BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Azar Nafisi, where did you get the title "Reading
Lolita in Tehran"?
AZAR NAFISI (Author, "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books"):
It was when I was writing my book on Nabokov in Iran, and I kept feeling
that this is a new reading of Nabokov because of my life in Tehran. And I
wanted to explain Tehran through "Lolita" and "Lolita" through Tehran.
LAMB: Why "Lolita"?
NAFISI: Well, I felt, at that point, that my life in Iran and the
life of many like me were -- "Lolita" could have been a metaphor for it.
An ayatollah comes to Iran and likes to impose his dream upon our reality,
turning us into his figments of imagination. And that is what "Lolita" is
basically about, the crime of solipsizing another person`s life.
LAMB: When did Nabokov write "Lolita"?
NAFISI: He wrote it in early `50s, and there was a great deal of
scandal about it. He thought that he could never publish it under his own
name, so at first, it was published in France. And then there was quite a
furor over it in England and U.S. Then finally, Graham Greene gave it
credibility by choosing it one of the best books he had read.
LAMB: Is Nabokov still alive?
NAFISI: No, he died in Switzerland in 1977.
LAMB: Where was he from?
NAFISI: Originally, he was from Russia, and he was born on the last
year of 19th century, 1899, and he claimed that according to one Russian
calendar, his birthday was the same as Shakespeare`s, the 23rd of April!
LAMB: What`s the story of "Lolita" about?
NAFISI: The story of "Lolita" is about this very sophisticated,
articulate European man, 38, who in his childhood falls in love with this
girl, when he was 13, Annabel Leigh, and she dies. And their love is
never consummated. And ever since then, he becomes obsessed with the image
of Annabel Leigh. And when he meets "Lolita" years later, he tries to turn
that little girl into his dead Annabel Leigh. And he seduces and rapes her
and keeps her under his yoke for two years, until she finally escapes.
LAMB: She was how old again, 12?
NAFISI: She was 12.
LAMB: Does that have any relationship to the fact that in Tehran, you
say, today, or in Iran, that men can marry a woman at age 9?
NAFISI: Yes, they lowered -- after the revolution, they lowered the
age of marriage from 18 to 9. And I always felt a 9-year-old girl, her
life has not started yet, and when you marry her off to a man, like
"Lolita," you are confiscating her childhood. And that is, to me, one of
the biggest crimes.
LAMB: How often do women 9 years old, or girls 9 years old, marry in
NAFISI: Well, I tell you, actually, I`m rather proud of the fact that
many of the laws that the government brought to Iran or imposed upon the
society didn`t take off, partly because Iran was so advanced and people
would not, you know, act accordingly. But there are many young girls who
are married, and there was actually an official report on many of the young
girls who died yearly because of early marriage, you know?
LAMB: Is it true that a man can have four wives?
NAFISI: Yes. Yes, it is true that a man can have four wives. These
are all the laws that came back in the name of religion, which I think was
abuse of religion as an ideology.
LAMB: What about temporary wives? And what are temporary wives?
NAFISI: Yes. According to some Shia doctrines or tradition -- and
in Iran, this is practiced -- a man can marry any number of women he
desires -- they have a contract, and that contract can be from five
minutes to 99 years. But so you can have a wife. You travel to another
city. You want a temporary wife. I think it`s legalized prostitution, to
tell you the truth.
LAMB: How many years have you lived in the United States versus how
many years you lived in Iran?
NAFISI: Well, I came to the United States during the last year of my
high school, and I left it after I got my Ph.D. I left the U.S. in `79,
and I stayed in Iran for 18 years before I left in `97. Before that, I was
in Iran until I was 13, and then I went to England for my high school.
LAMB: Where did you live in the United States? Where did you go to
NAFISI: There`s a long story behind that. I wouldn`t bore you with
it. But I got married at a very young age, before I turned 18, to a man
who was going to engineering school at the University of Oklahoma. And
that`s where I went, and that`s where I stayed.
LAMB: Where`d you get your Ph.D.?
NAFISI: Everything was in Oklahoma.
LAMB: And the Ph.D. was in what?
NAFISI: The Ph.D. was in English and American literature, and I wrote
my dissertation on someone that many Americans don`t know about, Mike Gold
and the proletarian writers of the 1930s.
LAMB: Go back to when you were at the University of Oklahoma. You
talk about protesting...
LAMB: ... and being an activist and all. What were you protesting?
NAFISI: Well, you know, very few people know that University of
Oklahoma at Norman was very active during the Vietnam and the student
protests. But in the last years that I stayed in the U.S., I got involved
in the student movement, in the Iranian student movement against the Shah.
And that movement was very active all across Europe and the United States.
I remember myself in front of White House, saying, CIA agents,
U.S. advisers out of Iran. And then they were out.
LAMB: And what year were you doing this?
NAFISI: That was in late `70s, in `76, `77.
LAMB: Why did you want the Shah out?
NAFISI: Well, at the time, the way I felt about it -- of course, this
part of it I still believe in. I felt that we did not have enough right to
political participation. And certainly, the Iranian society was advanced
enough for people to want that. And I was against the political oppression
that existed in Iran at the time. But I feel that I myself and the student
movement, we were too ideological ourselves. So I needed to criticize my
own part, you know, in the movement. It is not enough to be against
tyranny. You yourself have to choose different methods to confront it.
