. There are many whom I don’t know but should know; generally, there are few translations of Arabic literature. Besides, it is tough to look for them because you have to read about it to know that they exist. However, what I learned from Mahfouz reminded me of a little bit of Iran. There are many similarities between Egypt and Iran. When I was a child, I remember that my family would always make a comparison between Iran and Egypt. I discovered that unfortunately, we, in Iran, did not seek enough to get to know our neighbors in the region. Now I ask myself why is it that we came to know about Western literature before got acquainted with Arabic writing. Of course, I had knowledge of Ibn Arabi, Ibn Sina, Ghazali, and Arabic Classic literature. Still, I need to know more about contemporary Arabic literature. I often explain to my students that Arab culture is a source of many Western sciences and writing. The truth is that I am sure we have much in our eastern civilizations to be proud of, so I do not think we  need to fear the West in this regard.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: