The Rule of the Bus
Post date 07.10.03 | Issue date 07.21.03
Reading Lolita on the Bus
As it happened not in Tehran but at home in New York, and some time before coming upon Nafisi's despairing history I had already encountered one of these jokes, as well as two of the targeted passengers. In autumn of 1999, during an interval of thaw in the Islamic Republic's unsparing regime, a group of four Iranian writers was permitted to depart for New York. It was a private visit, closed to the press, and presided over by an Iranian exile, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at an elite American university. In response to an invitation from the Freedom-to-Write Committee of the American PEN Center, the visitors, their academic cicerone, and a pair of translators joined an attentive circle of about twenty American writers at a large round table in a small secluded room. The mood was cautious, hesitant on both sides. The Americans, conscious of their liberties in the face of writers under duress, feared giving offense by pressing too hard; and the Iranians, accustomed to wary reticence, seemed apprehensive, unsure of what unsuspected quagmires might await. But there was a prevailing good will, edged by mutual watchfulness, and the suppressed jubilation that accompanies sympathetic recognition.
Here they were, these alien messengers bearing the unfathomable scars of tyranny yet what were they really? Familiar middle-aged scribblers in shirtsleeves, worn intellectuals marked by deepening creases. You could meet their like anywhere, splitting literary hairs and grinding out cigarette butts in coffee dregs. One had a droopy Mark Twain mustache and a humorous shoulder tweaked upward by spasms of irony. He was the first to tear down the curtain of formality that shadowed the table, and it was from him that I heard the joke it was a kind of joke about the bus. In Iran, he said, we don't have the Rule of Law; instead we have the Rule of the Bus, mandated to pitch a score of writers over a cliff, and good riddance to critical thinking. He had spent the last twenty years, he confided, "humbly, in the corner of the kitchen" a refuge from the despotic storm.
At the time of this visit, the despotic storm had engulfed thirteen Iranian Jews falsely accused of spying for Israel; they were charged with the sin of "world arrogance" and threatened with execution, a public iniquity that was drawing international protest and dominating the news almost daily. Only the year before, in July 1998, another scapegoated Jew had been hanged, the most recent in a series of "anti-Zionist" persecutions. In view of the Rule of the Bus and since hatred of "Zionists" remained a salient and enduring tenet of the ayatollahs' statecraft it struck me as imperative not to exclude the condition of Iranian Jews in a conversation touching on human rights and free expression. The gruff and shaggy spokesman for the four, who had been introduced as "the poet of the streets," began instantly to reply in rapid Farsi. One word leaped into comprehension: Falastin. It was on account of the Palestinians, he explained stiffly; that was why Jews born in Isfahan were guilty. "A governmental answer," I countered, "not an answer from the corner of the kitchen." But the kitchen finally won out: the poet of the streets, it developed, had his work banned for years, during which he earned his living writing advertising copy. He had been accused of "accepting money from Israel." He was officially a dissident. They were all dissidents; they were all secularists; they were all subject to the malevolent whims of a theocratic tyranny.
"Theocratic tyranny": this was the professor's scalding phrase. He was angry at the ayatollahs; he was angry at the fanatical influences that had corrupted a society and was punishing its intellectuals; clearly he was on the side of freedom and humanity. Yet now startlingly, improbably he stepped forward, bitter, strident, enraged. It was not the distant ayatollahs who were inflaming him at this hour: it was something nearer, something that was happening in this very room. The professor was white-faced. He was shouting. While an entire nation of millions is suffering under a theocratic tyranny, you, he scolded, are unfair, you are arrogant, to ask about thirteen Jews! Why do you pick out only the Jews to worry about? Why do they deserve separate mention?
Unfair? During the regime's ongoing campaign against Jews, the thirteen had been selected for maltreatment in a place where, as the professor knew, the notion of judicial fairness was Galgenhumor. Arrogant? Surprisingly, the professor's idiom was almost identical to that of the abusive regime's typical canard of "world arrogance," employed in the usual way. And why, the American inquired, shouldn't a demographic minority Iranian Jews merit the same attention as the majority of millions? Didn't the demographic minority count as part of those millions? Who was it really who was focusing too zealously on the Jews of Iran? Was it the objectionable American, or was it the Islamic Republic, with its nonsensical anti-Semitic inventions and its persistent cry of "Death to Israel"? Or was it, just then, the distinguished professor, for whom the mere mention of Jews was an irritant?
