The role of Nabokov's Lolita in your book is not what readers
might expect from the title—a risque book in a sexually
repressed society. For you and your students, Lolita was a kind
of metaphor for the Islamic Republic. I wonder what kind of reaction
readers have had to that—and particularly to your comparison
between Humbert Humbert and Ayatollah Khomeini.
Interestingly enough, when I talk about how the ayatollahs, by
imposing their dreams on us, turning us into a figment of their
imagination, did basically the same thing that Humbert did to
Lolita, it seems to resonate with a lot of my American readers.
And my students in Iran connected with Nabokov more than with
any other writer. It's because of the kind of universe he created,
in Lolita and in other books, in which the free individual always
had to fend for herself or himself, and the biggest crime was
confiscation of another person's reality. That was something that
they connected with immediately.
I was surprised to learn which novels the regime's censors and
your Islamist students found most offensive—not the authors
who have been censored in the West, like Joyce, for example, but
authors whom we tend to consider delicate and restrained, like
Henry James and Jane Austen.
People would react to books by authors like James and Austen
almost on a gut level. I think it was not so much the message,
because the best authors do not have obvious messages. These authors
were disturbing to my students because of their perspectives on
life. Henry James really bothered my ideological students because
he's so ambiguous, because he refuses to simply take sides and
relieve you of your duty. And I kept telling them that Henry James
in his life might have seemed like a very complacent man—I
always imagine him as middle aged, never as a youth. But in writing
he can be subversive of your perspective on life. His heroines
are usually, apart from Daisy Miller, very unassuming, very quiet,
but at the same time they are very committed to their sense of
individual dignity. And from an ideological perspective and a
totalitarian perspective, that is where the Islamists are hurt.
They are not so much hurt by mere profanity; they are hurt by
that sense of individual dignity, by the temerity of people who
say, We do what we think is right, what we feel is good. I think
that is what bothers them at the core about James or Austen or
There is a perplexing character in your book whom you call Mr
Forsati—he's an Islamist, a political insider, who is a
glutton for Western culture and particularly American movies.
How can he wear both of those hats, and how common a type is he
in modern Iran?
Mr. Forsati and people like him are the product of the mid-eighties.
At the beginning of the revolution, not only the Islamists but
also the radical left were all very set in what they wanted and
the way they saw the world. As the revolution progressed, two
things happened to the young Islamists. One was that the Islamic
Republic failed to live up to any of its claims—apart from
oppressing people and changing the laws, lowering the age of marriage
from eighteen to nine, it did not accomplish anything economically,
socially, politically, or in terms of security. So there was this
failure on the one hand. And on the other hand, people like Mr.
Forsati, people who were leaders of the Muslim Students' Association,
had much more access to Western products than my secular students
did. And by and by, they became familiar with the Western world,
and they found that this world was much more attractive and had
much more to offer than the closed world that their leaders were
promising them. They felt betrayed.
But you know, the name I used for him, Forsati, has allusions
in Persian to opportunism. Mr. Forsati would use his power as
a student in the Muslim Students' Association to have special
privileges. The revolution brought out all the contradictions
in us. But more than in people like me, it brought out the contradictions
in those who were ruling us. They became captives to the culture
they were renouncing. You see that in Iran today. You see that
in the older revolutionaries who were hostage-takers, and who
were quoting Ayatollah Khomeini then. Now they're quoting Hannah
Arendt and Karl Popper and Kant.
You include an ironic anecdote in your book, about an Islamist
student who quoted Edward Said to denounce certain decadent Western
authors—an anti-modernist invoking a postmodernist. But
haven't these sorts of contradictions been part of the revolution
since the beginning, in the collaboration between the Islamists
and the radical left? This is something that you were involved
in as an activist at university in the U.S., and it's something
that continues even today. How do you explain it?
