The following article appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, July 6.
I Have Life? Or Am I Just Breathing?'
Azar Nafisi knows something about using language and literature as a means of withdrawal from a hostile reality. Nafisi, now director of The Dialogue Project at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, quit her job teaching English literature at an Iranian university in frustration in 1995 and established a secret weekly salon in her home in Tehran. For two years, she and seven of her former students met to discuss forbidden works of Western literature. Her memoir of that time, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," was published by Random House this year.
When anti-government protests erupted in Tehran last month, Outlook asked Nafisi to conduct an e-mail exchange with someone in Tehran. Nafisi chose a former student and close friend whom she refers to by a nickname,"Manna," to protect her. Their conversation touched on many topics: art, literature and, often, film. Indeed, Manna makes frequent references to movies from the West as she describes her feelings. She sees the black robe she is forced to wear as constricting her daily life no less than the censor's black screen that distorts the French film she describes seeing. But the subtext of their conversation is often political. Manna, whose identity is known to The Post, is necessarily guarded, mindful that the e-mails could well be monitored. For example, she refers to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami as "Superman," knowing that her former teacher, whom she refers to with affectionate diminutives (Az, Azi), will understand exactly whom she means. Excerpts:
Tomorrow I'm going to the movies to watch a film by Alain Resnais called "Night and Fog." I wonder why I have chosen this movie among all the French films shown these days in Tehran. Is it the title? I also wonder if, like the rest of the foreign movies that I have seen in this country for the past 20 years, it's censored. . . . The title . . . very much corresponds to the way I feel now: Something tells me I should send my next [e-mail using] another address. Not my real one. Something tells me to stop right now. At this dark moment of the night. And cover myself in fog. And censor my voice.
Dearest Manna jan,
. . . There you are, in the middle of demonstrations, and arrests and the unexpectedness of the daily life, and you write me not of these, not of the slogans used in the protests, the numbers arrested, the fear, the uncertainty or the hope, but of going to a film . . . .
Next to your massive sense of suspense and uncertainty, I feel so fake, so vacant. . . . Here [in Washington] I am in the proximity of the best museums in the world . . . I can go to the latest films . . . and what do I do all day? I read about those demonstrations.
. . . Instead of thinking of films that I loved so much, that I so religiously watched in Tehran, now I give interviews, and read interviews. [They ask me,] "Do Iranian people want Islamic democracy?" What is Islamic democracy? Is it not insulting to think that democracy is the property of a few Western countries? Do Iranian women like to be flogged for a piece of hair showing? If this was their tradition and culture, [would] they need to be flogged and stoned and jailed [to] implement it? Do Americans need the state [to] put a gun to their heads to carry on their traditions and culture: going to church, reading Mark Twain, or simply protesting against or for the war? Is this Islam?
. . . You do see my point: You live in Iran, but the atmosphere craves D.C., its films, its Degas[es] and Hoppers, and "Law and Order" and Jon Stewart Daily Show, and I live in D.C. constantly walking in the showers and thunderstorms of your Tehran. . . .
My highest point has been two interviews on NPR. [One] was about the concept of exile in literature, and Dmitri Nabokov also participated, bringing tears to my eyes, reading his father's poems, telling us what Nabokov missed of his country was the air and the trees and the skies of his homeland and more than anything else its language . . . And I talked about our own sense of exile at home . . . how they had transformed the air and the trees and streets and yes, the language of our homeland for us so that home was no more and will never be home again. . . .
Do they still use the word "reformists" [in America?] about some people here? . . . They're very much hated now. Do you remember all those devotees of our Superman's smile and white aba? He's no longer popular either. People curse him more than the hard-liners: "This government has cheated us," said a lady in the taxi yesterday. (You know that people usually have political conferences in taxis.) . . . At night they attack the youth, in the morning we see him smiling (still) on the TV screen.
As I told you in my previous mail, I went to the movies yesterday to see three documentary films by Resnais. While I was standing in the line, I heard some art students talking about a missing friend. He's been arrested a few days ago and they had not heard of him ever since. The first film, "Night and Fog," was about a concentration camp. Each moment of the movie filled me with horror. . . . The missing student was on my mind all the time. . . .
The second film was about "Guernica" -- emerging out of the cruelty of totalitarianism and celebrating the saving power of art. Each image in the painting shone against a dark background. Each shines before my eyes even at this moment. The last film, "Sculptures Also Die," was about African sculpture. In one of the sequences . . . the African women started a ritual dance. All of a sudden the whole screen -- except for the corners -- went dark. . . . This was not a part of the movie but a part contributed to the movie by the director of our Auschwitz! A new way of the censor. . . . That black piece moved from one side of the screen to the other . . . depriving my eyes of the beauty, of a part of a work of art, of a part of life.
