Other segments from the episode on April 4, 2003
DATE April 4, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Professor Azar Nafisi discusses her new memoir
"Reading Lolita in Tehran"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
Azar Nafisi was a literature professor in Tehran from 1979 to 1995. The
Western authors she loved and taught in her classroom were condemned by some
students for being anti-Islamic and Colonialistic. Nafisi was criticized for
the books she taught and for not veiling herself properly. After resigning
from the university in 1995, she invited seven of her best women students to
come to her home every Thursday morning to discuss literature, books like
"Pride and Prejudice," the "Great Gatsby," "Madame Bovary," and "Lolita." Her
new memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," is a reflection on how these books
gave a different color to life in Iran and how this group of women redefined
the novels they read. Nafisi's memoir also tells the story of her life in
Tehran and how it was changed by the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Nafisi left Iran in 1997 and is a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
She's now living through her second war with Saddam Hussein. She was in
Tehran throughout the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Terry
spoke with Azar Nafisi and asked her to open with a passage from her book
about the Iran-Iraq War.
(Soundbite of interview)
Professor AZAR NAFISI (Author, "Reading Lolita in Tehran"): The war with Iraq
began September 1980 and did not end until late July 1988. Everything that
happened to us during those eight years of war and the direction our lives
took afterward was in some way shaped by this conflict. It was not the worst
war in the world, although it left over a million dead and injured. At first,
the war seemed to pull the divided country together. We're all Iranian and
the enemy had attacked our homeland. But even in this, many were not allowed
to participate fully. From the regime's point of view, the enemy had attacked
not just Iran, it had attacked the Islamic Republic and it had attacked Islam.
The polarization created by the regime confused every aspect of life. Not
only were the forces of God fighting an emissary of Satan, Iraq's Saddam
Hussein, but they were also fighting agents of Satan inside the country. At
all times, from the very beginning of the revolution and all through the war
and after, the Islamic regime never forgot its holy battle against its
internal enemies. All forms of criticism were now considered Iraqi inspired
and dangerous to national security. Those groups and individuals without a
sense of loyalty to the regime's brand of Islam were excluded from the war
effort. They could be killed or sent to the front, but they could not voice
their social or political preferences. There were only two forces in the
world, the army of God and that of Satan.
TERRY GROSS, host:
That's Azar Nafisi reading from her new memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
You know, you lived through the Iran-Iraq War while you were living in Tehran,
and now you're living in the United States, living through America's war with
Iraq. Can you just compare a little bit how the United States is describing
Saddam Hussein and talking about Iraq with how the Iranian government did?
Prof. NAFISI: Well, you know, I find it very ironic that I left Iran to leave
behind the war and the terror, and I came to the United States, and not only
the war, but the war with Iraq, followed me here. So there should be some
lesson in there somewhere, I'm sure. But I'm not talking about whether the
current war is good or bad, but you asked me whether--you know, what are the
differences between the position that the government here is taking and the
position that the government in Iran was taking. Well, I think that we always
tend to turn our enemy into Satan anyway. During any war, there are
polarizations, and this polarization exists in the United States today.
The difference is that over here people can talk openly about the war, and if
they don't agree with it, they can even protest in the streets and they can
voice their protests through the media or other forums. And over there, we
not only could not voice our protests, we could not even voice our grief. And
we ourselves were suspected, if we strayed from the line, as being, you know,
pro-Iraqi or pro-Saddam, and that is a very, very lonely position to not being
able to voice your feelings and emotion during such time.
GROSS: What do you mean you couldn't even express your grief? I mean, there
were so many people killed. There must have been a lot of grief in Iran to
Prof. NAFISI: Well, there was a lot of grief, and in another part of my book,
I explain that. For example, many times when a bomb would hit a place, there
were these motorcyclists who would be dressed all in black who would
immediately, before the ambulances or the police would arrive, they would
arrive on the scene of destruction, and they would start shouting slogans,
`Death to Saddam, death to US imperialism,' and they would prevent people who
had survived from publicly crying or, you know, expressing their grief over
those who had been killed. Because at all times they wanted to say that the
Iranian people not only accept this war but are ready to, you know, give their
lives and the lives of their children for this war and this revolution.
