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ChatChat - Claudia Cragg

Dec 4, 2010

It was back in 1981 that Claudia Cragg fell, by chance as the journalist that she had then been since 1975  (and at that point as a feature writer with the Hong Kong South China Morning Post) into the unbelievably happy position of interviewing interesting people as a profession. And, since that time, she says she has had to pinch herself repeatedly when sitting talking with someone fascinating one on one.

In all that time, though, few people stand out for her as much as the subect of this radio interview, the author Azar Nafisi.

This interview was conducted at the beginning of 2009 but still strikes a profound chord so it is now being shared here on this blogcast. Sadly since then, little has changed in Iran or in Iran-US relations.

Azar Nafisi is a best-selling author, an English Literature professor, and the daughter of Ahmad Nafisi, a former mayor of Tehran (1961–1963) who was the youngest man ever appointed to the post up to that time. She was born in Iran in the late 1940s and speaks here with Claudia Cragg about her autobiography, 'Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter (2008) which discusses her relationship with her parents intermingled with the decades of political upheaval in Iran, including her father's incarceration under the Shah on trumped-up charges of financial irregularities. 

After her education abroad, Nafisi returned to her home in Iran in 1979 where for a brief time she taught English Literature at the University of Tehran. But, in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the subsequent rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Nafisi became increasingly restless with the stringent rules imposed upon women by her country's new rulers. She longed for the freedom that she believed women in some countries took for granted, which women in Iran had now lost as the Khomeini regime enacted laws curtailing women's rights.

So it was that, in 1995, that she found herself in Iran no longer able to teach English literature properly without attracting the scrutiny of the faculty authorities, so she gave up her post at the university, and instead invited seven of her female students to attend regular meetings at her house, every Thursday morning. They studied literary works including some considered controversial in post-revolutionary Iranian society such as Lolita alongside other works such as Madame Bovary. She also taught novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen. But then, on June 24, 1997 Nafisi felt compelled to leave Iran, once again. She moved to the United States, where she wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, (2003), a book where she describes her experiences as a secular woman living and working in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the book, she declares "I left Iran, but Iran did not leave me."

This book that came out of these teaching experiences in The Islamic Republic has been translated into 32 languages. It was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 117 weeks, and has won numerous literary awards, including the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense, and the Europe based Persian Golden Lioness Award for literature.

For some time  now, Nafisi has been a visiting fellow and lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and serves on the Board of Trustees of Freedom House, a United States nongovernmental organization (NGO) which conducts research and advocacy on democracy.