Keep on nagging

Joanna Biggs

  • Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Azar Nafisi
    Windmill, 336 pp, £8.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 09 948712 8

It is Tehran, 1995, and our heroine is getting ready:

Too excited to eat breakfast, I put the coffee on and then took a long, leisurely shower. The water caressed my neck, my back, my legs and I stood there both rooted and light … I smiled as I rubbed the coarse loofah over my skin … I put on my oversize bathrobe – it felt good to move from the security of the embracing water to the protective cover of a bathrobe wrapped around my body … I spent longer than usual choosing my clothes that first morning, trying on different outfits, until I finally settled on a red-striped shirt and black corduroy jeans. I applied my make-up with care and put on bright red lipstick. As I fastened my small gold earrings, I suddenly panicked. What if it doesn’t work? What if they won’t come?

Ordinary Iranians! They shower like us, loofah like us, dress like us, paint their lips like us! They even use the sort of sentences we – if we wrote for Grazia – might use. This is the way Azar Nafisi’s bestselling literary memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, begins. Nafisi is getting ready for the first meeting of her book group: she has resigned from her teaching post at Allameh Tabatabai University but will see a group of students every Thursday morning. The memoir covers the two years during which the book group meets – in 1997 Nafisi and her family emigrated to the US – and tells the stories of the students’ lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran and what happens when they read banned Western classics, in particular Lolita and Pride and Prejudice. The book was enormously successful on its appearance in March 2003, winning praise from Margaret Atwood (‘All readers should read it’) and Susan Sontag (‘I was enthralled and moved’). It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks and has been translated into 32 languages. Its popularity created a market for Iranian women’s memoirs, which still spill, inevitably blurbed by Nafisi, into the bookshops: most recently Haleh Esfandiari’s account of her arrest and imprisonment by Ahmadinejad’s regime and Nahal Tajadod’s rather less edifying Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes, in which she bribes passport clerks with tins of French coffee.[*] And now there is more from Nafisi herself: the alluring-sounding Things I’ve Been Silent About fills in what happened to her before 1995 and what has happened since.

Part of the appeal of Reading Lolita in Tehran was its unexpected familiarity. We think we’re going to get something exotic, but when we open the book we find cord jeans, book groups and people nursing cups of coffee: nothing unusual for 2003. That year was a high point in the life of the mediatised book group: Oprah’s Book Club had just returned from a year’s break and Richard and Judy were about to launch a UK version. (It was also a good year for coffee: by 2003 there were 425 Starbucks branches in the UK, up from 50 in 1998.) Consumers across the Anglophone world faithfully bought books, nearly finished them and then joined the members of their book group around a tub of houmus and a screw-top bottle of wine. Inadvertently or not, Nafisi had caught the zeitgeist. How glorious she made the humble book club seem! It wasn’t about getting as many others as possible to agree with your view of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, it was about the ‘right to free access to imagination’. Pride and Prejudice, she told us, performs democracy: ‘Austen’s ability to create … multivocality … is one of the best examples of the democratic aspect of the novel. In Austen’s novels, there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist … All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative.’ Just as Nafisi’s book group would look at Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Earnshaw and see themselves, rebelliously pulling off their headscarves and discussing banned books, Western readers would look to them to put their wine and houmus in a more serious light.

If readers were seduced by Iran’s familiarity, it’s because it wasn’t familiar. Nafisi’s book group had to photocopy Lolita in order to read it and to lie to their families about where they were going. But perhaps this was also what we wanted to hear. That Iranians wanted to throw off the chador, that they wanted to read our books, that they wanted to be saved by the West. This was one strand of Bush and Blair’s argument for invading Iraq, and Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in mid-March 2003. Nafisi didn’t support the war, but she thanked its academic architect, Bernard Lewis, in her acknowledgments for ‘opening the door’. The popularity of the book made Nafisi a target – Hamid Dabashi, a Columbia academic, intemperately compared her to Lynndie England – but Reading Lolita in Tehran is political in the way we like Iranian women to be political, arguing against censorship and for women’s freedom – and then suffering for it. The book fulfilled a particular fantasy of the power and usefulness of reading the Western canon at a certain point in time.