And the same is true with when they killed the opponents of the regime. Most
of the times, those who were killed, their families were not allowed to have
public mourning to mourn their children or their relatives and friends.
GROSS: Did you lose a lot of friends or family in the war with Iraq?
Prof. NAFISI: I think that I was one of the more luckier ones. I lost some
distant relatives, and I lost students during the war, but I did not lose
people who were very close to me. I'm very thankful for that. But when I say
that, it's always with a sense of guilt because whenever a bomb hit some part
of Tehran, whenever somebody else died, we would have to be happy that it
wasn't us or people who belonged to us. And it creates such a sense of guilt
in you, so survival, even, becomes guilty.
GROSS: Right, because part of you is thinking, `Thank God it was them and not
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah, and, you know, immediately, no matter what time it
was--and a lot of times they struck, you know, at 4 in the morning and after
midnight, you know. But every time the missiles struck or a bomb struck, we
would start calling one another, you know, to make sure that people who are
close to us were alive and well; and every time we heard their voice, we would
say, `Thank God.' And immediately afterwards, I would think, `Oh, my God, I'm
saying, "Thank God" while somebody else is right now grieving the death of
somebody close to them.' And this is the contradiction that you feel. And I
also felt very close to the Iraqi people. I felt that...
GROSS: Why did you feel close to them?
Prof. NAFISI: Well, you know, it started a little later. I mean, at first,
the first one or two years of war, you know, we spent being confused about
what had happened to us. But I remember at a certain point I realized that
every time there were victory marches on the radio saying that the regime has
destroyed one more nest of spies or vermin in Iraq, it means that some
Iraqi--not the regime, not Saddam's regime, but Iraqis just like us--have been
murdered, and that would mean that pretty soon Saddam would attack us.
Because usually, you know, they would sort of respond to one another's attack,
and they had no compassion in bombing and killing the civilians.
GROSS: In the 1980s when you were living in Tehran, during the Iran-Iraq War,
you were opposed to your own government, to the government of the ayatollah,
the fundamentalist government in Iran, and you were, obviously, being attacked
by Iran's enemy, Iraq. So in essence, you had no place to turn. I mean, you
own country's government wasn't your friend; and, of course, the Saddam
Hussein government wasn't your friend, either. Where do you turn in a
situation like that? You've got no place to go.
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah, you know, that's exactly--a lot of people felt the same
way I did. And, of course, you know, the feelings are so contradictory
because nobody likes their country to be invaded or bombed. So naturally, you
turn to your own government to protect your country, not just you but the land
you were born in and you live in. So first of all, there was that
And the second thing, one thing that happened during that time was that people
got so close to one another. You know, you would be walking down the streets
and suddenly there would be the sirens and you know that a bomb would fall.
So all of a sudden, the stranger next to you, another passerby, would become
like your brother or your sister because you might be dying together the next
moment. I developed so many lasting friendships during the war. Sometimes
people would come to my house, or I would go to friends' house. And about 20
of us would just stay the night because, you know, we would be afraid that if
we leave, you know, there would be bombing or the missiles would fall on us.
So that grief and that loneliness made me feel much closer to my people than I
have ever felt in my life.
GROSS: During the Iran-Iraq War, was there any more or less attention paid to
the enemy within, so to speak, to people like you who were the dissidents
Prof. NAFISI: Oh, definitely. Actually, you know, right before the war,
there was a lot of unrest and a lot of dissatisfaction which was being
expressed publicly. And the war was a very good opportunity for the Iranian
government to put down dissent in the name of the war. And, in fact, in one
part of my book, I talk about a slogan from Ayatollah Khomeini, who said,
`This war is a great blessing for us.' And one reason he said that, because he
could now put down the opposition in the name of, you know, there being Iraqi
agents or Iraqi spies.
Now I wasn't a member of a political organization or an organized group or
party; my opposition to the system was more existential than political. But I
know of friends who belonged to political parties who, in fact, went to the
front to fight, and they were put in jail. And I know of two cases where
later on they were killed. And these people were going to war--they wanted to
help in the war effort. They were not there to voice their dissent. Nobody
voiced dissent to the war, of course, and that was unquestionable.
