book review

Posted: January 3, 2009 in literature
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Book review

THINGS I’VE BEEN SILENT ABOUT
Memories
By Azar Nafisi
Illustrated. 336 pp. Random House. $27

Azar Nafis's-mother, Nezhat

Azar Nafis's-mother, Nezhat

 

 

Reading Mom and Dad in Tehran

By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: January 2, 2009 NYT

When Azar Nafisi was a professor of Western literature in Tehran in the 1980s and ’90s, she told her best stories anonymously, sometimes to visiting foreign journalists seeking guidance about Iran’s Islamic Republic. In 1997 she settled for good in the United States and discovered her public voice, turning the volume up high in her 2003 memoir, “Reading Lolita in Tehran.”

That memoir wove her personal stories with those of her former students, using as a touchstone their two years of shared experiences in a reading group at her home focused on banned authors like Nabokov and Fitzgerald. “Reading Lolita” became an international best seller; Nafisi, who is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, became famous.

Now she has written a second memoir, much more intimate than the first, a dissection of her often difficult family life, recounted against the dramatic sweep and turbulence of recent Iranian history. The idea for the book sprang from a list that she began compiling in her diary sometime after the 1979 Islamic revolution, entitled “Things I Have Been Silent About.” It draws on other sources as well, including diaries her father, a former mayor of Tehran, started when she was 4, and addressed to her; his sanitized published memoirs and his unvarnished unpublished version; and family photographs, some of which she said she tookfrom her mother and which appear in the book. Much of the time she relies on memory, a powerful tool that can distort as well as enlighten.

Nafisi uses the new memoir to flesh out stories left untold or half-told in her earlier work: her upbringing in a prominent family; her education in Switzerland, England and the United States; her impulsive first marriage to a man she didn’t love (for reasons she never fully explains); her return to Iran in the late 1970s, as the Islamic revolution was unfolding; her teaching career under clerical rule; and her second marriage and her two children.

Writing the book was a very un-Iranian thing to do. Most of my Iranian friends were raised never to reveal family secrets to outsiders, certainly not strangers. We don’t air our dirty linen in public, Nafisi’s mother would tell her. But after her parents’ deaths, she found herself determined to erase “the fictions my parents told us — fictions about themselves as well as others.” The memoir, she writes, is “a response to my own inner censor and inquisitor.” The revolution, which destroyed the certainties of her family’s lives, made remembrance more critical. “If the present was fragile and fickle, the past could become a surrogate home,” she writes.

A gifted storyteller with a mastery of Western literature, Nafisi knows how to use language both to settle scores and to seduce. Her family secrets pour forth in a flood of revelations of anger, humiliation and deceit. “Most men cheat on their wives to have mistresses,” she writes in the opening line of the book, with a nod to Tolstoy. “My father cheated on my mother to have a happy life.”

The main target of Nafisi’s literary revenge is her mother, who spun fictions about herself as intricate as any Persian miniature. Nezhat Nafisi had wanted to be a doctor and felt cheated because she had not been allowed to finish her education. She clung to the memory of her dead first husband, enveloping him in a web of beautiful lies. Even when she became one of the first women members of the Iranian Parliament in 1963, it was not enough. She decided that her marriage to Ahmad Nafisi had been a mistake, and pushed him away and into the arms of other women and, eventually, a divorce.

Mother and daughter waged a battle of wills from the time Azar was 4. “She did not want rivals,” Nafisi writes. She told Azar how “unnatural” it was for a young girl to spend her time reading. When Nafisi halfheartedly mimicked a suicide she had heard about by trying to slash her wrists, her mother, “unimpressed,” banished her to her room for the rest of the day. Her mother read her diaries and letters and listened in to her phone conversations. Even as Nafisi was heading into exile in the United States and said goodbye to her mother for what would be the last time, her mother turned away from her kiss. “You share the same rotten genes” as your father, her mother would tell Nafisi and her younger brother, a line that recurs throughout the narrative.

To protect herself, Nafisi took her father’s side, developing a “secret language” to communicate their feelings and deceive her mother. He introduced her to Persian classics like Ferdowsi’s epic “Shahnameh,” the Book of Kings, and, later, the Western classics. Thrown into jail as mayor of Tehran in 1963 on trumped-up charges, he used the time to learn new languages, to paint, and to write three children’s books and 1,500 pages of diaries. This was not one of the shah’s torture chambers. There was always a vase of fresh flowers in the room.

So on another level, Nafisi’s memoir is an attempt to pay homage to her father, by bringing his own life story into the open.

Unintentionally, perhaps, the most painful facet of the memoir is Nafisi’s self-revelations. She describes being groped at the age of 6 by a family friend, a man who was considered holy, and the shame she felt afterward. Victims can feel guilty, she writes, both because they keep silent and because they feel “some vague sense of sexual pleasure out of an act that is imposed and feels reprehensible.” Nafisi deeply missed her father when she and her family moved to the United States, but did not initiate contact with him and at first did not even send him a copy of “Reading Lolita.”At the book’s end, Nafisi remains restless, relentlessly hard on herself for not being a better daughter, for not returning to Iran before her parents died, even though it would have been dangerous for her. In the end, she is grateful to them, not for bringing her happiness, but for arming her for the battle of life. “It was only after their deaths,” she writes, “that I came to realize that they each in their own way had given me a portable home that safeguards memory and is a constant resistance against the tyranny of time and of man.”

I cannot say that I came away from “Things I Have Been Silent About” with a fuller understanding of Iran. But it gave me a fuller understanding of Nafisi. Shortly after she came to the United States, we met over breakfast in a shopping mall outside Washington. We were brought together by a mutual friend and her distant relation, Haleh Esfandiari, a Washington-­based scholar who spent nearly four months in prison after she was arrested in Iran in 2007 during a visit to her elderly mother.

Nafisi and I disagreed about the shape of Iranian politics. A fierce opponent of the Islamic Republic, she was scathing in her criticism of President Mohammad Khatami and his efforts to open up the political system. I was surprised more by her intellectual absolutism and unedited fury than by the substance of her political views. Esfandiari tried in vain to bridge the divide. I now understand why she failed. Perhaps because of who she is and what she experienced, Nafisi cannot ­imagine compromise.

“To this day having fun, just plain enjoying myself, comes at the cost of a conviction that I have committed an undetected crime,” she writes, describing the enduring effects of her mother’s rages. There seems to be little joy or laughter in the story she has told so far. Perhaps that will be the subject of her next book.h

Elaine Sciolino, a correspondent in the Paris bureau of The Times, is the author of “Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran.”

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