One thing that I have been insisting since I came to this country,
and it's hard to get it across to people, is that what is being
touted as Islam by the Islamic state is not genuinely religion;
it is religion being used as an ideology. Basically, fundamentalism
is a modern phenomenon. In the same way that Hitler evoked a mythological
religion of German purity and the glory of the past, the Islamists
use religion to evoke emotions and passions in people who have
been oppressed for a long time in order to reach their purpose.
Look at Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution and the slogans that they
used: anti-imperialism; anti-colonialism; the struggle of the
have-nots against the haves; the state monopoly over economy,
which was very much patterned after the Soviet Union. All of these
things did not come out of Islam. Islam is not that developed.
Religion was used as an ideology, as a system of control. When
they forced the veil upon women, they were using it as an instrument
of control in the same way that in Mao's China people were wearing
Mao jackets and women were not supposed to wear any makeup. It
was uniformity that they were after.
The left aligned themselves with the Islamists, firstly because
they thought that after the revolution, once things had settled
down, they would take over, which was wrong, and secondly, because
the left genuinely were fighting against what they called liberalism.
The term "liberal" does not exist in Islam. They thought
of liberalism as an American term. And I remember how many of
my leftist friends argued with me when I went to demonstrations
for women's rights. They said, This is bourgeois individualism.
Our fight should be against American imperialism right now. This
You make it clear in the book, in part by revealing the diverse
backgrounds of the women in your private class, that it is a profound
misconception to see the great divide in Islamic society as religion
versus secularism. In fact the politicization of Islam is offensive
not only to secular people, but to devout Muslims as well.
This is something that I thought about a great deal as I was
writing this book. I didn't choose the students in my private
class based on their beliefs, on whether they believed in the
veil or not. We were of very different backgrounds—religiously
and ideologically—and scarcely did we all agree on these
points. But what drew us together were these works of culture.
For both my religious and my secular students, this was the point
where they could converge.
In a sense, the revolution took away people's right to worship.
My grandmother, who wore the veil all her life, used to cry and
tell us, "This is not Islam." One of my Muslim students
told me that before the revolution when she wore the veil it was
a statement of her religious principles. But now that the veil
is forced on everyone it has lost its meaning for her—it
has become a political symbol rather than a religious one.
I would like to say how much I resent people who say of the Islamic
Republic that this is our culture—as if women like to be
stoned to death, or as if they like to be married at the age of
nine. No one thinks that American culture is about burning witches.
America's greatest strength comes from fighting against evils
within itself—like slavery, like extreme fundamentalism
within its own ranks. The same is true of our own culture. And
I wish people would realize that. I'll tell you one thing, many
high clerics, clerics who were much higher than Khomeini, were
from the very start against mixing religion with the state. They
said that it would be to the detriment of Islam, because people
would identify everything that goes wrong politically with the
Your depiction of the war with Iraq of 1980-88 really drives
home how devastating it was to Iranians, from the relentless bombing
and the regime's deception of people at home to the feelings of
betrayal among the young men who fought and came home defeated.
What changes did you see at that time, in popular attitudes toward
the regime and in the intellectual climate in Iran?
There were some who saw that the regime had betrayed them, and
they just couldn't take it, they didn't know where to turn. Many
were suicidal or just paralyzed, because they felt the West had
won, and they were incapable of change.
But there were others who began to ask questions. You know, the
Western media has covered what they call the reform movement as
though it began with Mr. Khatami. That movement actually started
in the late 1980s, near the end of the war, because certain groups
of Muslim intellectuals began reading the work of secular intellectuals
like Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt in addition to Islamic texts—
when they looked to their own past for insight, they found it
was a dead end. I remember that many of the founders of what you
now call the reform movement started a magazine at that time—a
magazine that closed down just last year. They proposed to me
that I write something, and I refused at first, because I thought,
These guys are with the regime. And the guy who was the editor
said to me, "You won't work with us because you think that
our hands are stained with the blood of martyrs, but we want to
start a dialogue and to create a bridge—and one day we will
be more of a threat to the regime than you are." And so of
course I wrote for that magazine and I really appreciated many
of the people there who were genuine and with whom I could be
absolutely open, even though they might disagree with me completely
on many points. I always look at them with a lot of respect. Out
of that reform movement came a lot of people who now believe that
we should not have a theocratic state, we should have a secular
You did not seem to be optimistic about the reform movement on
the whole. You made a particularly memorable remark in your book,
that times of hope are often the most dangerous in a place like
Iran. Would you elaborate on that?