BIANCULLI: Azar Nafisi speaking with Terry Gross. Nafisi's memoir is called
"Reading Lolita in Tehran." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Our guest is literature Professor Azar Nafisi. She moved to the
US from Iran in 1997. Her new memoir is called "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
(Soundbite of interview)
GROSS: If you feel comfortable sharing it, I'd be very interested to hear
your thoughts on the United States' war with Iraq.
Prof. NAFISI: I feel very ambiguous and ambivalent. I mean, you know, this
is the contradiction. I hate Saddam Hussein. I think he's one of the worst
dictators in the whole wide world, and I know, as much as I can be certain of
anything, that the majority of Iraqi people hate him and they want to be rid
of him. I also know that when you live in a totalitarian society, it is very
difficult for the people who feel helpless and hopeless to stage uprisings
against their own regime, and international support is needed. How far US
would go in supporting genuine democracy in Iraq and helping in creation of a
representative government remains to be seen. I think that both my own people
and Iraqi people rightly remain suspicious of motives and intentions until
they see those motives and intentions prove in reality and actuality.
GROSS: So you hate Saddam Hussein, but you're not confident that this war is
the right way of dealing with him?
Prof. NAFISI: Well, I have to see that this war goes in the right direction.
I have my criticisms of what happened in Afghanistan, compromising with the
Northern Alliance, for example, and not going behind the democratic forces
there. And, of course, to tell you the truth, one thing that concerns me
more, I think September 11th taught us that if we want to prevent terror in
the streets of New York and Washington, DC, you have to support the democratic
forces, those that are against her in the streets of Kabul and Tehran. That
calls for a long-term policy of genuinely supporting the democratic forces in
those countries and not remaining indifferent to the fates of people who live
in those countries.
Many in here keep saying it's their culture, it's the Islamic culture and we
cannot impose our own culture on them. I think both democracy and terror are
universal, and I don't think it's my people's culture to want to be stoned to
death or for its women to desire female genital mutilation. Our culture is
our great poets and thinkers and philosophers.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Azar Nafisi, and she's an
Iranian professor of literature, who left Iran and is now living in the
United States where she teaches literature at Johns Hopkins University. Her
new memoir is called "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
Your book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," is about a reading group. It's a
memoir of your life in some ways, but it's also more specifically about a
reading group that you created for a small group of women students in 1995
after you resigned from your position as a professor of literature. Let's
start with why you left the university. Why did you leave?
Prof. NAFISI: Well, you know, my academic life in Iran was sort of like
guerrilla warfare. It was constantly attack and retreat because I got my
degree in United States in 1979, and I went to Iran after that, and I started
teaching at the University of Tehran. At that time, women were still not
forced to wear the veil despite the efforts of Ayatollah Khomeini and many in
the government. But when they made the veil mandatory in the universities and
in work places, I and two of my colleagues in our faculty refused to wear it.
So that was the first time I was sort of--I was expelled from the university.
And then I stayed at home and just read and wrote for a long time until this
atmosphere became more liberal, and I went back to teach, at this time at a
different university. And I taught from mid-'80s until 1995. To tell you the
truth, I became so tired of the war over the way I wore my veil, strands of my
hair showing, my best students being penalized or expelled not because of
their academic records but because they had talked to a boy in the halls. One
of my girls was penalized because she was late for class and she ran up the
stairs and she was forced to write a retraction saying, `I promise I would
never run in the halls of the university even when I'm late for class.'
GROSS: Is that unladylike to run, is that the problem?
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah, because a girl running would attract attention to
herself. Another one was penalized for giggling. They mentioned in her file,
`laughter of a giggling kind,' you know, because a girl is not supposed to
raise her voice, you know, in a way that would attract attention. And at some
point, I felt that this is not teaching anymore, and so that is when I decided
to resign. Of course, they didn't accept my resignation.
GROSS: Why not?
Prof. NAFISI: Well, one friend later on told me that, you know, they wanted
to have so much control over everything that they won't accept it if you'd
resign. They are the ones who decide whether you should stay or leave, you
know, not you.
