This is the second of three blogs on Azar Nafisi’s memoirs. The first two are on Reading Lolitan in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. The first consists of an account of her life, of the general themes of the book, and summary and evaluation of Parts 1 and 2, the first briefly telling of Nafisi and her girls in 1997 and at length their discussion of Nabokov in the context of 1995 (the year they read it); and the second on her return to Iran in 1979/80, the early phases of the revolution, and her teaching at the University various classics (including Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary), but she really concentrates on Ftizgerald’s The Great Gatsby and her students’ reponse to this book in the context of the years 1980 to about 1982.
Now I’ll speak of Parts 3 and 4. In brief, Part 3 takes place in the later phase of the revolution, when the state of Iran became an Islamic theocracy and went to war with Iraq, together with the crushing of all dissent through terrorizing citizens (murdering them, depriving them of any civil rights), the turn back to Sharia law and determined attempt to make women become instruments of men (be only mothers, wives, daughters, sisters) and contain any reaching for self-fulfillment, especially to insist they wear the burka whenever they leave the house. During this time she reads Henry James’s novels and letters with her students. She also leaves the university, is drawn back and then again quits the university (or is forced out) because she won’t obey all the rules.
Part 4 takes us to the earliest phase of her time with her 7 chosen women and 1 male student. Apparently they began with Jane Austen, and this section concentrates on Pride and Prejudice and how Austen’s books speak to the private lives of her female students. At its close Nasrinn, one of her students flees into the unknown, and she and her husband and family pack and flee to the US. I’ll end on brief assessment of theme of heroic teacher.
Azar Nafisi lecturing recently
A lacunae: she never explains how it happened that her father, an ex-Mayor of Tehran was imprisoned and for a long while and never killed; she never explains why she and her husband were not imprisoned. Who did she know? what did her father know? What were her husband’s contacts? Who protected her and her famiy. We are never given the slightest inkling. One does not expect to be told outright, but something should have been conveyed — if only in the later sequel, Things I’ve been Silent About, which I will talk about in a third blog.
Part 3: James
This section the most complicated of the book. We weave back and forth between narratives of what is happening politically at large and to Nafisi personally as a teacher and to her friends and associates personally, and her teaching and readings of James. It begins in 1980 and ends in 1989, with the death of Khomeini
Plot summary of the autobiographical and political events:
These chapters deal with the time when Nafisi was teaching at the university before setting up her women’s reading group in her home In the university, they seem to have a set course, to be on a certain direction without having other things to worry about, such as marriage or moving to another country. This even seems to be true of Nafisi. She also talks of Henry James as a man who lived through the American civil war and World War One, and she tells a great deal about those who variously suffered from the war: by being fired, by torture, by death, by persecution I’m artficially separating out the politics and autobiography here. In the next section I’ll talk about James’s novels.
It’s a transitional time from the early take-over by the Imams to the increasingly repressive tactics once they are firmly in power; we see the attempt of Mrs Rezvan (p. 179) to keep university going (she hangs onto and keeps the department going at any price), and she persuades Nafisi to return to the classroom as she feels irrelevant. Her magician (possibly her boyfriend, the ex-professor she describe sin Part 1) encourages her, besides she wants to be useful. She does not want to be like her other friend, Laleh. It’s not enough to go to classes to read Persian literature; writing articles for learned journals is not enough.
Here we get the descriptions of strip searching. She is accused of being adulterous (slander notes — typical of such eras; her husband encourages her to return.
The War between Iran and Iraq begins on p. 204, Chapter 19. Government has not done anything really to protect its citizens; has not prepared, pp. 207-9. Boys given a key to heaven. City resigned.
Chapter 27 begins with Nafisi going to visit her magician friend by invitation and the friend’s apartment being in order but he not being there. The incident emphasizes the possibility that any of their lives could change at any moment: that they could be arrested or that they could be drawn elsewhere without any ability to tell others what has happened. Nafisi calls this person’s best friend when she can no longer stand to wait by herself. She then picks up T.S. Eliot’ s Four Quartets (mid-20th century highly-respected meditative poetry) and reads about time.
