Readers of the world unite
Author Azar Nafisi has always wanted to create a 'republic of imagination.' With the help of Web-savvy techs, she's on her way to creating a global book club


In the book club of her dreams, Iranian-born writer and English professor Azar Nafisi imagines making room for U.S. President George W. Bush, his predecessor Bill Clinton and even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of her native land who was rebuked by the United Nations in October for his remarks that Israel should be "wiped off the map."

In fact, just about anyone on this planet would be welcome in the book group Nafisi envisions creating on the World Wide Web. A passionate evangelist for the transformative power of literature, Nafisi dreams of an on-line book group that really could change the world.

Just imagine, she muses, the potential for global enlightenment if millions of people came together as a community of readers to discuss the words and ideas of international authors, both living and dead, who can provoke "the shock and recognition that how alike we are is far more than our differences.

"If our new president in Iran could come to understand that people in Israel have the same thoughts and emotions as he; if he could understand that, as Shakespeare says, 'If you prick them they will bleed,' he would not be saying let's wipe them off the map," says Nafisi, who fled Iran in 1997 and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

"That is the one thing I have always dreamt of, to create this republic of imagination," says Nafisi, whose more modest previous effort in leading a book group is documented in the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, a story of seven young women in the Islamic Republic of Iran who met weekly in secret at her home to talk about the great novels of Western literature.

Nafisi is currently working with Web developers to actually try to make this idealistic dream of a global book group a reality. Her planned website will offer her insights into books by her favourite international authors and invite conversation about literature and human rights. She expects it will be completed in early 2006.

"People think of activism in terms of going to the White House or becoming political every four years, but I think activism is also very actively and consciously supporting a culture of thought and imagination," says Nafisi, who is speaking in Toronto tonight.

"I keep thinking that our slogan is going to be 'Readers of the World Unite!' "

Reading Lolita in Tehran, "a memoir in books" that is banned in Iran, documents Nafisi's struggle for intellectual and personal freedom in that country after the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomaini to power. Born in Iran and educated in the West, she taught literature at the University of Tehran during the 1980s and 1990s, and railed against the restrictions the fundamentalist Islamic regime placed on women, particularly the indignity of being forced to wear a veil.

In 1995, she quit her teaching position in protest. She then brought together a group of seven of her best and brightest students to meet secretly to discuss the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and other Western writers, most of which were banned. Such a gathering was indeed a revolutionary act; as these young women explored the relationship between fiction and reality, they were forced to confront the injustice of their oppression.

Nafisi believes that any possibility of secular democracy in Iran's future depends on acts of public and private protest by individuals who become politicized by their opposition to Islamic extremism.

"When we talk about democracy we put all the emphasis on the political elite, we don't pay attention to where real democratic change takes place, which is within civil society," she says. "It's about people like me, people who are ordinary people becoming much more embroiled in politics without having a political agenda.

"For me, in Iran, that was existential," she says. "There comes a point where if you do certain things you change your essence, you change who you are, and then resistance to it becomes essential.

"How can you compromise when someone tells you that you can't be the kind of woman you are, or you can't be the kind of teacher you are, or writer; that you can't be the kind of human being you aspire to be?"

When speaking with Nafisi, it becomes clear that she is not truly at home in either the United States or Iran. She is frustrated by Western assumptions that Islam goes hand-in-hand with fundamentalism and terrorism. And, though opposed to Iran's theocratic regime, she holds strong to her belief that a desire for democracy is innate to the Iranian citizenry.

"From the very first moment of the inception of the Islamic republic, society was ahead of the regime. Hundreds of thousands of women came into the streets saying that freedom is neither Eastern nor Western -- it's human. Even with the new president, things have improved in the sense that people continue to try to create spaces to hold on to rights within the private realm.

"I don't think this new president will become successful because he's creating more rifts and divisions. My ultimate hope is that neither terror nor repression will make Iranians say, 'Okay, we don't want freedom.' "

For Nafisi, the struggle for freedom, in both the East and the West, always circles back to the illumination of literature. I'm really hopeful about reading and books," she says. "Literature is the most potent weapon against political stagnation.

"Great literature by nature is subversive because it always exposes or reveals what is behind the reality we are looking at; it always creates potential for how reality could, or should be."