And that is how, on November 2, 1999, the mephitic vapors of Tehran seeped, all unexpectedly, into a human rights colloquy in New York. It may be noted, though, that afterward, when the meeting was done, the man with the droopy Mark Twain mustache the same man who had joked about the Rule of the Bus approached the chastised American, shrugged his wry shy shrug, and smiled his tired, sensible, honest smile.
ince then, I have often thought of the man with the droopy Mark Twain mustache, and of the clandestine heroism of the corner of the kitchen. I fancy that I have met him again in Azar Nafisi's pages, where he can be fitfully glimpsed now forcefully, now flickeringly. Nafisi calls him "my magician." His face (perhaps he is clean-shaven?) is hidden from us; how he gets his bread is left indistinct. But his principles are plain: he has succeeded in living as a free man in a brutal society. He will not accede to becoming, as Nafisi puts it, a figment of the ayatollahs' imagination. His credo is anonymity: "I want to be forgotten; I am not a member of this club. . . . In fact, I don't exist." His dissent is as absolute as it is private and only because it is acutely private can it be absolute. Yet there is always the twisted paradox of oppression: in the ayatollahs' imagination, all privacy, including the most sequestered corner of the kitchen, is transgression, and all transgression is rebellion. Hence the private individual, the invisible dissenter, is "as dangerous to the state," Nafisi concludes, "as an armed rebel."
Inspired by her magician, Nafisi herself took up arms. She and her coconspirators seven young women gathered secretly on Thursday mornings in Nafisi's living room, on soft couches, over tea and cream puffs. The cream puffs and cushions are misleading: this was a war room, roiling with insurrection; the young women, arriving shrouded in their long robes and head scarves, were ardent insurgents. Their maps and weapons were at the ready Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice. And also A Thousand and One Nights, banned in Iran and available only on the black market: the dangerously subversive Scheherazade, who knows how stories can outwit ruthlessness and confer life.
That Nafisi's rebels were women is not insignificant. In the Islamic Republic, all citizens, male and female, are subject to the caprices of tyranny; but women, even as victims, are less than equal. With the ascension of Khomeini and the introduction of sharia, Islamic law, the age of marriage for females was reduced from eighteen to nine. Stoning became the punishment for prostitution and adultery. Women were obliged to cover themselves from head to toe; to sit in the back of the bus; to avoid bright colors in coats and scarves and shoelaces. A hint of lipstick or a wayward strand of hair was likely to draw the savage solicitude of the roving moral police. Running was forbidden; licking an ice cream cone in public was forbidden; walking with a man not one's near relation was forbidden.
In her covert seminar, Nafisi's retort to these depredations was literary generalship. Her allies were Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen each of whom yields a powerful refraction of internal freedom and cultural despotism, of autonomy and usurpation. "The desperate truth of Lolita's story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man," Nafisi argues, "but the confiscation of one individual's life by another.... Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people's lives." James's Daisy Miller declines to be ruled by the expectations of her conditioning; Catherine Sloper of Washington Square resists not merely local convention but a deep-seated drive to manipulate and subordinate her. In Pride and Prejudice, Nafisi points out, "there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist," and it is this many-voiced disharmony dialogue on all sides that underlies Austen's "democratic imperative." Nafisi had come to this perception alone; but in a period of grim discouragement, reinforcement was at hand. "You used to preach to us all," her friend the magician reminded her, "that [Austen] ignored politics, not because she didn't know any better but because she didn't allow her work, her imagination, to be swallowed up by the society around her. At a time when the world was engulfed in the Napoleonic Wars, she created her own independent world, a world that you, two centuries later, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, teach as the fictional ideal of democracy. Remember all that talk of yours about how the first lesson in fighting tyranny is to ... satisfy your own conscience?"
She remembered; she did not forget. Unlike her students, born into the ayatollahs' imperium wherein women were legally half the value of men, and "temporary marriage," a form of sanctioned philandering, was the law Nafisi had experienced the pre-Khomeini era. Her father had been the mayor of Tehran. Her mother had been elected to Parliament. After the Islamic revolution, the two women who had been Cabinet ministers were sentenced to death, "for the sins of warring with God and for spreading prostitution." The first happened to be safely abroad. The second the former principal of Nafisi's high school was put in a sack and stoned. Denunciations, coerced confessions, the murder of political prisoners, amputations of the limbs of thieves, show trials, and an unending procession of executions were now commonplace.