LAMB: For the moment, let me just jump ahead to where are you now?
NAFISI: I`m now at Washington, D.C. I mean, I live in Potomac,
Maryland, with my family. But I teach and I have a project at the School
for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins, in Washington, D.C.
LAMB: What citizenship do you hold?
NAFISI: I now have a Green Card.
LAMB: Is that the way you`re going to keep it? I mean, that means
you`re still an Iranian citizen?
NAFISI: I`m still an Iranian citizen. I say at the end of the book
that I feel that my world, like what Nabokov talks about, has become a
portable world -- a set of books, a set of principles and the people I
love, you know? So -- the world has become very small. Being here, I
don`t feel as if I`m not in contact with my own country, you know, or with
my own people.
LAMB: You say the first marriage ended in divorce. How long were you
NAFISI: I was married for -- I`m very bad with dates. That`s why I`m
pausing. For about almost three-and-a-half years. My father at that time
was in jail in Iran, and I didn`t want him to worry about me and my
personal life. So actually, as soon as he came out of jail, I got
LAMB: What was he doing in jail?
NAFISI: Previously, he had been the mayor of Tehran, and he was a
rather popular mayor, and he was also very stubborn. And so they put him
in jail without a trial for four years. And then at his trial, he defended
himself, and he was exonerated of all the charges except one, which was
insubordination. And I love that now! I went through a lot of despair
LAMB: I hate to keep doing this, but the years that he was in jail --
when was he mayor of Tehran?
NAFISI: From 1961 to 1963.
LAMB: So who was it that put him in jail?
NAFISI: Well, he ran into a lot of problems with both the minister of
interior, who was his superior, and the prime minister at that time. And
of course, without the Shah`s consent, that would not have happened. And
one of the things that saved him later on during the revolution was that
when Ayatollah Khomeini led his first rebellion against the Shah in early
`60s against the right of women to vote and a series of reforms that the
Shah had brought, my father was mayor, and he opened the hospitals to
people who were being wounded. And he tried to, you know, sort of take
care of the protesters. And that went into his files. So during the
Islamic revolution, at least, he was spared.
LAMB: Back to the present for a moment. Are you still married
NAFISI: I`m married to Bijan. I married him in September of 1977.
LAMB: Two children.
NAFISI: Two wonderful children.
LAMB: Their age? And what do they do?
NAFISI: My daughter, Negar, is now 19, and she goes to
University of Maryland. She`s studying molecular biology. She wants
double major, English lit and molecular biology. My son, Dara, is
last year of high school, and he`s going to go to Virginia Tech, and he
wants to follow his father`s path, which is engineering.
LAMB: Why did you, in the first place, at the University of Oklahoma
get interested in America literature?
NAFISI: I was -- as long as I remember, I loved literature and books.
This is the only snobbism my family ever, you know, claimed. My father all
through my childhood told me stories from Iranian classical tales. That is
how we communicated. If he didn`t like one thing I did, he put it in a
tale about this man whose little daughter -- and books are my life. I
don`t remember any time I wasn`t interested in reading.
LAMB: You broke your book into four parts. "Lolita" was the first
part. And then you also talked about Jane Austen, and you talked about
Henry James. And there was one other section.
NAFISI: Fitzgerald, "Great Gatsby."
LAMB: Fitzgerald, "Great Gatsby." Why did you break the book into
four? What was the point?
NAFISI: Well, actually, I felt that -- I mean, there are so many
other books and writers that are my favorite. But I divided these books
into sort of the times of my life. And I wanted to concentrate on books
that explained these periods in my life, you know, sort of carried the
rhythm of the life I`ve spent in Iran. And Nabokov, as I said, is about
confiscation of an individual`s life and how individuality is at the center
of what we call freedom today.
James is about ambiguity and how totalitarian mindsets hate ambiguity.
They like black and white. "Gatsby" is about the American dream and our
own dream of revolution and how it was shattered. And Austen is about
choice, a woman at the center of the novel saying no to the authority of
her parents, society, and welcoming a life of dire poverty in order to make
her own choice. So that is how I divided them. But many other books
should have been there.
LAMB: When I finished the book, I also thought you could have named
this book, for an American audience, "The Veil."
NAFISI: Yes, or there was an article I wrote in "The New Republic."
It was called "The Veiled Threat." You are right. It does have many -- I
mean, "veil" has many connotations, the most obvious one being the cloth
that women wear. But it is also about the veils that society and politics
and we ourselves create and how freedom is being -- the ability to confront
not only the veil that society creates for you but the veils that you
create inside yourself, the ability or the courage to face up to them.
LAMB: How long did the Shah run Iran? And when did he leave?
NAFISI: He left -- he ruled for almost 25 years, and he left Iran in
1978. And that was the time when the Shah left and Khomeini came
back to Iran. Khomeini left Iran in early 1960s, after he protested
against the Shah`s "White Revolution" and reforms.
LAMB: Where did Khomeini come from back to Iran?