And fantasy is important to memoir: can you even write a memoir if you aren’t interested in past fantastical notions of yourself? Nafisi presents herself as an inveterate reader of the most romantic kind. There she is during the Iran-Iraq War, sat outside her son’s bedroom ‘with my pillows up against the wall, two lit candles and my book’. The midnight reading by candlelight tendency is also evident in her frequent references to throwing her cup of coffee over scoops of vanilla ice cream – which she makes into a gesture of bohemian indulgence straight out of Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue. Perhaps it is a gesture with which Nafisi hopes to differentiate herself from her mother, Nezhat, who makes ‘fabulous Turkish coffee, thick, bittersweet’ for the book group: ‘she used the coffee to gain admittance to our sanctuary … She soon formed her favourites among my students and tried to create separate relations with them.’ Her mother’s coffee sessions were one of the few constants in Nafisi family life: Friday morning after Friday morning, coffee was served to the butcher, to the head of the military, to Nafisi’s aunt, to whoever else knew the pot would be on the stove, and everything – politics, literature, relationships – was discussed. It’s the pattern for Nafisi’s book club: ‘At times I felt as if my whole life had become a series of variations on my parents’ coffee sessions,’ she writes in Things I’ve Been Silent About, the book of which her wonderfully contradictory mother is the undoubted centre.

Things I’ve Been Silent About is the companion to Reading Lolita in Tehran: the books fill each other’s silences. The title comes from an idea Nafisi had in the first book, of thanking the Islamic Republic ‘for all the things it had taught me – to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom’. She started a list under the title ‘Things I’ve Been Silent About’ when she began work on her first academic book, a study of Nabokov, and realised that she ‘could not frankly write about the political and social realities of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran’. The list went: ‘Falling in Love in Tehran. Going to Parties in Tehran. Watching the Marx Brothers in Tehran. Reading Lolita in Tehran.’ This book, she writes, is not supposed to be ‘a political or social commentary, or a useful life story’ and it isn’t. It is about mothers and daughters. Specifically it is about the sort of mother who complains that she has given up her career for her family, and then criticises her daughter for neglecting her children for her work; who refuses to let her daughter speak French in her presence because she murders it; who leaves abusive notes insisting she isn’t ‘wanted in this family’; who tells her daughter that she has her father’s ‘rotten genes’; who lords the memory of her perfect dead first husband over her new family until they feel suicidally inadequate. And the sort of daughter who dreams of slipping Valium or a little bit of poison into her mother’s coffee cup – just enough to scare her into appreciating her life.

From the very first sentence, the book tries not to leave room for liking Nafisi’s mother: ‘Most men cheat on their wives to have mistresses. My father cheated on my mother to have a happy family life.’ The indulgent echo of Tolstoy doesn’t help the sense of the sentence: surely men take mistresses for a thousand different reasons and it’s not as if taking a mistress is always an end in itself. But it is clear we have a bad woman before us. Nafisi is said to have resisted her mother from birth, when she coughed up blood and wasn’t thought likely to survive. Her first weapon – her most enduring – is her refusal to eat, which leads her mother to force-feed her until she throws up: cod liver oil, grape juice and, on one strange occasion, pears. Nafisi can’t understand why toys are bought only to be locked away. She remembers a fight over the position of her bed: she wanted it by the window, her mother by the wall. When she discovered the bed had been moved to the wall, she cried for hours and refused to eat. When her father, Ahmad, came home, he brought a dish of chocolates for the four-year-old and a strategy for resistance:

Think of what you want most, and then make up a story about it … Perhaps right now you want to have your bed back by the window, but do you know what your bed wants? I shrug my shoulders. He says: Why don’t we make up a story about a little girl and her bed … Have you ever heard of a talking bed?

The roles are set: Nafisi’s father is the good man, her mother the emotional harridan. Ahmad takes Nafisi on long walks and tells her the stories of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, occasionally stopping for ice cream. It is from these stories that Nafisi extracts her notions of heroism, of the true Iran, of love and of courage. (Soon she is lying to her mother about the other women her father sees.) Nafisi’s ‘best memories’ of her mother are of the walks they take down the shopping street: past the parfumerie where her mother buys Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, the ‘place for nuts and spices’, the fish shop, the coffee shop called Aibeta where they buy chocolates, and finally Café Naderi, where there is music and the cha-cha. With her mother it is all senses and sociability, with her father morality and country.

Nezhat’s family moved in Tehran’s political circles: her first marriage was to a prime minister’s son, Saifi, who died a year later and left her heartbroken. On her father’s side, they were Shia intellectuals from Esfahan. Her father was the rebel who ran away and was captivated by her mother’s profound sadness, and they married without anyone being particularly happy about it. Later the families were reconciled and a distant relative of Nafisi’s father, Haji Agha Ghassem, was invited by her mother to stay with them when he was in Tehran on business. One night while her parents were out, Nafisi was ‘woken up by the sound of irregular breathing at my side. Someone is holding onto me lightly from behind, touching me below the waist … I am frightened of the breathing, which seems to gain momentum, and the panting that accompanies it as he grips me tighter.’ He eventually gave up and left her, and Nafisi didn’t tell. Her father, who wrote a memoir of the ‘useful life story’ kind, talks in it about paedophilia in Iran as a reaction to the ‘sexual deprivations’ that come from banning contact between men and women. Nafisi ‘cannot be quite so forgiving … I am thankful that societies, people, laws, traditions, can be changed.’