Nafisi brings out in this scene one of the greatest charms of poetry or any literature, that revisiting a favorite passage can bring back the past when one first encountered it. It encapsulates the emotions of the past and the present. The friend suddenly returns and tells the tale of having gone with the a young man (a kid) to bury his grandmother who was of a religion without an official presence in Iran. The boy has a ludicrous struggle to bury his grandmother; this provides an ironic contrast to the got-up funeral of Khomeini and all the hysterias around funeral parades. He has also been forced out of a good education and now has no prospects because he won’t change his religion.
In chapter 28 Nafisi recounts watching American videos that were brought by a friend. She herself reads mysteries during the bombing. I have come across this idea that mysteries are ways of escaping the present again and again. When it’s Christie, I understand as it’s tongue-in-cheek in a way; but recent mysteries can be distressing; on the other hand, most of the time the "bad" guys are caught, pay for their crime and the establishment reasserts its power.
She says she sleeps with or near her children as the bombs hit nightly, moves her class to a lower floor so they can retreat to the basement during a bombing, and reports that after a raid, military marches are played negating any resumption of literary discussion.
Chapter 29 recounts the cease-fire in March 1988 when the universities closed. It is somewhat difficult to differentiate her students; she herself wants to protect them. She also often doesn’t think of people as individuals but as typifying something or belonging to a certain role in her life.. For example, she writes p. 233, "The Iraqi dictator was by now a household name, almost as familiar as Khomeini, for he had nearly as much control over our lives." She mentions his control, but doesn’t mention his name; of course, it is Saddam Hussain. In this chapter and the next two, Nafisi recounts the missile attacks on Tehran.
In chapter 30 she visits with Mina (whose brother was murdered early on and who is now working as a translator of genuine integrity, living in a much smaller house with her mother) and she writes eloquently: "It is only now, when I try to gather up the morsels of those days, that I discover how little, if ever, we talked about our personal lives–about love and marriage and how it felt to have children, or not to. It seemed as if, apart from literature, the political had devoured us, eliminating the personal or private" (237). I suppose this is fitting for James.
In this chapter we see how the personal becomes political; for women throughout the book, the political is personal.
During this time she finds herself under personal attack: she is accused of adultery, and poisonous letters circulated about her.
A great deal in this part is given over to showing us how it feels to be in a land where the leaders are conducting a cruel war and you have no say: the atmosphere and edicts enter the crevices of your mind and experience. Nafisi hoards, reads mysteries, lives in the basement.
The war comes to an end. Yet, "the war with the external enemy was over, but the war with the domestic one was not" (239).
In the classroom Nafisi’s remaining students are the committed modern ones They begin to resembles the group that will assemble in her home; some of them are there now. She writes: "Gradually, the real protagonists in class came to be not my regular students, although I had no serious complaints again them, but these others, the outsiders, who came because of their commitment to the books we read" (240)
In chapter 33 she describes the death and funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini. I remember reading about this at the time and was intrigued by her description of the millions who attend the funeral, mostly for the free food and drink despite the fact that the government thought of having a secret funeral for fear no one would come. She also describes the crowd rushing the grave and grabbing part of his covering so that he had to be removed and covered with another shroud — all very unseemly for a funeral. But mostly that day seems remarkable in that his end made little difference to the way they were living in Tehran. But the huge parade and crush testifies to wild irrationality of these kinds of public events and they are used to fuel political riots — as people get very emotional over beloved dead people.
In any event, in the final chapters, the classroom is interrupted by an incident in the corridor: a young man has doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire and run through the hall shouting revolutionary slogans. "It was ironic that this man, whose life had been so determined by doctrinal certainty, would now gain so much complexity in death" (253). Nafisi is trying to sum up the importance that she feels in recording the courage of her students.
There has been an utter disjunction between what people really feel comfortable with as social norms and what is enforced through terror.
Henry James as a young man
James is relevant as someone who lived through two terrible wars and who wrotes novels defending living lives of integrity despite the cost. He retreated, was an exile, was "a perfectly equipped failure" in some ways, chose to try to live "all he could’ — privately;that he is refused to follow conventions and seek success as it was defined in his world (p. 201). Her experiences teaching James in this atmosphere begin at Chapter 15, p 194.