This occurred to me at the time of President Khatami's victory.
I was pessimistic. I thought it was great that the Iranian people—and
not just those who opposed the revolution from the start, but
those who were children of the revolution—started questioning
it, and that they were wise enough to want to change it from within
rather than having another revolution. But it was so obvious to
me that Mr. Khatami was a paradox. In order to get elected, he
had to have an agenda that was attractive to the public, but he
also had to have an immaculate record. And when he talked about
the rule of law … what does this law mean? Does it mean
that, as my student Manna said, I wear my scarf a little higher
now? That I show a little bit more hair? The rule of law in Iran
is not the Magna Carta. The rule of law in Iran is the rule of
the supreme jurisprudence. It is about women being flogged. These
are the rules. And for people to pin their hopes not on themselves
but on some outside force coming to rescue them is wrong. And
for the West to immediately create a good guy-bad guy distinction
between reformists and hardliners was a grave mistake.
The most devoted and most committed in the reform movement, the
ones who made it possible for Mr. Khatami to come to power, are
now in jail. And many others, mainly secular, but many committed
religious dissidents too, are now dead. The journals that helped
Mr. Khatami to come to power are now extinct. That is what I mean
about hope. When you hope, you all of a sudden become careless.
You all of a sudden don't see all of the ambiguities and paradoxes
of the situation at hand. I'm not saying that I don't have hope.
I know that this country is going to change. But I'm not pinning
my hope on Mr. Khatami. I think that we pay every time we become
carelessly hopeful or optimistic.
I remember a couple of your students joking that Khatami's version
of reform was like making a government that was "a little
bit fascist" or "a little bit communist." There
seemed to be a lot of that sort of humor in the discussions in
your private class—a sense of dark irony that tends to develop
in totalitarian societies.
When your reality is so absurd that the country's chief censor
for film is a man who is literally blind, what can you do with
it? At least you have to have a good laugh. Even now, some of
my students who are still in Iran will call me sometimes and we
will just laugh our heads off.
I used to think that life over there is so fictional, so unreal,
that it really stunted our creative powers. If I were going to
come up with a metaphor for the Islamic Republic, I would use
the blind censor, but the blind censor is already there. What
could I make up about a system that censors Desdemona out of Othello?
It is very frustrating to be a fiction writer in Iran.
In one passage you actually compare life in Iran to a piece of
bad fiction. Is that in a way what makes a tyranny so difficult
to overcome, that it is so incoherent?
People always think that living in a tyranny is a cohesive experience.
But living under a tyranny—and Nabokov does an amazing job
of illustrating this in Invitation to a Beheading—you don't
suffer just from physical oppression. You suffer because the regime
is so arbitrary. Living in the U.S., when you wake up in the morning
you know accidents could happen to you, but you sort of know what
might happen when you go out into the street and go to work. In
Iran, when you leave home you literally don't know what could
happen to you. They might be very nice, very reasonable, or they
might take you to jail. They live on that arbitrariness. They
are not coherent, they only have the guns. And they are very scared
of you. I try to make my American friends understand that when
the fundamentalists flew into the World Trade Center, it was not
merely because of their fear of the U.S., it was because of their
fear of their own people wanting to become more democratic.
