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   from the issue of September 28, 2006

Nafisi's two-day visit leaves lasting impression


The arts and humanities have a compelling cheerleader in author Azar Nafisi.

BOOK DISCUSSION - Azar Nafisi, left, talks with Marshall Monda, a freshman International Studies major, during a book signing event Sept...
BOOK DISCUSSION - Azar Nafisi, left, talks with Marshall Monda, a freshman International Studies major, during a book signing event Sept. 21. Photo by Sarah Pipher/University Communications.

During a two-day visit to UNL Sept. 20-21, Nafisi spoke about the value of creativity and great literature in this era of polarized politics and big business.

At the Sept. 20 E.N. Thompson Forum, co-sponsored by the Nebraska Humanities Council, Nafisi welcomed UNL students, faculty and community members to the "Republic of Imagination." No passports necessary. No divisions based on race, ethnicity, class or gender. In this domain, imagination is key, and belief in the universality of human rights is a uniting force.

And for the cynics in the audience?

"Without the subversive power of imagination, we won't have the tools to be good policymakers or business leaders," she said.

Nafisi knows a thing or two about being subversive. A former professor in Tehran, she lost her teaching position when she refused to wear a veil in her classroom and follow other restrictive edicts handed down by the leadership of her university. After her "retirement," she began holding secret meetings in her apartment, where she and her brightest students discussed great works of Western literature. As their beloved country fell deeper into the clutches of fundamentalism, Nafisi and her students sought inspiration in the words of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov, whose classic novel appeared in the title of Nafisi's memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

"When you are faced with the worst aspects of humanity - the most brutal, the most cruel - when you lose hope, the only hope you have is to return to those great achievements of mankind... and that is why we read 'Lolita' in Tehran," Nafisi told the audience at the Lied Center.

Like her book, Nafisi's lecture was part lesson in literary theory, part memoir, and part polemic on international affairs. Although she insists her writing is not political, Nafisi spoke at length about her experiences with the government of Iran, and fielded questions about her home country's current president.

She noted that every country has events in its past to be ashamed of.

"But every country and every nation has a right to change," Nafisi said.

She didn't let her adopted country off the hook either. Nafisi said the America she believes in is, "one in which we are not afraid to go to hell to do the right thing." And, that which threatens the nation the most is not naked force, but Americans' "sleeping consciousness," and willingness to tolerate the status quo.

Generally Nafisi's politics were veiled in the language of literature. After speaking of the lecherous but charming Humbert in "Lolita," she warned, "Humbert is frozen in his dreams. Tyrants are often people who are frozen in their dreams. Beware of the seducers, because monsters often come in the guide of charismatic leaders."

During a Sept. 21 breakfast in the Nebraska Union, Nafisi spent two hours fielding questions from a group of about 80 students and faculty. In that less formal setting, she answered questions about her family, female suicide bombers and Iran's nuclear capacity.

Nafisi said the totalitarian mindset implicates all of us and a feeling of communal guilt can make individuals feel paralyzed. It is up to us, she told her rapt audience, to give voice to those whose voices have been taken away from them.

Nafisi commented that the breakfast was one of the best campus events she had ever attended.

"Everyone seems so genuinely passionate about what they are doing," Nafisi said, wishing more communities felt that way.

Nafisi's writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and The New Republic. She hopes that her new book - a narrative about her relationship with her mother - will be published early next year. She travels weekly to schools and conferences around the world. Though her schedule is exhausting, it seems that the work is a labor of love. She believes that academia needs to maintain constant questioning and debate. She is most passionate about promoting reading, which gives people the ability to empathize - with a mother in New Orleans, a woman in Kabul, or a group of bright young women in Tehran.

"Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form, Nafisi said, quoting Nabokov during the Thompson Forum. "We are the guardians of memory, of imagination. Be subversive. Do not let humanities be taken from you."



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