A letter to Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran"
November 17, 2005
Salam Azar Khanoum,
it was so great to meet you in person at long last at the San Jose State University's Center For Literary Arts talk last night and today you met my older son who studies there, who gave you the four leaf clover.
Last month on a plane to New York City I sat next to a Persian lady who turned out to be a friend of yours who is the worldwide controller of a very large corporation... awesome. What a small world it is.. and it was like you said about readers being people who the writer should know, who should be in their life... she and I were of a mind on the politics of the 1979 revolution and today's IRI and the current US administration....
I really liked your talk. You are finally starting to take a poke at the flaws of this culture too and for that I love you. The quote about complacency being the greatest vulnerability of the West was so right on the money. The line about curiousity being a form of insubordination... And your explanation of how Nabakov's Lolita was all about obliterating someone's personality by imposing a fictitious one upon them and also the seductiveness and mass appeal of these great totalitarian monsters... The line about playing chess with a monkey... how do you play chess with a monkey, who in the middle of the game picks up your queen and swallows it... that was priceless.
Your jibes about allowing people like Wolfowitz and O'Reilly to give us our worldview. The lack of imagination... The black and white no gray, the over simplistic notions of reality, the "either yur fur us or agin us" mentality of these morons has restored the arms race, the defense contractors, the military, the CIA and the FBI and created a whole new level of bureaucracy called Homeland Security as well as the biggest deficit in US history and no one is saying boo...The power brokers have a real marionette in Bush and they are very good at what they do... and they have made the world a very dangerous place right now and not the world I remember or imagine at all.....
I have always bought your premise that imagination is the salvation of humanity and that artistic creativity saves us when all of the rest of our humanity is stripped from us. The part about empathy was the same message the Dalai Lama delivered to scientists at Stanford U last month and also your comments about no amount of PC being able to replace empathy.
The tools of the totalitarian regimes are always the same as Laurens Van Der Post and Michael Parenti have each written about in their own way. The propaganda of demonizing the enemy by making an entire people nameless and faceless and devoid of human qualities the easier to bomb them and take their resources and destroy their culture... When Bush attacked Iraq I would venture to guess that 99% of Americans only knew the name of one Iraqi, a CIA appointee named Saddam Hossein, perhaps a few new his foreign minister's name Tarik Aziz and that's it.
When an Iraqi civilian is killed it is "collateral damage" when an American is killed in "friendly fire" it is a tragedy. And everyone knows the "official" death count is 2000 Americans in Iraq but how any Iraqis? How many Afghans? How can Americans preach or export "democracy" when they think an American life is worth more than any other nationality? When they sport slogans everywhere saying "God Bless America" which is a euphemism for God Damn Everyone Else?
Did the US government offer any apologies years ago now or any compensation to the families of the victims when more than 350 Iranian civilians were shot down on the Iran Air 20 minute flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai by our stupid over sophisticated navy relying on computers and radars instead of looking out the windows of their ship. I took that same flight myself in 1977 and helped a dozen illiterate Afghan businessmen fill out their disembarkation cards in my infantile Arabic.
I never forget that as long as I live, all businessmen, all illiterate and none of them knew their age and I knew that if their business class was illiterate that Afghanistan was a poor nation though I had not yet been there to discover how kind and generous they were before the Russians bombed hell out of them for ten years... who gives a damn, who in the West even knows or remembers, who in the West remembers the Silent War, the ten year war between Iran and Iraq with the West arming both sides so they would kill millions of each other? How can such deeds of infamy be completely covered over and forgotten in such a short time and the Americans wonder why the lack of trust and understanding and why the IRI?
And what does the Western way of life and the global economy really mean? Can it really replace custom, culture, tradition and family, clan and community and deep friendship?