GROSS: That's almost funny. Yeah.
Prof. NAFISI: And that is the main thing.
GROSS: So you were able to resign successfully even though they didn't want
you to resign?
Prof. NAFISI: Yes. What I did, I just stopped going. And they kept calling
me and saying, `Come and negotiate. Let's talk over this,' you know. And I
just refused. And finally, actually, it was just before I left for the US
that they finally agreed with my resignation.
GROSS: So what was your purpose in starting this reading group?
Prof. NAFISI: Well, to tell you the truth, I always had this dream where I
could have a class in which those who participated were completely and wholly
committed to the works that we read and discussed about. And I felt that, of
course, I couldn't have a mixed class because that would become dangerous if
they found out that, you know, we had girls and boys in the class, then the
morality police could cause trouble for us. So I decided that I would have
only my girl students participate in this class. And as it turned out,
because it was all women and because we sort of opened up to one another, it
became very successful. I don't think it would have been as successful if we
had the male students in there as well.
GROSS: Because it was all women, you were able to take your veils off while
Prof. NAFISI: Yes.
GROSS: ...discussing literature?
Prof. NAFISI: Yes. And, you know, in my book, I talk about these two
photographs that we took with my students on the last day I was in Tehran.
And in one photograph, we are dressed in our robes and scarves the way we are
in public, and in the other one, we are dressed the way we were, you know,
when we participated in these classes. And two of my students were devout
practicing Muslims and they wore their scarves whether they were inside my
home or not. But the amazing thing was that how in the second photograph all
of a sudden everybody had developed an outline, a personality; while in that
other photograph, you could almost not distinguish one from the other. And I
felt that that was very symbolic of what was done to us.
BIANCULLI: Azar Nafisi. Her memoir is called, "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
We'll continue Terry's interview with Nafisi in the second half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
Let's continue Terry's interview with Azar Nafisi, who taught literature in
Tehran for 16 years. Nafisi left Iran in 1997, and is now a professor at
Johns Hopkins University. When we left of Nafisi was talking about how she
resigned from Tehran University in 1995 and started a reading group with seven
of her best women students at her home every Thursday morning. Nafisi's new
memoir is titled "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
GROSS: Now you say of all the books that you read that "Lolita" was the book
that most resonated with your lives in Iran. That comes as a surprise.
Prof. NAFISI: Yes, I know.
GROSS: What resonated about "Lolita"?
Prof. NAFISI: I know. Many people over here are surprised. The title of the
book is "Reading Lolita in Tehran," and I wanted to talk about how Lolita
brought out what Tehran was all about, and vice versa. Lolita, on the
surface, is about this 38-year-old man Humbert Humbert, who rapes and molests
and imprisons this 12-year-old child Lolita.
But if you remember, from the very first page Humbert Humbert says that Lolita
reminded him of his childhood love, Anabelle Lee(ph). And, in fact, "Lolita"
is about confiscation of another human being's life and imposing your own
dream of the past on that individual's life. And Humbert destroys Lolita, and
in the end he destroys himself.
And, you know, my students really caught this, despite the fact--I mean, we
read all of these books in English, and despite the difficulty of language
there was something in the book that resonated with them, the idea that you
can't confiscate another person's life. People should have a choice. People
should have a choice to live the way they want to live. And I think "Lolita,"
like every great book, is about choice, and so it became a symbol for me of
what my life had become over there.
GROSS: Now if the morality police knew that you were teaching "Lolita," would
you have been arrested?
Prof. NAFISI: I don't know. There is another thing about this regime which
reminds me of Nabokov's novels, actually his "Invitation to a Beheading."
This sort of regime is very arbitrary. One thing that really made us
exhausted and made us feel helpless was not just the fear of, you know,
wearing our clothes properly or, you know, walking down the streets in the
right manner, but the fact that we never knew whether they will arrest us or
not. Sometimes you could be, you know, dressed improperly and they would let
you go, and another time they would arrest women who were dressed in chadors,
you know, which is even more strict than wearing the veil and robes that we
were required to wear.
I think it's the unexpectedness and the arbitrariness of such a regime that
makes it successful because you never know. There is never enough. You
cannot do enough to convince them to leave you alone.