NAFISI: Where did -- well, most of his life -- his life in exile he
spent in Iraq, actually. But the last part of it, he -- Saddam Hussein was
making some deals, apparently, with the Iranian government, and life for
Khomeini in Iraq was becoming a little hard. So he went to France, and
this little village called Neufchateau, which became so famous, where
everybody would go to visit him. And I think that is what made Khomeini
Khomeini. That is what made him so well known with all the media. It was -
- some people say it was the first revolution in the media, through the
media, you know?
LAMB: How much attention did he get when he was in France?
NAFISI: Oh, he got amazing attention because, first of all, I think
that figure of this stately ayatollah sitting under the apple tree in
Neufchateau was a very, very attractive image. And Khomeini himself was a
very charismatic personality. And then many people made sort of
pilgrimages to where he was, you know, whether they were Muslim or not.
And this was a very attractive image for the media, and the image of the
tradition taking over this modernization -- I think that aspect of it also
LAMB: As you know, we`ve heard a lot about Iraq in the last couple
years, but go back to Khomeini living in Iraq. He was a Shi`ite...
LAMB: ... I assume, and Saddam Hussein was a Sunni.
LAMB: What`s the difference? Can you explain it to the person who
doesn`t know the background on this?
NAFISI: Well, I wouldn`t like to do that because I`m not an expert,
and anyone else would be able to -- you know, anyone who is really an
expert in Islam would be able to explain it better. But I know that for my
own country -- first of all, Iran was Sunni until about 400 years ago, when
we had a dynasty, the Abbasid -- the Safavid, who as against the
Ottoman empire created -- turned Iran into a Shi`a empire, with its own
peculiarities, in order to differentiate it. So it was not all political.
It was also -- it was not all religious. It was also political.
But one of the main differences, for example, between Shi`a and Sunni
is that the Shi`ites -- the Sunnis believe that after the Prophet died, the
people, they chose his successors. While the Shi`ites
basically believe that the right of his nephew and his right-hand man, Ali,
was, you know, sort of confiscated by these others, Abu Bakr, Omar and
Osman, who succeeded him, and that Ali was his rightful successor. They
also believe that in the 12 imams who sort of continued Mohammed`s
dynasty, while the Sunnis only believed until the 7th imam.
I think that, partly, the difference, for Iranians, definitely, it was to
differentiate themselves from the Islam that was brought into their
country. They wanted to create their own independent identity. And I
think that that is partly it.
LAMB: We learned during the Iraqi war a lot about populations, that
Iraq has something around 24 million...
LAMB: ... depending on what day it is. How big is Iran?
NAFISI: Well, Iran has almost doubled since the revolution started,
so it is near 70 million now.
LAMB: And they share the same border.
NAFISI: They share the same border.
LAMB: But not the same language.
NAFISI: No. No. Iran is Persian. They like to call it Farsi. I
think, like English, you say English, I say Persian. And Iraq is Arabic.
LAMB: What`s the difference between the two languages?
NAFISI: Well, the roots of Persian is Indo-European. And after the
Arab invasion of -- I think that was maybe the most complete invasion. Our
country had been invaded many times, but that was the most complete
invasion of the country, where the Arabic language so much entered
Persian and mixed -- was mixed with Persian. So you cannot understand
Persian grammar without understanding the Arabic grammar. There are still
certain letters which are Persian. Persian has more letters than Arabic
So while I can -- when I look at the letters in Arabic, I can
understand them, but I can`t understand the language. Persian is closer to
the Urdu, which is what, for example, is being spoken in Afghanistan.
Actually, Urdu is a purer form of language than the Iranian Persian of it.
LAMB: When the ayatollah took over -- I assume that`s what you would
LAMB: when he came back during the -- the revolution happened in
LAMB: What happened to women? What changed for women once the
ayatollah and the fundamentalists took over?
NAFISI: You know, Iran -- and I don`t like to say that it was just
the Shah who brought us freedom because it`s not true. I mean, or rights
of women. Iran since the -- like many other countries in its neighboring -
- in its vicinity, like Turkey, like Egypt, like Lebanon, near the end of
19th century, Iran underwent a great deal of social and cultural and
political turmoil because of the crisis within the country itself. It
couldn`t hold on to the old despotism. And one of the things that happened
was women wanted to become more visible. The first woman who unveiled in
Iran was in mid-19th century, a woman named Tahereh, who was also the
leader of one of the now new religions, Babi religion, which later
turned into Baha'i religion, which was an offshoot of Islam, you know. And
then with the constitutional revolution, women by and by started fighting
for their rights to public education, and you know, other rights.
So by the time of the revolution, we had women senators, two women
ministers, one of them my old high school principal, who was murdered by
the regime, a woman from -- women -- minister for women`s affairs. We had
the right to vote. We had women in all walks of life.
LAMB: How about your mother?
NAFISI: Yes, my mother was also one of -- she was too outspoken to
last, but she was one of the first women, along with that high school
principal, who went to the parliament in early -- in 1961. And what
happened was that the first thing that the Islamic regime did, before they
had a new constitution, was to repeal the family protection law,
which protected the rights of women at home and at the workplace. They
lowered the age of marriage, and they brought back the Sharia laws, which
contains stoning for adultery and...
LAMB: Sharia is the law of Islam?
NAFISI: Yes. It is not the law that it is Quran. It is the law that
was created afterwards. And if you look at the constitution of -- Iran is
far opener society than Afghanistan was, for example, or Saudi Arabia is.