The young women in Nafisi's private seminar suffered from nightmares, both in their dreams (the fear of going about unveiled) and in quotidian reality. One was allowed to attend by means of a ruse: her father believed she was translating religious texts. Another had a dictatorial husband who beat her. Still others had been jailed or subjected to humiliatingly invasive virginity tests. Everywhere in the streets slogans on posters bawled, "Death to America! Down with Imperialism and Zionism!" It was against all this that Nafisi's seven seditionists were pitted. In the conspiratorial sanctum that was Nafisi's living room, where a mirror reflected distant mountains, they threw off their somber scarves and shapeless robes and burst into an individuality of color and loosened hair. In all of Iran on a Thursday morning, it was only here that Gatsby's green light burned.
afisi had once been a revolutionary of a different stripe. An early marriage (it ended in divorce) took her to the University of Oklahoma, where her husband was studying engineering. When he returned to Iran, she stayed on, joining the demonstrations protesting the Vietnam war, "occupying" a university building, reading Lenin and Mao together with Melville and Poe. Oklahoma's Iranian students were radical Marxists. Nafisi went to their rallies, yelled their slogans, and speechified against American support for the Shah. Along the way she acquired a doctorate in literature: her dissertation was on the American proletarian novelists, exemplified by Mike Gold, the editor of New Masses, a 1930s periodical sympathetic to Bolshevism. Her career as a professor of literature began in the English department of the University of Tehran, just as the regime was starting its religious and political penetration of public institutions. "Almost every week, sometimes every day of the week," she recalls, "there were either demonstrations or meetings, and we were drawn to these like a magnet, independently of our will." When a popular young ayatollah a hero of the revolution died, rivalrous Islamic factions fought over delivering the body to its grave, while an oceanic crowd frothed in a mania of mourning and chanting. Nafisi was caught up in the communal rhapsody; she had voted for Khomeini, she had willed the revolution.
And then, as revolutions do, it swallowed her up. Vigilantes and fanatics took over. The veil was imposed on women. Books were banned. Bahai burials were prohibited. The enemies of God multiplied; torture and executions multiplied. Nafisi's students were turning rigidly ideological. Characters in novels were judged by Islamic standards and condemned for "cultural aggression." Gatsby's Daisy was denounced as dissolute and decadent, and Gatsby was scorned as a swindler representing Western materialism. In a mordant parody that Nafisi plainly recognized "be careful what you wish for, be careful of your dreams," she admonished one of her students, "one day they may just come true" the ghost of the doctrinaire proletarian novel, dressed now in radical Islamic robes, rose up to haunt her: once again literature was being cut to fit prevailing dogma.
To undermine the spreading zealotry, Nafisi devised an ingenious pedagogical scheme. "This is a good time for trials," she commented dryly and so her classroom would assume the trappings of a court: The Great Gatsby was to be put on trial. The novel would be the defendant. The students would enact judge, prosecutor, defense, and jury. Here was the prosecutor (a young man): "Imam Khomeini has relegated a great task to our poets and writers.... If our Imam is the shepherd who guides the flock to its pasture, then the writers are the faithful watchdogs who must lead according to the shepherd's dictates.... This book preaches illicit relations." And here was the defense (a young woman): "Our prosecutor has demonstrated his own weakness: an inability to read a novel on its own terms. All he knows is judgment, crude and simplistic exaltation of right and wrong. But is a novel good because the heroine is virtuous?" And now the defendant (in the voice of Nafisi): "A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil." Gatsby, the defendant insisted, is "about loss, about the perishability of dreams once they are transformed into hard reality."