The biggest single failing of modern technological and scientific society, of mass production and global economy in my humble estimation is that it is impersonal. All humanity is reduced to consumer units by a few very powerful multinational corporations... Make no mistake about this; this is not politics or leftist conspiracy theory. This is the truth. The wealth and power and means of production are getting into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Everything that is indigenous or unique to a culture is wiped out by the global economy dictating thought; style, product choices, popular culture...and whatever choices are available are between products made by these vast agglomerates. They have no imagination and either suppress, copy or buy out the small inventors or entrepreneurs. That is why US industry is no longer the world leader in most sectors....
You talked about imagination being the gift that allows humanity to make every single aspect of everyday life and everyday surroundings unique and special. That is the enemy of the corporations. Someday the consumers might discover that they don't need the useless products they produce and at what cost and sacrifice to us the consumers? You talked about how there is no dialogue, no debate in Congress or the Senate, no town hall meetings; no one is questioning this regime. No one is discussing the lessons for all humanity of the great classics of world literature. That is also my biggest concern and I see that as the death of whatever democracy we had here.
After 911 the neo-conservatives used the fear factor to suppress any protest or questioning while they started two wars for the first time in the history of this nation. Just as you mentioned how slavery was once upheld by law here and in many countries around the world until only 150 years ago a culture can be completely wrong and that was an excellent point. It was the same point that Emerson made when he talked about "the majority in one" or how one person could be right and everyone else wrong. Remember when Galileo was persecuted for saying that the earth orbited the sun instead of visa versa which was the belief of the religious authorities at the time and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for proclaiming the earth to be round instead of flat.
And the inquisition by the Catholic church in Spain, a far, far cry from what Jesus had in mind for his followers... I feel like we are in another "Dark Ages" There is "computer literacy" and a superfluity of information on everything under the sun but no interpretation, no ability to make good choices, to discriminate quality, to analyze and filter out the garbage from the valuable...people are not given the tools to be intelligent consumers and not talk to think critically... even Buddha taught people that they should except nothing on faith but rather question everything...
I think that the majority of Americans and other citizens of highly industrial nations are kept on such a tread mill of wage slavery trying to keep their debts down to manageable levels that they have little time or energy for political debate or reading or philosophical discussions in cafes.
The more the technologies improve productivity, the more work they make it possible for an individual to do rather than allowing more leisure time. The pace of modern life just keeps getting faster not slower. A few decades ago people would travel to other countries and stay for months, now they hop on a plane and see Europe in a week but what have they really seen or understood or experienced?
I thought it was very telling about our education system and its failing that the majority of the questions you got from the audience both old and young were "how can I become a writer..."as if there is some magic formula or a pill or a course or a consumer product or something that can be bought from a store that makes one a writer, or that you could touch them on the shoulder with a sword or place a magic crown on their head and now they are a writer.... to be a writer one must write and write and write with great passion and with a cause and write because your inner being demands it, right? Write with determination, never give up, never surrender....
Now getting published, that is a different matter, that is the realm of politics...and then getting the published books sold, the marketing, the speaking engagements, the book signings...felaan, felaan... that is the real beginning of the journey and the labor...that is what the aspiring writers don't understand.... that is what Firouzeh Dumas told me once. She said you are so pre-occupied with getting published. That is just the first step on the ladder, then it's getting the book in the front window of the bookstore instead of on the top shelves of the attic...she told me write because you love to write otherwise it is a depressing way to try to make a living or words to that affect.
Your comments about the education system were right on as well. Children need to be taught from an early age about politics as far as I'm concerned because no interaction between two people or more does not involve some hidden agenda. Children need to know that every establishment or authority seeks to maintain its position at all costs and that is always part of their agenda. These are realities which children could be taught and how to deal with that and work around it or beat it or create win, win situations where there is something to benefit all the parties in a negotiation... this can be taught.
Lastly there seems to be a real lack of leadership worldwide, leadership with a broader vision than who has the biggest army, and what we need is leaders who have imagination. Leaders who can visualize something better... My God, instead of bombing two already broken nations as the US administrations response to 911, what would have happened if they would have actually helped people in other countries, given massive aide to the Palestinians. If all the administration cares about is access to petroleum to keep the unsustainable life style and economy of this country running and all the citizens look the other way because they are the beneficiaries of cheap petroleum then they must not be surprised when terrorists pop up again and again no matter how they try to suppress them.