But the laws are very similar. There are the same punishments for the same
crimes. And women became the center of attack. They -- everything -- I
mean, the way I look now was all of a sudden a symbol of the West. And
unfortunately, some people in the West also call me not Iranian but
Westernized, which I very much resent.
LAMB: So if you went to Tehran right now and got on an airplane and
it started to land there, what would you change? What would change for you
that you can`t -- that you can do here?
NAFISI: Of course, now Iran, because of the -- especially the young
people`s rebellion, is much more open than when I left it in `97. But
first of all, I have to cover my hair. I have to wear a scarf. That
LAMB: Do you have to cover your entire...
NAFISI: Well, this is the law. Nowadays, they`re much more relaxed
because they couldn`t control it. But the way these girls are on the cover
of my book, that even is not really proper. You know, you should wear --
cover the hair properly. But nobody does that in Iran today.
LAMB: Why did you choose this for the cover?
NAFISI: It so much reminded me of my own students, the sort of
simplicity, and it seems as if they`re reading a book, you know, and the
youth. And I wanted the cover to be very simple, and I`m very grateful to
Random House for finding that photograph.
LAMB: Where was that picture taken, do you know?
NAFISI: They got it from -- you know, they bought it from a company
which sold these photographs.
LAMB: Are they two Iranian girls or...
NAFISI: Yes, they`re three Iranian girls. They`re very similar to my
LAMB: So you land in Tehran right now, you put the veil on.
NAFISI: And then you have to -- you see, the point is that the
contours of your body should not be shown. So you have to wear something
like a raincoat or a robe or chador, which covers your whole body. You`re
not supposed to have make-up on.
LAMB: At all.
NAFISI: No. No. You see, the philosophy behind it is that women
should not attract attention because women become sources of temptation,
which is rather paradoxical because women are so active in Iran, and they
are there. So one of the things that really bothered me was that I was
asked to be visible because I went to work, the way I do here. At the same
time, I was asked to be invisible because I couldn`t talk. I couldn`t
shake hands with my male students or my male colleagues.
NAFISI: No. No. You cannot touch a man who is not related -- who is
not, like, your father, your brother or your husband, you know? You cannot
show your hair or other parts of your body to that man. Now,
from day one, women rebelled against this. There were demonstrations with
hundreds of thousands of Iranian women came into the streets and said no to
the veil. They had to make it mandatory at workplace, to begin with. Then
they made it mandatory in shops. Then they made it mandatory in public as
a whole. And since I left Iran, I see pictures of my own students or women
walking down the streets of Tehran, a lot has changed because this new
generation is not going to take it, you know?
LAMB: What about you can`t eat ice cream?
NAFISI: The one I talk about in the book...
NAFISI: ... about eating a -- well, any -- like, for example, licking
ice cream in public is sort of called decadent or unseemly for a woman.
And my daughter`s school, wearing shoelaces that were colored were not
allowed. Reeboks were not allowed. Wearing a certain kind of trendy
eyeglasses were not allowed. And I think this is not really religion. I
mean, you know, my grandmother always wore the veil to the day she died,
and during Shah`s father`s reign, when for three months they made the
taking off of the veil mandatory, she refused to leave home for three
months. So the issue in Iran right now, as in other Muslim societies, is
choice. Nobody should choose for me how to worship my God, how to relate
to my God, you know? Now the veil, unfortunately, has become a political
token, not a token of faith.
LAMB: You lived in Tehran during the Iraq-Iran war.
NAFISI: Oh, yes. Yes.
LAMB: What years was the war?
NAFISI: They started right after I came to Iran. I think the war in
Iran started in 1979 and went on until 1987. It went on for eight years.
LAMB: One of the years, and it may have been `87 -- I can`t remember
-- you say there were 167 missiles...
NAFISI: Yes. That was the last...
LAMB: ... fired by Iraq into Tehran or the entire country?
NAFISI: No, Tehran. Tehran at first was not as much targeted. The
parts that they started targeting were the oil-rich parts, which were close
to Iran -- to Iraq. That was the cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr. They really
almost demolished those cities. Then they started on
the bigger cities -- Tabriz in the northern part, Isfahan and Tehran.
And the hardest attack on Tehran was those last few months before the war
LAMB: Who had started the war?
NAFISI: Saddam did. He bombed an oil refinery, and that is --
I was -- I remember we had come from vacation from Caspian, and we turned
on the radio. And they said that the war has started. But Iran also -- at
that time, Iran was provoking a lot of the Muslims, not just in Iraq but
also in Saudi Arabia and the neighboring countries. Every time there was
a pilgrimage to Mecca, Iranians were starting "Death to America" and
calling these regimes puppets of U.S. So Iran was very politically active
at that time.
LAMB: Were you religious?
NAFISI: I felt that I was religious, not in terms of, you know,
following any specific rules. My parents -- my mother went to the
pilgrimage. She never wore the veil. My father considered himself
religious. For awhile when I was in states, I thought I was a Marxist.
But like the fact that I thought I was Marxist and I was reading "Gatsby"
all the time, I thought I was a Marxist, and at nights I would --
since childhood, I had a conversation with God, which was very personal.
And that`s how my father taught me religion should be, a series of
conversations with God.
LAMB: So you weren`t an Islam -- member of the Islam...
