- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

By Azar Nafisi
Random House, $26, 352 pages

Azar Nafisi’s first book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” is a scathing reprobation of the Iranian regime that came into place after the revolution of 1979. As a teacher at the University of Tehran, Miss Nafisi had to undergo several humiliations for refusing to follow the diktats of the mullahs. When the situation threatened to go out of control, she decided to emigrate to the United States. She is now a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, and resides in Washington with her family.

Her second outing, the book under review, is a more autobiographical work than her first, since it charts the Nafisis’ family life, right from Azar’s childhood, to the point where she lost both her parents.

Born into a prominent Tehran family, Azar was the apple of her father’s eye. But her relationship with her mother was fraught. Nezhat was an opinionated woman whose marriage to Ahmad Khan, Azar’s father, was not her first. All her life, she pined for the love of her first husband, Saifi, who had passed away.

Miss Nafisi’s portrait of her mother is mixed, intermingling the matriarch’s sense of responsibility towards her children with bitterness about her missed opportunities. She comes across as a powerful character who could mold things in her image and get her way with people and circumstances.

Ahmad Khan was an upright civil servant who rose to become the mayor of Tehran. He enjoyed the trust of the shah, but that was insufficient to protect him from political intrigues. He was sent to jail when Azar was an adolescent, an experience that changed his life, and his family’s too.

After returning from prison, Khan, having lost all will to serve the government, also had to battle the ghosts at home. His wife had by now become a member of Parliament, and this shifted the dynamics on the home turf. Gradually, he slipped away from her and into the arms of another woman.

The author’s own journey is closely intertwined with her family’s. Always craving the affection of her mother, Miss Nafisi portrays herself as a precocious child who from very early on sensed the growing discord between her parents. She is particularly disturbed by the elaborate fictions her mother wrought to gain sympathy.

However, there were fleeting moments of real affection between mother and daughter. As a teenager, Azar was sent to school in England, and her mother accompanied her to settle her in. This trip is burnt in Azar’s memory, for her mother went to great pains to ensure her comfort. Miss Nafisi includes a photograph of the two standing at a railway platform before her mother returned to Tehran. It is a wonderfully intimate portrait.

Later, when her father was in jail, Miss Nafisi entered into a brief marriage with a man she met at the University of Oklahoma. It was an unfit alliance from the start: a controlling man versus an independent-minded woman. After a brief affair with an American (“When Ted and I broke up I had fully matured into believing that relationships do not, perhaps should not, last”), Miss Nafisi did discover commitment with Bijan, an open-minded student leader.

This was the late 1970s, a time of unfettered freedom for the young woman. She discovered the joys of scholarship, which had been denied her in the repressive Iranian society. She writes fondly of youthful transgressions, discovering the seductive beauty of poetry, and the call of love. In 1979, the year the revolution occurred in Iran, Azar and Bijan married in Washington.

The book then retraces the territory of Miss Nafisi’s first book, discussing her return to Tehran to teach and her growing disenchantment with the way the mullahs overtook every aspect of the common man’s life. To the author, this is shocking especially because the mullahs successfully reversed the painfully won battles of equality for women in public spaces (as her mother’s ascension to Parliament had testified).

However, the real beauty of this book lies not in the political but the personal. Toward the book’s end, Miss Nafisi captures with poignant clarity her worries about her parents, who were now living separately in Tehran, while she was exiled in the United States. As old age started to take its toll, first on her mother, and later on her father, the author, racked by guilt, was left to consider her parents’ pain from a distance.

Written in clear prose, “Things I’ve Been Silent About” is an endearing chronicle of a family that was in several ways, both part of, and distant from, Iran’s tumultuous history.

Vikram Johri is a freelance writer in New Delhi, India.

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