I wrote a letter to the Iranian.com awhile back about how America needs to become Iranianized. It was tongue in cheek but the point was that there was much more to Iran and Persian culture than just petroleum and the brain drain of the Diaspora, which has benefited all the western countries where they've landed. We need leaders with the kind of vision that allowed a bloodless coup in Greece to end the junta of the colonels. We need leaders with imagination to try something new like Mandela who had a general amnesty after the atrocities of apartheid ended in order to stop the cycle of violence. Iranians have yet to learn that lesson.
A society, which allows political pluralism, which is what the majority of Iranians want, will not be achieved if the cycle of violence doesn't stop. I saw first hand after the revolution all the reprisal and revenge, the execution and stoning of former Savakis and members of the Shah's government in front of their families. This kind of killing only inspires more killing; revenge begets revenge. Even the Germanic tribes at the time of the Romans invented Blood Geld or blood money which stopped the cycle of revenge by allowing the criminal to pay off the relatives of the victim...
The stakeholders of the IRI once overthrown should be tried for their crimes by due process and made to give back to the public treasury the wealth and property they have stolen, they should serve jail sentences, they should be made to do community service but the torture and execution must stop. As long as that continues there will be no peace and no healing and no growth or progress... I want to live to witness the day when no Iranian in Iran will have to whisper his political or religious beliefs or live in fear of paramilitary vigilantism or feel that leaving Iran is the only remedy...
You spoke about how cross-cultural exchange is the hope for a future world of peace not government exchanges. I know first hand that from the day the IRI regime took over that even little children were opposed to it. They told me so in no uncertain terms. One of the last persons to say goodbye to me the day I left 4 months after the revolution in 1979 was my neighborhood mullah and he whispered in my ear that he hoped that I realized that all Moslems were not like these fanatics and I told him I knew that for I myself had become a Moslem.
I saw with my own eyes, shortly after Khomeini's coup d'etat, the 20,000 protesting professional woman who marched in Tehran refusing to veil and were harassed and stabbed by hooligans as you mentioned last night and they called themselves the "men" of Iran because they were the first ones to protest the new regime en masse. Of course we both know that the next day Khomeini bussed in a million peasant women from the countryside in Chadors to march in counter protest.
I fear that the IRI has survived against the will of the people for 27 years now because of foreign intervention. The US government does not want a strong Iran to interfere in their agenda of hegemony in the region and the Europeans have cut too many oil deals with these butchers to want to see them out of power. It is a sad state of affairs when countries are never allowed to be masters of their own destiny. This is not a "Daijan Napolon" complex, this is the new mercantilism, the new colonialism, the new global economy where third world countries are engineered by design of the great powers just as surely as Stalin engineered famines in the Ukraine. I pray nightly that Bush doesn't start a war on Iran.
I wanted to mention one last thing because of your interest in womens fashion and apparel as an expression of their freedom. You talked about the young people refusing to submit to the restrictions of the regime despite the consequences. God I wish we had that here in the USA, Our youth willing to challenge the system. Anyway, a dear Italo-Indian friend of mine in the fashion industry in Florence ( Dante Alleghieri's home town) a few years ago wrote me that he had been invited by the Italian government and the IRI to develop courses in fashion design and train instructors at the University of Yazd and Tehran.
Apparently there is such a trade imbalance between Iran and Italy because of all the petroleum imports that the Italian government was subsidizing entrepreneurs to sell goods and services to Iran. I asked him how could he teach fashion in the land of hejab and he said on the contrary there is a huge interest there in fashion much like what you were saying about the forbidden fruit tasting sweeter. It was amazing to me that the IRI was helping to sponsor these schools of fashion....
all the best,