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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Family and Nation in Tumult - S. J. Staniski - Azar Nafisi

In her deeply felt new memoir the Iranian-born author Azar Nafisi writes: “After the Islamic Revolution, I used to joke that we had prepared ourselves for a time like this by living with Mother. The problem with such a state of affairs was not that you did not get to do what you wanted —sometimes you did — but the effort to appease or resist the reigning deities left you so exhausted that it prevented you from ever really having fun. To this day having fun, just plain enjoying myself, comes at the cost of a conviction that I have committed an undetected crime.”

“Things I’ve Been Silent About” is a kind of companion volume to Ms. Nafisi’s stunning 2003 memoir “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” but in these pages she turns her focus from life in Iran after the Revolution to her own family, giving us finely etched portraits of her tempestuous, authoritarian mother, and her doting, unassertive father, who was a mayor of Tehran under the Shah. By its end the book builds into an affecting account of a family’s struggle to survive the vicissitudes of political and personal strife, but compared with “Lolita” it can make for somewhat claustrophobic reading. Instead of opening out into a meditation on the cultural fallout of the Islamic Revolution and the refuge that literature can provide in a repressive society, the volume burrows inward to look at the dynamics of duty and rebellion, love and resentment that linked the author to her parents.

In these pages Ms. Nafisi writes with an air of perseverance, trying to chronicle all the “things I’ve been silent about” in the past, as though only such a complete emotional inventory might release her from her family ghosts. She writes about being molested as a child by a distant relative, noting that her father feared that sexual repression in Iran often led to pedophilia. She writes about hysterical fights with her mother, who “seemed to begrudge Father’s successes in public life” and who claimed that Azi — as Ms. Nafisi was called by relatives — had resisted her from the moment she was born. And she writes about her father’s successive affairs and his eventual decision to leave home to seek a happier life.


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