When we in the free world think of totalitarianism, we normally
think in terms of the suppression of dissidents, of the right
to speak out and act out against the regime. Your description
of the Islamic Republic shows how much deeper the repression went,
that the regime dictated not just opinions, but emotions in every
aspect of life—when and how you could express love or fear
or grief. Can literature provide readers with a kind of substitute
There's a sentence by Nabokov, "Readers are born free and
they ought to remain free." I wanted this book to be not
just about authors, and freedoms of speech for authors, but about
the freedom to read for readers, the freedom for readers to communicate
with their authors, with the books that they choose to read.
The most important lesson that we learned from the Islamic Republic,
which connects directly to Nabokov and almost every single novel
that he has written, is that freedom means nothing without first
giving the individual the choice to fulfill himself or herself
to the fullest of his or her potential. My generation didn't understand
that. We were given this freedom. We didn't think about it. My
daughter's generation has been going to jail for wearing lipstick
in the streets. They have been flogged seventy-six lashes for
not wearing the veil properly. They have been deprived of holding
hands in public with the man they love. So love, personal emotions,
personal choices, right now are at the center of the struggle
for Iran. And one of the ways that we realized this, that we fought
with our own inarticulateness, was through reading these books.
Austen told us that a woman has the right to choose the man she
wants to marry, against all authority. Nabokov taught us that
people have a right to retrieve the reality that totalitarian
mindsets have taken away from them. That is why works of imagination,
especially fiction, have become so vital today in Iran. And I
wish that Americans would understand that. Their gifts to us have
been Lolita and Gatsby. Our gift to them has been reasserting
those values that they now take for granted, reminding them that
life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness belong to everyone.
You mention that you worried at times that you might be giving
your students an overly idealized picture of the West, that you
might be aggravating their dissatisfaction with their lives in
Iran, or setting them up for disappointment elsewhere.
A lot of times I get so enthusiastic about these books, I sometimes
feel that I'm presenting fiction as some kind of cure-all, which
of course it is not. I was afraid that my students would become
reactive because they had been deprived. Everything that has happened
in Iran, the regime has blamed it on the West. Everything that
they have been deprived of, from Tom Hanks movies to Spinoza and
Kant, has come from the West. People under too much oppression
react to the government. If the government hates something, they
love it. If the government loves something, they hate it. So right
now the U.S., the Great Satan, is the most popular entity in Iran.
But this relationship should be a critical relationship. I don't
want my students to look at the U.S. as a place of pilgrimage.
I want them to understand its ambiguities. That is why I taught
them Saul Bellow's novels, like The Dean's December, like More
Die of Heartbreak, where he talks about the sufferings of freedom.
Where he talks about how a vibrant culture like America is also
in danger of losing its poetry, of losing its heart. In More Die
of Heartbreak the protagonist says, "More die of heartbreak
than of radiation." This is also a warning, and I want my
students to know that we constantly have to fight—not just
in the Islamic Republic but in Washington, D.C., as well—that
we have to fight for the soul of our nation, and of ourselves.
What is the atmosphere in Iranian universities like now? There
seems to be a very strong democratic movement.
There is a lot happening in the universities, in part because
young people can afford to be fearless. And also because the students
who go to the universities have no cultural freedom, they have
no social freedom, and they see no economic future for themselves.
One of my students, Nima, said to me, "If I had become a
cigarette vendor I would have a much better chance of making a
living." That in itself radicalizes the students. Their parents
have more to lose than they do.
Another thing is that they are educating themselves. They don't
get most of their information from classes, many of which are
so low in quality that they know more than their professors. So
they read on their own. They are curious about what they are deprived
of—as soon as they had access to Joyce or to Virginia Woolf
or to Kant, they would go after it. That is why universities now
are the hotbed of the movement for democracy. And the students
are fantastic. Sometimes I go on their Web sites and I'm so impressed
by the things that are published there and the kind of arguments
that they put forward for democracy. I was amazed one time to
find that they had reprinted an article from The Atlantic Monthly,
an article by Bernard Lewis from 1993. I don't even know where
they find these things
The Internet must be making it particularly difficult for the
regime to control the flow of media in and out of the country.