LAMB: ... religion.
NAFISI: No, I wasn`t, but nobody in Iran was in that way. And you
know, mosques -- you didn`t go to church -- mosque the way you went to the
church, you know?
LAMB: By the way, in an Islamic society, what do the women do, if
only men go to the mosques?
NAFISI: Yes, the women -- after the Islamic revolution in Iran, for
example, the women would sit behind the curtains or would sit at one other
section, where they`re not seen. But before the Islamic revolution, it was
very individual act. People would sometimes go to mosque for prayer, or
especially the fighters` prayers were very important. But it was not a
communal action at all. And at any rate, whether at mosque or at home,
women were always sort of segregated.
In one sense, Ayatollah Khomeini, paradoxically, brought traditional
women much more into the society because he discovered how amazingly
helpful they are. When Shah granted the right to vote to women. In early `60s,
Ayatollah Khomeini called that an act of prostitution and he gave an edict against it. When he came to Iran and with all these women in the streets that he could in no
way put them back, he realized what a gold mine he had, a very, very
intelligent man, you know.
LAMB: In the beginning of your book you have an author`s note and you
say, aspects of characters and events in this story have been changed,
mainly to protect individuals not just from the eye of the censor but also
from those who read such narratives to discover who`s who and who did what
to whom. Are any of these names reflective of the people that you knew?
NAFISI: The names, no, their lives, yes. The names, actually -- some
of the names rhyme. Some of the names rhyme, and you know what happened
with the seven girls, what happened is that I consulted with one of my
girls whom I call "Mona." I said what name would you want, you know. And
then she gave me the name that she wanted and her husband, and then we
played with the names and we tried to find names that would sort of
resonate with their personality and with their character. Some of the
names are true. My student who was killed in chapter three, Razieh. I
had no reason to not use her name anymore.
LAMB: How was she killed, by the way?
NAFISI: She was -- of course I didn`t know about that. I found that
later. She belonged to a radical Muslim organization, the Mujahideen,
actually, at the beginning. A lot of young people at the beginning just
were affiliated with these organizations without much knowing what they
were. And she was arrested in early `80s, and later on executed. I heard
about her from another student, who was in jail with her, and she told me,
you know, in jail, we talked, I told her about Gatsby and she told me about
James. So I wondered where my books go, you know. Not just in classes,
but in prison houses.
LAMB: Who killed her?
NAFISI: The government. In those days, they executed a lot of
people, and they were very gung-ho about it. It was -- it is now that they
don`t sort of announce it. I remember that after one demonstration they
had the pictures of the executed on the front page of the papers. They
felt that this would be a warning to those who, you know -- my own cousins
were executed, actually.
LAMB: For what?
NAFISI: For being politically active against the regime, for
participating in demonstrations. I remember about a 12-year-old girl who
was distributing leaflets and that became well known and my students were
talking about it too, where she was running around while they were trying
to catch her, to execute her, asking for her mother. And another thing
that happened was, virgins supposedly go to heaven if they`re killed, and
some of these leftists and radicals who were arrested, the guards would,
quote/unquote, temporarily marry them, in order that they won`t be virgins
when they go to heaven. These are the things that will always remain, and
these are the things that I feel complicit in too, although I wasn`t part
of it, you know.
LAMB: You taught at two universities in Tehran. What were they?
NAFISI: I started teaching at the University of Tehran until I was
LAMB: What year were you expelled?
NAFISI: I was -- they expelled me in `81 or `82. The reason I`m not
sure about it is that at some point in 1980 I stopped going, and they kept
writing me letters, and because I didn`t want to wear the mandatory veil,
and then one day they just said, wrote, you know, sent me an edict saying
that you`re expelled.
LAMB: All because of the veil?
NAFISI: Well, I wouldn`t wear it, and you couldn`t go to work without
the veil. And I know that later I was forced to wear it. And a colleague
told me, why are you doing this, because tomorrow you`ll be forced to wear
it in grocery stores. And I said to her that the university is not a
grocery store, and if my students up to now have seen me without the veil
and they see me with the veil tomorrow, for just this money
that I`ll be getting monthly, I want them to remember at least that there
was a protest here, you know.
And I didn`t teach until mid-1980s. I did go temporarily just for a
term or two, teaching at the Free Islamic University, and Shahid Beheshti
University, and then I chose this one, the one Allameh Tabatabai
University, because I felt it was quote/unquote, more liberal.
LAMB: What happened at that school?
NAFISI: Well, of course, you know -- the image you have of
liberal and the image I have of that time as liberal is different, but that
school was an amalgamation of about 23 small colleges and universities that
they put together, so they were not so centralized at Allameh, and we
had more leeway. If you had a good head of the department or head of the
faculty, there were things you could do that you couldn`t do in other
So when I went there, I remember the first thing they told me, they
said we know about your veil problem, you know, so promise that you will do
that. And I said, this is now the law of the land. I have no choice, but
I will teach what I want to. And until I stayed there, despite all the
problems I had with them, they kept that promise. I taught what I wanted
to teach, but they constantly harassed me. The classes became very
popular, and people would come from all over to the classes, not because
I`m so great but because I was teaching the things that people were hungry
LAMB: American literature?
NAFISI: American and English.
