All About My Mother in Tehran: a review of Azar Nafisi’s Second Memoir

Things I’ve Been Silent About is the second memoir by the Iranian literary critic Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, and it does not begin auspiciously. Before we even know why we should be interested in reading further, the author brandishes a heavy-handed and banal theory: “Long before I understood what it meant for a victim to become complicit in crimes of the state, I had discovered … the shame of complicity. … This book is a response to my own inner censor and inquisitor.”

The “complicity” alluded to is with Nafisi’s mother, and the analogy shows a painfully immature equation between the Iranian state and Nafisi’s fraught relationship with her late mother. Things is primarily an extended complaint against her mother, Nezhat, for sins that range from placing her bed in the wrong part of the room when Nafisi was 4 to driving her husband, Nafisi’s father, to seek comfort in the arms of a mistress who eventually became his second wife.

Nafisi’s mother was one of the first six female members of the Iranian Parliament taking office in 1963, but we don’t find this out until page 128. Until then, she has been depicted as a mad housewife and a vastly erratic, if often devoted, mother. Granted that Nezhat was from a prominent family and married to the mayor of Tehran at the time, but she still must have had some positive qualities to have been nominated.

An acclaimed writer of mature years might have had more charity and better taste than to refer to her young mother as “perhaps not yet frigid.” Nafisi acknowledges that it was her mother who insisted that she become an educated woman, but the overall impression is that she is carping about someone who cannot answer, being dead. And many of her complaints are of the conventional sort, better suited to the psychotherapist’s office than the printed page.

The author is on stronger ground when she describes in searing detail the torments inflicted on friends and family by the Khomeini regime. Her cousin Majid and his wife Ezatt, 24, were executed, and Ezatt wrote Majid a last note saying, “I had a short life, and we had an even shorter life together. I wish I could have lived longer with you.” Unfortunately, few passages in Things are as poignant as this.

Nafisi criticizes her mother for possibly shaving four years off her age and being persistently lax in chronology when telling stories, but she never mentions her own birth date in this book. It’s given in Wikipedia as 1955. This is absurd, as Nafisi mentions that she was married and a freshman at the University of Oklahoma by 1965. And Nafisi’s own Web site refers to Things with the sort of puffery someone whose last book was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than two years should have avoided–”a stunning personal story of growing up in Iran.”

Azar Nafisi is a brilliant and sensitive literary critic, and the portions of Things that discuss books, culture and their intersection are vastly rewarding. When Nafisi says of novels, “The only sacred thing about them is that they are by nature profane,” she provokes a reappraisal of a chunk of the Western intellectual tradition. When she writes of two classic Iranian novels that “all dialogue has broken down, turning to fear, resentment, and the kind of cruelty only the very weak are capable of,” she provides an insight into life as well as art. But it is a pity that such an accomplished writer, who has a heart and the courage to use it, has not exercised more judgment in her memoir.

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