At school, Nafisi formed a group called the Red Devils, whose members aimed to avenge themselves on their teachers. She led walk-outs, boycotts and the wearing of unsanctioned socks. But her headteacher insisted that this bright girl was being led astray and recommended she be sent abroad to school, to England perhaps. Nafisi’s mother asked Lyndon Johnson at a reception – Nafisi’s father was now mayor of Tehran – whether ‘he could recommend any top schools in America where one could receive a solid British education’. But it seems there weren’t any (why would Lyndon Johnson have known?), and Nafisi was sent to school in Lancaster and lived in lodgings nearby. Nezhat stayed in England for the first few months to help her daughter settle in, and according to Nafisi, made a nuisance of herself: she complained that there was no shower, forced the purchase of a plastic shower attachment and forbade Nafisi from taking a bath; skipped every morning with an invisible rope below Nafisi’s bedroom window; spent the days looking up English words, which they would discuss over a plate of peeled oranges, chocolates and pistachio nuts when she got home from school; dried Nafisi’s tears when the whole project threatened to be a terrible failure and spurred her on with stories of her own thwarted ambition to be a doctor. Whether she was a good or a bad mother, Nezhat is the person you most want to read about. At least you never know what she’s going to do next.

What she actually did next was run for parliament. Her husband enlisted friends and relatives to dissuade her, and Nafisi notes at this point that her family, though ‘avidly civic-minded’, were ‘disastrous as politicians’. Nezhat stood firm: ‘I should have been a man,’ she complained. ‘Will there ever be a time when I can do what I was born to do?’ She took office in autumn 1963 and Nafisi was sent to Geneva to continue her education. She saw a photo of her father in Paris Match receiving the Légion d’honneur from de Gaulle. He had impressed de Gaulle with a speech in French weighted with literary allusion, but feared the reaction at home: ‘That will cost me,’ he told Nafisi on the phone. Weeks later she was called back to Tehran: her father had been arrested, ostensibly for corruption, though ‘few believed the charges against him, not even his enemies.’ He would be held for years – Nafisi slyly describes them as among the best years of Nezhat’s life. She was an outspoken member of parliament and was asked by the prime minister to join his party (she refused). She confounded her daughter by voting against the family protection law of 1967, which in her opinion did not go far enough, though it abolished extrajudicial divorce, limited polygamy and established family courts. Her opposition would be remembered.

Nafisi’s teenage passions were for boys from Esfahan – her mother didn’t like them – and the iconoclastic Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad; when her mother found and read her diary she was horrified to see that Nafisi admired Farrokhzad more than she did her mother. Somehow this argument ended up with Nafisi agreeing to marry a colonel’s son, Mehdi, who had been seduced by her innocence – ‘you’ve been to England but you still don’t know what a French kiss is’ – and hoped to appeal to her with his manliness: ‘I will sleep with a pistol under my pillow.’ His proposal reminded her, ominously, of Mr Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice. She cried until the hour before the ceremony, couldn’t make love to him on their wedding night (‘Imagine anything, imagine you are eating an omelette,’ her sister-in-law advised) and would blame the marriage on her desire to get away from her mother. (The whole thing was apparently her mother’s fault for ‘nagging’ her father into giving his consent.) When her husband took her to Oklahoma to finish his engineering course and let Nafisi begin a literature degree, she found out that he’d been living with an American woman for four years: people had assumed she was his wife. In the US, Nafisi wasn’t allowed to speak to other men, to drink, smoke or leave her hair uncoiffed. Her notion of herself as an independent spirit – the leader of the Red Devils, the coffee flung over ice cream – faltered. She hadn’t responded to the uncalled for proposal as Elizabeth Bennet had; now she retreated into Farrokhzad and hid behind sunglasses: ‘I was deeply ashamed.’ Nafisi’s passivity makes the reader long for her mother to reappear: ‘Mother liked to make a scene,’ Nafisi says; sometimes it was worth it.

