Thursday, September 14, 2017

Things I've Been Silent About: Memories by Azar Nafisi

Things I've Been Silent About: Memories
Azar Nafisi
Published 2008

Earlier this year I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, and it became one of my more memorable reads of the year; I hope to reread it someday. Having been introduced to Nafisi, I became interested in her speaking engagements about literature, which I watched via Youtube, and other written works. 

This book, Things I've Been Silent About, was not on the top of my list - I would rather get a copy of The Republic of Imagination, but my library system does not carry it. Instead I read Things. It is a very long personal narrative that fills in all of the gaps about Nafisi's private life before, during, and a short time after the period covered in Reading Lolita, which mainly focuses on Nafisi as a literary professor in Iran (while intertwining the ever changing political atmosphere into the story). 

Azar Nafisi

It is an autobiography, a family story, and a political history of Iran from the author's perspective. Azar was born in 1955. While she retold her personal history, she shared the political changes in Iran, including the Islamic Revolution and the Iraq-Iran War. I only remember the conflict with Iran in 1979 because, as a weird nine-year old I enjoyed current events. I read the newspaper and followed the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Nafisi reserved only one sentence for that event, and did not even mention the hostages. (It is recorded in the back of the book in the timeline.) But it was not important to her history because, at the time, Iran was drastically changing before her eyes. Yet, I remember it because 52 Americans were taken hostage, in Iran, and held for 444 days. I wore my yellow ribbon every day because I was emotionally invested. But I did not know or understand that Iran was turning inside out. For Nafisi, it was her whole world. 

The Iranian Hostage Crisis, 1979

But the major conflict of the autobiography is the turbulent relationship Nafisi had with her oppressive, explosive, controlling mother and how she rectified it at the end of her mother's life. She also has an unfaithful father, though adultery (mostly with men) seemed expected and acceptable in Nafisi's culture. Aside from his adulterous affairs - emotional or physical - Nafisi had a wonderful relationship with her father; it is through him that she developed her love of literature and poetry. Both of her parents were involved in Iranian politics: her father was the Mayor of Tehran, until he was arrested and sent to prison for several years; her mother was elected to Parliament for a time.

Azar Nafisi and her mother, Nezhat

She had the opportunity to study abroad in Switzerland, England, and later the United States. But if these appeared to be wonderful opportunities, they were overshadowed by her chaotic, unstable home life. There was no firm foundation growing up. 

Nafisi had a senseless first marriage that did not last; and her second marriage was tested during the time of the Islamic Revolution, but it held firm. She and her husband had two children. They later decided to move to the United States to work and raise their children, away from Iran as it remained oppressive.

At the very end of her story, Nafisi said she learned from both her parents that (and I paraphrase) : all that we think we have - our home, our identity, sense of self and belonging, our very lives, (and I would add family), can be taken from us very swiftly.  We cannot count on geography for our homes; we must learn to make our own portable home, through stories and memories and experiences that guard and resist "the tyranny of man and time."

Well, it was a sorrowful story, and I do not doubt that the author suffers still from her past pain. There was an emptiness that I felt while reading it, too, and I know it is because there was a lot of uncertainty in her life, both as a child and even when she wrote this book as an adult. But I do not want to get into it because it involves religion, and I know some people are content believing in nothing or a man-made religion for the sake of tradition. I am not sure if Nafisi practices a religion today or has faith in the Christian God, but she has been accused of spreading "Islamophobia" because she wrote about the darkness of Islam (specifically how it treats women). I feel empathy for her because I know she had to find answers and solutions in her life that are not concrete or permanent. Nonetheless, I am grateful to have read her story.

Azar Nafisi 


  1. Hers is one of the more interesting lives I've encountered in recent years. Both of her lit books weave in her biography, but only snippets. Thanks for sharing this fuller account!

  2. How fascinating! You read some of the most interesting books, Ruth.

  3. Well, I get to write this again because I erased everything. What was I saying?

    I did not finish Nafisi's Lolita because I too felt an emptiness in her life rather than a pure joy at what she was reading. I also was turned off by the fact that she belonged to Anti-American clubs while she was attending an American university and also her willful blindness to see the connection between the work those organizations were doing that helped to usher in Khomeini. What did she think was going to happen? I felt angry at her inability to see that Khomeini is in fact the embodiment of what she was in favor of as she protested against western values. Also, I think it ironic that she now lives in America because she finds her own country too oppressive but refuses to see why it is so.

    Also, I disagree with her attitude that only fundamentalist Islam is bad because it is not true Islam. She insists that the fundamentalists got their ideas from the West and fascism. Here is a video where she expresses her viewpoint about Alaan Hirsi Ali. While stating that Ali has the right to protest what Islam is doing to females, she thinks she is too "extreme". If one reads Infidel one does not see Ali as extreme.

