Azar Nafisi lecture
Iranian-American author lectures at the Spanish National Library
On February 24, 2010, Dr. Azar Nafisi spoke about the importance of imagination and the power of ideas to transform society during her talk at the National Library of Spain. A native of Iran, Dr. Nafisi has been living and working in the U.S. since she fled Iran with her family more than 10 years ago. In her remarks, she reminded audiences that Iran is a diverse country with thousands of years of history and culture, and she implored the audience to see Iran through the eyes of its poets, rather than through the distorted lens of the current regime. She told the audience: “If you read Iranian writers, you’ll know that Ahmadinejad’s Iran is not the real Iran. Iranians are being persecuted for wishing for freedom.” Dr. Nafisi called for greater cultural diplomacy, saying that the regime in Iran benefits from the country’s cultural isolation. She passionately argued that culture is the greatest tool against repression.
Dr. Nafisi lived through the tumultuous years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Despite the repressive atmosphere her expulsion from the University of Tehran for refusing to adhere to the strict Islamic dress code for women, she continued to teach American and English literature at several universities. For Nafisi, teaching literature was the best way to promote critical thinking and freedom. She strongly believes that literature holds a transformative power: it communicates truths about the human condition that can liberate people and open their minds.
During her lecture at the National Library, Dr. Nafisi spoke at length about the repression of women in Iran and argued that the veil should be a voluntary choice as a form of religious, rather than political, expression. A gesture such as wearing a veil in public loses its meaning if compulsory under public law, because “…when your faith becomes your government, it’s not faith. No human being should be told what their identity should be.”
Ultimately, Dr. Nafisi left Iran because of what the regime was doing: twisting religion as a tool for imposing a rigid ideology and stifling individual freedom. Through fear and repression, Iranians were kept under control. No longer able to tolerate living and working under those conditions, Nafisi came to the United States to have the freedom to speak and write about her ideas. In 2008, she attained U.S. citizenship, which she acknowledges comes with great responsibilities.
Dr. Nafisi is the author of the best-selling memoirs Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve Been Silent About. She is currently working on a new book called Republic of the Imagination. She resides in Washington, D.C., where she is professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.