GROSS: Before you left the university and started this reading group another
great American book that you taught, but this one was at the university, was
"The Great Gatsby." What were the connections that you made between "The
Great Gatsby" and life in Iran?
Prof. NAFISI: You know, as I was writing the book I discovered how ironic it
was that as I was teaching my students about the American dream just
downstairs, I mean, in the yard of the University of Tehran, they were
shouting down with US imperials, you know. But I wanted my students to get to
know the culture that was now reduced into the title of `Great Satan.' I
wanted them to get to know that other aspect of the culture, which was now
being denied then. And while the majority of my students appreciated it, some
of my ideological students, both on the left and especially the Islamists,
felt that this was a decadent book and that it showed how decadent American
society is, and they wanted it banned. So actually I put the book on trial.
GROSS: What was the trial?
Prof. NAFISI: Well, the fact was that one of these guys, who was one of the
most active leaders of the Islamic student associations, came to me objecting,
you know, against "Gatsby" and calling Fitzgerald all sorts of names for being
decadent and loving imperialism. So I thought that the best way for us to
deal with this--I wasn't about to take the book out of the class because he
was talking this way, but I wanted the class to share in this experience. I
wanted them to not just reject or accept something, but I wanted them to
understand that the debate around the book was more important than taking a
position for or against it.
So I suggested that we'll put the book on trial, and I assigned him to be the
prosecutor. And the students assigned me to be the book itself. And one of
my best students, who was just a wonderful, beautiful girl, she was the
defense attorney for "Gatsby." And so we brought out different aspects of the
book and we at least reached the conclusion that the book was not only not
immoral, but it was, in fact, moral, and it was a condemnation of those rich
and wealthy people they said Fitzgerald imitated or desired to be.
GROSS: When you were teaching very controversial books in Iran, books that
wouldn't be controversial here but were there, like "The Great Gatsby,"
"Lolita," "Wuthering Heights," was it difficult to actually get the books?
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah. Many of them were either banned or they were not in the
bookstores, so a lot of times what would happen is that you try to find one
copy and then have it Xeroxed. And sometimes it was really amazing. I
mean, you know, you would get one copy of "Tom Jones" and try and Xerox 800
pages, you know. But that also shows how amazingly eager the students were to
read these books and to discuss them, and so they would pay for that.
GROSS: Were you ever denounced by your students?
Prof. NAFISI: I was opposed by some of my students, especially when I was
teaching Henry James. It's so funny. Nobody would believe it, but Henry
James was one of the most controversial writers that I taught in Iran. And
there was this Islamist student of mine who every time I taught, you know,
something about "Daisy Miller" he would get up and start objecting and saying
that Daisy Miller is bad and she should be dead and, you know, James is bad,
you know, in a very simplistic term, you know.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Prof. NAFISI: And I think that one thing that really bothered them about
James was the fact that James brings ambiguity into his characters, brings
doubt. And that is why he becomes so subversive because this sort of
mentality doesn't want to have any doubts.
GROSS: You're not allowed to have any doubt.
Prof. NAFISI: No, you're not allowed to have any doubt.
GROSS: There is no ambiguity.
Prof. NAFISI: But I have been opposed or criticized by many, but the amazing
thing for me is that I seldom was really denounced. I wasn't denounced by my
students, no. I was opposed, especially this guy. His image is so alive in
my mind right now, the way he stood up and started denouncing James.
BIANCULLI: Azar Nafisi, speaking with Terry Gross. Nafisi's memoir about the
book group she started with some of her female students is called "Reading
Lolita in Tehran." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Our guest is literature professor Azar Nafisi. Her new memoir is
called "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
GROSS: Iran is part of what President Bush has described as the axis of evil.
It's Iran, North Korea and Iraq. How do you feel about Iran being on that,
quote, "axis of evil?"
Prof. NAFISI: Well, I think that there needs to be a differentiation always
between the governments of these countries and the people of these countries.