In late August 1966, an article in the Washington Post mentioning Ahmad’s case led to him being freed: ‘as it turned out, there would be certain personal as well as political consequences to my father’s imprisonment, but it took us 11 more years to find that out.’ Nafisi finishes each section of the book with a sentence of that sort, but this isn’t a serial (or a page-turner) and the device soon grows wearisome. Nafisi took the change of circumstance as an opportunity to divorce the colonel’s son and went back to the US to finish her degree, and make a film with an American boyfriend about her marriage, which was deemed ‘Bergmanesque’ and given an A. She got caught up in the anti-Shah student movement; read Marx; cried over the death of Mao (‘You cry as if one of your parents has died!’ her mother said); and married again, this time more suitably: a student leader called Bijan Naderi. He and Nafisi demonstrated against the Shah’s state visit to the US in 1977, and as things got worse in Iran, Naderi fell out with the other student leaders, who accused him of neglecting the movement in favour of his mother, who was dying of cancer: ‘Tending to one’s mother was seen as a bourgeois affliction.’

In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini came back to Iran to bring down the Shah and the situation changed rapidly. Khomeini was everywhere – Nafisi’s aunt thought she could see his face in the moon; he set up a militia to enforce a strict moral code and Nafisi’s mother was brought before a revolutionary tribunal and ordered to repay her parliamentary wages, but nothing more – they remembered her opposition to the family protection law that had recently been repealed. Nezhat’s kaffeeklatsches became more political; Nafisi and her husband went back to Tehran and tutted at her mother passing round small pastries and admiring Khomeini’s leadership qualities. But not for long. In November, when the US Embassy was seized, even Nafisi’s mother had to give up on him.

Things I’ve Been Silent About now catches up with Reading Lolita in Tehran: Nafisi teaches at various colleges and universities, is expelled from one for refusing to wear the veil, taken on by another which is supposedly more liberal. She battles with her extremist students, who condemn Catherine Earnshaw as sinful: ‘That is the point of novels … the only thing sacred about them is that they are by nature profane.’ Most of Nafisi’s reading until this point has been Iranian (Farrokhzad, the Shahnameh): now she turns to banned Western books to fight the good fight. (Maybe she also wants to make clear to the readers of her previous memoir that she always knew about Persian writing too.) Novels are made to carry a lot of weight in Nafisi’s books: they uphold civilisation or they are its downfall. They never seem to be things we might read for fun. Even her father sees it: ‘The whole country is going to the dogs and my daughter is excited about … these “novels” as if they were going to solve our problems.’

When we first saw Nafisi’s mother insinuating her way into her daughter’s book group, we didn’t know what made her do what she did. Things I’ve Been Silent About explains: Nafisi finds her mother and father in the kitchen; she’s in her old dressing-gown, he has a knife against his throat. He has been ‘trapped by his own image of himself as a good man’ and now, after Nafisi’s mother has put up with his philandering for years and stood by him while he was in prison, he wants to divorce her and marry his mistress. He has a block of apartments with interconnecting doors built for Nezhat, Nafisi and her brother and goes off to have his happy marriage with an interior decorator who sews designer labels into cheap blouses. Nafisi has two children and her mother, for her sins, is as good a grandmother as she was a bad mother: she spreads a blanket on the floor and tells the children her stories, teaches them to play rummy, takes them to feed the birds, but although she buys toys, she can’t not lock them away. (There’s a triumphant moment when Nafisi and the children find the toy cupboard, break it open and liberate some of the toys.) Nezhat stubbornly refuses to emigrate to the US when Nafisi decides her children must grow up there; she says – inaccurately, according to Nafisi – that she has to have written consent from her husband as they have not had a proper divorce, precisely one of the conditions of the family protection law that had made her vote against it. She died alone in a Tehran hospital in January 2003. A few months before, she was still being ‘impossible’, insisting that her coffeemaker and cups be brought to the hospital or she couldn’t contemplate staying.

When Nafisi went through her mother’s things, she found that Nezhat had spent her life hoarding: fabrics, silver, china, even rice and sugar. When Nafisi knew she was going to the US, she too began to put things to one side: photographs, fabric and stories. These two memoirs are Nafisi’s cache: her students’ tales, her parents’ tales. And in setting her hoard under display glass, everything contradictory, untidy or intriguing is flattened and fixed: books mean democracy and bad mothers will always be bad mothers.

[*] My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran by Haleh Esfandiari (Harper Press, 230 pp., £16.99, January, 978 0 00 728654 6); Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes by Nahal Tajadod, translated by Adriana Hunter (Virago, 247 pp., £11.99, March, 978 1 84408 513 2).