At the close of the mock tribunal a virtuoso passage in this vividly braided memoir Nafisi appears to confront her own complicity, and that of her generation. "What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald," she muses, "was this dream that became our obsession and took over reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified and forgiven." But was the dream of a politicized Islamic society, even one initially pledged to reform, ever as beautiful as it was surely terrible? When Nafisi speaks tenderly of religion, it is through her regard for her grandmother's chador, "a symbol of her sacred relationship to God.... It was a shelter, a world apart from the world." This serene image of pious withdrawal, an expression of inner devotion, is inescapably foreign to the bristling political belligerence of the chador under the ayatollahs' hard rule. In the falsified name of holiness thousands were arrested, movie houses were burned down, teenagers were sentenced to death, gun-toting morality squads prowled. With provocations on both sides, the eight-year war with Iraq was soon to be prosecuted. Tehran would be repeatedly bombed, and hundreds of young "martyrs," the keys to heaven swinging from their necks, would be sent to march through fields littered with land mines.
n circumstances such as these, Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran. She had refused to wear the veil; her refusal seemed to signify an end to teaching. She would not compromise, she could not be coerced. She entered the silenced zone of interiority, though not in the style of her friend the magician, whose principled disappearance she could not approximate. Occupied with family life, a husband and children, she was perforce in the world of common necessity. Was there, then, a middle way between compliance with the ayatollahs and the desolating seclusion of internal exile? A determined academic dynamo named Mrs. Rezvan claimed that there could be: she pressured Nafisi to take a position at Allameh Tabatabai, her "liberal" university, where, though the veil was mandatory in the classroom, Nafisi would be permitted to teach what she pleased and besides, given that the veil was law, wasn't she already veiled when she walked out to the grocery store? A university is not a grocery, Nafisi objected; but she yielded. "Some thought I would be a traitor," she writes, "if I neglected the young and left them to the teachings of corrupt ideologies; others insisted I would be betraying everything I stood for if I worked for a regime responsible for ruining the lives of so many.... Both were right."
But "liberalism" in a state-controlled university was relative. The president of the faculty averted his eyes from her; religion forbade him to look at a woman. The Muslim Students Association and Islamic Jihad were active and fanatic. The walls were lined with the usual inflammatory posters. The students, constrained by beliefs and certainties that allowed no independent thought, were fearful of individuality and it was the perplexities of individuality and autonomy that Nafisi drew from the novels which her impassioned readings illumined. Jane Austen was pelted with charges of being "vile," "decadent," "corrupt," in the regime's hackneyed terminology. Unaccountably, there was still another source for the perversion of the aims of literature:
One day after class, Mr. Nahvi followed me to my office. He tried to tell me that Austen was not only anti-Islamic but that she was guilty of another sin: she was a colonial writer. I was surprised to hear this from the mouth of someone who until then had mainly quoted and misquoted the Koran. He told me that Mansfield Park was a book that condoned slavery.... What confounded me was that I was almost certain that Mr. Nahvi had not read Mansfield Park.
Nafisi's astonishment was dispelled much later, presumably in an American academic environment, when she was introduced to the views of Edward Said; it hardly counts as a witticism to note that she was spared this particular debasement of fiction only by the intellectual isolation imposed by life under tyranny. That a Muslim fundamentalist with a circumscribed mind had gotten wind of Said's lucubrations on Mansfield Park suggests something about the uses of foolish ideas.
ecause the intensity of the Iraqi bombings had grown unendurable, Khomeini was compelled to accept what he called the "cup of poison" the recognition of defeat and the termination of the war. Domestic loyalties now emerged as the regime's latest motif, and again there were mass executions. Nafisi's classes expanded strangers, students from other universities, former graduates, and other outsiders crowded her lectures. They came for Nabokov, for James, for Austen; they came to hear what had been taken from them. In 1989, Khomeini died. The mammoth funeral, the turbulence of the mobs, the prolonged official lamentations ignited a public frenzy comparable (though Nafisi does not tell us this) to the orgiastic obsequies surrounding Stalin's death. The ruler who was mourned as "the breaker of idols" was placed in an air-conditioned glass case. His image, it was said, could be seen in the moon. "Even perfectly modern and educated individuals came to believe this," Nafisi marvels. And Mrs. Rezvan, despite her zeal for the possibility of the liberalization of at least one Iranian university, escaped to Canada. Allameh Tabatabai had been tagged by some in the Ministry of Education as no better than Switzerland a touchstone of Western decay.
