Azar Nafisi

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Azar Nafisi
Nafisi at the 2015 Texas Book Festival.
Nafisi at the 2015 Texas Book Festival.
BornPersian: آذر نفیسی
December 1, 1948
Tehran, Iran
OccupationWriter, professor
Alma materUniversity of Oklahoma
Notable worksReading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Notable awards2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award (Booksense), Persian Golden Lioness Award

Azar Nafisi (Persian: آذر نفیسی‎; born 1948)[Notes 1][1] is an Iranian-American writer and professor of English literature. Born in Tehran, Iran, she has resided in the United States since 1997 and became a U.S. citizen in 2008.[2]

Nafisi has been a visiting fellow and lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and served on the Board of Trustees of Freedom House. She is the niece of famous Iranian scholar, fiction writer and poet Saeed Nafisi. Azar Nafisi is best known for her 2003 book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 117 weeks, and has won several literary awards, including the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense.[3][4]

Since Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi has written Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter[5] and The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books.

Early life and education[edit]

Nafisi was born in Tehran, Iran. She is the daughter of Nezhat and Ahmad Nafisi; her mother was one of the first group of women elected to parliament, while her father served as mayor of Tehran from 1961 to 1963 and was the youngest man ever appointed to the post at that time.[6]

Nafisi was raised in Tehran and at thirteen years old she moved to Lancaster to finish her studies. After this, she moved to Switzerland. She got a degree in English and American literature and received her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma.[7]

Nafisi returned to Iran just before and witnessed the 1979 Iranian Revolution. During this time she was a professor of English literature at Tehran University,[8] where she stayed during eighteen years struggling against the implementation of the revolution's ideas and procedures.[8]

In 1995, in disagreement with faculty authorities over her refusal to wear the veil, she stopped teaching at the university. Over the next two years, she invited several of her female students to attend regular meetings at her house, every Thursday morning. They discussed their place as women within post-revolutionary Iranian society and studied literary works, including some considered "controversial" by the regime, such as Lolita alongside other works such as Madame Bovary. She also taught novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen, attempting to understand and interpret them from a modern Iranian perspective.[9][10]


External video
video icon Booknotes interview with Nafisi on Reading Lolita in Tehran, June 8, 2003, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Nafisi on Reading Lolita in Tehran, August 3, 2004, C-SPAN
video icon After Words interview with Nafisi on Things I've Been Silent About, February 28, 2009, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Nafisi on The Republic of Imagination, November 23, 2014, C-SPAN

Nafisi left Iran on June 24, 1997, and moved to the United States, where she wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, a book where she describes her experiences as a secular woman living and working in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the book, she declares "I left Iran, but Iran did not leave me."

Nafisi has held the post of a visiting fellow and lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC and has served on the Board of Trustees of Freedom House, a United States nongovernmental organization (NGO) which conducts research and advocacy on democracy.[11]

On October 21, 2014, Viking Books released Nafisi's newest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, in which [12] using The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, as well as the writings of James Baldwin and many others, Nafisi responds to an Iranian reader that questioned whether Americans care about or need their literature.[13] Jane Smiley wrote in The Washington Post that Nafisi "finds the essence of the American experience, filtered through narratives not about exceptionalism or fabulous success, but alienation, solitude and landscape."[14] Laura Miller of Salon wrote that "No one writes better or more stirringly about the way books shape a reader’s identity, and about the way that talking books with good friends becomes integral to how we understand the books, our friends and ourselves.[15]

She appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers,[16][17] and PBS NewsHour [18] to promote the book.


In a 2003 article for The Guardian, Brian Whitaker criticized Nafisi for working for the public relations firm Benador Associates which he argued promoted the neo-conservative ideas of "creative destruction" and "total war".[19]

In 2004, Christopher Hitchens wrote that Nafisi had dedicated Reading Lolita in Tehran to Paul Wolfowitz, the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and a principal architect of the Bush Doctrine. Hitchens had stated that Nafisi was good friends with Wolfowitz and several other key figures in the Bush administration. Nafisi later responded to Hitchen's comments, neither confirming nor denying the claim.[20]

In a critical article in the academic journal Comparative American Studies, titled "Reading Azar Nafisi in Tehran", University of Tehran literature professor Seyed Mohammad Marandi states that "Nafisi constantly confirms what orientalist representations have regularly claimed". He also claimed that she "has produced gross misrepresentations of Iranian society and Islam and that she uses quotes and references which are inaccurate, misleading, or even wholly invented."[21]

