Elektra in Tehran

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Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi as a teenager, Tehran, early 1960s; photographs from Nafisi’s memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About

An ominous title. Opening the new book by the author of the phenomenally successful and greatly loved Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), one wonders if it will contain further revelations about the revolution in Iran that she survived, and even triumphed over, by her passion—and her ability to convey that passion—for the classics of Western literature. Actually, it is a memoir of her life growing up in a well-to-do family in Iran, but one soon discovers that it, too, is an act of rebellion against a tyranny.

Unlike her first book, which displays a constant curiosity about and awareness of the world around her, in her memoir the world shrinks to

those fragile intersections—the places where the moments in an individual’s private life and personality resonate with and reflect a larger, more universal story.

Here the silence referred to in the title is not that which a tyrannical state imposes on its citizens, or of the witnesses who choose not to speak, or of the victims who fear to speak—rather, it is about

the silences we indulge in about ourselves, our personal mythologies, the stories we impose upon our real lives.

Yet the imposition of such a tyranny—and the rebellion against it—can be the most powerfully influential element in a life. In Nafisi’s case it is the tyranny of a mother—and so her memoir joins a long procession of books and films by daughters about their mothers and the battles they fought to assert their own womanly identities and tell their own womanly narratives. This procession is such a long one that one feels one surely should have a female counterpart to place beside Oedipus—until one remembers that, according to Freud, “oedipal” is an adjective that can be employed for a child of either sex who desires to exclude the parent of the same sex and usurp that position.

The combat between her mother and Nafisi is established early, in infancy, the mother claiming that the child has refused to nurse and then declined to eat, the child claiming that her mother locked up her toys and would not allow her to play. By the time Nafisi was four years old she had had a major battle with her mother about where in her room her bed was to be placed—by the window or not—and lost. How often the child must have gone to bed in tears. But straightaway another relationship was set up—with the good fairy, her father, smiling, charming, affable, who would place a china dish filled with chocolates by her bed and tell her bedtime stories taken from the Persian classics. So she learned that she

could always take refuge in my make-believe world, one in which I could not only move the bed over by the window, but fly with it out …

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