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Azar Nafisi's Things I've been Silent About

Dear friends,

This is the third and last of my blogs on Azar Nafisi. The first two were on her Reading Lolita in Tehran 1&2 and 3&4, divided into Nafiis's biography, the recent political history of Iran as seen by Nafisi, her teaching or adherence to the visions of her chosen authors (Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen), and Nafisi's flight into exile, and the reasons for her writing and publishing this book.



Things I've Been Silent About is a fascinating diptych with her public four-part memoir. Nafisi is very fran, and puts before us a memoir which lays bare much in her private life, her family. On and off at its heart is her vexed relationship with her mother. She tells much about the emotional pain of her sex life as a woman. As with the previous book she sometimes relives her reading with us in the context of her immediate experience.



The book opens with a history of her family and moves into portraits of her mother and father. She is again basically silent about her father's career (mayor of Tehran under the last Shah), and mother's time in the Iranian parliament while her husband was in prison. The sections about her father (scattered through the memoir) are moving because the man left volumes of diaries and letters and was apparently intelligent, well-read and thoughtful. She shows the same political blindnesses and densities as her Reading Lolita (conservative, not paying attention to the abysmal poverty and lack of opportunities for most people under the Shah) but here since the thrust is so personal it doesn't matter quite as much -- though we do wonder why he was not assassinated or executed and she really doesn't explain this.

She also exposes her father's sexual promiscuity, which you might have thought would make her dislike him as much as she says she does her mother. But no. She admires the father and forgives him. The mother's berating tongue and oppressive ways are what she cannot bear: the mother has taken the role society says she ought to: moral blackmail as a form of bullying is what women are encouraged to do. I have to say though if you don't do that, if you eschew shaping the girls' future (which it's hard not to feel as bullying), then girls can hate you just as much. It's not clear if there is or is not a natural antagonism between women driven worse by our society so they are rivals for meal-tickets, and powerful men. If there is, one site of perpetual hostility is mothers-and-daughters (who can to be fair be the most loving meaningful relatioship of someone's life too.

One thing her adoration (sometimes it's that) of her father suggests is (not consciously perhaps) why she in Reading Lolita has so few women writers and why she doesn't interpret what she reads from a woman-centered standpoint although she's such a strong feminist when it comes to life issues and politics in Iran and other Muslim countries. For Nafisi it was her farther she admired so intensely it was he who read aloud to her (as my father read to me), and it was through him she turned to books for escape. In Austen's life she turned to her father, and she gives her heroines surrogates of her male family as lovers: brothers, father (Mr Knightley is brother and father) forn solace, and meaning. The women in Austen's novels often give bad advice or are harridans or negligent.


Nezhat and Ahmad Nafisi, her mother and father

About her early girlhood into adolescence she has an experience of sexual harrassment and violation by a religious male who is trusted by the mother and allowed to visit regularly. In fact it happens twice. It put me in mind of a number of women's memoirs (across the ages) I've read, e.g., Artemisia Gentileschi who was raped and then reviled, her personal life ruined because she told and complained and her father went to court; Mary Hays's indirect representation of harassment at a young age as a low status woman in a household; Jeanne-Marie Phlipon better known as Madame Roland in her memoir (by an apprentice);' what we know of Virginia Woolf's girlhood. As she grew older, Nafisi was sexually harassed too. Nafisi is the only one (and the most recent writer where we are more candid) to say that because she was partly sexually aroused, her guilt was stronger and her silence the result of this guilt. She would not be believed unless she could show some form of aggravated assault

I wondered how many women have this sort of thing happen to them. I'm beginning to think a larger percentage than is supposed. For Nafisi as Roland, it's dreadful, but more than that for in her case he is this older trusted man (so shows up her mother's delusions) and a religious type so we see the hypocrisy. She is brave too to tell us that she has practiced an open marriage with Bijan. So the "magician" of Reading Lolita was probably her lover. So much courage when it comes to herself. She writes also that "for decades after I came of age myself, sex was an act of compliance, a form of disembodied appeasement." Interestingly, revealingly, sadly, she blames her mother here once again: her mother tried to protect her by forbidding her from seeing boys of her own age, but she "trusted the men she admired for their strength of character," and these were the ones "who did her harm" (family members and older friends). She does not connect her father's promiscuity and maleness here at all.

Nonetheless, I was very sad when I shut it -- rather like I was over Drabble's Patterns in the Carpet and Jigsaws, though perhaps sadder over Drabble. The second half is better than the first, for it's about her as a young mature woman, but both parts are very rich and one way to read the whole is as an pendant or fuller and more privately-slanted explanation of what is found in Reading Lolita in Teheran. The limitations are the same: Nafisi's books are a kind of equivalent of most of the memoirs of French women (not Roland, she is different) that describe their experience of the revolution and terror. A good book on these as a group is Marilyn Yalom's Blood Sisters.



Contemporary idealizing illustration of a woman visiting the prisons in the 1790s

At its best it comes near Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, one of the finest books I've read in years and have not blogged about -- or didn't save a blog I wrote in my older Jim and Ellen have a blog, too. He genuinely thinks and feels differently than the average person and presents a westernized point of view which is still deeply empathetic with the beauties of art in a traditional culture and the middle east. Like Nafisi's, his is an autobiography (so history of individuals in his family), history and inward description of a city and culture, delving into the realities of literary and artistic lives from a profoundly humane and uncorrupted standpoint. Pamuk's criteria is anything but commercial success. His Istanbul is not the cheerful tourist's place, but a troubled city, snowbound, with an immense powerful river gliding by. He is an intensely gifted poet who makes me see anew while all the while I see yes of course. I was delighted to find he too (also Alan Bennet is another) loves the later afternoon light and what snow does to a city the first few days it covers all.

