Struggling to Keep Imagination Alive

In 1979, as the Islamic revolution swept Iran, Azar Nafisi returned to her home in Iran to teach literature at the prestigious University of Tehran. She had just earned a doctorate from Oklahoma University and was excited to share her love of literature, Eastern and Western, with fellow Iranians. But reality soon interfered with her dreams. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became supreme leader-for-life and created an Islamic republic in which all laws had to be authorized by a council of religious scholars. As the revolution progressed in the 1980s, Nafisi fought restrictions on Western classics, struggled to show pro-revolution students the merits of books like The Great Gatsby, and was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil. She found other teaching positions at the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University, but by 1995 she found the university setting too oppressive to meaningfully continue teaching.

The more books were banned, the more Nafisi became convinced that reading and appreciating them were acts of insubordination: They offered an escape, an alternative to the everyday horrors of life in a totalitarian state. Great works of art are great works of the imagination—and that's exactly what the government could not tolerate.

Though she resigned her official post in 1995, it was then that Nafisi was able to do her best teaching; she held secret classes in her home with a handful of her top female students (having male students join them would have been too dangerous). Watching them come and go every week, Nafisi became keenly aware of how the mandated veil did not protect them as it was supposedly designed to do. Rather, it masked them, taking away their individuality and imagination.

Nafisi tells the story of the revolution, her classes, and her students in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which she wrote after fleeing to the United States in 1997. To read an excerpt, see "Glimpses of Tyranny and Resistance" in the Fall 2003 issue of American Educator. And to learn about Iran since 1997, see the rating of Iran in Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual assessment of the state of freedom.


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Struggling to Keep Imagination Alive

American Educator, Fall 2004