From Tehran to Lolita

Interview with Azar Nafisi


From Tehran to Lolita
by Fariba Amini

“The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other… There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.” - Vladimir Nabakov

Azar Nafisi was a professor of English literature at Tehran and Allameh Tabatabai Universities. Like many who returned to Iran after the Revolution, she was hopeful to see positive changes, but during the first purges at the universities, leading to Iran’s Cultural Revolution, she was ousted from her position. After arriving in the US, she wrote the first memoir in exile, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” which became a New York Times bestseller and was eventually translated into thirty two languages. Her book received high praise but has also met with criticism. Last year she published a second book about her childhood called, “Things I’ve Been Silent About.” She is currently working on her third book titled “Republic of the Imagination” which first appeared as an article in the Washington Post, while holding a position as Director of Cultural Conversations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

I had a chance to talk to Azar candidly. Here it is:

Let me begin by asking you on a recent development. The UN Women’s Rights Commission has admitted the Islamic Republic of Iran, what do you think of this?

It seems rather ironic that a regime with some of the most repressive laws against women should be admitted to a UN body that claims to defend the rights of women. How will the Islamic Republic vote when it comes to voting for the abolition of the very laws it upholds? If Iranian women are among the most active, dynamic and informed not just in the region but in the world, that is not thanks to this regime, but to their own resilience and over a century of Iranian women’s struggles for their rights. Perhaps rather than accepting Iranian government, the Commission should have chosen representatives from among women activists inside Iran to both represent their country and help defend rights of women all over the world.

You taught at Tehran University and Allameh Tabatabai; you wrote in the book Reading Lolita in Tehran of your experience, do you believe women have gained more equality since that time?

I have mentioned at the end of my book as well in articles, that Iranian women have been constantly fighting for their rights and they have been successful in many areas. It has been the Islamic regime that has retreated and not the women who no matter what their religious beliefs or backgrounds have fought in all areas to retake their rights. But as in this case I would insist to give credit where it belongs: not the government but the people. Women’s rights have never been what a Shah had bestowed upon the women so that an Ayatollah can take it away from them.

There has been criticism to you on the book, that in fact you were once a leftist activist and you denounced your past, is this justified?

First of all to criticize one’s past is not a flaw, I never trust anyone about what they say about their present or the future without knowing how just they are in relation to their own past. We are used to criticizing and blaming everyone but ourselves. A critical exchange with one’s own past is a sign of confidence and the first step towards accepting responsibility, and freedom always comes with responsibility. Having said this, I criticized that aspect of my past that was too ideological, when we did not tolerate views other than our own. Left or right, ideology is dangerous. I did not change my views about human rights, women’s rights or democracy, what I did change was an absolutist attitude. It happened to come to us in the form of a leftist ideology, but I see little difference between leftist and rightist ideologies. We need to think independently, to speak and have exchanges with all from different view points, but to make our decisions not based on group ideology, but on our own conscience. In attitude I have changed, in positions I have not. I have to add that I realized the flaws in our ideologies in the student movement when I returned to Iran and saw how dangerous it was to want freedom but to choose a repressive attitude to attain it. I did not think that the Islamic regime or the Shah were the only forces responsible for what happened to us. I wanted to know what right did the rest of the society play in bringing about this revolution. I still think that different groups with different views should have an honest assessment of their past mistakes, not other people’s mistakes but their own. This is not about blaming ourselves or others, but in order to understand where we were in order to know where we are going.

Were you ever in favor of the Iraq war?

I was against the war in Iraq even before it started, while there were debates about it. I felt then as I feel now that although Saddam’s regime was one of the worst dictatorships in the world, and although he had been ruthless in regards to the Iraqi people and I could never forgive or forget his terrible crimes not just against the Iraqi but also against the Iranian and the Kurdish people during that terrible war, invasion of Iraq would be disastrous for Iraqi people, for people in the region, especially for the democratic movement in Iran as well as for America. I think what I felt then has proved to be right and I still see no reason to change that position.

What do you think of the social, civil and women’s movement in Iran?

I believe that women’s movement in Iran is the continuation of the movement that began in 19th century. Iranian women have a history of struggle for their rights, and the young women today are learning not just from other countries but from their own history in fighting the repressive laws in Iran. I admire the activists in Iran and have always supported them through my writings and activities, because I believe women’s movement in Iran is not only central to the fundamental changes within Iran but will also affect women in the region and other parts of the world.