John Carlos Rowe, Professor of the Humanities at the University of Southern California, states that: "Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003) is an excellent example of how neo-liberal rhetoric is now being deployed by neo-conservatives and the importance they have placed on cultural issues."[22] He also states that Nafisi is "amenable.. to serving as a non-Western representative of a renewed defense of Western civilization and its liberal promise, regardless of its historical failures to realize those ends."[23]

Hamid Dabashi: criticisms and counter-criticisms[edit]

In 2006, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi, in an essay published in the Cairo-based, English-language paper Al-Ahram (Dabashi's criticism of Nafisi became a cover story for an edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education)[24] compared Reading Lolita in Tehran to "the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India," and asserted that Nafisi functions as a "native informer and colonial agent" whose writing has cleared the way for an upcoming exercise of military intervention on the Middle East. He also labelled Nafisi as a "comprador intellectual," a comparison to the "treasonous" Chinese employees of mainland British firms, who sold out their country for commercial gain and imperial grace. In an interview Z magazine, he classed Nafisi with the U.S. soldier convicted of mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib: "To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi."[25][26] Finally, Dabashi stated that the book's cover image (which appears to be two veiled teenage women reading Lolita in Tehran) is in fact, in a reference to the September 11 attacks, "Orientalised pedophilia" designed to appeal to "the most deranged Oriental fantasies of a nation already petrified out of its wits by a ferocious war waged against the phantasmagoric Arab/Muslim male potency that has just castrated the two totem poles of U.S. empire in New York."[27]

Critics such as Dabashi have accused Nafisi of having close relations with neoconservatives. Nafisi responded to Dabashi's criticism by stating that she is not, as Dabashi claims, a neoconservative, that she opposed the Iraq war, and that she is more interested in literature than in politics. In an interview, Nafisi stated that she has never argued for an attack on Iran and that democracy, when it comes, should come from the Iranian people (and not from US military or political intervention). She added that while she is willing to engage in "serious argument...Debate that is polarized isn't worth my time." She stated that she did not respond directly to Dabashi because "You don't want to debase yourself and start calling names."[28][29] In the acknowledgements she makes in Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi writes of Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis as "one who opened the door". Nafisi, who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, rejects such accusations as "guilt by association," noting that she has both "radical friends" and "conservative friends."[30] Ali Banuazizi, the codirector of Boston College’s Middle East studies program,[31] the codirector of Boston College’s Middle East studies program, stated that Dabashi's article was very "intemperate" and that it was "not worth the attention" it had received.[citation needed] Christopher Shea of The Boston Globe argued that while Dabashi spent "several thousand words... eviscerating the book," his main point was not about the specific text but the book's black-and-white portrayal of Iran.[28]

Writing in The New Republic, Marty Peretz sharply criticized Dabashi, and rhetorically asked, "Over what kind of faculty does [Columbia University president] Lee Bollinger preside?"[28] In an article posted on, author Gideon Lewis-Kraus described Dabashi's article as "a less-than-coherent pastiche of stock anti-war sentiment, strategic misreading, and childish calumny" and that Dabashi "insists on seeing [the book] as political perfidy" which allows him "to preserve his fantasy that criticizing Nafisi makes him a usefully engaged intellectual."[27] Robert Fulford sharply criticized Dabashi's comments in the National Post, arguing that "Dabashi's frame of reference veers from Joseph Stalin to Edward Said. Like a Stalinist, he tries to convert culture into politics, the first step toward totalitarianism. Like the late Edward Said, he brands every thought he dislikes as an example of imperialism, expressing the West's desire for hegemony over the downtrodden (even when oil-rich) nations of the Third World." Fulford added that "While imitating the attitudes of Said, Dabashi deploys painful clichés."[28][29] Firoozeh Papan-Matin, the Director of Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle,[32] stated that Dabashi's accusation that Nafisi is promoting a "'kaffeeklatsch' worldview... callously ignores the extreme social and political conditions that forced Nafisi underground." Papan Matin also argued that "Dabashi’s attack is that whether Nafisi is a collaborator with the [United States]" was not relevant to the legitimate questions set forth in her book.[33]


