Anna Karenina vs. Google Glass
Azar Nafisi, the celebrated Iranian author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” talked to Michael Skafidas for NPQ about literature, the Internet and the West’s false expectations of President Rouhani.
NPQ | Your best seller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, exposed the harsh realities of theocratic Iran to millions of readers in the West. It is a reminder of the importance of understanding the lives of others through literature. You have also spoken about the “republic of the imagination” as a magical space, where literature attains power to affect lives not only in terms of entertainment but also politically. Is this still a realistic notion in the electronic era?
AZAR NAFISI | Of course. Actually, my new book—which will be published in September—is called The Republic of Imagination, and it covers to a great extent this topic.
Literature as opposed to politics is very complex; it brings into play a lot of factors that everyday politics or policymaking try to get away from. When you read a book, you do it not to affirm your prejudices or what you already know; you are going to a book in order to discover. It is like Alice running after the white rabbit. She gets excited about things that she doesn’t know.
But with politics we usually speak to things that we already know, and especially politics as it is practiced today in the West, but also in other parts of the world. The kind of mindset that creates literature, or is interested in literature, is in direct contact with the kind of mindset that is interested in human rights, because with human rights again you have to put yourself in places of other people; people you have never seen, or you don’t know. And you have to try to understand them and not just simply condemn them or judge them.
Without this sense of understanding, the world would be a much more dangerous place to live in because there would be no attempt to understand others, to try to get to know not just the stranger over there, but actually the stranger within you.
NPQ | These days, it is often a challenge to convince younger people to read Homer or Tolstoy. Today’s generation seems to be fairly detached from the past in terms of cultural references. Where is this going?
NAFISI | This is one of the main problems we have today. There is a great deal of talking about the state of education in America—the way it is falling more and more behind in terms of reading—even science and math. But I think we don’t go to the roots of the problem.
It is not so much this generation’s fault that they have become indifferent towards the sort of complexity that is needed in order to enjoy a great book. I think it’s the way we are bringing them up. This generation is used very much to being entitled. I remember when my daughter went to high school some parents here in the US would complain that books like Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter were too long!
We try to make everything more efficient and easier like fast food. In the same manner, we are not spending time at making food and end up taking the essential pleasure out of meals and mealtime.
In terms of imagination, we are doing the same thing—just something digestible and politically correct. Great works of literature are very complex; they don’t give you answers about who is good or bad. But in American high schools, when they read literature from other countries, they are very simplified, politically correct kind of books. So it is both ideology and this concept of easygoing efficiency that we need to challenge.
NPQ | It is not only in the schools that the “easygoing efficiency,” as you put it, changes the way people read. In journalism, also, the growing trend is all about condensing information and knowledge. Eight or ten thousand word magazine journalistic pieces, which used to be the norm ever since the advent of new journalism, are a thing of the past with very few exceptions.
In the visual arts, also, Instagram has created an illusion of photography as a “daily art” and therefore has reduced it to largely redundant imagery. Youth are estranged from the past’s patterns and older generations are estranged from the youth for not responding to these patterns.
NAFISI | I completely agree. And this pertains to every other aspect of our lives. You mention journalism, I as a reader can tell how much the quality has dropped and how much the attention to detail has faded. Everybody thinks they can be a journalist, everybody can write a novel!
We don’t pay the price for who we are or what we want to be, we don’t want to go through the pain of growing up and going through the trouble of experiencing life. That is why I think more than ever we need to get together on that.
There is also lack of attention to the arts. A lot of high schools have taken art and music out of the curriculum. Some new course standards even take fiction out. All this is a bit too much.
Art and literature are very much concerned with the sensuality and reality of life, yet more and more reality becomes a sort of entertainment. We are in love with gadgets, rather than falling in love with a great book or work of art.
Instead of taking on “Anna Karenina” and the challenge of reading and understanding the complexities, we put on our Google glasses.
I asked some of my young students why they are so excited about Google glasses, but they couldn’t explain to me why these gadgets are important in their lives. And so I think we need to use this technology in order to question it. My hope is that if Antigone has stayed with us for all these thousands of years, maybe we can survive. But we can’t survive if we don’t question.
The Internet and Iran
NPQ | On the other hand, it is because of this progress that political and religious divisions seem less and less relevant especially to the younger generations. Censorship itself is losing its meaning. For instance, the Iranian government has banned Reading Lolita in Tehran, but many Iranian citizens have read your book thanks to the Internet and the social media.
NAFISI | Yes, this is true. Even though I am still trying to digest the social media and have a great deal of criticism about it, I don’t like the homogeneity that social media brings to it under the guise of variety—or Amazon as the great warehouse to the world.
I like to go to shops. I like to touch things. I like to connect to people. On the other hand, there are other aspects of the Internet and the social media, like for example what you just said about censorship. As in the case of Iran in 2009, or in Egypt, people could use social media in order to get their information from outside. I think, in regards to social media, we need to create a larger debate on a national level—try to understand it and use its positive aspects, but not just to give in to it blindly.
NPQ | Despite the progressive message that the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and his government are trying to project to the world, a lot of social media—including Twitter—are still blocked in Iran.
NAFISI | Yes, they regularly do that; it is a very interesting phenomenon. It is known how much Mr. Rouhani’s government is using the social media—Mr. Rouhani himself is tweeting; his foreign minister goes on YouTube. Totalitarian systems like in Iran are very savvy about propaganda when it comes to themselves, that’s all they do! But what makes me hopeful also is that the Iranian people, especially the youth, just don’t give up and they are in many ways far savvier than the regime.
The government is constantly trying to block the common people from using the social media, but they are not fully able to do it. Iran, like China, has the most sophisticated ways of blocking the Internet and censoring, but the good news is that they haven’t been able to do this because people have nonetheless found ways of communicating to the world. That’s why it is so important to put pressure on social media and Internet companies to not give in to these governments.
NPQ | Since he assumed office last August, President Rouhani has been portrayed by the Western media as an “experienced technocrat,” much friendlier toward the West than any of his recent predecessors. His emphasis on the economy and engagement with the world has begun to change international perceptions of Iran and shift the mood at home. Is that an accurate depiction?
NAFISI | The Western media, I am afraid, often misreads reality. I am not saying they do this intentionally; part of it is out of ignorance and part of it is that leaders are turned into celebrities—even if they are presidents of a country like Iran. In part they don’t hear the other voices except for a few people who call themselves “Iran experts” in Washington DC!
The whole point about Mr. Rouhani is that he has made some claims which are based on the fact that Iran is in a really deep economic, social and political crisis and the sanctions against the Iranian government only make that crisis much deeper. Mr. Rouhani has not done much inside Iran to create openness, to grant freedom.
If you watch human rights reports on Iran, you will note the executions and the situation of prisoners. In Iran, the situation is very complicated because, on one hand, many people within the ruling elite in Iran know that things are not going well. On the other hand, what can the people of Iran hope for right now?
Socially, culturally and politically they are constantly under pressure. They are censored. Then the economic situation is worsening. The inefficiency—the fact that people who have the know-how are never secure enough in Iran to be able to do something beneficial—all contribute to the problematic situation.
What is killing people, when I speak to my friends inside Iran, is not just politics. It is also maladies like pollution and other problems that the Iranian government cannot harness.
People like Mr. Rouhani are very worried about this situation and they try to contain it, but how much can they contain it while keeping the status quo?
That is the problem because the Islamic regime was founded, like the communist regime in the former Soviet Union, on certain “principles.” Being anti-American or anti-West, the fundamentalism—all these are part of the system. How can they change that? How can they bring reform to this country without breaking it up? They have seen what happened in Eastern Europe, so they are worried.