Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi

Nafisi at the 2015 Texas Book Festival.
Born Persian: آذر نفیسی
December 1, 1948
Tehran, Iran
Occupation Writer, professor
Language English
Ethnicity Iranian
Citizenship American
Alma mater University of Oklahoma
Notable works Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Notable awards 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award (Booksense), Persian Golden Lioness Award

Azar Nafisi (Persian: آذر نفیسی; born 1955)[1][2] is an Iranian writer and professor of English literature. She has resided in the United States since 1997 and became an American citizen in 2008.[3]

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 Bestseller list for 117 weeks, and has won several literary awards, including the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense.[4][5]

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

Early life and education

Nafisi was born in Tehran, Iran. She is the daughter of Nezhat and Ahmad Nafisi, a former mayor of Tehran (1961–1963), who was the youngest man ever appointed to the post up to that time.[6]

She was educated in Switzerland and received her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma.[7]

Life in post-revolution Iran

Nafisi returned to Iran in 1979 where for a time she taught English literature at Tehran University.

In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republican Party in 1980, Nafisi soon became restless with the stringent rules imposed upon women by the new government.

In 1995, she states that she was no longer able to teach English literature properly without attracting the scrutiny of the faculty authorities, so she quit teaching at the university, and instead invited seven of her female students to attend regular meetings at her house, every Thursday morning. They studied literary works including some considered controversial in postrevolutionary Iranian society 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.[8]


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.[9]

On October 21, 2014, Viking Books released Nafisi's newest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, in which [10] 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.[11] 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."[12] 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.[13]

She appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers [14][15] and PBS NewsHour [16] to promote the book.


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.[17]

In a 2003 article for The Guardian, Brian Whitaker criticized Nafisi for working for the public relations firm Benador Associates which he argues promoted the neo-conservative ideas of "creative destruction" and "total war".[18]

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)[19] 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 Middle Eastern. 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."[20][21] Finally, Dabashi stated that 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."[22]

Critics such as Dabashi have accused Nafisi of having close relations with neoconservatives. 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."[23]

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."[24]

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."[25] 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."[26]


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."[27][28]

Nafisi was also defended by a number of sources.



  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
  2. BBC 2004 Interview with Nafisi
  3. Iranian-American author lectures at the Spanish National Library
  4. The Stephen Barclay Agency
  5. Yale University Office of Public Affairs
  7. "Faculty page at the University of Minnesota".
  8. "The Fiction of Life" Interviews May 7, 2003
  9. Freedom House: Board of Trustees
  17. Doug Ireland (14 October 2004). "AZAR NAFISI REPLIES TO HITCHENS et. al.". Retrieved 15 September 2013.
  18. The Guardian: Conflict and catchphrases
  19. A Collision of Prose and Politics by Richard Byrne, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 13, 2006.
  20. Reading Lolita at Columbia
  21. Boston Globe , Women and Islam, by Cathy Young, The Boston Globe , October 23, 2006
  22. 1 2 Pawn of the Neocons? by Gideon Lewis-Kraus,, November 30, 2006 (retrieved on October 21, 2009).
  23. A Collision of Prose and Politics by Richard Byrne, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 13, 2006.
  24. IngentaConnect: Reading Azar Nafisi in Tehran
  25. John Carlos Rowe, "Cultural Politics of the New American Studies," Open Humanities Press, University of Michigan Library, 2012, p.132
  26. Rowe 2012, 141.
  27. 1 2 3 4 Book clubbed by Christopher Shea, The Boston Globe, October 29, 2006 (retrieved on October 21, 2009).
  28. 1 2 Reading Lolita at Columbia by Robert Fulford, National Post, November 6, 2006 (retrieved on October 21, 2009).
  29. Reading & Misreading Lolita in Tehran Archived September 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. by Dr. Firoozeh Papan-Matin, IslamOnline, 2007.


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