Otherwise a lot of misunderstandings come about. Neither the people of Iran,
North Korea or Iraq can be part of the axis of evil. They are part of the
axis that needs to be liberated from evil. And by that I don't mean that we
constantly need forces from outside to liberate us, but we definitely need the
support of forces from outside in this liberation. So I think that we need to
constantly differentiate between the Iranian people and the Iranian
GROSS: Since Iran is considered to be on the axis of evil by the Bush
administration, and since Iran is now on the verge of getting nuclear weapons,
do you think Iran might be next? Do you think Iran might be attacked by the
Prof. NAFISI: Well, I hope not. And I'll tell you one thing about Iran, and
it's not just because I'm Iranian. I think that Iran has a lot of lessons for
the other countries in the region to learn. For the past few years you have
seen the rise of a genuine movement for democracy in Iran. People have been
coming into the streets, writing articles and essays asking for political
freedom, talking about the separation of state from religion. And this is not
just secular. This is, in fact, former Islamic revolutionaries and many
progressive clerics. So I don't think that the United States should or needs
to attack Iran. What the United States needs to do is to support the issues
that Iranian people are right now fighting for.
I think Iran can be a good model, a good example of how a people are fighting
to change their political and social and cultural life through nonviolent
methods. We don't want a regime change in Iran. We want a change of mind.
We want a change from absolutism and despotism to democracy. And that is not
doable through just a simple regime change.
GROSS: Now you say that one of the differences between your generation and
the generation of your students is that your generation had a memory of life
before the revolution and your students didn't have any memory like that.
They only knew life after the revolution. So what are some of the
implications of that difference?
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah. That made them very bitter. That, in fact, made my own
daughter, who's younger than my students--you know, she's now 19--also very
bitter because I remember once we had this discussion about the past, and I
was telling them about my own student experiences in the US. And I was
telling them about going to concerts or, you know, I used to wear long hippy
dresses during that period, and I was telling them about the way I dressed,
the movies we went to. And there was such bitterness in the air, and they
told us `You have at least memories that you resurrect and you are happy to
live with, but for us any memory that we have we want to forget.' And one of
them said, you know, `What can I tell others about when I was 19? That I had
been twice taken to jail and once flogged 26 times because I didn't wear my
So it's made them very, very bitter. But I think that it made them much more
resilient than my generation as well. My generation really didn't know what
individual freedoms meant. When I was shouting against the shah here in the
US, I was only thinking of political freedoms. Never did I realize how
political freedoms depend upon our defense of our individual freedoms.
Without them, they mean nothing.
GROSS: Now your father was political. Your father was the mayor of Tehran.
Prof. NAFISI: Yes.
GROSS: He was, I think, the youngest mayor...
Prof. NAFISI: Yes.
GROSS: ...in the history...
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah.
GROSS: ...of the city. I think he was elected in 1961. Is that right?
Prof. NAFISI: Yes. Yes. And he was jailed.
GROSS: And then a couple of years later he was arrested, and he was in jail
for about six years.
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah. He was arrested, I think, in 1963. And, yeah, he
remained in jail for four years.
GROSS: Four years.
Prof. NAFISI: Four years.
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah.
GROSS: What was he imprisoned for, and what kind of impact did it have on you
as a girl to know that your father was in prison for political reasons?
Prof. NAFISI: It just changed my whole world view. Until then I had never
thought about it. I had never thought about politics. I had never thought
about what kind of government we had or did not have in Iran. It was an
amazing shock. And at first there was such sense of loneliness, now that I
had to stand in front of the place where he was jailed for an hour or two
before I was admitted, you know.
But they kept him in jail I think for five years--and I'm sorry that I'm so
bad with dates--and without the trial. And when they put him on trial and he
defended himself they absolved him of all charges but one, and that was
insubordination. And I thought, `OK, so insubordination is OK. You can
question authority. You can subvert authority. You don't have to constantly
conform to it.'
They were very hard years, and I never ever felt secure after that. But I
think they also taught me that insubordination is not something that is bad,
but it is my right to practice it.
GROSS: Here's something I'd really like to hear your thoughts on. I think
for anybody who is a dissident in their culture, at some point you have to
make the decision are you going to stay, or are you going to go?
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah.
GROSS: And you were out of Iran as a college student, 'cause you studied
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah.