Chapter 35 (p. 249) contains the general account of James, the context in which we are to see him. She begis by summing up James, talking about the different kinds of courage in his works: Daisy Miller who is not afraid of conventions and traditions, Catherine Sloper who stands up to the people in her life, Strether who through imagination can empathize with others. I suggest that this is what Nafisi sees herself doing in this book.
She goes over two novels in more detail: Daisy Miller and Washington Square as books in themselves; she refers to many others as they are relevant. A student tortured and executed, p. 218: James is quoted, p. 219. The definition of success depends on what a society wants. A successful warrior; the point is this kind of success is what James never wanted, p. 201. In our society we’d have to include selling junk at high prices.
To some extent the misreadings in this chapter remind me of how lots of people can misread — because you have to read through the irony and also be sophisticated enough to know that no one is all good and how to define what is good in the world. A Mr Ghomi thinks Daisy evil and deserves to die, p 195. The kind of reader who does not see him or herself in the characters but judges them as an oracle.
The description and discussion of Daisy Miller (pp. 194-200, Chapters 15-18). For a detailed account of the book and film, go to my blog Costume Drama, 1960s to 80s: Daisy Miller and The Europeans, " Nafisi describes Daisy Miller as a novel about what happens is a young girl defies mores and goes out with men without a chaperone; this is enough to isolate her because she is also American, not fully upper class; in the end she is ostracized and therefore gets more and more involved; she dies of malaria because she has gone out at night.
Daisy and Mr Winterbourne look into dungeon at Chillon: people throw down there to die (a parallel with what’s happening in Iran then)
The second other short novel: Washington Square the more subversive book: about how parents can play adversarial role as well as supportive, or maybe rather. Catherine Sloper’s father dislikes her: she is heavy, awkward, not what he wanted; there is a power struggle as he condemns and stops a young man from marrying her whom he calls an adventurer. He probably was. It’s about the coldness and indifference of human beings.
The bully father and foolish aunt
It’s to Nafisi about the courage it takes to say no to what others wants for you but you do not want.
This was Reziah’s favorite book (Chs 26, pp. 222-225), the girl who was imprisoned, tortured and killed. Another analogy i found in Mina’s life and decisions: she was: someone who quit, making tiny bits of money translating; a book is written for someone and you feel like writing it because you know you have a publisher and audience. There’s a courage to die and a courage to live.
Nafisi speaks of Catherine as the heroine of this novella because she has heart, dignity and compassion. Although she is not pretty nor particularly witty, she rises above her father who has intellect, her lover who has beauty, and her aunt who tries to manipulate a marriage that would have demeaned Catherine. Catherine, according to Nafisi, is the only one who grows. They grow from the mistakes. I can think of Isabelle Archer in James’s Portrait of a Lady, and the daughter in James’s The Golden Bowl who judge so incorrectly, but who can rise above their errors and triumph in their compassion. self-respect is the important ingredient for James’s triumphant characters.
So perhaps Razieh may have triumphed over her heartless executioners after all — but hardly one most people would be content to have.
Key character in James is often the character who retreats to make a sanctuary somewhere, e.g., Clare in The American, p. 169. "Their essential (real) life goes underground.
She brings back James’s real life and quotes his letters: we see the involvement of his family with a civil war: in the face of the brutal inhumanity of what goes on, James, like Whitman he visits hospitals (p. 214); during World War One, James says the deaths are so horrific, that you must make a counterreality (p 216). Many people did ignore or tried to, but so many died and all these deaths affected those not fighting. She weaves back and forth between increasing death, despair, to the point a student sets himself on fire, and she asks what literature can bring to an understanding of it.
James is quoted as a witness the way none of her other authors are – directly. His actual texts (rather than Nafisi’s readings) are offered for insights on the human condition; for example James on the death of Rupert Brooke, a sensitive good man, poet, in a hideous battle:
"’I confess that I have no philosophy, nor piety nor patience, no art of reflection,’ he wrote, ‘no theory of compensation to meet things so hideous, so cruel, and so mad, they are just unspeakably horrible and irremediable to me and I stare at them with angry and almost blighted eyes (p. 219)
A mural by John Singer Sergeant, just after 1918, showing men gassed in battle. Nafisi wants us to imagine the horrors of the Iraq and Iran war (we may remember the US using FAE bombs on people in trenches in Kuwait: they were just burned to cinders). We have no pictures of the tortured peple.
