22 August 2003

Azar Nafisi: A Life of Connecting Cultures, Challenging Extremism

Iranian-American professor juggles writing, website, and teaching

By Susan Domowitz
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Azar Nafisi is, first and foremost, a teacher. She is also a best-selling author, whose book "Reading Lolita in Tehran" has reached a vast audience in the United States. And she is an idealist whose dream of connecting cultures and expanding dialogue has been realized in "The Dialogue Project," a website which is, in her words, "an education in democracy and culture."

It's been a journey full of twists and turns for Nafisi, an Iranian who spent her undergraduate years at the University of Oklahoma, and who held a fellowship at Oxford University, and whose attachment to her native country is so deep that it permeates everything she does. Her recently published book about a literature discussion group in Tehran quickly became a national bestseller in the United States, to the surprise of its author and nearly everyone else.

As a teacher and professor in Iran before coming to the United States in 1997, she earned respect and recognition for advocating causes on behalf of Iran's intellectuals, youth and especially young women. The outspoken Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran in 1981 for her refusal to wear the mandatory veil; she eventually resumed her teaching career in 1987.

Nafisi came to the United States in 1997, and is now a visiting fellow and a lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), in Washington, D.C. She lectures and writes in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture, as well as on the human rights of Iranian women and girls and their role in the process of change leading to a more open society.

In an August 7 interview, Nafisi talked about The Dialogue Project and the surprising success of "Reading Lolita in Tehran." Nafisi says the book not only taught Americans something about Iran, but also taught the author something about America. Asked why she thought the book was so popular among American readers, Nafisi pointed out that both Americans and Iranians share a love of freedom, and a hatred of oppression. She said she was struck by the fact that Americans, with all the choices they have, still choose to spend time participating in book groups, sharing their enjoyment of books.

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is currently being translated into a dozen languages, including Chinese.

"I was so surprised about some of the translations," Nafisi says. "I was amazed that people in China or South Korea would be interested in reading my book. That was really great as far as I was concerned. It showed how universal literature is."

In her book, Nafisi describes a literature discussion group that took place in her home in Tehran over the course of several years. In the course of the book, she also describes an actual person - a blind censor - whom she sees as a metaphor for the totalitarian mindset.

"The totalitarian mindset doesn't see the world in colors, it sees it all in one color, which is the color of its own mind. And individuality comes in many different colors and many different voices, and so when you live under the rule of the blind censor, you have to accept the censor's black and white universe," she says.

"The only way you defeat the blind censor," says Nafisi, "is not to let him take away that will to life."

As a response, in part, to "the blind censor" mentality, Nafisi has established "The Dialogue Project," a web site and network connecting democracy and culture (http://dialogueproject.sais-jhu.edu). The purpose of the website, she says, is to create a space for dialogue. A network where a democratic-minded community can find support has been a dream of Nafisi's.

"I want people to understand the role that ideology and culture play in the world today, in terms of issues that we see only as political," she says. "In the same way that terrorist groups support one another, going beyond boundaries that are geographical, racial, national, or religious, I think that democratic-minded people should also go beyond those boundaries and genuinely support people who believe in those same values. This is the practical aspect of The Dialogue Project website. But on another level, I want it to be an ongoing dialogue between culture and democracy, and between different cultures."

Genuine democracy comes out of changing mindsets, and fighting ideologies that are totalitarian, according to Nafisi. "The best way to do that is through culture, and also through exposing people to different cultures," she says.

Referring to Iranian students and colleagues who have maintained their resilience despite political oppression, Nafisi marvels that "under extraordinary circumstances, we find out how extraordinary ordinary people are."

"A lot of times we look for heroism in exceptional people, and what I learned from my life in Iran is that those who we call ordinary are the ones who show the most resilience," she says. And there seems to be something ... where people find this inner strength, which they didn't know existed, and that's why I wanted to talk about books, because through my own experiences in Iran I became interested in such extraordinary experiences elsewhere."

"So many of my own students, who had been to jail, who had had their friends and families murdered, and disappeared, and how it made them as if they wanted to speak to life so much more -- they appreciated life so much more than we do over here. They understood how precious life is," she says.

Nafisi says she hopes to expand The Dialogue Project website, and to continue writing and teaching. "The best experience I've had has been teaching, because you learn so much!" she says.

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