Which was more painful: growing up with a strong-willed, self-deluded mother who alienated husband and children alike, or leaning to live under a totalitarian regime? Both, seems to be the answer of Azar Nafisi in her new memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About.Nafisi is the author of the 2003 sensation “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” You might not expect a book combining literary analysis with accounts of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran to become a global bestseller, but this one was, thanks to Nafisi’s skill in interweaving the political with the personal.
Now she returns to familiar territory.
Although literature plays only a small part this time around, Nafisi is again trying to integrate individual lives with the fate of a nation.
Here, she mingles the history of her family – mostly the story of her mother and their difficult mother-daughter relationship – with the story of contemporary Iran.
“I do not mean this book to be a political or social commentary, or a useful life story,” she writes. “I want to tell the story of a family that unfolds against the backdrop of a turbulent era in Iran’s political and cultural history.”
The story of Nafisi’s family spans a turbulent era indeed.
As she points out in her prologue, her grandmother was born in an Iran governed by rigid religious laws. But her grandmother’s daughter (Nafisi’s mother) grew up in a Westernized Iran in which dancing in public was the norm and women were forbidden to wear the veil.
Yet by the time Nafisi’s own daughter was ready for school, the pendulum had swung again, and even young girls were covering their hair.
In some ways, however, the tumult of contemporary Iranian history pales next to the histrionics of Nafisi’s mother, Nezhat, as portrayed in this memoir.
Nezhat was a beautiful woman (as can be seen in the book’s photos) and she and Ahmad, Nafisi’s father, were both privileged members of Iran’s most elite circles.
But Nezhat carried crippling emotional baggage. As a girl she had lost her mother (perhaps to suicide) and she never recovered from a brief first marriage to a man who concealed from her his terminal illness.
Fretful and self-absorbed, Nezhat’s chronic dissatisfaction exacted a heavy toll on those around her. She became one of the first female members of the Iranian Parliament, yet constantly insisted that she would have been happier as a medical doctor.
And although she told anyone who would listen that her first husband was her only love, she was tortured by Ahmad’s infidelities and the eventual end of their marriage.
Ahmad was a politician as well and served as both the mayor of Tehran and the director of the Ministry of Finance under the Shah. Come the 1979 Islamic revolution, he ended up in jail.
(The years of his imprisonment, Nafisi suggests, were among the happiest of her mother’s life.)
Readers intrigued by “Reading Lolita in Tehran” will appreciate the additional background offered by this memoir which also tells of Nafisi’s own education, two marriages, and life outside of Iran.
But frustratingly brief in this book are the actual glimpses of life in Iran.
Nafisi does write lovingly of pre-revolutionary Tehran, a city filled with “scents of fish, leather, coffee, and chocolate” and “movie houses and restaurants and cafes with their lively music.” She also mentions summer vacations by the Caspian Sea, flavored by moist air and large flowers so bright they seemed “illuminated from within.”
And there are occasional insights into what the Islamic revolution looked and felt like to the citizens who lived it. For instance, it is fascinating to read of the romance and exhilaration initially experienced even by Westernized Iranians like Nafisi’s parents – until they understood what life would be like under the new regime.
There are also intriguing hints of the intellectual wrestlings of Iranians like Ahmad who struggled to understand whether the Westernized or the Islamic vision of Iran was more authentic.
But such glimpses, unfortunately, are brief.
What dominates this book is the discomfort of a malfunctioning family mechanism.
There is love in the Nafisi family, but it is most often misdirected.
Nezhat torments everyone with her own pain, Ahmad retreats into affairs, and the children pay the price.
“A totaliarian mind-set destroys you not just with its impositions, but with its unexpected acts of kindness,” Nafisi writes of life under the yoke of a mother who, blind to her own imperfections, ever nagged her daughter to be more perfect.
And that is what speaks most loudly in this memoir – the guilty feelings of a daughter who sees goodness in both her mother and her country, but cannot love either of them without serious reservations.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.