Before author Azar Nafisi took the stage at the Campbell Performing Arts Center on Monday, November 5, a video showed fun-loving young Iranians posing and dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” reinforcing the sense that they shared the free-spirited optimism and vitality of contemporaries worldwide.
Within hours after that video was released in Iran, the seemingly carefree dancers had been arrested by the theocratic state that has ruled Nafisi’s homeland for four decades.
The Iranian-American author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination, speaking at Groton School during a day dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and global education, had several messages for students. Among them: Be curious. Challenge. Fight against conventional wisdom. And read authors such as James Baldwin, who loved America—and loved to criticize its established hypocrisies.
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Groton's summer all-school read, recounted the secret literature classes Nafisi held in her home for several female students after her refusal to wear a veil cost her her university teaching job. She described the rise of totalitarian power in her homeland: the reduction in the legal age for girls to marry (from eighteen to nine), the restrictions on dress, and broad persecution of minorities. Suddenly, many books—her personal refuge and joy—were banned; even chickens in a children's book were required to don little veils.
Yet Nafisi warned students not to judge a culture by its worst attributes. If the Islamic Repubilc represents her culture, she pondered, is the culture of Europe represented by the Inquisition and the culture of the United States by slavery?
When Nafisi moved to America, where the right of individuals to pursue happiness was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, she understood from experience that American values could not be taken for granted and were worth fighting for. Our greatest enemies, she warned, are complacency and ignorance. "When the Islamic Republic came to power, they targeted three victims—women, minorities, and culture," she said. "Is that familliar to you?"
Nafisi recounted a scene from a great American classic, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, where Huck, who had been raised to believe he would go to hell if he turned in a runaway slave, thought of his friend Jim beyond his race, daring to see him as a human being. No matter the penalty for shielding Jim, Huck decided to rip up the note he had written that would have turned Jim in.
“How many of us,” Nafisi asked her Groton audience, “have the courage to go to hell but do the right thing?”