Yes. Some people here criticize this—they say that most
people want only McDonalds or Baywatch. It's funny, David Hasselhoff
bragged in 1996 that Baywatch is the most popular show in Iran,
and it's true; but that is what democracy is all about. If you
don't want to watch Baywatch you switch to PBS or you can write
against Baywatch. I think it is unfair to say that that is all
they want. They want a choice.
Is it patronizing for us to argue that the influx of Western
pop culture is detrimental?
Yes, just as it's patronizing to say, "It's their culture.
Let them flog one another. We don't want to impose American democracy
on them." No one wants you guys to impose anything on us,
but support us when we are saying that we want democracy. And
I don't know what "Islamic democracy" means. I mean,
do we have Christian democracy or Judaic democracy? This is open
Was there ever a time, when you were living in Iran, when you
would have welcomed the idea of a regime change implemented by
Some Iranians were so desperate that they would have wanted the
foreign powers to come in, but I didn't feel that way. Each country
is different. When you live in a totalitarian society, international
support is integral to the blossoming of movements for democracy,
because you are completely helpless and you feel lonely and that
support gives you courage, gives you hope. But in Iran, I don't
think that we needed foreign intervention at any point. Iran from
the very first was a vibrant society. It never took this revolution
lying down. From the very moment I first stepped into the Tehran
airport in 1979, I remember, there was oppression and there was
a movement against oppression. And we needed to go through a process
of understanding democracy.
What we did need from abroad, and what we are not properly getting,
is genuine support for democratic movements in that country, even
just in terms of the media coverage. After September 11, I was
so disappointed that when 40,000 Iranians came out to the streets
in Iran under threat of jail or torture and lit candles in sympathy
with the American people, it got so little attention. Why should
other demonstrations, just because they were noisier, get so much
more attention? What I'm saying is, Iran needs support, and the
policy toward the Iranian government should be firm. It should
be firm on human rights. It should realize that a totalitarian
government would never give up weapons of mass destruction. We
should defend democracy pragmatically, if not for humanity's sake.
The generation gap in Iran is in a sense the opposite of what
it is in the West—the post-revolutionary generation has
grown up in a much more repressed, closed society than their parents
and even their grandparents did. Does this put a particular strain
on relations between parents and children, or teachers and students?
It sometimes makes the youth resentful. One example that comes
to mind: we had a satellite dish at home, and my daughter, at
the age of eleven or twelve, became addicted to the program The
X-Files. When our house was raided by the authorities and they
took away our satellite dish, my daughter was crying. She started
getting on my nerves. I told her that she was spoiled, and she
got mad at me. She said, "You don't understand. When you
were my age, were you punished for wearing colored shoelaces?
We have nothing. This is all we have and you call me spoiled?"
I encountered those kinds of feelings often when I was teaching.
Sometimes I would forget myself, and I would talk about my days
in college, going to Bergman movies and sitting out and playing
guitar, and I would sense this bitterness from my students. Their
youths were devoid of such public freedoms. One of them told me
that when she visited Syria and was able to go outside without
her veil and feel the wind on her hair, she got so angry at what
had been taken away from her.
So it is a very bitter generation, but it is also a very courageous
and fighting generation. Mine is too soft. We would demonstrate
in front of White House, knowing that nothing would happen to
us. They would get flogged because of the way they wear their
hair. I have more faith in them than I do in myself.
Your children must have a different perspective on the U.S. from
yours and your husband's.
It's funny, I don't know if you remember that a few years ago
there was this debate here about rap music, whether it should
be censored because it made children violent, and my son said
to me, "Mom, they think we're stupid, that we don't know
the difference between reality and a song. It's like the Islamic
In a way he has a more sophisticated view than children who were
He doesn't buy these arguments here, because he's had the experience
there. And my daughter said when we first came here that her American
classmates didn't appreciate what they had. She was so glad just
to be able to talk in class and to speak out against the teacher
and not be penalized.
