Iranian rebel made room for 'Lolita'
Monday, February 2, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
As a literature professor in Iran, Azar Nafisi seemed destined to run afoul of the country's religious authorities. Raised in Tehran but educated in the West, she championed novels such as "Lolita" and "The Great Gatsby," whose characters cross the line of acceptable sexual mores. Both in the classroom and on the streets of Iran's capital, Nafisi protested against codes of dress and behavior. In short, Nafisi was a rebellious intellect -- and a woman at that -- in a country where bearded mullahs legislate everyday life.
Until the day she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi found a way to circumvent her conditions, and when she wrote a book that detailed her unconventional ways --
a surprise best-seller called "Reading Lolita in Tehran'' -- Nafisi entered a new realm of life: public figure.
Now, Hollywood studios beckon her to give them the rights to her memoir. Now, Iranian exiles seek her status for human rights events. Now, many Americans flock to her book readings to meet the person behind "Reading Lolita in Tehran." Newly released in paperback, the book continues to generate buzz for Nafisi, who is in the Bay Area today and Tuesday to give talks.
"It's exhausting and liberating at the same time," Nafisi says in a phone interview from Seattle, one of many stops on her nationwide book tour.
Nafisi is debating the offers to turn "Reading Lolita in Tehran" into a movie. She's leery of a medium that could weed out important details of her book. Will there be room for all the student debates she chronicles, including the one where Nafisi holds a mock trial over the merits of studying "Gatsby"? (One student said in that trial, "The one good thing about this book is that it exposes the immorality and decadence of American society.") Will there be room for the stories of all the female students who take Nafisi's classes -- women like Sanaz, who has to put up with a bullying brother, or Mahshid, whose jailing left her with a bad kidney? Nafisi doesn't want a film to treat her as a hero. What she did in Iran -- protesting, questioning, holding secret meetings -- was done by scores of others, she says. Some of these protesters continue to risk their lives in Iran.
"There have been negotiations -- one or two from independents, and another one -- but nothing has materialized," Nafisi says of the prospective film. "In one sense it's tempting. In another sense you want people to capture the essence of what you've said. Once a film is done, it's going to be there forever. The instant gratification is that a film is out but you pay for it the rest of your life if it's not the right film."
It's easy to see why Hollywood is so interested in the rights to her book. After getting her doctorate at Oklahoma University in 1979, Nafisi took a position at the University of Tehran, just as the Iranian revolution brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. By 1981, the university fired her after she refused to wear the mandated veil. Nafisi fought the mandate whenever she could, risking her job as well as arrest.
"A lot of people see my story as a story of courage," she says. "But I didn't want this to be a book where people said, 'Oh, look at how courageous she was.' I also didn't want this to be a sob story so that people thought, 'Oh, God -- look at how victimized she was.' "
At her lowest points in Iran, Nafisi admits that "I was afraid."
Yet it didn't stop her from continuing to challenge authority. In 1995, after resigning from another position, Nafisi started a literature group that met every week at her home. There, away from the stern eyes of school administrators, a small group of female students discussed "Lolita" and other books that were essentially banned. If authorities had discovered the sessions, they could have arrested Nafisi or done worse. She says Iranians who condemned her for using "Lolita," a lurid account of an affair between a man and an underage girl, are missing the point of literature.
"These are the kind of people -- not just in Iran but all over the world -- who read these works superficially and want to find their own affirmations in the book," she says. "They don't go into the deeper levels of what the structure of the novel is. So if Gatsby commits adultery, he's 'bad.' "
In moving to Washington in 1997 and becoming a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Nafisi joined the large number of Iranian exiles in the United States, where they continue to work for change in their homeland. She's been disappointed that the seven-year term of reformist President Mohammad Khatami hasn't led to greater freedoms in Iran. And though Nafisi describes herself as a pessimist, she thinks change will eventually come to Iran because of the political demands of average Iranians. At Johns Hopkins, Nafisi started an Internet project called "The Dialogue Project," which is a forum for people --
including those in Iran -- to debate ideas about Islam, democracy, human rights and other subjects.
Nafisi's book is a minor hit in Iran. Iranian exiles in the United States are mailing it to friends and family there. Nafisi hears stories of people passing copies (which are still rare there) to others when they're done. Because of the Internet, Iranians can also read portions of the book online.
"I keep telling American friends and the readers of the book that a lot of times situations like Iran bring out the extremes of ordinary life," Nafisi says. "They strip it of all the paraphernalia and present it to us naked. So our love affair with these books and with literature arose out of the fact that in reality we were stripped of all the rights and pleasures of just ordinary life."
"When I left Iran, at first I was angry and resentful," Nafisi adds. "Through writing this book I realized the sources of my anger and came to terms with many of the issues that I had problems with in Iran. ... It's been successful beyond my expectations."
Azar Nafisi will discuss her book "Reading Lolita in Tehran" at 7 tonight at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Kepler's Bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/02/02/DDGTN4M05S1.DTL
Iran bans student demonstration against crisis
Tuesday, February 03, 2004
TEHRAN, Feb 3 (AFP) -- Iranian authorities have banned the first planned student protest against the wholesale barring of reformist election candidates, the student news agency ISNA said Tuesday, quoting the Tehran governor's office.
"No gathering will be allowed outside the entrance of Tehran University," the agency quoted Ali Ta'ala, director of political and security affairs for the Tehran region as saying.
"No authorisation for a rally at that spot has been issued for several years because of traffic problems in the district," he added, implying that a demonstration could be organised in other circumstances.
The pro-democracy Islamic Association of Tehran's branches in the main and medical universities said Sunday they had requested a permit to stage a gathering at the gate of the capital's main campus on Wednesday. http://www.iranmania.com/News/ArticleView/Default.asp?NewsCode=22253&NewsKind=Current%20Affairs