    Sorry. I guess I just don't like Nafisi. Hopefully, I did not come across as too strong. :)

    1. I replied to you, but not directly b/c I obviously did not hit "reply." Nonetheless, it follows below.

  4. It was difficult to read - that Azar was a student in the U.S., protesting the West and America. Sure enough, when Iran got what it thought it wanted, they were stunned at what came next. I wish I had copied the one sentence she wrote that went from her excited tone and favor of political change to absolute, utter regret and stunned silence (but it was a library book , and I returned it).

    Azar realized immediately that the Islamic Republic was even worse for them than what they had with the Shah, and they were shocked. So many of her family members were murdered by the new regime, and the Islamic government tore their families apart. (Maybe she still did not agree with America's protection of the Shah, but she definitely appreciates America's liberties today.) I think the Islamic Revolution really changed her.

    So, I watched the video three times just to make sure I understood Azar, and I think she defends Ali. She starts off by saying she disagrees with her b/c they have different views about Islam (Ali being militantly anti-Islam, and Azar finding parts of it "colorful"). However, she disagrees w/ the attacks on Ali b/c "they" cannot accept that a radical woman can have a Muslim background. And then Azar suggests that radical views are important b/c it challenges you to think about your ideas. She really favors the democratic process.

    I do disagree with her here, when she says that "Fundamentalists" got their ideas from the West -- albeit from the FASCISTS and STALINISTS. I'm sure you agree that the Islamic Fundamentalists are responsible for their own violent and dangerous world views, with no help from the Fascists or Stalinists. One only needs to read Islamic history to have a clear view of "fundamental" Islam.

    We can disagree w/ her about what is purely Islamic or traditional Islam or radical Islam, but I'm ok if she has a different opinion about Islam and likes a watered down version of it. But I think she was fair to Ali, saying that it is dangerous that Ali must protect her life b/c of her opinions, which is not democratic.

    Like I said, I felt an emptiness when reading this b/c Nafisi is missing a solid foundation of truth (which is a foundation in Christ Jesus); she was forced to endure instability and uncertainty with temporary fixes for survival. At the end of the book, there was no solid resolution; but instead a bandaid was affixed to her life, so it was altogether sad.

    I know you do not care for Nafisi. No worries. I prefer to read about her ideas in literature, but I'm glad I read about her life.

  5. HI Ruth. You've got me rethinking my attitude. I should have more compassion toward Nafisi and pray for her. I've got a judging attitude. A friend of mine said it was a prophet personality. I feel strongly that this is RIGHT and this is WRONG! Compassion is a weak point for me.

    I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book Infidel where she points out that Western countries, in their attempt to be "multi cultural and embracing" have allowed inhumane practices against girls to proliferate. She told the people of Holland that in the kitchens in houses in their Dutch neighborhoods, little girls were being butchered by genital mutilation. I feel Nafisi glossed over this.

    But you're right in that she said the Ali had the right to say what she does without having to go into hiding.

    You've obviously read more about Nafisi than me. I think perhaps I should read her memoir. Thanks for helping me grow! :)

    By the way, have you ever read "Seeking Allah Finding Jesus" by Nabeel Qureshi? That is a good book by a devout Muslim who, in his attempt to convert a Christian found himself converted to Christianity. A lot of it was from his studying the Haddiths of Islam and discovering that they in fact do advocate violence against "infidels".

    1. We are similar, in that we see in black and white. No apologies. However, when you see where you can expand your heart, you have empathy. You are not changing your view or ideas; you are showing compassion for someone. And you figured that on your own. : )

      Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an intelligent, articulate woman. I hope to read Infidel one of these days. I follow her on FB. I agree with her comments about Western countries and their quest to be all-inclusive while turning a blind eye to the attacks on the very changes and advances which Western culture has fought so hard for. Absolutely, backwards. I don't agree with all of the social buffet advances in Western society, but I'd rather have the freedoms and liberties to choose than to be strong-armed by backwards religious ideas that suck the life out of my life, if that makes sense.

      As for Azar's comment on FGM, maybe she did not have the time to speak directly to it. She said something about outlawing it, but pointed out that Muslims have been silent about it, or something like that.

      Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is on my TBR, too. Sadly, Nabel just passed away this past weekend. : (

      It would have been enlightening if Azar had expressed regret about her behavior against America, while she was a student here; but she did not, and I know not where she stands today regarding that. Like I said, maybe she still disagrees w/ America's involvement. She's entitled to it, I suppose.

    2. I think where I'm coming from is that I've had several friends throughout years from other countries and I got really tired of some of them telling me everything that's wrong with my country while they live and work here.

      I had forgotten about it but the election has brought it back because some of them have gotten quite vitriolic about Trump and what an "idiot" he is on my social networks. I've had to unfriend some of them. It's like they've all drunk the Kool-Aid.

      I was sad to hear about Qureshi but I believe he did a good work while alive. Ravi Zacharias wrote a very nice article published in the Washington Post.