Memoirs Recount Limitations Of Life In Modern Iran Memoir writers Azar Nafisi and Azadeh Moaveni chronicle life in pre- and post-revolution Iran — and offer a glimpse of a people struggling to find pockets of freedom within a repressive regime.
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Memoirs Recount Limitations Of Life In Modern Iran

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Memoirs Recount Limitations Of Life In Modern Iran

Memoirs Recount Limitations Of Life In Modern Iran

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The president of Iran said today he would welcome talks with the U.S. as long as that dialogue was based on what he called mutual respect. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was speaking at festivities celebrating the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution.


Over the next few minutes we'll hear from two women whose bestselling memoirs of life in Iran spotlighted everyday acts of rebellion against that regime. And both consider Iran's ancient traditions when describing the country today.

Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Author, "Reading Lolita in Tehran"): The whole point is that what is enduring, is the voices of cultures, and of history and not governments that are constantly coming and going?

MONTAGNE: That's Azar Nafisi, who many know from her book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran." And whereas Azar Nafisi moved to the U.S. from Iran, our other guest did the opposite. Born in America, Azadeh Moaveni traveled to Iran in her early 20s, and her experiences led to her memoir, "Lipstick Jihad." In her new book, Azadeh Moaveni writes of getting hooked on a soap opera, a show that oddly enough was brought to the public by the Islamic government.

Ms. AZADEH MOAVENI (Author, "Lipstick Jihad"): And it was incredibly popular. The streets of Tehran would be almost deserted when it was on. Everyone watched it. It's named after a village, a sort of imaginary village that's meant to be a microcosm of modern Iran, of the Islamic republic. And so there's a very aggressive police force; there's a very demanding and assertive clique of women who want more from the men who run the village than they're willing to give.

MONTAGNE: And then there's the clerics.

Ms. MOAVENI: Yes. The clerics are sort of hypocritical and a bane to the village. And this was so immensely popular because it was satire, but it was produced by state media and it was run on state media.

MONTAGNE: Azar Nafisi, is this a typical tactic of the Iranian government?

Ms. NAFISI: Well, I think it's a typical tactic of any repressive regime. First of all, it shows the degree of society's sophistication. That the regime, in order to mollify or pacify them, has to find sophisticated ways of doing that. The second thing, my experience in Iran had been that all the 18 years that I was on and off writing and teaching, that anyone within the regime who comes into contact with culture is also transformed by it.

In the ministry of guidance, during the time I was writing my book on Nabokov, they had in their archives all sorts of banned and forbidden books, like Nabokov's "Ada" and all of them. And they would allow a book like that to come out, but then it would become popular and there would be a ban on it. And those people who were in the ministry of culture, many of them later went to jail or became banned themselves.

So, there is this is constant struggle. The good thing about it is that both people and the regime change within this struggle. You know, when Mr. Ahmadinejad comes to power, he is not able to put down all the voices. New voices will come to challenge him and he has to meet that challenge and the system goes into a crisis.

MONTAGNE: And I'd be interested to hear what you say about that, Azadeh, because one of the things you write about is for younger Iranians living there now, one of the ways they avoid the regime's many rules and restrictions, and in a way play the game, is something you call an as-if society - acting as if the rules don't exist.

Ms. MOAVENI: That was certainly what I found when I first moved to Iran back in 2000. It was as though the young people were subverting all of the rules by just ignoring them. And it seemed quite astounding to me that you could sort of nudge an autocracy into loosening up that way.

My experience when I moved back again for a couple of years in 2005, was that sort of as-if works as long as the regime is willing to play the game. You know, I sort of thought that young people, that it was their game. And this time I realized that it's really the regime's game and they're willing to play it only sometimes.

When I was living there this time, for example, there was a massive crackdown on what women were wearing and able to wear in the streets. And this was something that, you know, Iranians had thought, you know, these millions of young women they simply won't accept it. And within a week, everyone was wearing black again because the police had been sent out and were - they arrested something like several tens of thousands of women.

MONTAGNE: Could you give an example from your own life? I mean, there is one thing in your memoir, you write about moving in together with your husband before you were married. So that seems quite shocking. How did you pull that off?

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, like so many things in Iran, there's what you can do in private and the way you're forced to behave when you're on display out in public. I was able to move in with my husband because we were both in our 30s and weren't at the mercy of real estate agents and people who would've been in a position to intervene with what we were doing.

You know, there has developed, I think, in response to the hated daily interventions of the regime in people's daily life - I think there has developed a culture of sort of allowing your neighbors to sort of be and not peeking over doors, and not agreeing to be the government's enforcers. And I think that's how it has come to be that, for example, you have a middle class of young people who has premarital sex, you know; drinks alcohol; behaves as young people do around the world. And this is something that the regime can't do anything about, because for the most part it all happens behind closed doors.

MONTAGNE: Azar, you say you can thank the Islamic Republic of Iran for one thing, and I'm going to quote you here: "By depriving us of the pleasure of imagination, of love and of culture. It has directed us toward them."

Ms. NAFISI: Well, my generation is different from Azadeh's generation, because she came into this world when these rights were taken away from Iranian women. But I grew up in a society where my hero, I mention in this book, heroine, was a young Iranian feminist poet who openly wrote about having sinned in the arms of a man who was not her husband, you know. That was how I was brought up.

And I took all these things for granted. These were my god-given rights. And with the Islamic Republic, by taking all these rights away from me, I was forced to take a hard look at myself and that smugness that I had before. This new generation, the big difference, they have felt the importance of individual rights with their flesh and blood.

My daughter's generation have been jailed and flogged for wearing their weapons of mass destruction - which is, you know, their lipstick or showing their hair or listening to forbidden music. They know with their flesh and blood. And what is lacking is that we need to create a bridge between the private and the public. We need to have that freedom to do publicly what we do privately. And that's what we are deprived of right now in that country, which I hope will change.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. NAFISI: Thank you.

Ms. MOAVENI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Azar Nafisi is the author of "Things I've Been Silent About," and Azadeh Moaveni is author of "Honeymoon in Tehran."

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