GROSS: Then you went back to Iran and you stayed there--you came back in the
Prof. NAFISI: For 18 years. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. Eighteen years. But then you decided to leave. You
decided you'd had it and it was time to leave the country, and you came to the
United States. So what kept you in Iran for so long, and then why did you
decide to--I mean, how do you make that decision that you're going to leave
Prof. NAFISI: Well, it is very difficult, and at some point in my life I
thought that it is so ironic that all the time I stayed abroad and while I was
in the US I was dreaming of Iran, and while once I went to Iran I was dreaming
of US perhaps, or at least the kind of life I had here. And those 18 years
that I stayed, it was partly out of the belief--I remember my husband always
told me that just your being there the way you are is a sign of protest, and
we need to be here. By here, of course, he meant in Iran. And he was right
But after that private class of mine, which was actually very successful, I
felt that I was becoming very useless because I could only thrive through
writing and teaching. I felt that both of them were taken away from me. When
I wrote my first book in Iran, which was about Nabokov, I knew that it most
probably would not be reprinted. And the things that I wanted to write I was
not allowed to write. And my connections with these young people would have
been cut because I wasn't teaching at the university, and my whole life was
limited to one room.
And to tell you the truth, I really was dying to write and talk about my
experiences, about the things that had been cooped up in me for so long. And
I felt, and I feel, that the world--what Nabokov calls it is a `portable
world'--that home is geographical. I mean, I'll never forget my country of
birth, but as important as home--home has become a set of values, and wherever
I go I will carry that.
GROSS: Do you still have family in Iran? And what are you hearing from them
about their concerns about the war with Iraq?
Prof. NAFISI: Yes. I'm sorry. You've touched a very sensitive spot. I have
a lot of amazing friends and students in Iran, and my parents were in Iran.
And my mother died last January, and I couldn't see her. So if you talk about
regrets having left a place, there you have it.
GROSS: Right. Yeah. It's hard in the world now to be that far away from
people who you love.
Prof. NAFISI: Yeah. It is hard. And, you know, both my parents wanted us to
leave, especially for my children's sake.
Prof. NAFISI: You know, I'm not saying that I don't want my children to go
back--that's they're choice where they want to live--but I wanted my son and
daughter to have the same choices that I had when I was their age. I wanted
them to see these two worlds that are so close and dear to me, and actually to
my husband as well, and then make their choice. I left when I was very young
to study abroad, and I got a lot of good things from this world, and the
warmth and the culture that Iran gave me complimented the one that I acquired
here. You know, I always considered US my other home, and I wanted my
children to have that. And every time I called my mother, and the last time I
called her, which was the last week before she died, she'd say, `It is so hard
to be without you, but I'm so glad that you're not here.' It is not a
consolation, but at least I know that being a mother she wanted the best for
us, you know.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate
it a lot.
Prof. NAFISI: Thank you. I appreciate this.
BIANCULLI: Azar Nafisi, speaking with Terry Gross. Her memoir is called
"Reading Lolita in Tehran."
Coming up, John Powers reviews the new film "The Good Thief." This is FRESH
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Review: Neil Jordan's new film "The Good Thief"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Irish director Neil Jordan is most famous for his films "Mona Lisa," "The
Crying Game," and "Interview with the Vampire." His new movie, "The Good
Thief," is a crime caper based on the French film "Bob le Flambeur," and stars
Nick Nolte, along with an international cast. Film critic John Powers has a
JOHN POWERS reporting:
There may be no more notorious eccentric in Hollywood than Nick Nolte, who's
been known to show up in restaurants wearing his bathrobe. Still, that
reputation took a quantum leap forward recently when he was arrested for
driving under the influence and the police released a photo of the actor with
gaga eyes, rubbery features and hair flaring from his head like the fronds of
an exhausted anemone. This became the most famous mug shot in history when
Steve Martin cheaply used it to win laughs from a billion people during the
Nolte, it seemed, had become a joke, except for one thing. Nick Nolte is also
one of the world's great screen actors, and he proves it again in "The Good
Thief," an enjoyable fable about a casino robbery that's a wonderful antidote
to non-stop war coverage.
