October 14, 2004


Author of the unforgettable memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran" -- a sensitive and evocative portrayal of the role of literature and imagination in preserving the personal and social self in the stifling climate of Islamist fundamentalism, which was published to critical acclaim--the Iranian Azar Nafisi is a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She won a fellowship from Oxford and taught English literature at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University in Iran. She was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil and left Iran for America in 1997.

Much against her will, Azar Nafisi has been drawn into a controversy by my old friend (and current political sparring partner) Christopher Hitchens, and this contretemps has been the subject of some debate here on DIRELAND.. Here's the background:

In an interview Hitch gave to The Independent, recommended by this blog, about his rightward political trajectory in recent years, Hitch--in defense of some of his quite contestable views-- made the claim that Nafisi's "Reading Lolita..." was "dedicated" to Paul Wolfowitz.

Hitch was called on this demonstrably false statement by a number of people, including the journalist Jason Vest and the writer Danny Postel, in correspondence posted on DIRELAND. They noted that "Reading Lolita..." carries the following unambiguously clear dedication:

"In memory of my mother, Nezhat Nafisi
For my father, Ahmad Nafisi,And my family: Bijan, Negar and Dara Naderi"

In an article on Slate, Hitch gave a rather different statement on Nafisi's book, writing that "on the pages devoted to 'Acknowledgements' ...one finds a tribute to 'Paul (thank you for introducing me to Persecution and the Art of Writing, among many other things).' The title mentioned—but unattributed—is that of a celebrated essay by Leo Strauss (while the 'Paul,' you may care to know, is Paul Wolfowitz)."

And, in an e-mail to me posted on DIRELAND, Hitch gave a reply to Postel et. al. that I was not alone in finding elliptical, not to say evasive.

I decided the only way to find out the truth was to ask Nafisi herself. We had a long and delightful phone chat earlier this week--she's a charming and vibrantly intelligent woman. We discussed many ideas, including the notion of some sort of conference designed to mobilize support for the genuinely progressive and democratic movements in Iraq, Iran, and other countries confronted by the menace of Islamic fundamentalism. As a result of our long talk, Nafisi sent Postel and me an e-mail with the intention that its relevant parts be posted on DIRELAND. Here, then, for the first (and, undoubtedly last) time, are Nafisi's own words on this tempest in a teapot:

"Dear Doug and Danny:

"In some strange way I have to be thankful to Mr. Hitchens for providing
this opportunity for a dialogue with you. I am going to be brief and
respond to each of the matters we discussed, but my hope is that we will
not get enmeshed in political squabble. So, as far as I am concerned, I
hope this will be the last time I will be addressing this issue. I hope
we will be able to create a forum where instead of sound bites and
political fatwas for or against others we will have genuine substantive
debates around issues that matter. With this in mind here I go:

"1. I was not contacted by Mr. Hitchens, or the Slate and the
Independent before they published what has now led to this ludicrous
controversy.... Nor did I wish to enter a
debate that will reveal nothing of significance, but will serve to divert
attention from the substance of my book-- that is focused on the role
played by imagination in creating spaces within an oppressive reality--
and from the serious political issues we face today that should be only
discussed seriously, thoughtfully and through debates.

"I would like to bring to your attention that many people in my acknowledgments do not
have a last name, and as I mention in my note to Mr. Hitchens, these
acknowledgements were personal tributes to individuals who came from
very different political spectrums and held opposing political views, and
my one time association with them in no way reflects my political
biases, and if others do not respect my wish for privacy I have to
respect it myself and not give in to pressure and innuendos.

"When I was in Iran, the regime and some in the opposition both fabricated and used
people's 'associations' in order to divert attention from the real
issues and debates, I found this degrading and reprehensible, I am not
going to give in to this practice over here. I will send you what I
wrote to Mr. Hitchens in response to his note a few days ago, only in
the hope that it will put a stop to this matter.

"'The acknowledgments to my book, [although the individuals I mention
belong to very different political spectrums, both liberal and
conservative, left and right) are very personal, and I do not wish them to
be used to define my political views, or to imply political associations.
Without being coy I reserve my right to keep the identity of Paul
private and not let my relationships become political inferences either
in support or against certain views.'