What do you think the youth, both in this country and in Iran can learn from their teachers or mentors? What should their goals and aspirations be during these times of global crisis and uncertainties?

I sometimes think that youth in both countries are far ahead of their mentors! Some of my best memories of Iran are of when I taught, and when I had exchanges with the students and other young people. Over there, because our young people were on one hand so eager to be connected to the world and on the other hand were deprived of this contact there was such excitement and such desire for knowledge. I never forget how a talk I gave on modern novel in Tehran’s book fair caused an almost riot. I always tell my American students that young people in Iran are offering the young people in America a great gift by reminding them of how precious freedom to read and to write, and access to knowledge is and that men and women have paid high prices for these freedoms, and that today it is the young people in a country named Iran, thousands of miles away from America that are reminding us of the importance of Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglas, Karl Popper. it is the Iranian youth that is prepared to go to jail, to be flogged, to suffer humiliation in order to be free to listen to and to make music, to create art, to read and write freely and to connect to the world. I think both young people in America and in Iran should resist the temptations of the times, the shallowness, the celebrity culture, the greed, the lack of respect for genuine knowledge and to learn to fight for freedom of thought and independence of mind as much as they fight for political freedoms. In America our crisis is not just economic but also a crisis of vision and of imagination. And in Iran this regime is putting people on trial and torturing and jailing them for reading Max Webber, for taking words such as democracy and freedom seriously. Without imagination and thought there can be no free society. We should learn to be curious, to want to know and to have empathy, to want to connect. Nabokov used to say “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” So, I hope the youth in Iran and in America will be curious, curious, curious and look at the world through the alternative eye of imagination.

In your second book, you talk about memories of your childhood, of your mother and father; what was the most important event that changed your life and your outlook towards life?

It is difficult for me to pinpoint one single event. Perhaps the death of my parents made me realize how fickle life was and how transient, and why it is important for us to live the moment to the full, and to live with passion, for passion and to resist death through memory which for me is through writing.

Who was the most important person in your life and who has taught you most?

This is a very difficult question and I really cannot answer it. I loved my father who taught me how I can live in the world and resist the world through literature, but then?


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by yolanda on

Hi! Dr. Human-being,

   I read your post in the other thread. I just want to say that you are brilliant 'cause you know Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Farsi. You are quadrulingual, which is amazing!!! I think I come to the right place to read posts written by intelligent people like you. Sorry to leave my response here 'cause the other thread seems to have a heated debate, so I did not want to digress!

Please take care! 


from a genuine art lover

by humanbeing on

hats off to these gutsy artists who know where to keep the focus. that includes azarin and her comment.

isk, i'll also drink to the cannes laureate at chez prune! and to who is real nobel material! thanks for being there to remind me.


She is OUR puppet

by i_support_khamenie on

Do you really think IRI would leave her alone when they know exactly where she lives

WOuld they really leave her alone if she was a threat?

I think Not. Now you know a little bit more about azar nafisi.

Darius Kadivar

For the Genuine Art Lovers on this Site who Care ...

by Darius Kadivar on

CANNES UPDATE: Binoche Wins Prix D'Interpretation Feminine - Tribute to Iran and Cannes

"A Country that Loses it's Poetic Vision is a Country that faces death" -Saul Bellow

Darius Kadivar

BRAVO Azarin Jaan

by Darius Kadivar on

Great Response.

As the Saying goes one should tell these IRI people : Dakhaleh Adam ...


Azarin Sadegh

to amgw4

by Azarin Sadegh on

As there is no mention of Reading Lolita in Tehran's synopsys in this I assume that what you wrote is your own interpretation of the book after reading it..:-) It's good to know that even the pro-iri people like you rush to read Lolita!

Also,I think you got it! There is a huge difference between the islamic Iran and America.

The IRI crowd, they bury books, Reading Lolita in Tehran included, they shut the mouth of auhors like Nabokov and Nafisi...but they'd happily murder all the Lolitas of Iran (underage or not)...telling they deserved to be murdered because they wore a wrong color dress, or their scarf smelled like "ghormeh sabzi", or they were too cute (dangerous for the society's sexual arousal) so let's use them and rape them and then execute or burn them, so nobody would ever notice or remember our interest (and our obssession) in these Iranian Lolitas.