Major theme in book is empathy. Novels extend the sympathetic imagination. Nobility to disregard social demands often ends in disaster, and women in especial danger. Still problen with Winterbourne is he lacked empathy (she would have appreciated more of my esteem he finally says at the close). No one but Cattherine Sloper in Washiing Square has empathy but she has to learn not to act on it. So when she says early on she was so upset at the "persistent lack of kindess" set up by relationships and norms in the society, she’s not ironic. No one can love Catherine Sloper herself or even pretend to; the later is what is most often done.
This is then she connects to execution of one of her studnets: murdered (p 218). Razieh was a student she had who was imprisoned, probably tortured (it’s easy enough) and then executed. Nassrin is the one who is repeatedly raped, passing her from one guard to another. p. 218 (that’s her good behavior); she does survie. Prison life. Do we know what goes on in US jails which are privatized? It’s said women’s jails are horrific places when it comes to sexual abuse. (An episode in Moore’s movie, Capitalism: A Love Story is about how teenagers were put in a concrete prison for little cause in a town in Pennsylvania when a corrupt politician allowed a capitalist to build one; only years later was it closed down. Think of all the misery and destroyed lives that happened there.
Now we hear bout the missiles, university closed down; it’s a matter of time before she too must go underground again.
Stand back a bit: This book is about Nafisi’s experiences with the government and university administrator’s under the Islamic dictatorship in Iran. It is also about her relationships with Mr. Bahri and The Magician – much less about her husband and children – more abouther students.
In this section, there is so much ambiguity. James tests his main characters in such subtle ways. Winterbourne certainly has enough coldness to kill the physically fragile Daisy; yes, he does make a grave mistake about her. Larger issue of failure and exile: Nafisi has an interesting take on failures in literature: Nabokov’s Pnin, Bellow’s Herzog, Fitgerald’s Gatsby and most of James’s and Bellow’s favorite characters. Says Nafisi, "They are people who consciously choose failure in order to preserve their own sense of integrity." What happens when you fall into a corrupted relationship and cannot escape: that’s what happens to his Portrait of a Lady where the lady stays because of the vicious man’s daughter and her own powerlessness.
Nicole Kidman as Isobel Archer, from Jane Campion’s movie, she’s no princess, someone harrassed and taken over
Part 4: Austen
Jane Austen drawn from the back by her sister, Cassandra
Final section: we return to "present time" cell with students with whom she reads Jane Austen, and the emphasis is on Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice.
This is the one section which focuses on a book by a woman, and she does show the book as seen from a woman’s point of view: so the discussion of this novel is counterpointed with what happened to women in the revolution: Sharia (p 261) was reinstated and the joke was it is a truth universally aknowledged old men want 9 year old virgins for wives. Many stories of women in the book, but usually not strictly as a woman: e.g., the teacher, a woman put in a sack and then shot and stoned to death. Nafisi does say there is no such thing as Islamic feminism, a contradiction in terms and horizons.
Well, for women the problem of marriage is at the center a question of freedom. Interestingly her most conservative religious student doesn’t want to marry; she wants to spend her life otherwise,p. 288. Nassrin herself is the other person to leave: Nafisi leaves with money and belongings intact; she must flee in the night.
Plot summary of the autobiographical events in context:
We see her women students intensely involved in deciding who to marry: for most of them it does not seem to be a question of whether to marry. They don’t see a life without marriage available, except ironically the most religious of them. We see one of them get engaged after a series of relatively brief social encounters where they are surrounded by others; we see the miseries of marriage (in this case one woman student is beaten by her husband), the pressures of family life (awful, something they seek relief from); the fatuous simpleton who is Nafisi’s strawman throughout (after a while his misreadings get a bit too predictable) is of course a Mr Collins (p 291); the jackass from Pride and Prejudice. It’s he who says Mansfield Park is a book that accepts slavery.