"I would suggest that we start thinking about what we all seem to be
interested in and take up some of the suggestions Jason Vest has pointed
out: creation of a forum to debate and discuss the issues you and I
discussed. I hope we will also involve, people with whom I [and I am
sure you as well] feel closest to: those active in the human rights
community, people like Samantha Powers for example. I know there are
many others like me who want to keep our political independence from any
one group or party, but are interested in genuine support of human rights,
be it in Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or in the Western Democracies for
that matter.

"For us, the question is how do we make people realize that
support of human rights is not merely compassionate, but pragmatic: how
do we keep above the political squabbles, while constantly opening more
spaces to put the human rights debate on the map. The problem is that
right now, some politicians use human rights--and, in the case of Muslim societies, women's rights--
for their own political convenience, without any real commitments. And
many among what we call the progressive forces, who should know better
and who should be supporting progressive causes, show little regards for
human rights and fall into the trap of supporting the worst crimes
committed today, by arguing that 'it's their culture,' or by merely
reacting to the US and not acting in the interest of those who really

"So, what I suggest is the creation of a debate that could be
ongoing, perhaps we could find a way of putting it on the web as well.
We can pinpoint the main questions and enlist those who are interested.
I am sure many will become interested if this is done right, because I
know so many who feel the void and who are desperate for such a forum.

-- I do not consider myself in agreement
with the groups she puts me in--for me, the opposition to this regime is
existential and not political, I have mentioned it in numerous articles
and interviews. I do not advocate regime change by use of violence or
foreign intervention; I want the progressive forces in the world to
empathize with the plight of the Iranian people, and to recognize that,
for over 25 years, Iranians have resisted a theocratic system through
peaceful means.

"When there was talk of dialogue in Iran during the
Clinton administration, I did not object to dialogue, nor do I object to
it today. I wrote in the New York Times that there should have been
added to the list of conditions for negotiations with Iran [withdrawal
of support for terrorism, stop weapons of mass destruction and stop
obstruction of peace talks in Middle East] the most important condition: support
for the human rights of the Iranian people. I also mentioned then that
Mr. Khatami was not the cause of the movement for openness in Iran, but a
result of it. That it was really the Iranian society that was so
advanced that it did not accept the laws and the system imposed upon it.
I think now many years later my prediction has come true. And in my oped
in wall street journal re. Shirin Ebadi, I mentioned how Iranian people
are finding non-violent means to change the system and that this
nonviolent process of democratization should be supported.

"I don't believe that the end justifies the means, and that in order to fight a
totalitarian mindset we have to become totalitarian ourselves. I think
it is important to make these differentiations, which in fact point to
many different views within the Iranian community. Ms. Rosen did not
contact me for her article, but perhaps if she had read these and some of
articles and essays I have written, she would have made these
differentiations. There are many in the Iranian community who do not
belong to any political group, but who are active in their defense of
human rights and in their promotion of debate around these issues-- and if
we start the debate, we can invite them to join, including people from
Europe, Canada and perhaps [if on the web] Iran as well.

Finally, I am so happy we connected!
Very best regards,

Posted by Direland at 03:48 PM | Permalink


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Reading Lolita is completely ahistorical: Nothing said about the US carrying out a coup against a democratic regime and installing the Shah, what sort of police state he ran (in which educated people such as the author were relatively privileged, or that the US supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. No wonder that Bernard Lewis--he of the it's- all- the -Arabs' -fault school-- gave the book a raving ly favorable blurb.

Posted by: Dick Fitzgerald | Oct 24, 2004 2:20:43 AM

Reading Azar's replies to her critics, although I agreed with almost all of her comments, I was puzzled by the reasons for which she lists the 4 conditions that have to be present in Iran in order the US-Iran relationship to improve. She writes Iran has to 1-"withdraw from supporting terrorism", 2-"stop weapons of mass destructions", 3-"stop obstruction of peace talks in the Middle East," and 4-"support the human rights in Iran". Wow! The first 3 conditions are strikingly similar to those of neo cons and washington's pro israel lobbies. (note that Iran is accused of obstruction of peace talks, having weapons of mass destruction, and supporting terrorism, without much evidence, while the most evident issue of human rights is only the 4th
condition.) Now the question is this: Is Azar being used by the neo cons to echo their political concerns? or did she use the neo cons to gain her fame and publicity? I would support her in the latter case!

Posted by: Poopak | Oct 17, 2004 11:40:16 AM

This is another thread, a hot debate among Iranian academics themselves, over Nafisi and her connections to the neo-cons.

Posted by: Nilgoon | Oct 17, 2004 11:26:26 AM

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