The scene is the French Riviera, and Nolte is Bob Montagnet, a
down-on-his-luck gambler and thief who's addicted to two things: heroin and
his profound sense of personal honor. A glorious ruin, Bob desperately needs
something to give him purpose, and he finds it in a 17-year-old eastern
European girl named Anne, wonderfully played by newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze,
who's been brought over to France to become a prostitute. Bob rescues her,
and this noble act jump starts his life.
Soon he's going cold turkey in preparation for one final, glorious heist, an
elaborate plot to steal millions in art from a casino in Monte Carlo. It's a
scheme that gets him involved with several troublemakers, including a shady
art dealer played by Ralph Fiennes and a detective named Roger. That's the
terrific French actor Tcheky Karyo. Roger's already sent Bob to prison six
times, but in classic crime picture fashion he's as much a friend as a
nemesis. Here Bob and Roger's game of cat and mouse finds them talking
together in a church.
(Soundbite of "The Good Thief")
Mr. NICK NOLTE (Actor): (As Bob Montagnet) Have you heard the story of the
good thief, Roger?
Mr. TCHEKY KARYO (Actor): (As Roger) No. I'm not religious.
Mr. NOLTE: No. Neither am I. But when my mother told it I guess it stuck.
The good thief beside Jesus on the cross. And Jesus said to him, if I
remember this right, `Tonight you will be with me in paradise.' And the
thought that there was a place in Heaven for a thief always made me cry.
Mr. KARYO: You want to make me cry now.
Mr. NOLTE: Oh, you've got to watch that cynicism, Roger. There's two
Mr. KARYO: I'll work on my attitude.
Mr. NOLTE: You should. You should.
POWERS: "The Good Thief" is loosely adapted from "Bob le Flambeur," the 1955
classic by Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director who influenced
everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Quentin Tarantino. Melville was obsessed
with huge questions of honor, destiny and betrayal, and his original film was
at once deadly serious and profoundly abstract. It unfolded with the
algebraic precision of a story by Jorge Luis Borges.
Neil Jordan's remake is also concerned with honor, but it's archer and less
grave than the original. Jordan is far more interested in hanging out with an
interesting collection of slippery characters than he is in the mechanics of
the climactic heist. He turns Bob's story into a slouchy romp on the theme of
what's authentic and what's fake. Bob owns a Picasso that may or may not be a
forgery. He has a French mother who may or may not be French. And he's a
criminal whose crookedness may possess more nobility than simply following the
straight and narrow.
What's undeniably real in all this is the movie's romanticism. This is
Jordan's defining key signature. He made "Mona Lisa" and "The Crying Game"
after all. And he gives "The Good Thief" a dreamy old-Hollywood sheen. As
shot by Chris Menges, the south of France is swooningly glamorous, with
sun-spanked daylight and mute indigo nights branded with the primary colors,
especially the luscious blues, of the Riviera underworld. This is the south
of France as we all want to see it.
But the romanticism runs even deeper than that. It extends to the conception
of Bob, who's that most sentimental of figures, the noble criminal, who's like
a lighthouse of salvation in the dark world he inhabits. Bob rescues the sexy
young Anne, but even though she's willing he doesn't take her to bed. He buys
her elegant clothes instead. Finally a man who knows what a girl really
And along the way he enjoys a rebirth. When we first see Bob he's a haggard
junkie with the slitted eyes of a world-weary amphibian. By the final scene
in Monte Carlo, he's strolling around in evening garb, capturing flashes of
his youthful good looks.
To be honest, all this makes "The Good Thief" the sheerest Hollywood fantasy.
What props it up is Nolte, a great hulk of a man like Robert Mitchum or Marlon
Brando, who acts with his whole body, wears his disillusion like a badge of
honor, and has the primal force to embody a distinctively old-fashioned idea
of masculinity. Battered and strong and decent and doomed, a whiskey-voiced
throwback, he's up to the mythic task that we want from a movie star. He can
take a character like Bob, who's essentially an eggheaded, idealized portrait
of a crook, and turn him into someone we can actually believe exists, at least
until we walk out of the theater.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic and media columnist for LA Weekly.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.