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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 the window to a place where no one, not even my mother, could enter, much less control.

Unlike her mother’s fierce outbursts and persistent demands, her father “lured and seduced” with his stories, his attentions, his charms.

Typically in such narratives, the mother gives all her affection and approval to the son:

I believed my mother loved Mohammad in a way she never loved me. Although she later denied it, she used to say that when he came into the world, she felt here was the son who would protect her.

Perhaps she had reason to want protection: her husband was prone to romantic involvements with women he found more warm and compliant than his wife, and his daughter, when she grew older, even accompanied him on his assignations, sympathized with him, and helped him conceal them from his wife.

It must have been years before the daughter understood what lay beneath her parents’ antagonism. Her mother had married, as a young girl, a man she met at a wedding and danced with, an incident she always described in fantastically romantic terms; but the young man had been terminally ill at the time of their wedding and died shortly after, without, according to her second husband, consummating the marriage. So that relationship remained in her mother’s imagination as pristine, immaculate, idyllic, qualities her second marriage never had the chance to match. Of course such things could not have been obvious to a small child bewildered by adult behavior (any more than several incidents of being fondled by elderly male relatives, frequent visitors in her parents’ hospitable household), but it must have been sensed by her, increasing her sympathy for her father.

Even his family and his hometown were more congenial to her. Esfahan—traditional, austere, historical—was to her a place where poetry was recited, literature and philosophy discussed, truly the home of Iran’s past and culture, unlike Tehran, where they lived, a modern city with no past; what tradition it had was made up according to the needs of the Shah’s regime.

One sees these stark contrasts in Nafisi’s attitude in the photographs reproduced in the book. In those with her beautiful, well-groomed, and elegant mother, she looks apprehensive, her mother authoritative, with her hands on her daughter’s shoulders, holding them in a controlling grasp, both of them with stiff postures and frozen expressions as if in the moment before combat begins. Those with her father, on the contrary, show her with her hand placed trustingly on his shoulder, her head leaning against his, her expression one of tender love.

The polarities must have been so evident, and public, that no one could have ignored them:

After dinner my mother followed me from the dining room to the terrace, with a small plate full of sliced pears, stopping at intervals to push her fork with a pear at its tip into my mouth. I am aware of sideways looks by my uncles and my cousins. Finally, with a theatrical gesture, proclaiming, Please observe my predicament and sympathize! I surrendered and sat opposite her, as if in a staged play, while she forced slices of pear into my mouth.

Nafisi then goes to her room and writes two sentences over and over again on a page in her diary:

I hate pears        I eat pears

Eventually the family decided to see a psychiatrist, the friend of a relative, although the mother’s immediate reaction was, “first of all there is nothing wrong with anyone, and second, it is useless anyway, and third, why should one air one’s dirty laundry in public?” The consultation goes as badly as could be foretold. When the conversation is initiated by such generalities as “You know how teenage children are,” the mother replies tartly, “In my time, teenagers did not exist.” They take turns at “consulting” the psychiatrist but when it is her turn, the mother says

she has nothing to hide; unlike the rest of us, she has no secret…. I am a poor housewife. I am a nobody…. And I never felt I had to complain to doctors about my problems. She extends her hand, thanks the doctor with a poisonously sweet smile, and goes out; and we sheepishly follow her.

Such incidents have their comic potential but they tip over into seriously disturbed behavior when one sees how they affected the children. Back at home brother and sister hatch plans:

We could drug her by dropping Valium into her coffee, invite the doctor to come for a social visit and have him diagnose her on the sly. He could hypnotize her…. Poison, what about poison? I say. You want to kill her? No, we give her a little poison and then rescue her; that way she will appreciate life. Ah, she will say. I never knew how precious life was. Or what if the three of us, Father, you, and I, committed suicide. That would teach her a lesson, I say excitedly. Yes, that might be the best solution.

This sounds shocking, but Nafisi explains:

My brother and I had grown accustomed to Mother’s proclivities: like drug users, we needed a shot of drama to get by. When she shouted and accused us of our various crimes we became hysterical, cried, tore up our clothes, and in some cases even tried to hurt ourselves physically.

Had this one note of persecution/paranoia been played throughout the memoir, the reader would have had to build up a resistance to it out of sheer self-defense against the author’s ruthless subjectivity. Please, we would have begun to plead, is there no other point of view? No other side to this story? No other version we might hear?

Fortunately, there are subtexts that provide a structure for this story of unrest and revolt (in the home and the state). In an early section of the memoir a picture of Tehran and its social life emerges that reveals how much it was a European province at the time, at least for the rich and powerful. The salon Nafisi’s mother created and over which she held sway, serving coffee and chocolates to aunts and uncles, bankers and government officials, could have been set in the Paris of an earlier day. In the streets where mother and daughter go shopping, the mother buys Nina Ricci’s L’air du Temps, chocolate is pronounced chocolat, expensive toys are purchased (to be locked up at home), and at Christmas there is even a Baba Noel. One sees how Tehran, rather like Istanbul, had become a colony of Europe, one presided over by Reza Shah Pahlavi, and also why a revolution would one day be staged by the classes that did not benefit from it.

The revolution and its many stages—some sudden, some gradual—provide the other text, as one might expect from the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is the well-to-do father who provides the link between the private and the public worlds since, unlike others in the family, he seeks a public career under the Shah and in the early 1960s is elected mayor of Tehran, causing some consternation and disapproval among them:

My family had always looked down on politics, with a certain rebellious condescension. They prided themselves on the fact that as far back as eight hundred years ago— fourteen generations, my mother would proudly emphasize—the Nafisis were known for their contributions to literature and science.

The election of her father to this political position—and his closeness to the Shah during these years—made them uneasy, and “later, when my father fell out of favour, my parents managed to make us feel more proud of his term in jail than we had ever been when he was mayor.”

It also taught his daughter a useful lesson in how fortunes can change. She had felt proud when she saw a photograph of him in Paris Match being awarded the medal of the Legion of Honor by General de Gaulle, whom he received in his capacity as mayor with a speech he delivered in French, complete with allusions to French literature, but he warned her, “Well, that will cost me, so let’s not be too quick to celebrate.”

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