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November 5, 2004

Azar Nafisi and Lolita's Exodus to Iran

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Azar Nafisi's New York Times best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran has raised a lot of interesting questions about women's roles in the expanding global community and the often underestimated power of literature to move ideological mountains. What's more, Nafisi's memoirs depicting her experience as a resigned university professor hosting a clandestine reading group in her home reminds us how freedom can find a voice in the most repressive circumstances.

"The Women's Studies program has chosen to sponsor Nafisi's talk because we want to encourage debate about the meaning of fundamentalism for the lives of women, as well as men, in the Middle East,” says Marjoleine Kars, associate professor of history and affiliate faculty in Women's Studies. Nafisi's book undoubtedly sheds light on the state of affairs in Iran, which is one of the key elements that make her memoirs so meaningful. However, the fact that the release of her book coincided with the increasing relevance of the situation in the Middle East has drawn many readers to the political aspect of Reading Lolita and has perhaps created a focus that otherwise oversimplifies Nafisi's initial motivation for recording her memoirs.

“I think it will be too bad if we read her book and then congratulate ourselves on not being like Iran,” says Thomas Field, director of the Center for the Humanities, one of the sponsors of the event. Nafisi's memoirs represent two years (1995-1997) in post-revolutionary Iran and reflect the repressive Islamist policies first introduced by the Ayatollah Khomeini in the late 1970's. Conversely, reformist parties in Iran are currently fighting against the tight restrictions of the conservative government and are struggling to promote a more democratic perspective. “Iran is one of the first Muslim nations seeking a new way toward modernity that isn't based on the West,” explains Field.

But keep in mind, Nafisi's book is not just about politics and the effects of fundamentalist policies. “The book is about how important it is for a woman to have an opportunity to expand her mind,” says Field. “Great literature gives you a broader range of experiences; it takes you places you can't get on your own.” Kars agrees. “We thought the talk would provide a great opportunity for students to think about the transformative power of literature: how it can help people make sense of their lives, especially in situations where open political discussion is prohibited."

“At UMBC, we encourage students majoring in the social sciences to take part in experiential learning,” says Roy Meyers, director of the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars program, which is also sponsoring the event. “One way students do that is to interact with speakers who are working on interesting issues or doing important work to improve society.” Nafisi would perhaps agree that the best way to realize our potential is to take advantage of the full range of our intellectual resources.

Similarly, Field endorses the prospect that Nafisi's presentation will inspire students to exercise the first amendment and acknowledge literature's ability to enhance their understanding of the world. “I hope people have an appreciation of the fact that we can say and do what we want [in the United States] and that people take advantage of that and read controversial literature that rubs them the wrong way, that stretches their minds in ways that are painful. That's very important.”

Azar Nafisi, visiting fellow and professorial lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, will present her book Reading Lolita in Tehran on Tuesday, November 9, at 7 p.m. in the University Center Ballroom.

The event is sponsored by the Center for the Humanities, the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program, the Office of the Provost, the Department of English and the Women's Studies Program.

-Steffany Magid

Posted by dwinds1 at November 5, 2004 12:00 AM