Growing up in Iran at a time of upheaval

By Bill Williams
February 3, 2009
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Azar Nafisi's flawed new memoir focuses on her tumultuous relationship with her now deceased mother, but the narrative prompts legitimate questions about the reliability of memory and the ethics of baring family secrets.

Relying on a practice that, regrettably, has become all too common among memoir writers, Nafisi quotes decades-old conversations word for word, a difficult achievement unless she has a rare photographic memory. She also devotes too much space to minor events, which intrude on the main story lines.

The author portrays her mother, Nezhat, as a controlling, distant, egocentric shrew. She once called her mother a "lunatic" who "should be committed." The author's father, Ahmad, chafed under his wife's unceasing assaults, finally leaving her for another woman.

Both parents were prominent under the Shah of Iran. The author's mother served in Parliament and her father was the mayor of Tehran, until he was imprisoned on bogus charges of opposing the Shah.

Nafisi came to public attention after rave reviews of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," her evocative celebration of the power of literature in a totalitarian state.

As a child, Nafisi bonded with her father, who took her for long walks. They developed "a secret language" involving the stories they told each other.

Perhaps the most graphic scene from the author's childhood involves an incident when she was 6 years old. A distant relative came to visit; one night he slipped under her covers and sexually molested her. Nafisi wonders why adults spend so much time warning children about strangers when relatives can be a greater threat.

During her student days in America, Nafisi joined with other young revolutionaries eager to overthrow the Shah. "We were inebriated by the moment and blinded by our own passions," and thus failed to see the obvious - that Ayatollah Khomeini planned to create a repressive theocracy. Nafisi ably recounts the dark days of totalitarian rule under Khomeini, the gradual crushing of civil liberties, and her own wrenching decision to leave Iran and settle in the United States, where she is now a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.

The book's description of life under Khomeini has a novelistic quality, with references to relatives' disappearing, summary executions, attacks on unveiled women with "acid, scissors and knives," and the murder of writers and poets. But Nafisi offers few specifics, beyond conveying a generalized sense of terror.

Literature served as her refuge. She even thanks the Islamic Revolution, concluding that its efforts to deprive people of the pleasures of fiction backfired because repression only encouraged people to read what was forbidden.

Memoir writers sometimes struggle with the propriety of revealing family secrets, but Nafisi's rationale sounds lame when she writes, "I now believe that we cannot keep silent about the truths we know." Her account, including speculation about her father's extramarital escapades, has the ring of gossip rather than a story with universal significance.

Regarding her mother, Nafisi eventually softens, expressing sentiments of love, loss, and regret. She chastises herself for being in America when each of her parents died, and ends with a poignant reflection on the "fragility of our mundane existence."

Nafisi is a graceful writer, obviously influenced by the literature she so admires, but the book has many detours that do not add up to a cohesive whole.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.


By Azar Nafisi

Random House, 336 pp., $27

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