  • Nafisi, Azar. "Images of Women in Classical Persian Literature and the Contemporary Iranian Novel." The Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran. Ed. Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994. 115-30.
  • Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels (1994).
  • Nafisi, Azar. "Imagination as Subversion: Narrative as a Tool of Civic Awareness." Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation. Ed. Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997. 58-71.
  • "Tales of Subversion: Women Challenging Fundamentalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women (1999).
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003).
  • Things I've Been Silent About (Random House, 2008).
  • The Republic of Imagination (Random House, 2014).
  • "Foreword," Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Penguin Classics, 2014).
  • "That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile" (Yale University Press, 2019). Translated from Persian by Lotfali Khonji.[34]


  1. ^ Following eighth grade, Nafisi's parents sent her to England for schooling from 1961-1963. Nafisi 2010, chapter 8, pp. 69-70; chapter 13, p. 115


  1. ^ "Moving stories: Azar Nafisi". BBC News. Middle East. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  2. ^ Iranian-American author lectures at the Spanish National Library Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "StevenBarclayAgency". Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  4. ^ "Yale University Office of Public Affairs". Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  5. ^ "Chatting Up A Storm with Claudia Cragg : Azar Nafisi --Talking of 'Lolita', 'Things I've Been Silent About' and the "Sarah Palins/Hilary Clintons of Iran..."". Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  6. ^ "Azar Nafisi's Interactive Family Tree | Finding Your Roots | PBS". Finding Your Roots. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  7. ^ "Voices from the Gaps". Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  8. ^ a b "BBC NEWS | Middle East | Moving stories: Azar Nafisi". Retrieved 2017-02-09.
  9. ^ Wasserman, Elizabeth (7 May 2003). "The Fiction of Life". The Atlantic. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  10. ^ Enright, Michael (December 30, 2018) [2003]. The Sunday Edition - December 30, 2018 (Radio interview). CBC. Event occurs at 1:27:00.
  11. ^ "Freedom House: Board of Trustees". Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  12. ^ Nafisi, Azar (2014-10-21). The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books (1st ed.). The Viking Press. ISBN 9780670026067.
  13. ^ "The Republic of Imagination". Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2014-11-04.
  14. ^ Smiley, Jane; Smiley, Jane (2014-10-20). "A celebration of American fiction from the author of 'Reading Lolita in Tehran'". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  15. ^ Miller, Laura. "Why this Iranian-born writer fears for America's soul". Salon. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-05-29. Retrieved 2014-11-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. ^ "Late Night With Seth Meyers". Hulu. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  18. ^ "Azar Nafisi views American society through its literature in 'Republic of Imagination'". PBS NewsHour. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  19. ^ Whitaker, Brian (2003-02-24). "Conflict and catchphrases". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  20. ^ Doug Ireland (14 October 2004). "Azar Nafisi replies to Hitchens et. al". Retrieved 15 September 2013.
  21. ^ Seyed Mohammed Marandi (2008). "Reading Azar Nafisi in Tehran". Comparative American Studies. 6 (2): 179–189. doi:10.1179/147757008x280768. S2CID 170912855.
  22. ^ John Carlos Rowe, "Cultural Politics of the New American Studies," Open Humanities Press, University of Michigan Library, 2012, p.132
  23. ^ Rowe 2012, 141.
  24. ^ A Collision of Prose and Politics by Richard Byrne, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 13, 2006.
  25. ^ [1]
  26. ^ Young, Cathy. "Women and Islam". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  27. ^ a b Pawn of the Neocons? by Gideon Lewis-Kraus,, November 30, 2006 (retrieved on October 21, 2009).
  28. ^ a b c d Book clubbed by Christopher Shea, The Boston Globe, October 29, 2006 (retrieved on October 21, 2009).
  29. ^ a b Reading Lolita at Columbia by Robert Fulford, National Post, November 6, 2006 (retrieved on October 21, 2009).
  30. ^ A Collision of Prose and Politics by Richard Byrne, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 13, 2006.
  31. ^ "Ali Banuazizi". Boston College. nd.
  32. ^
  33. ^ Reading & Misreading Lolita in Tehran Archived September 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine by Dr. Firoozeh Papan-Matin, IslamOnline, 2007.
  34. ^ "That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile". Yale University Press.


  • Nafisi, Azar. 2010 (2008). Things I've been silent about. Random House Trade Paperbacks. (Originally published 2008)

External links[edit]