Friday, January 9, 2009

veiled imagination

Isn't it strange when life just randomly leads you into meaningful experiences? Is it stranger when life does it twice? About 4 years ago I went through this phase where I'd go onto the village voice website and find free talkbacks, table readings, book presentations, Nuyorican Poetry slams, you name it. During that time I stumbled into a Barnes and Noble on a snowy day to Azar Nafisi's discussion of her acclaimed book "Reading Lolita in Tehran". This fascinating piece of non-fiction takes place in Tehran, Iran and tells the story of a female literature professor (Nafisi) and several hand picked female students and their experience of reading and discussing forbidden western books in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They read Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, One Thousand and One Nights, Daisy Miller, and of course Nabokov's Lolita just to name a few. But they didn't just read them. They lived parts of their lives through the books that they were not allowed to live in public. They were forced to hide behind the veil. The issue of veiling in Iranian society is a running theme in the book. In Nafisi's words: "My constant obsession with the veil had made me buy a very wide black robe with kimonolike sleeves, wide and long. I had gotten to the habit of withdrawing my hands into the sleeves and pretending that I had no hands."

Yesterday my friend Craig called and said that he was sitting next to a sign in Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center stating that Nafisi had written a new book, Things I've Been Silent About. He said she was having a discussion there at 7:30 that evening. It was fate. Azar and I back together again after nearly 4 years.. it just felt right.

I had forgotten this about Ms. Nafisi, but I remembered it the second she began talking about her new book. This woman doesn't stand up and say, "Here's my book. It's about this. I hope you read it." She stoop up and opened a window of light and knowledge to the room. She said so many amazing things I felt like I needed to stop and try to store the information but I felt that if I did I would lose the new information still flying toward me. I do remember how she talked about the way people in the US tend to view Iran and Iraq. She said when Americans hear the words, "Iran" or "Iraq", they think of Saddam, Al Qaeda, Kuwait, illegal arms sales, the twin towers, the veil, and extremists hiding in caves. I wish I could remember exactly what she said, but it was something like this: Iran as we know it used to be ancient Persia. Yet no one thinks of (she named 4-5 persian poets I've never heard of). Iraq used to be Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. Yet no one thinks of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. She then went on to say that minimizing Iran and Iraq to those recent stereotypes is the same as minimizing Europe to the Holocaust. It is like minimizing America to slavery.

Finally she talked about what she saw as an antidote to this black and white thinking: imagination. Expand your mind. Explore the possibilities of your world-- even the impossibilities. "Keep reading," she said. This from a woman who was living in a country where she couldn't legally read most western books until she left in 1997. Her words seemed so poignant to me.

Keep reading.

I wish I could make my thoughts more cohesive right now. I felt so moved and so impressed by her ideas. They were at once thought-provoking, powerful, and surprising in their clarity. My friend Craig and I just looked at one another after the talk as if to say, "Wow. We were so lucky to hear her talk tonight."

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