Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories

Azar Nafisi never imagined that she would write about her own family. “It is such a strong part of Iranian culture to never reveal private matters?. Useful life stories are what matter, like the memoir my father finally published, a cardboard version of himself.” Nafisi retains no such rigid ideas of Iranian culture. Born in the postwar period, she grew up in an Iran that had been nominally secular since the constitutional revolution of the early 20th century but was still deeply religious and imbued with traditional ideas about female subservience. As a student in the ’60s, both at home and in the United States, she was galvanized by the women’s liberation movement and revolutionary politics; in post-revolutionary Iran she witnessed the disastrous success of revolution and the reality of authoritarian theocracy. (Her bestselling book Reading Lolita in Tehran described her experiences secretly teaching the banned classics of Western literature during that time.)

Finally, she was compelled to leave her country and emigrate to America, where she now teaches at Johns Hopkins and reflects on Iranian issues from a distance. Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories is a memoir mingled with a mediation on Nafisi’s homeland. “In this book my interest is not in a general recitation of historical times but rather in those fragile intersections — the places where moments in an individual’s private life and personality resonate with and reflect a larger, more universal story.”

As a child, Nafisi ingested several conflicting visions of Iran. Her father introduced her to Ferdowski’s Shahnameh, the classical Persian epic spanning the period from the creation of the world up to the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Nafisi saw Ferdowski’s Iran as a magnificent paradise and took as her special role model his heroine Rudabeh, a strong, romantic figure who broke social taboos in order to aid her lover. “Look at these women, I thought, created in such misogynist and hierarchical societies, yet they are the subversive centers around which the plot is shaped.” An alternate view of Iran was always apparent to her through her father’s family in Esfahan, devout Muslims who practiced “an elaborate asceticism.”

All this was in striking contrast with Nafisi’s childhood surroundings in Tehran, where her father had a high-profile career in public life that culminated in his becoming mayor. The Tehran Nafisis were secular, but secularism always sat uneasily on the culture, as we learn from this narrative. “Looking back at our history, what seems surprising to me now is not how powerful religious authorities have been in Iran but how quickly modern secular ways took over a society so deeply dominated by religious orthodoxy and political absolutism.”

For Nafisi, the most visible casualty of this cultural schizophrenia was her mother, an intelligent and gifted woman whose traumatic youth and unrealized potential rendered her pathologically embittered. Tempering her raging narcissism with just enough humanity and pathos to keep her family from giving up on her altogether, Nezhat Nafisi is the villain of this book, but a sad and pathetic one. How different her life might have been is evident from her brief stint — her one and only foray into the professional world — as a member of Parliament. Almost immediately after she took office in 1963, her husband was arrested on trumped-up charges by enemies within the shah’s government and imprisoned for three years. Nezhat’s moment of professional triumph had been eclipsed. “All her activities in Parliament were restricted by the knowledge?that my father was a hostage in jail,” her daughter writes. Nevertheless, “whenever she found the opportunity she was the most outspoken member of the opposition. Was this another sign of her selfish disregard for my father’s situation, as so many friends and relatives claimed? Or was it a reflection of her sense of integrity, her insistence in doing the right thing, no matter what the cost? I think perhaps it was both.”

Nafisi’s account of the years leading up to the revolution is the most interesting portion of her narrative. She takes the long view, looking at the period as a crucial moment in Iran’s long identity crisis. “The question of the real Iran kept coming up in discussions between my parents and their friends,” she remembers. “Which was more legitimate: the ancient traditions with which the Shah propped up his power , or the strict Islamic principle of Ayatollah Khomeini?” Nafisi, caught up in the international radical movement in the ’60s and ’70s, was one of those who were na?ve enough to misconstrue Khomeini’s real designs. He was a revolutionary, he opposed the Shah — therefore he was to be supported. “In our group it seemed as if everything could fall into place, all questions could be answered: the world could be controlled, polished, purged, and purified?. We were consumed by the inflexible ideological trends of the time, turning the teachings of Che Guevara, Mao, Lenin, and Stalin into romantic dreams of revolution.” In their self-righteousness these young revolutionaries rejected the moderate, experienced Bakhtiar (last prime minister under the shah), denouncing him as a compromiser, and put their support behind Khomeini.

As Khomeini consolidated his power by brutally suppressing his onetime allies, Nafisi and her friends had to come to terms with the new Iran: the terrible eight-year war with Iraq, the so-called Cultural Revolution, the 1981 closing of the universities, which were deemed agents of Western imperialism by the regime. The deep division in Iranian culture was only exacerbated by the return to Islamic law. “The truth was that Iranian society was far ahead of its leaders and those targeted by the regime, especially the women, instead of retreating had become even more prominent on the social and cultural scene.”

Over and over, Nafisi sees the fault lines of Iranian society reflected in her own unquiet family, particularly the furious, tormented, and tormenting Nezhat. By the end of her tale, the author has gained enough objectivity to express thanks both to her mother and to her country for gifts that were often difficult to appreciate at the time. “I thank the Islamic Republic of Iran: by depriving us of the pleasure of imagination, of love, and of culture it had directed us toward them.” As for her parents: “Father had given me the stories , my portable home. With Mother it was more complicated. I had come to my books and my vocation and even my family both because of her and in spite of her. It was ironic that in the end I had become what Mother wanted me to be, or what she wanted to become: a woman content with her family and work.”