I wonder about the relations between emigres and their acquaintances
who stayed behind in Iran. You mention in your book that as you
were preparing to leave, a close friend told you he didn't want
to stay in touch with you or anyone who was fortunate enough to
There is a lot of resentment against people who live here, a
feeling that this is a much softer life, that why should their
countrymen have things here that they don't have and leave all
of the problems to those who stayed behind. But that resentment
really belongs to the older generation. The youth merely want
as many good things as they can get their hands on. And then on
the other side, a lot of emigre friends that I run into here look
at Iran with nostalgic longing. They say that life here is so
empty that even going back to the Islamic Republic and tolerating
the hardships would be better than carrying this emptiness with
them. Of course they don't go back, but they say it. What I appreciate
and find most important is that among both groups there are those
who are making an effort to keep in touch, to fill one another
in. I feel that bond with my students and with many young writers
who are communicating by e-mail and fax and sending books and
What kind of literature has Iran produced since the revolution,
apart from the state-controlled variety? Have any underground
movements or new forms developed?
For the first two or three decades of the twentieth century,
we had a great literary movement, which had its roots in our own
traditions and languages but at the same time was modern. A few
great works came out of that period. But after that, especially
from the mid-century onwards, the influence of socialist realism
and the politicization and polarization of Iranian society reached
such an extent that by the time the revolution came about, a form
of socialist realism was dominant. And that was very convenient
for the revolutionaries. They only took all the characters and
gave them Muslim names and Islamic causes. If a character with
a Muslim name had a role that was negative, it was censored. Nobody
with a beard was supposed to be bad.
Then by and by, especially with the fall of the Soviet Union
and the failure of the leftist movement in Iran, a vacuum was
created. On the one hand, the old forms of articulating yourself
did not work. On the other hand, we did not have access to any
new forms. I think that right now the state of fiction in Iran
is one of creative void. Writers, and especially young female
writers, are looking for a way to find a language or a form to
express themselves. And so I think that this is the period where
things have not yet come into fruition. I know that there are
a lot of novels being written. There are so many new names, and
so many sparks. Especially because there is now more articulation
of personal life. Many women are writing about the state of invisibility
that they feel, or about their personal relations. This is all
starting to come out. But we're still waiting for that great Iranian
You write that "at the core of the fight for political rights
is the desire to prevent the political from intruding on our individual
lives." Is it fair to say that your mission as a teacher
and writer was not political rebellion so much as resistance to
One aspect of democracy is that different areas and fields can
be free from politics. Of course they are interrelated. But it
is such a great freedom for me as a writer to be able to think
only about the books that I'm writing about and not to have to
worry about what Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton might do to me. If Mr.
Bush and Mr. Clinton are constantly in my thoughts as I'm writing,
already their dictatorship is over me. This is something that
a lot of people over here don't understand, that freedom for a
great book is freedom from the tyranny of the ever-presence of
politics. It makes me so mad that every time I talk about being
a woman in Iran or about reading Lolita in Tehran people always
assume that my purpose must be political. Reading Lolita in Tehran
was a reaction against books and against people who always refer
to my country or culture as though we are interesting only because
of Mr. Khatami and Mr. Khomeini. I want to say that we are interesting
because we are bringing Lolita to your attention in a way that
some of you have never thought about. Forget about Mr. Khatami
and Mr. Khomeini, or if you're not forgetting about them, look
at them from our perspective rather than looking at us from their
None of the girls from that group, including myself, are political.
None of them belong to a political group or want to overthrow
the state. I doubt that most of these girls would even go to a
demonstration. But these are the people who I am interested in,
because when you are a political activist, everybody knows where
you stand. And a lot of times in a place like Iran you pay for
it by going to jail or being tortured. But the fact is that this
is an existential fight for millions of people who have no political
claims, in order for them to live their ordinary lives.
[Editor's Note: First published in the Atlantic in May 2003.]