Azar Nafisi

This article is a preview from the Spring 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Azar Nafisi is an academic and writer, who left her native Iran for the US in 1997. Her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was an international bestseller. Her new book, The Republic of Imagination, looks at the importance of fiction to democracy. It is published by Heinemann.

What made you write your new book?
Saul Bellow posed the question of how those who survived the ordeal of the Holocaust would survive the ordeal of freedom. When I came to America, I felt there was an evasion of this ordeal of freedom. The idea I had of America was replaced by an efficient and ideologically polarised attitude. I had to fight it here as I did in Iran.

The book argues that fiction can be a solution to the loss of freedom. How?
A democratic society is supposed to be based on plurality of voices. What is happening here – and I’m sure in Britain – is that this is being replaced by greed and utilitarianism, where we educate our children not to have a meaningful life, but to become efficient worker-bees. The philosophy that education exists to orient you towards careers was horrifying to me. American fiction is a reminder of American morality – that aspect of the American dream which brings with it the question of individual responsibility. It is always written from the point of view of the outsider. I wanted to recall this voice of conscience. The denigration of ideas and imagination is also a denigration of reality.

Is arts education too easily dismissed in the US?
This utilitarian attitude has always been part of American thinking. It has now gained dominance. Right now, people talk as if being a teacher, a museum curator, a librarian – things essential to any vital society – are barely jobs, because they make less money. I relate it to the reality we live in, to poverty. There is monopoly of both money and ideas. It is very dangerous.

Why do you feel so strongly about this?
I came from a society where an absolutist religious ideology took away all our rights as human beings. It wasn’t just about torture and political repression; it was about robbing individuals of their humanity. So I am very sensitive to the same thing happening in the US, through the seductions of money and the encouragement of greed. In a democratic society, individuals can only survive if they make choices freely. To make free choices in a society where everything from your toothpaste to your candidates is packaged, you must be able to reflect, to be critical and self-critical.

How does technology affect personal freedom?
The access to information and the fact that if something happens in Iran or China, people can tell the world – that is a good aspect. But we have turned technology into a god, and developed intellectual laziness and sclerosis. We are using technology not to think harder, but to evade obstacles and questions. The owners of technology can manage our private lives and live with us in our homes. How can you talk about democracy without privacy?

Reading Lolita in Tehran portrayed reading as a deeply political act in a repressive society. Is it the same in western democracies?
It is a political act [but] not in the obvious manner. It questions the basic tenets of authoritarian thinking. That is why this plurality of ideas and voices which fiction represents becomes dangerous to tyrants. In fiction, there is no status. In the realm of ideas and imagination, the only thing that is sacred is to allow the profanities to come in. Every great revolution starts with an idea. America is based on an idea – Enlightenment. Once you take that away, all that is left is a different kind of tyrannical mind-set. Great
fiction always questions us and brings to the foreground the essential human questions.

You ask the same serious questions of the US as of Iran. Is there a comparison?
In the west we say, “It is their culture” and think we are being supportive. But this is condescending, because the worst aspects of culture – like the treatment of women – should be rejected, in the same manner that women in the west fought for their rights even though society said women should stay at home because it’s in the Bible. While I see the complete differences between Iran and America, and appreciate the freedoms I have in America, having lived in Iran I realised that I have to use those freedoms to fight for freedom. Freedom is not something static that you gain and have for ever. People who come from repressive societies are blessed with alternative eyes. We become sensitive to the signs of tyranny, even if they are sugar-coated.

Were you surprised by the success of Reading Lolita in Tehran?
I was absolutely flabbergasted. I didn’t expect it, especially because I was so discouraged by so many people. But I had no choice. It is like falling in love – everybody tells you this man is not good for you, but there you go, you follow him. So I followed it, with utter despair.

You left Iran many years ago. What’s your view of the political situation there?
Living in the Islamic Republic is like living in the month of April – there are a lot of thunderstorms with periods of sunshine in between. I’m both pessimistic and hopeful. My hope is in Iran’s civil society. The way minorities, journalists, women and various strata have been putting up a fight. I hope that change comes from within, through open democratic means.

In the West, debate on Iran is often polarised.
I had hoped to continue the discussions we were having underground in Iran among the Iranian diaspora in the US. But I discovered that inside Iran, this debate around who we are, what we want, what we used to be, was far more vital. Despite the dangers, we talked. Unfortunately, over here I discovered a soulless, partisan debate that is very disgusting.

Does this matter?
Iran was the first country in the 20th century to overthrow a secular regime and create a theocracy. With 1979, everything changed. Iran formulated this theory about Islam invading the rest of the world, the internationalism. The defeat of that ideology is so important – but nobody is paying attention. Everybody wants me to tell them whether the US should talk to Iran. In a democracy, diplomacy is the first thing. But you have to know who you are talking to, and you should not compromise on the principles.