Things I've Been Silent About: Memories - Azar Nafisi Anyone hoping to get an inside look at Iran under the Shah and in the immediate aftermath of the revolution or a blow-by-blow account of political survival under dictatorships will be sorely disappointed when they read Nafisi's final sentence and close this book. This is not that book. To be honest, it's not even a particularly Iranian or even Muslim book. What it is, is the intensely personal account of a woman and her relationship to her parents; how it disastrously warped and positively shaped her life. The secret to books like this is in the reader - its success depends upon how interesting they find the subject.

From my rating, it should be obvious that I find Azar Nafisi a fascinating person. She is the daughter of an elite Iranian family (her father was mayor of Tehran in the '60s and her mother, a member of Parliament for a brief time), and she was raised in a very secularized, indeed Westernized, house where Islam was a tradition rather than a deeply felt religious impulse. Early on her father inculcated a deep love of literature in her. As Nafisi writes, "he gave me literature not as a pastime but as a way of perceiving and interpreting the world" (p. 240). Also from a very early age, Nafisi became her father's ally in the troubled marriage he shared with her mother. Both were people whose aspirations had been betrayed and blocked most of their lives, and they seemed helpless to not take out their frustrations on each other and their families. Nafisi's mother was the worse off. She had lived a Cinderella life with a real "wicked stepmother" and an idealized "Prince Charming," whose death soon after marriage appeared to her to have crushed any hopes she entertained for a happy life. Nafisi often mentions that her mother feared pleasure and was unable to enjoy herself. The author's father's problems were less complex, perhaps, but no less destructive to a normal life. In the author's estimation, her father was forever looking for a perfect, loving relationship but didn't have the strength to leave his wife and find it. Nafisi quotes extensively from his diaries, where he has some penetrating insights into his wife but can't perceive the beam in his own eye.

Nafisi is unsparing in her examination of mother, father and herself, and often acknowledges how her life was impacted by her parents' lies and the lies she told herself. What ultimately "saves" her was the intellectual faculties her father encouraged - wide-ranging curiousity and a talent for self-examination. It didn't always save her from some grievous mistakes and she only fully learned her lessons too late for complete reconciliation with either parent but I believe she has managed to avoid becoming her mother toward her own children and husband.

I wrote earlier that this wasn't a "Muslim" book but that's an unfair simplification. Much of what happened (positive and negative) in Nafisi's life can be linked to Iranian and Islamic culture. She contends that many of her mother's fears and delusions stemmed from living in a culture the repressed the personalities of half its population based on 3,000-year-old religious traditions. When I claim this isn't a "Muslim" book it's because Nafisi is making more universal claims than "Islam is backward" or something equally ridiculous. Her first introduction to literature was to the Persian classics, and she has a profound love and understanding of her nation's literature as well as Islam's. It's married, though, to the Enlightenment ideal of intellectual "adventure." She celebrates the wealth there is to admire in Islam but she's firmly opposed to the repression and hypocrisy of many of its clerics as much as she opposed the same ethos under the Shah, or the same in any society claiming to be civilized.

There is some information on contemporaneous events - Nafisi's involvement in student associations in the States during the '70s, when she was getting her degree; her father's imprisonment under the Shah; or the imprisonment and murder of several family members - but this is decidedly of secondary importance except as it impacts her relations with mom and dad. A position which snarks off some critics to a laughable degree. I often check out reviews after reading an interesting and/or difficult book because I find they help organize and articulate my own reactions to a book (even if I disagree). In that spirit, I came across this hysterical overreaction to Nafisi (in this case, to her first book, [b:Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books|4907263|Reading Lolita in Tehran A Memoir in Books|Azar Nafisi||903067]):

That article is part of a larger set of reflections on the nature and function of the US Empire - a chimerical construct much in need of theorization since the groundbreaking work of Negri and Hardt.... In my "Native Informer" essay, the selection of RLT as a case in point is rather secondary to my primary concern at typologizing the formation of the category of "the Native Informers" or "Comprador Intellectuals" at the service of furthering the cause of this empire. Hamid Dabashi, interview in Z Magazine

When I read that my BS alarm blew a fuse. Dabashi appears to have willfully missed the entire point of Nafisi's first book (and he'll probably miss this one's as well). Not caring to engage Nafisi as an individual but as an extension of the "US Empire" that haunts his own ideology.

A final thought: While I can't really recommend Qanta Ahmed's [b:In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom|3483356|In the Land of Invisible Women A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom|Qanta A. Ahmed||3524743], it would be instructive to read it in tandem with Things I've Been Silent About.

Both this book and Reading Lolita are highly recommended. Nafisi is an articulate writer and an interesting person well worth becoming acquainted with.