LAMB: Did you teach in Farsi or did you...
NAFISI: No, no, in English.
LAMB: In English?
NAFISI: Oh, yes. It was all in English. And you know, they read
"Tom Jones" and "Wuthering Heights," all of this in English. That is
another thing I wanted to tell about in this book. In one sense we were
victims. In another sense, I wanted people to understand how people in the
face of such oppression create spaces, themselves create spaces that nobody
can take from them, and they were so eager. I never had such intense
LAMB: So how did you decide to take the seven students to your home?
NAFISI: OK. By mid-1990s, again we went through a process of
deliberalization, and the head of our faculty, who was very open, and he
had allowed me to do a lot of programs there, he was, you know, taken off
his job, and they started again talking from the veil to why are you
teaching this, why are these people coming to your class, so I thought that
rather than concentrating on my Nabokov and my Austen, I`m concentrating on
how far my veil is right now, you know, am I too open with my students.
A teacher cannot teach that way. And my dream was to teach in an
environment where we were just in love with literature, you know. If they
took away a lot of things, I could create my own paradise, you know, and so
these girls -- of course there were a lot more, but some of them I had no
access to anymore. These girls were my most trusted girls, and most of
them had finished school but they kept auditing classes, and one of them
was a freshman who audited my graduate classes, and she was wonderful.
So I thought I would like to find the seven that are most committed,
and I couldn`t have more because you wanted interaction. It was, after
all, just in my living room, you know.
LAMB: Where did you live in Tehran?
NAFISI: I lived in the northern part of Tehran, where you could see
the mountains from there, and there used to be a lot of gardens around it,
but every day I would leave the house and one garden was gone and one high-
rise was going up.
LAMB: How big was your home?
NAFISI: Well, my home was not all that big. My parents were not, as
I mentioned, we, quote/unquote, belonged to the upper classes, but we were
never very rich and the house that we had before, which was in the same
place, my father sold that house, and on the part of the grounds, he built
a three-storied apartment, one for my mother, because my parents separated
in early `80s. One for my mother, one for me, and sort of a bachelor`s pad
for my brother. So we had a two and a half bedroom apartment, but it was
in a very good place of Tehran. I`m not trying to say that, you know.
LAMB: And so what year was the first Thursday morning session with
the seven girls?
NAFISI: It was the fall of 1995.
LAMB: What was the age range of the women students?
NAFISI: Well, my youngest was about 19, almost 20, and the eldest
were in their early 30s, because some of them, like one of them who is now
here, actually, living in California, they had finished their M.A. degree,
and they had just come to my classes, you know, so -- and one of them, she
had gone to jail for five years, so she had to restart going to school.
Many students in Iran had that trouble that they had to start late because
of the jail.
LAMB: So when they showed up in 1995 at the door, did they have the
NAFISI: Well, that is the wonderful thing. They had the veil on and
then they take it off, and they will be completely different people, even
the ones who were practicing Muslim and had and wore the veil, because you
know, before the revolution, women who wore the veil, they didn`t all wear
it uniformly. I mean that wasn`t communist. It`s in communist China where
everybody wears things uniformly, and I think this regime used the veil the
way China used the uniform.
So under the veil, there will be colors. That was the first thing I
noticed. The second thing I noticed, how hair makes a difference. Three
of them I hadn`t seen without their veils before, and all of a sudden I
felt, you know, who is this? Is this -- because your gestures change.
Everything about you changes. When you become what you think you are.
LAMB: By the way, the men don`t wear ties?
NAFISI: They weren`t supposed to. I remember one slogan on one of
the walls in the streets where it said that wearing ties means you`re an
agent of U.S. imperialism. So actually, you mentioned this. I just
remembered it. We had a very stubborn and rebellious professor at the
University of Tehran, and he was really top in his field. He was a
linguist, and there was a conference at the University of Tehran and he
refused not to wear his tie, and there was a big to-do. They couldn`t
allow this professor to come with his tie on, you know, and
they had to cancel his -- he was professor Bateni and the reason
I`m using his name is this was open. There`s nothing to hide. They
couldn`t allow him to come with the tie, and now of course men also
participated in this process of rebellion. My father always wore a coat
and tie, and they just didn`t accept it, you know.
LAMB: So right now, could this book that you wrote be sold in Tehran?
NAFISI: No. No, I don`t think so.
LAMB: No way?
LAMB: Why not?
NAFISI: I wouldn`t think that I`m being politically,
you know, rebellious, but they would. And also, what I say -- you know,
everything that is existential became political, because in this book I
talk about women. I talk about culture and human rights. And my whole
existence is right now political. If I walk down the streets of Tehran
like this, I`m making a political statement. And this book is about that,
and I wanted people over here to know that this is not the cultural issue.
We don`t like to be genitally mutilated or be flogged because we don`t wear
the veil. Our culture is our poets and our great writers, and I`m not
political, but if I want to live as a woman or a writer or a human being,
my existence is in danger.
LAMB: In that house you lived in where the seven women met, once a
LAMB: For how long?
NAFISI: Two years.
LAMB: There was an incident where some revolutionary guards came into
LAMB: What was the story?
