BY NORA CHARLES, JUNIOR EDITOR
PHOTOS BY ELLIE LE BLANC
In the midst of her talk about literature, passion, and religion, the award-winning author Azar Nafisi suddenly posed a question to her audience of Wilson juniors. “What do you think of when you hear the word Iran?” Students timidly voiced their responses: “oppression”, “war”, “oil”, “religion”. What do Iranians think of when they think of America?
Nafisi, who is from Iran, exhorted students to question the way they are informed about the world. Seeing the way American media portrayed Islamic countries fills her with dismay, she told students. “ The kind of world they show to you is mainly a fantasy world. Everything has become a reality show.” She said televised news outlets like CNN, FOX News, and NBC reduce countries in the Middle East to a single aspect: their Islamic religion.
They present religion in an oversimplified and skewed fashion, focusing on extremist groups like ISIS and overlooking the huge diversity that exists within Islam, from Indonesian to Saudi Arabian culture. They also hide the fact that the first victims of ISIS are Muslims themselves. According to Nafisi, “No one is damaging Islam like the extremists.”
Azar Nafisi wrote the popular and award-winning memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, which AP language students just finished reading for class. The book describes the secret study group that she held in her apartment in Tehran for years, where she taught eight young women American literature. They read and discussed Lolita, The Great Gatsby, The Ambassadors, and Pride and Prejudice, books that are banned under the new Islamic regime.
The literature group spent more time examining life’s truths than discussing books, and Nafisi did the same in her lecture at Wilson. She reminded students to find their passions, which cannot be taken away, though everything else can be. “This world that we take to be so eternal is very transient. So we all need a portable world made of our passions,” she said. For as long as she can remember, her passion was reading. “I made myself at home through the works of Austen and Dickens and Shakespeare and W.H Auden. Because the republic of the imagination is the only place in the world where there are no limitations.”
She urged Wilson students to focus less on political correctness. According to Nafisi, saying the “right thing” is trivial and means nothing if one has no desire to understand where a person comes from. Instead, “You must have genuine empathy through getting to see people as you see yourself. Like Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird, you have to ‘get under their skin.’” This isn’t possible in a literal sense, she explains, but you can get close by being curious and by reading works of fiction, which teach us the value and complexity of individuals everywhere.
“In order to learn about the Middle East you have to know the history of the Middle East and the culture of the Middle East: not just what is in the news but what has existed in those countries for thousands of years,” she said. This, she admitted, is the reason she wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran— so that these images of the Middle East we see every week in newspapers, on TV, and across the internet would not define it.
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, the girls in her literary group often discuss the oppression they feel as women in Iran, betrayed by their faith and targeted for their gender under the Islamic regime. However, things have not always been this way. When Nafisi, who wore bright red lipstick and long, dangling earrings, was growing up in Tehran, the place was very cosmopolitan. “We had women going to the parliament, we had women pilots, we had women in heavy industry,” she explains.
Today, women can be married off at age nine, stoned for committing adultery, and every woman is forced to wear the veil. These are tools used to take power away from women incite fear, and replace individuality with uniformity. Having an inch of hair peeking out from behind a woman’s headscarf is considered dangerous and illegal: too tempting to a moral man. These prejudices, Nafisi explained, are everywhere, but in Iran they reveal themselves in extreme form. “[The regime] took away the world from us but we connected to the world through the best ambassadors that the world had: books, music, and film.” Nafisi said.
The veil is no longer an expression of faith, but a symbol of the state. Nafisi compared this to an America where everyone would be forced to wear the cross, suggesting that this would cause public outrage and damage religion itself. “If all Americans wear the cross, does Christianity mean anything? If all women are flogged to wear the veil, does Islam mean anything?”
Many girls stayed after the last bell had rung and gathered around her. Some sought her advice and life wisdom, others wanted selfies with her, and many thrust their copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran into her hands to sign.