She retells her girls’ stories to bring out parallels with Austen’s novels. There is a bit of a contradiction when she denies the personal is political (after proving otherwise), and then goes on to show how the regime she lived under shaped the personal; this is not so since what she is showing is that radical regimes are what make the personal political. She does not call herself a feminist and may be avoiding this idea in order not to be so labelled.
The story of her students now brings us back to where the book opened. We now find out that the idea for this secret class came from their reading of "Dear Jane" whose tone simply led them into dancing which itself led to celebratory sexy "Eastern" dancing — which we are told has this form of "unique" seduction not to be found in Western sexy dancing ("such a mixture of subtlety and brazenness").
Nafisi’s clear pleasure in "Eastern" dancing then comes in: her idea is it’s really superior to dancing in the west (sexier, more aggressive, more "calculating," "sophisticated" than poor Daisy Miller). She connects this dancing to dancing in Austen’s novels to show us there is much sexual nuance in Austen’s texts. I too find much sexuality suggested by Austen indirectly and directly. Nafisi, though, apparently thinks of Darcy as centrally very sexy (she must’ve loved Colin Firth in the film), and she asserts all her "girls" wanted to be Elizabeth. She assumes everyone does. I don’t.
Here is a recent film showing Henry Tilner and Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) dancing
Her reading of Austen begins at the bottom of p.267. I think Austen’s books are about many things, and it’s true that one is the daily cruelties we endure. On p. 311 she says this very well: this is about the outrageous way we treat one another at times — through not acknowledging it we get away with that. Austen’s books are especially about pressure on women to marry. A famous impoverished Miss Bates is mocked by a heroine in one scene:
Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates beginning to realize how she is being treated
Nafisi still leaves her relationship with the man she calls her "magician" opaque, but from a remarkably Victorian device (we are told in the same sentence that she woke up and began to talk to him) perhaps we are to take it he was her lover. She is more than once on the outs with her present husband. Her magician is her great source of wisdom, though she does listen to her husband who is much against their leaving Iran (p 287) and losing their position and money there. So her distress about being irrelevant shared by husband who does not want to move where he will have no power. The husband also argues that they are deserting their country; the husband loves the place; they can do a job that’s important there. It’s not just that they have connections and high place there and may well lose this. She is berated for her withdrawal from university by several people in this book. She apparently began to write this book around the time she quit her job (or was finally forced out).
She becomes a sort of aunt to her girls the way Austen was to her nieces. We see her counsel them about love; Nassrin has a lover and may be pregnant ( pp. 296-8) she and her husband meet Nassrin and boyfriend at a public concert, (pp., 298-301). Then we see the girls are not taught about sex life by mothers or aunts or older women friends so she tries to substitute (p.302). Austen has many of these older woman/young friend relationships in her books.e.g., Mrs Weston and Emma Woodhouse:
Emma: Mrs Weston counselling Emma
Austen is woven in, not dealt with in four straight pages and then dropped in the way James’s novels are: so now we get her argument that Austen’sn novels are on pro-passion. we have the scene where Elizabeth is talking closely to Darcy about where she would be willing to move if she married (pp. 304-7). We do see Austen’s heroines risk ostacism and genteel poverty (not the same thing as real poveryt) to gain love and companionship.
I like this: There are acts which are unforgivable (p 315) and Austen knows and shows this — even if the person who doesn’t forgive doesn’t get to show it.
Elinor Dashwood enduring on
Last section turns personal and about the departure to actual exile
Things are getting more and more dangerous. See Chapter 15, pp. 307-11. People found dead — the bookseller. Her relationship with her magician friend is dangerous, p. 313. Nafisi and her husband begin quarrelling seriously (p. 316) over whether to leave and peopel begin to resent her ability to leave or that she wants to
It’s around Chapter 18 that the departure from Iran begins to loom large. Mrs Rezvan had been losing her power (p 293). Her women students are considering leaving and we hear about their conflicts over this. They envy her. Vexed relationships and quarrels erupt (p 317-19). The ridiculousness of petty reactions (p. 319) which come out of this. They feel she is deserting them, pp. 324-26; they quarrel with one another ver who wants to and will leave and who won’t, pp. 326-7; Nafisi tells us she told them of her personal troubles, p. 328.
