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Unidentified Man #1: I believe in the power of love.
Unidentified Man #2: I believe...
Unidentified Woman #1: I believe it deeply...
Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the importance of...
Unidentified Woman #2: I believe that everyone wants...
Unidentified Man #4: I believe in people.
Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Mondays, our series This I Believe brings you statements of personal conviction. Today our essay is from writer and teacher Azar Nafisi. She is best known for her book "Reading Lolita in Tehran." Here is our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.
JAY ALLISON reporting:
Azar Nafisi used to teach literature at the University of Tehran, but she was fired for refusing to wear a veil. In 1995, she began teaching in secret from a reading list that included Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Dickens and Twain. She believes in the power of literature and particularly in the way stories allow readers to understand other worlds and other people. Here is Azar Nafisi with her essay for This I Believe.
Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Teacher/Writer): I believe in empathy. I believe in the kind of empathy that is created through imagination and through intimate personal relationships. I'm a writer and a teacher, so much of my time is spent interpreting stories and connecting to other individuals. It is the urge to know more about ourselves and others that creates empathy. Through imagination and our desire for rapport, we transcend our limitations, freshen our eyes and are able to look at ourselves and the world through a new and alternative lens.
Whenever I think of the word `empathy,' I think of a small boy named Huckleberry Finn, contemplating his friend and runaway slave Jim. Huck asks himself whether he should give Jim up or not. Huck was told in Sunday school that people who let slaves go free go to everlasting fire. But then Huck says he imagines he and Jim `in the day and nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we are floating along, talking and singing and laughing. Huck remembers Jim and their friendship and warmth. He imagines Jim not as a slave, but as a human being, and he decides that, all right, then I'll go to hell.'
What Huck rejects is not religion but an attitude of self-righteousness and inflexibility. I remember this particular scene out of "Huck Finn" so vividly today because I associate it with a difficult time in my own life. In the early 1980s when I taught at the University of Tehran, I, like many others, was expelled. I was very surprised to discover that my staunchest allies were two students who were very active at the university's powerful Muslim Students Association. These young men and I had engaged in very passionate and heated arguments. I had fiercely opposed their ideological stances, but that didn't stop them from defending me. When I ran into one of them after my expulsion, I thanked him for his support. `We're not as rigid as you imagine us to be, Professor Nafisi,' he responded. `Remember your own lectures on "Huck Finn"? Let's just say he's not the only one who can risk going to hell.'
This experience in my life reinforces my belief in the mysterious connections that link individuals to each other, despite their vast differences. No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a child left orphaned in Darfur or a woman taken to a football stadium in Kabul and shot to death because she's improperly dressed. Only curiosity about the fate of others, the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, and the will to enter their world through the magic of imagination creates this shock of recognition. Without this empathy, there can be no genuine dialogue, and we as individuals and nations will remain isolated and alien, segregated and fragmented.
I believe it is only through empathy that the pain experienced by an Algerian woman, a North Korean dissident, a Rwandan child or an Iraqi prisoner becomes real to me and not just passing news. And it is at times like this when I ask myself: Am I prepared, like Huck Finn, to give up Sunday school heaven for the kind of hell that Huck chose?
ALLISON: Azar Nafisi, reading her essay for This I Believe. We are inviting everyone to send us their own statements of personal belief. You can submit your writing and read and hear all the essays in our series at our Web site, npr.org. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.
MONTAGNE: Next Monday on "All Things Considered," an essay from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.