Nafisi escaped to her living room, where her surreptitious confederates, stripped of empathy in the ayatollahs' withering domain, found it in the voices of novels and in the safety of an intimate confessional space. Satire became the lance to pierce the hide of repressive law. Jane Austen, far from conspiring with the imperialist subjugation, was, in this room of a thousand hurts, a rebel captain:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife." So declared Yassi, in tha tspecial tone of hers, deadpan and wildly ironic, which on some occasions, and this was one of them, bordered on the burlesque.
Inexorably, the personal travail of the seven began to wash over their Thursday mornings. The social condition of women in Iran where nail polish remained an offense worthy of flogging and prison and the outrage of authoritarian confiscation possessed the seminar: there it was in Lolita, here it was in Tehran.
One of Nafisi's recurrent "jokes" not unlike the joke about the Rule of the Bus is her account of the official censor, whose job it was to guard against insult to religion in film, theater, and television. What made him highly suitable as a judge of the visual arts was that he could not see what he condemned he was virtually blind. The sightless censor is Nafisi's metaphor for the Islamic Republic: it declined to see, and in not seeing, it was unable to feel. This blind callousness Nafisi rightly terms it solipsism ruled every cranny of the nation's existence. The answer to governmental solipsism, Nafisi determined, was insubordination through clinging to what the regime could neither see nor feel: the sympathies and openness of humane art, art freed from political manipulation the inchoate glimmerings of Fitzgerald's green light, Nabokov's "world of tenderness, brightness and beauty," James's "Feel, feel, I say feel for all you're worth."
ut the strains of insubordination and the tensions of oppositional thinking could not last. "You will be leaving us soon," her friend the magician said. She left Iran in 1997, impelled by what the great novels reveal: the right to choose. Or perhaps it was only the ayatollahs' Iran that she abandoned. She kept the Iran she prized: the mountains in her living-room mirror; the Persian classics, whose names Rumi, Hafez, Sa'adi, Khayyam, Nezami, Ferdowsi, Attar, Beyhaghi are an elixir of language; the memory of her underground magician, on whose repudiations civilization finally depends.
In Iran, until recently, the straits of courage through which one might pass with conscience nearly unscathed seemed few. The magician's way: I am not a member of this club. Mrs. Rezvan's way: why deprive the young of what they deserve to have and only you can give? which led first to compromise and then to disillusionment. And last, emigration, whenever it proved feasible, and if not, then through the connivance of smugglers. The Rule of the Bus rendered any other solution unthinkable. Yet lately there are rumblings of cracks in the ayatollahs' regime. A fore-echo was heard even before Nafisi's departure, when a former student, no longer wearing the chador, confided that she had named her child Daisy: "I want my daughter to be what I never was." Once an ideologically indignant adherent of the Muslim Students Association, she had resisted Nafisi's charge that a novel is "not an exercise in censure." She had admired a professor who erased the impious word "wine" from his readings. And she had emphatically assailed James's Daisy as licentious. "As I write," Nafisi notes in her epilogue, "I open the paper to read about the student demonstrations in support of a dissident who was sentenced to death for suggesting that the clergy should not be blindly followed like monkeys."
And as I write, I open the paper to read about student protests in Tehran the burning of tires, the burning of trees directed against Khamenei, the current ruling ayatollah, and also against President Khatami, the designated reformist figure. (When Khatami appeared on American television some months past, it was all a matter of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.) Twenty-four years ago, the students of the Islamic revolution were chanting, "Death to America!" Now their sons and daughters are chanting, "Death to Khamenei! Kill all the mullahs!" And still the tune is death. A generation has been reared on death death as justice, death as retribution, death as religion, death as victory, death as intoxication. Revolutions are rarely velvet, and most often cannot be, especially when sanctified thugs and their truncheons come calling but death yelps as the birth pangs of democracy?
Azar Nafisi's anguished and glorious memoir contemplates another theme. "How fragile is his life," she thinks, visiting her magician for the last time. She is with him in the corner of the kitchen, imagining the future. She will go on reading Lolita in the United States. He will stay behind. How much more promising it would be if the beleaguered summoners of a world yet unborn were moved to cry, "Long life to Scheherazade!" in the streets of Tehran.
Cynthia Ozick is the author most recently of Quarrel and Quandary (Knopf).
©Copyright 2003, The New Republic (Washington, DC, USA)
Following is the URL to the original story. The site may have removed or archived this story. URL: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030721&s=ozick072103