NAFISI: That was almost comic, and this was a point that we had to
laugh at our own insecurities. Well, we had a neighboring apartment house,
where apparently a couple lived, and this guy was -- who lived there, who
had antique cars and actually he smoked opium as well -- we could smell it
-- it was discovered later on that he belonged to this assassination teams
that the regime had, and within the regime, there were constantly fights
between factions. And one day, at first revolutionary guards showed up at
our door and they said that they want to use our yard to jump into the
neighbor`s yard to arrest this person. And we wouldn`t let them. And
finally, then four of them came and they said that this guy has now jumped
into our yard and is hiding in the yard with a gun and they want to catch
So for over two hours or so, our balconies were used for, you know,
this exchange of gunfire, until he jumped into the other neighbor`s house
and they finally caught him. And what we were worried about, we had a
satellite dish. And rather than thinking about our lives, we were thinking
what will happen if they find this forbidden satellite dish?
LAMB: Couldn`t have a satellite dish?
NAFISI: Of course not. You had a year in jail plus monetary fine.
And later on our house was raided, and they were nice to us because they
took our satellite dish away, but they did not take us to jail, but you
LAMB: So when they went there that one time, they saw that satellite
dish but they didn`t take it?
NAFISI: They were so much worried about that guy. And they used --
there was this lady who helped us with our children, and they used her as a
shield. One of them said that he won`t shoot at you, so if I keep her in
front of me, he won`t shoot at you. And it showed me how absurd these
people are, and how vulnerable, I mean, these two factions fighting against
one another, you know.
LAMB: Early in the book you tell us that the censor in Iran is blind.
NAFISI: Well, this is a story that always remains with me. And I
really wanted to have a chance to talk about it. The main censor, because
there are more than one, but their main censor for film in 1994 was almost
blind. And before that, my friends told me he was the censor for theater.
And after 1994, he became the head of a channel, a new television channel.
And I always thought, you know, we write fiction as metaphors for reality,
but this is one place where reality is its own metaphor. What can I say
about this regime that would match the blind censor? You know?
LAMB: You used "The Great Gatsby" and "Lolita" and Henry James and
Jane Austen as one theme through the book. You also used the women that
you taught that came to your house for two years as another theme for the
book. Then you have somebody called the magician.
LAMB: Who is the magician?
NAFISI: Well, I felt very lonely during those years, not just because
of the political situation, but because there were so few people with whom
I could talk -- I mean, I could talk literature with my friends and my
students, who are very good at talking about it. But I wanted someone who
has really read this, I mean, who is my match in terms of the knowledge,
And this magician, he wrote criticism, literally, both film and
theatre criticism when he was in his early 20s. And he ran a magazine, a
literary magazine, which was very -- both elitist and very prestigious.
And he also taught at the University of Tehran until the revolution.
When the students took over his faculty, and they wanted to replace
Racine and Aeschylus and Shakespeare with readings of Marx and Engels,
he said that he would never teach again, because this is not what he`s
there for. And so he stayed at home, and a lot of literary and film people
would come to him and ask him advice. And that is how we became friends.
I read he was the only one who had written about Nabokov. He had written
about Nabokov`s "Pale Fire." And one day I just called him to talk about
it. And then, you know, until the day I left, we were friends.
LAMB: Now, when you read the book, you talk to him a lot. And my
reaction is, what does old Bijan think of this? Your husband?
NAFISI: My husband, who is one of the most wonderful and secure men I
have ever met, and like my first husband, who would say that he would have
a revolver under his bed in case, you know -- our relationship is based on
absolute trust. And I talked about -- Bijan`s favorite book is "Great
Gatsby". He`s rereading it again. But he didn`t know about literature as
much as -- you know, and we couldn`t talk. So he knew about the fact that
we were very good friends. And there was -- nobody would replace Bijan
for me. You know, so...
LAMB: So where would you see the magician?
NAFISI: One of the things we did, we took long walks. Because he
liked his walk, and we would take -- even during snow.
LAMB: How much difference was there in your age?
NAFISI: I think he was about eight years older than I was. And then
sometimes I would go to his home for lunch or for, you know, coffee. And
he had another friend who -- sometimes the three of us, and sometimes we
all went to a restaurant, the three of us. And I had a couple who were
bookstore owners who were family friends as well. And sometimes we went to
the mountains with them, you know?
LAMB: How could you, though, go to a restaurant when you`re not
allowed to look each other in the eye?
NAFISI: Well, this is the paradox of Iran, and that is why I`m saying
that these guys are using literature -- religion, as ideology. Let me give
you an example. In buses in Iran -- buses are segregated. Women are
supposed to sit behind men. But in taxis and mini buses, women and men are
sitting on top of one another. I mean, there`s not enough room, so, you
know. So the fact is that you see these contradictions in Iran, and a lot
of the journalists who go to Iran, that is what gets them, that the laws
are always behind the society itself. Of course, they also raid the
restaurants. And once when I was there with my magician, they raided it.
And if they caught us together, despite the fact that my husband knew and
didn`t mind it, they could have, you know, accused us of adultery just
because we were sitting.
LAMB: Do they still have morality patrols running around the city?
NAFISI: I don`t think they have anymore. When I was in Iran in `97
they still had them. But I`m talking with my friends and students and they
said that there is so much unrest that they don`t want to add to people`s
dissatisfaction by having the morality police around. But they still have
raid parties and raid houses, and every once in a while they raid the
streets, you know.