Yes amgw4, by your comment you proved a point which was already proven. 



by benross on

For once, things are going right. Why are you so disappointed?! Are you expecting 'Goh Khordam'? I too, expect it. But it doesn't have to be loud!

Farah Rusta

I am so disappointed

by Farah Rusta on

No mention of Mossadeq, no reference to 1953, not even how awful a dictator Reza Shah was? Did I miss something or has something gone wrong?



Azar Nafisi and the "Other" Iran

by rafshari on

We came of Age in 1968. We chose the Left because it was the only sensible game in town – or we thought so. At least we did not fall in love with Al-Ahmad or Shariati! We made terrible mistakes. But our efforts were not lost in history. The young generation who came of age in 2009 has shown they do belong to the same modern Iran that Nafisi’s father – and yes my own, a secular teacher – had helped to create, the same Iran that we muddled with our harried ideology. The Ayatollahs were an aberration, not our modernizing fathers, and not us.   This is a couple of passages from a new chapter that I am writing now: In the past three decades, the sociopolitical-cultural history of Iran has prepared many educated Iranians to perceive human rights as self-evident. For them history is made by complex interactions among people and between them and the state, by their contradictory experiences and by their socioeconomic anxieties. It is shaped by the expanding modern middle classes and their less-than-satisfied aspirations for their children, by the paradoxical expansion of the public sphere, by the spread of the nuclear family structure and by noticeable shifts in gender relations. Among the youths, it is made by their “inner feelings” and their fears of being subjected to humiliating scrutiny in public. …. For them history is made by their growing sense of self-autonomy and individuality. The state propaganda that has stereotypically set up the figure of frivolous and hedonistic (bidard, pain-free) youth as incompatible with Shiite virtue may have resulted in heightening the values of self-autonomy, individuality and empathy. The Islamization drive in public spaces – with all its spectacles, its verbal abuses and physical violence, so blatantly infringing on the civil rights in the full view of all – has positioned every young individual in an urban site alongside strangers with whom he/she may easily empathize. Nothing more than sanctioned merciless in public concentrates the mind. It has helped them to develop a much larger purview of compassion and empathy across class and gender than the earlier generations could possibly imagine. The repressive faces of the regime are not confined beyond prisons’ walls; they are menacingly present, facing down the defiant youths, on the main streets. The Shah’s regime left the young generation relatively unperturbed in their social engagements in public spaces. At the same time, the sentiments of the radical political activists and their often painful fates were not shared by the much larger, apolitical youths. The vigorous political non-conformity faced a repression that was largely invisible. The generation who came of age in the 1960s could conveniently sit out the politics of the authoritarian state. The generations who came of age in the Islamic Republic have lacked such a luxury, since the Islamic Republic has criminalized their appearance and their sensuality. Intra-generational empathies did not exist to the degree it exists among today’s youths. The three-decade experiences under the providential velayat-e faqih have contributed to the valorization of terrestrial opportunities. It has also enhanced the appreciation for the ordinary secular life as the foundation for judging the rendered values of things in everyday practices. ….As Nafisi has written about her students, “Implicit in almost all their descriptions was the way they saw themselves in the context of an outside reality that prevented them from defining themselves clearly and separately.” She also observed, “Their dilemmas, regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs, were shared, and stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspirations by the regime.” The summer of 2009 showed that they have managed quite well in “defining themselves.” 

Azar Nafisi’s students were in their teens when the Islamic Republic was created. They refused to be molded by the regime’s Islamization. Sanaz was one of them. Writing in the late 1990s, Nafisi wondered if Sanaz was aware that “her every stray gesture” was an act of subversive defiance. Nafisi marveled if Sanaz and other women of her generation understood how vulnerable the forces of Islamization were when they faced women “walking, talking, showing a strand of hair just to remind them that they have not converted” to the official version of the faith.


If they were not too self-conscience of their power in the late 1980s and 1990s, the summer of 2009 has removed all doubts for them and the following generation who were only toddlers when Nafisi talked about Lolita in Tehran.