Nassrin and her boyfriend, Ramin, break up; she sees him as having same attitudes as older rigid males: she is either a virgin or a whore. She thinks her girls identify with Daisy Miller: Winterbourne saw Daisy as innocent or corrupted.
In the midst of all this, she meets Miss Ruhi again; someone who reads literally and moralistically; yet she misses the books even if she says they are not important. Pathetic story of someone misled by her false beliefs to deprive herself. (pp. 332-333); it can be anyone who makes a decision which throws away her inner life. I’ve known so many people to do that by this time, men and women..
The ending recalls Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and other autobiographical novels of writers where the writer has to leave the home country in order to find free space to write and a marketplace to publish in where he or she may be left in relative peace afterwards — that is, not immediately castigated by all reviewers and people all around him or her as betraying them for disclosing truths.
She leaves the magician too and says unless you live an individual life how can you feel you’ve lived (p 339). Upbeat close is somewhat contradictory.
Disillusionment is also a theme in Nafisi. From the few comments she does make earlier in the book, though, it seems as if she used to be actively involved in student protest movements aiming at social change, but became first disillusioned at the contention within those groups themselves. Then even more so when their activism helped ring in an even more repressive religious regime than the Shah’s worldly one.
She seems to have transferred this ealier political idealism to the world of art and literature, elevating art and the world of the imagination to make up for the deficits in the real world, another kind of emotional transference.
Dangerous though the creation of a group to read such forbidden literature must have been, I suspect, though, that you could also categorize it as a kind of inner immigration and withdrawal. Nafisi says at the end, as attached as she became to the group the more emotionally detached to the outer world of Iran she became. So the group was in essence the prelude to her physical emigration. Her repeated references to seeing the world through the mirrors and the windows of her room under line this sense of separation and a society already seen at a remove. At the same time in the closing pages of the book she does people like Mrs Reznan who kept people in the society and active justice.
Teaching and reading. Nafisi’s book is about teaching. How she went about it is to pick a group of very bright sympathetic students who are deeply engaged by literature and have them in her house. It’s an ideal situation. They are desperate for her as mother-hen-comforter too. I wonder what their mothers/sisters/aunts were like. Girls are often strongly antagonistic to their mothers. Perhaps some of them acted as reinforcers of misery — as many women are in this society, more than complicit, active on behalf of represssion as instinctively they (like male)s like them may feel this gives them power over others. Also a woman may suggest strong compromise to her daughter as as the only one available that’s respected and safe. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the dragon lady of this point of view and Mrs Bennet the foolish one.
A fault in the book is she didn’t present their comments on the books in the sessions enough. I doubt they agreed with her views altogether. She omits money and class perspective in her discussions of real life — she takse it for granted she should sit in expensive places and eat ice cream out of elegant glass cups.
It’s a relevant book. Nafisi shows us what can happen when a self-righteous group gets full military control and is fueled by an intense religiosity and sense of rightness.
Once more on Sanaz: Nafisi was particularly good on what such experiences do to people, both the jailer/soldier/torturer and the ictim who wants out: Her jailors jokingly suggested that since she was wearing an extra garment, she might not feel the pain, so they gave her more. For her the physical pain had been more bearable than the indignity of the virginity tests and her self-loathing at having signed a forced confession. In some perverse way, the physical punishment was a source of satisfaction to her, a compensation for having yielded to those other humiliations. Self-hatred, self-flagellation, depression of self-esteem, self-destructive change of world view are caught up in that last line.
It’s what we glimpse in Moon and Mr Keach (Carr’s Month in the Country), what Ashoke and Moushumi (Lahiri’s Namesake) fled: self-hatred, flogging oneself to get success in the alien identity’s terms. Yet Gatsby at the end is still flying high and she seems to admire that. I can’t. It’s not altogether nuts to see her as enacting a romantic Scheherazade, western style. She mentions Scheherazade very early in the book so she sees this.
18th century rocoo painting of tapestry, Carl Van Loo, Scheherazade talking to a disciple.
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