LAMB: You talk about contradictions or strange sayings and
all. Page 71 of your book, it`s the ayatollah that you`re talking about,
and you say the ayatollah himself was no novice in sexual matters. This is
one of your students saying this. She said, "I`ve been translating his
magnum opus, "The Political, Philosophical, Social and Religious Principles
of Ayatollah Khomeini," and he has some interesting points to make." I`m
just going to jump to the pointers. Did you know that one way to cure a
man`s sexual appetites is by having sex with animals? Khomeini is supposed
to be saying this?
NAFISI: This is every ayatollah, at least in our -- in the Shia, they
give something like their dissertation in order to become one. And there`s
set of questions that they think that they will be asked, and they have to
answer. And these are the sort of questions that he has and he answers.
LAMB: Well, let me read on. I`ll read it again. "Did you know that
one way to cure man's sexual appetite by having sex with animals? And then
there`s the problem of sex with chickens."
LAMB: "You have to ask yourself if a man who has had sex with a
chicken can then eat the chicken afterwards. Our leader has provided us
with the answer: No, neither he nor his immediate family or next door
neighbors can eat of that chicken`s meat, but it`s OK for the neighbor who
lives two doors away."
NAFISI: Yes, you see. This is the problem. I don`t think that
Ayatollah Khomeini really believed in the kind of stuff that he wrote, but
this is what he wrote. And this is what they have been writing for 400
years, it`s not just him. And there was an ayatollah in Iran called
Golpayegani, who was also the prosecutor at the beginning of the
revolution, and a very ruthless one.
And he had a program where he would talk about these issues on
television, and one of the biggest jokes about him was when he said that if
there is an earthquake and your aunt is sleeping downstairs and you fall on
top of her and you have children, then what would happen? And people in
Iran made fun of that, Ayatollah Golpayegani. And they would call it
"The Gilly show," because people would listen to it for laughs, you
And this is such demeaning of a great religion. And you do have
people over here in this country who are absolute fundamentalists and who
believe in a lot of, you know, very strange things. But you don`t bring it
and make it the law of the land. You know?
LAMB: Haven`t spent any time talking about your students much, and
their interrelation with the literature and all. But it might be
interesting, because you do some of this in the epilogue. You had seven
for two years, came to your home every Thursday. Where are those seven
today? This is 1997 when you broke up.
NAFISI: `97. Some of them actually continued the class without me.
And they also -- one of them, the youngest one, Yassi, she created a
class of her own, which was so wonderful, that when she got here finally,
her visa and was accepted at the university here, she was wondering whether
she should leave or not because of her class. She wanted to be like her
uncles, all of whom lived and came to U.S. and got a degree, while her
mother and her aunts could never do that. And Yassi was the first
woman in her family who is now getting a Ph.D. at Rice.
The other one, Azin, whom I talk about whose husband was beating
her up and wouldn`t let her see her 3-year-old girl, she finally got her
divorce and she`s married again. And she lives in Dublin, California. And
she was at one of my talks in San Francisco, which was the strangest thing
seeing her look like that in public. Another one, Mitra, is in
Canada. She`s going to an arts school. And Nassrin, the one who
had to escape the borders, I don`t know where she is. And three of them
are still in Iran. And my male student teaches and still writes criticism,
which I hope he`ll one day finish.
LAMB: Was the male student there at all of the meetings?
NAFISI: No, none of the meetings.
LAMB: None of the meetings.
NAFISI: He would come to my house, you know, on a one to one basis.
LAMB: I wrote this down when I read your book. "I can`t live like
this anymore." When did you make that statement and leave the country?
NAFISI: To tell you the truth, for a long time I kept saying it,
every year. I can`t live like this anymore. But this class, which was the
highlight of my life in Iran, at least my working life in Iran, also made
me realize how isolated I had become. I thought how long can I continue
with the class? It can`t be forever with these seven girls, you know. Now
six. And I can`t write what I want, because this book, "Reading Lolita in
Tehran," was in my mind for a long time, and when I would come for talks in
U.S., the title of my talks were a lot of times "Reading Lolita."
And to tell you the truth, I wanted to write and teach, and I didn`t
have many years left, you know, to do that, so that was when I decided to
LAMB: Your children are 19 and 17?
LAMB: And you`re teaching at Johns Hopkins?
LAMB: And how do you like it?
NAFISI: I like it very much. I was always worried about -- I mean,
about teaching here. I wondered if students would like Jane Austen, you
know, the way they did there. I didn`t want to be disappointed. I was
very pleasantly surprised. Currently this class, today is the last day of
that class, I`m teaching Zora Neale Hurston`s side by side with Jane
Austen. The classes I teach here do not have the intensity of my classes
in Iran. I mean, people do not ruffle their hair reading Nabokov. But
there`s also a freedom and a relaxedness about it which I enjoy. I
sometimes think my students do not appreciate what they have.
LAMB: We only have a few seconds. Will you ever go back and live in
Iran, do you think?
NAFISI: I don`t know. I would like to leave that option open. I
would like to have a portable world, and I always dream of going back
LAMB: This is the cover of the book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A
Memoir." Azar Nafisi, our guest, thank you very much.
NAFISI: Thank you so much.
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