Darius Kadivar

FYI/Is Crisis Good for America? - Azar Nafisi

by Darius Kadivar on

Powerful Speach by Azar Nafisi:


"A Country that Loses it's Poetic Vision is a Country that faces death" -Saul Bellow

This is True Both for America and Iran today ! ...

Darius Kadivar

Iranian Intelligenstia are At Crossroads:Secularist Vs Reformist

by Darius Kadivar on

Today more than ever our Intelligenstia is truly at crossroads and divided between Secularists ( Abbas Milani, Azar Nafisi, Roya Hakakian, Masha'ollah Adjoudani to name a few) and Religious Reformists( Hamid Dabashi,Ahmad Sadri, Shirine Ebadi, Akbar Ganji, Mohsen KAdivar to name a few ).

In my humble Opinion the latter are simply doomed on the long run.

Mrs. Azar Nafisi thankfully has a long and brilliant future both as an Intellectual ( as Opposed to many ANN TELLECTUALS  who criticize her) and a brilliant author who has something to say. Where as others including her staunchest jealous critics are simply digging their own graves by shaming themselves to oblivion ...

N'est ce Pas Madame Keshavarz ?




Food For Thought & Contradiction ... 

Recommended Blogs:

HISTORY FORUM: Nader Naderpour on Iran's Constitutional Revolution and European Rennaissance (1996)

HISTORY FORUM: Mashallah Ajoudani on Intellectuals and the Revolution

Mehdi Bazargan and the controversial legacy of Iran's Islamic intellectual movement

HISTORY FORUM: The Age of Enlightment in France and Europe.

DOCUMENTARY: Training of the Future IRI Political Elite ( ARTE TV)


yes, me fact

by humanbeing on

i had to self-moderate in order not to copy/past most of the interview.

but the part you put in bold, dk, is really the crux of the matter.

i wish i could invite her to give a talk here to our students. but then she'll get delegitimized by the pc army that may be scared if the bogeyman want to evolve. not worth it.

Darius Kadivar

Alas Not everyone is as Honest as Mrs. Nafisi ...

by Darius Kadivar on

Also Loved this part:

In attitude I have changed, in positions I have not. I have to add that I realized the flaws in our ideologies in the student movement when I returned to Iran and saw how dangerous it was to want freedom but to choose a repressive attitude to attain it. I did not think that the Islamic regime or the Shah were the only forces responsible for what happened to us. I wanted to know what right did the rest of the society play in bringing about this revolution. I still think that different groups with different views should have an honest assessment of their past mistakes, not other people’s mistakes but their own. This is not about blaming ourselves or others, but in order to understand where we were in order to know where we are going.


Recommended Blog:

GAUCHE CAVIAR: Ebrahim Golestan interviewed by Massoud Behnoud (BBC Persian)


i identify with quite a few things azar says

by humanbeing on

In particular:

"A critical exchange with one’s own past is a sign of confidence and the first step towards accepting responsibility, and freedom always comes with responsibility."

in addition, i would like to add that the lesson is not only for american youth to recognize their freedoms, but for youth in my part of the world, to recognize the freedom they have to fight injustice of their neighbours. i sound like a broken record, but they really are able to promote change, under much more comfortable circumstances than their iranian counterparts.

Darius Kadivar

Azar Nafisi "to resist death through memory" ...

by Darius Kadivar on

My favorite part in this excellent interview Fariba Jaan ...

By the way what happened to the film project purchased by MIRAMAX ?


It was announced with alot of enthusiasm and then nothing ...

Dommage ...

Recommended Blog:

CANNES: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud Exclusive Interview 


Azarin Sadegh

The Republic of Imagination

by Azarin Sadegh on

Thank you so much for this great interview with this great Iranian writer (that I truly admire)...I especially loved her article "The Republic of Imagination", where she writes, for example:

"We do not read Lolita to learn about pedophilia. We do not read Moby-Dick to learn how to hunt whales. We do not decide to live in trees after reading Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees. We do not learn about fishing from The Old Man and the Sea. We read for the pure, sensual and unadulterated pleasure of reading. Our reward is the discovery of the many layers within these works that do not merely reflect reality: They reveal the truth." Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination

 Looking forward to reading her next work! Azarin