Heinemann £17.99 (336pp) £16.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
Things I've Been Silent About, By Azar Nafisi
Friday 24 April 2009
Early in Azar Nafisi's memoir, she discovers that her father's autobiography has been shorn, for publication, of all intimate revelation. All that remains is an edited account of a public life. The title of her her own dense, elliptical set of reminiscences suggests the sort of confession that makes the family memoir so piquant and popular a genre. And given that the literary reticence of Iranian women has been the subject of entire volumes, Nafisi is probably courageous in her choice of what she reveals.
However, to the reader brought up on confessional literature, this account by the US-based Iranian writer will probably seem discreet. It interleaves histories of the self and the world in the manner of a narrator handpicked to represent a culture and its political and religious undertow in the guise of a life story. Nafisi's mother spent much of her second marriage extolling the virtues of an earlier husband who probably never consummated the relationship. Frustrated partly by the lack of opportunities for women and partly by her own inability to transcend such restrictions, she used her intelligence and aggressive nature to find a place in Parliament. Though the incoming regime ousted her, she held her own with interrogators during the Khomeini years, insisting that her brand of relaxed and inclusive Islam was, if anything, more authentic than theirs.
Nafisi père was at one time mayor of Teheran and spent a period in jail on false charges during the Shah's regime. Later, he had a series of open affairs, and abandoned his ageing wife. He imbued his daughter with a love of the Persian classics, in particular the Book of Kings which, with its evocation of a prelapsarian Zoroastrian past, reminded Iranians of their culture before the Arab invasions. Nafisi points out that the coming of "foreign" Islam to Persia was a more nuanced phenomenon than such mythographies allow. She's attracted to the subversive poetics of such works, and their images of sensual, self-willed women, strong because they have to be.
The author's formative years in the Teheran of the 1950s and 1960s were disrupted by conflicts with her difficult mother and the sexually abusive approaches of family elders. A first, semi-arranged marriage led Nafisi to look for her freedom in literature and then left-wing politics. After a few furtive affairs, she married again, and returned to an Iran on the brink of revolution to take her place in the brave new world, as an academic.
Though soon disenchanted, she didn't leave for the US till the end of the century: that, too, with some regret, carrying within her a "portable home that safeguards memory".
Nafisi's account is rarely shrill or self-pitying, preferring to let her stories tell themselves. Though her earlier memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was characterised by detractors as a cold-war text that implicitly sanctioned cultural imperialism and the invasion of backward Islamic nations, she has distanced herself from such views. In public, she has argued for more nuanced readings of Iran, speaking about the silliness of limiting the proliferation of cultures beneath the umbrella of Islam to one definition, or of allowing religious bigots to appropriate Islamic spirituality.
Here, having laid the groundwork by discussing leading writers of pre-revolutionary Iran such as the novelist Hedayat or the feminist poet Farrokhzad, she also makes a case (albeit vague) for the art that emerged during the post-revolutionary years.
She cites women writers Behbahani and Parsipour, and any number of directors; among men, novelist Golchihri and directors Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf. Several are survivors from a more liberal past, but what might surprise some is how many Iranian artists actually found their voices on home ground in hard and punishing times.
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