Nafisi is not as good as Pamuk, but then as a woman she is deflected by the troubles she has had sexually as a woman and these burn so deep she cannot transcend the way he can (my comment alludes to Woolf's comments on Room of One's Own here). It's instructive that I know nothing of his sex or present family life; he is not personal in that way. He's personal on impersonal topics. This is the way of some men's memoirs (many remain impersonal on impersonal topics). One of his delights is 19th century French literature and the western memoirs of men who visited the middle east (Nerval, Flaubert) and this are by men who exploit women unthinkingly (and like Byron are not troubled in a deep way about what women are as subject people in the society); another are photos of Istanbul through the later 19th and early 20th century. He is though deeply sympathetic to womens' causes and (like Nafisi) inveighs against any required wearing of veils and burkas (his book Snow is about a cases of girls committing suicide in Turkey).



The cover of this my cherished book by Pamuk

As I wrote in my earlier two blogs, Nafisi speaks as an upper class person, never admits that some form of socialism or strong economic reform and equality of opportunity was what was needed and the Shah never came near (nor does the religious regime), but from this angle of the privileged highly intelligent eduated woman who because she was a woman and therefore ever at risk, and can tell a lot insightfully as long as you remember how much is omitted of what explains what happened.

But the new terrain allows for more. Her continual acrimonious attacks on her mother may bother some people and they are unfair. We can though see that because she enable us to. Her father continually had affairs; she justifies him, but she does show more than once what an inadequate husband he was and how uncongenial the pair were. She sides with the father, even passionately. Not uncommon and lots of psychological explanations for this in feminism, but beyond that his love of reading, and imaginative self is what drew her.

I think though paradoxically this flaw is the book's strength. As in Reading Lolita she is remarkably candid. There is not much piety; occasional elisions over this or that friend or relative who is overpraised is the worst of this kind of thing. She's no Bachmann, I'm not saying that, nor a Christa Wolf. But so few women do tell truths that she merits Carolyn Heilburn's standard. She lets us know once again she had affairs; she gives us real insight into the self-destructive abject impulses that led her to marry the first tyrannical traditional husband -- and how hard it was to free herself of him, suggesting to the thoughtful reader the permanent damage such a marriage could have on a woman who did not have the family resources and self-esteem and sense of herself (she must not be irrelevant to the world!) Nafisi has.

She not only lists Iranian books she likes, but also women's classics. I was not surprized to find Gone with the Wind among them. Like Woolf who read women's novels but you wouldn't know it from Woolf's Common Reader so in Reading Lolita and lots of Nafisi's lists of the best it's a row of men (especially Nabokov), but there are a couple of powerful sections showing how much she was affected by this other reading.



Azar with her husband, Bijan and Negar at the Caspian sea, a family vacation long ago

Probably the deepest engagement in the book is with her mother -- the antagonisms do not stop them from living together and endlessly interacting :).

She has a powerful evocative style too, so here's another book recommended which people here might profit from and enjoy, a women's memoir, under the sign of Austen.

Ellen

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
misssylviadrake
Dec. 1st, 2009 12:44 am (UTC)
From my friend, Kathy:

"I read your Nafisi blog and am fascinated. I'll have to get her later memoir from the library. At least I know they'll have that, since it's fairly new!"
misssylviadrake
Dec. 1st, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
Another kind friend bought me Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for my birthday. I mean to read it tonight! E.M.
misssylviadrake
Dec. 2nd, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
From a friend:

"I'm catching up on your blogs on Nafisi--very interesting; I read the Lolita book with my book group not long after it came out and very much liked it. It inspired me to reread the Great Gatsby ... I looked into nominating you for a MacArthur grant, as I think you should receive some recognition for all you've done on the Web, but found the foundation selects a secret panel of expert judges to decide who to give the awards to--which tells me they will be slanted towards established academics, though maybe I am wrong about this. But no chance for the ordinary person to make a nomination.

Just a thought."
misssylviadrake
Dec. 2nd, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)
In reply:

I've done the Nafisi book a number of times now, and this time am listening to it read aloud by a woman with a very posh-plumy accent. The elitism, unusual self-esteem (super-strong) and anger of Nafisi comes out.

I've been inspired to reread Daisy Miller, see the movie and teach it to my students, and also want to read more books by Iranian women of her persuasion: modern. By chance today arrived my copy of Women without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran by Shahnush Parsipur, translated by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet and The Blindfold Horse: Memories of a Persian Childhood by Shusaha Guppy. Since no translator is named, perhaps it was originally in English. It has praise by Anita Brookner, William Shawcross and Rumer Godden at the back. I've read Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening too.

Next woman's novel must be one of these and I'll try Persepolis too.

It's very kind of you to think of me for the MacArthur and raises my self-esteem. I could use the money :). But I've a hunch like just about all other awards of this type (maybe all of them), they only go to people who belong to coteries with power. The people chosen for it are usually connected in some way to some prestigious institution or recognized admired (and connected to upper class therefore) group of people.

One is forever shut against such things unless one is born well-connected (and that usually means monied), somehow in life you reach connection with such an institution or group of people.

E.M.

Edited at 2009-12-02 12:24 pm (UTC)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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