I closed my eyes and suddenly . . . [saw] shots of my life. I remembered some 20 years ago, the first day that it was announced on the radio that veil was obligatory. That day, as a protest, I wore a delicate black lace which covered only a small part of my head. On the street, a young bearded man who was on a motorcycle -- perhaps belonging to the same gang which attack, hurt or even murder the students and people these days -- approached me and shouted: "Where the hell do you think you are? Champs Elysees? Cover yourself, bitch!"
Second shot: I was walking with my boyfriend on the street one night when another one of the gang stopped us to interrogate me about my relationship to this guy who was neither my brother nor husband. I remember how each moment of walking for us became an experience of horror for a long time.
Third shot: I was a student staying at the dorm. One morning at 6 a.m. I was startled [by] a loud noise. The guard . . . was knocking hard at my door in a way that I felt, Here comes the time of my execution! It was a letter: a warning from the Islamic Disciplinary Committee of the university. I was summoned because of the way I wore my veil.
I remembered and the black color was moving before my eyes. It has remained with me all these years. In "Night and Fog" . . . Resnais portrayed dolls and pieces of writing made by the prisoners in Auschwitz. "They wove dreams," said the voice-over. Wasn't I, too, weaving a dream, watching this film at this moment of horror and bloodshed in my country?
. . . Do you remember when we were [both] in Iran we always complained how our story, our reality was narrated by someone else: the Islamic regime, the Western academics or journalists. . . . It is important that we tell our story, no matter how dark, no matter how filled with despair. I think the first step toward our liberation is to take back our voices from those who have confiscated [them]. Who else but people like you who have lived this revolution can point out that Americans and Europeans are wrong if they think they can have peace and stability in the [Middle East] without having stable and accountable governments answerable to their own people, who believe or at least formally accept a set of principles and laws.
[Iran's leaders] are prepared to have political and economic relations with the U.S., what they are scared of is the fact that their own people demand freedom and security and democracy and do not want a theocracy no matter how "moderate." The Islamic regime's main fear is the fact that today veterans of its own revolution read Hannah Arendt and talk of human rights, and the children of the same revolution shout for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and none of them are buying the myth that their brand of democracy is essentially different from other forms of democracy the world over. Is it because some in the West condescendingly think that democracy is a geographical attribute and the property of a few countries and nations that they propagate the myth that people in the Muslim world have their own brand of democracy and human rights?. . .
Very dear Azar,
Your emphasis on "our own story," narrated by our own voice and not the regime or Western media made me search for this voice. This choked voice. And I felt so bad about this voice because of what it wants. I felt so ashamed of myself, for what I need is merely some basic ordinary things that are considered unimportant: watching a musical on a movie screen, going to an exhibition of Degas's ballet dancers, reading a book without censored parts, the right to choose not to wear the veil. This tiny need of deciding about my hair, which neither the hardliners nor the so-called reformists in this country care about. Perhaps they are even frightened of it. And some western eyes dismiss [this] as a part of "our culture" . . .
From the fictional world of arts choked through the censor to the reality I am living in, little by little parts and pieces of my life have disappeared. I remember Woody Allen once saying while editing "Take the Money and Run" that "I kept cutting the film down, shorter and shorter, throwing things away, throwing things away. Finally I had no film."
Do I have life? Or am I just breathing? I am a part of the "axis of evil" over there. And over here, [I am considered] some atheist in search of "American democracy" or what is called a "Muslim brand of democracy" over there. What I really want is to be an individual who is sovereign "over himself, over his own body and mind" (John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty").
. . . The reason in the West we are wrongly portrayed is because we remain silent and passive, or we are most vocal when we are demonstrating in the streets or talking politics. It is much easier to talk about hard-liners and moderates, to reduce everything to Khatami and Khamenei than to talk about the Iranian women's longing to feel the wind on their bare skin or the sun on their hair. But the truth of the matter is that what you think are your simple and insignificant desires are at the heart of these protests, and it will be these details, these urges for genuine freedom. . . that will cause this regime's failure.
I say this because although many of the protests are presented as purely political, they are in fact existential in nature: Millions of people have been deprived of their right to individual freedoms, they have been forced to forgo the pleasure of ordinary life: falling in love, walking down the street hand in hand, dancing, singing, wearing lipstick -- and this turns the protest against the regime into an existential confrontation: We are fighting in order to exist, not only for the right to be politically active. People like you . . . are the ones who can clarify this point for us: how one ends a day of fervent protests where the bullet that killed the guy a few yards away from you could have as easily hit you . . . to go and watch a clandestine video of, for example, Bergman's "Persona."
Where can we turn when we are caught by such extreme cruelty as that of a regime whose vigilantes throw protesters out of their dormitory windows, and an indifferent world that is too busy finding some saving grace for what is at best a moderate theocracy to pay attention to such horrific images? You turn to beauty, to the urge for a magical power that surpasses the banality and cruelty over which you have no control. That is why you will continue to seek out good films on your way home from a protest.
Azar Nafisi's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Director, The Dialogue Project
School of Advanced International Studies
The Johns Hopkins University
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