Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Azar Nafisi on the power of imagination

Tonight at the Spark speaker series, Azar Nafisi urged us to recognize the transformative power of imagination.

Imagination and investigation

Imagination frees us from seeing the world as it is, so instead we see the world as it could be, or as it should be. It is imagination that gives us hope in the darkest of times.

The power of imagination lies at the core of her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, which chronicles women's struggle to reclaim their Iran from a regime imposing its own radically different vision on the populace. As that book illustrates, imagination can be a subversive act because it leads us to question things. "To genuinely feel subordinate is to never stop questioning," she said. In contrast, smugness is the absence of questioning.

Imagination and questioning lead to investigation, and Nafisi believes the urge to investigate differences lies at the core of culture and reading. This is the subject of one of her books-in-progress, The Republic of Imagination — a metaphysical state in which differences are celebrated, but simultaneously the overwhelming commonalities that link us all are recognized.

Cultural diversity

Nafisi urged us to envision the Iran beyond the headlines. It's a nation of more than its male-dominated, Muslim regime. Iran is the birthplace of classic poetry from the likes of Rumi and Omar Khayyam, and it is a land of great beauty and diversity.

In fact, she paralleled "the hidden Iran" to the global perception of the United States. Both nations are led by regimes that at least outwardely rely on their faith for political direction, but the people and their culture are much more complex than might be indicated through mass media. Nafisi's comment that "no religion can be democratic if it takes over a state" was met with fervent applause.

Never complacent

Paradoxically, Nafisi thanked the Islamic Republic for helping her learn never to feel complacent. When she returned from foreign studies in 1979, she found a drastically changed Iran. She didn't feel at home in her own home, which though unsettling at first proved beneficial because it prevented smugness.

While a happy (if not complacent) resident of the United States for nearly a decade, she still hopes for change in Iran — if not a change in regime, at least a change in mindset. "Every culture has something to be ashamed of," she said, citing slavery, segregation, and the slow extension of suffrage to women among blemishes on American history. "No culture is exempt. But every one has the right to change."

Change comes through challenges. She urged us to raise our voices when the government acts against our principles: "Any act of barbarity, any act of brutality, implicates all of us. No one can be silent." We need to constantly challenge and be challenged, lest we risk what Saul Bellow termed the atrophy of feeling.

Nafisi encouraged everyone to keep our eyes open for challenges to freedom and democracy, ending with the call to action: "Readers of the world unite."

Join the discussion

For more on developments in Iran, Nafisi recommends She plans to start a new online book club by summer. Details will be posted at

What are your thoughts on imagination and culture? Do you think imagination is alive and well in America today? Are diversity and questioning celebrated, or at least generally accepted?


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