Things I've Been Silent About: Memories

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

Things I've Been Silent About: Memories

by Azar Nafisi

Random House


Shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979, Azar Nafisi began making a list in her diary of 'Things I've Been Silent About' such as Falling in Love in Tehran, Going to Parties in Tehran, Watching the Marx Brothers in Tehran, Reading Lolita in Tehran.

That last activity became the title of her first memoir, a worldwide best-seller. Things I've Been Silent About: Memories is its sequel, inspired by the same desire to tell repressed truths as the predecessor, but this time the truths concern her family, particularly her parents. Like her first book it reflects her conviction that oppressive mind sets, whether imposed by individuals or a regime, can be subverted by imaginative writing.

Things I've Been Silent About is an attempt to come to terms with her parents Ahmad and Nezhat Nafisi after their deaths and to bring them back to life. Ahmad was an engineer who became the youngest-ever mayor of Tehran, while Nezhat was a highly intelligent but frustrated woman who was briefly a member of parliament. She dominates the book with her inflexible will, her constant dissatisfaction, her dislike of pleasure, her desire to be loved and inability to inspire it, her kindness to strangers, severity with relatives and her fabrication of stories about her past.

Photographs show both parents were handsome but the John Kennedy lookalike Ahmad, with his love of nature, of Persian writers, of women, seems more likeable. 'Most men cheat on their wives to have mistresses,' is Nafisi's opening line. 'My father cheated on my mother to have a happy family life.'

Initially Nezhat seems on the way to becoming an ogre but the portrait is modified when for three months she accompanies her 13-year-old daughter to Lancaster to help her settle into an English school. Nafisi realises her mother wishes her well, it is just that usually she cannot find the way to express this.

The memoir shows the Nafisi family was unhappy but the story is interwoven with Iran's recent history. Ahmad was an honest civil servant believing he could advance reforms, even under the shah's regime. But he spent four years in prison on a trumped-up charge. He stands for those liberal Iranians whose hopes were thwarted, particularly as Khomeini, first hailed as an answer to the corrupt regime of the shah, imposed a crueller religious dictatorship.

Proof that the situation of women in Iran had deteriorated, Nezhat was freer than her daughter and her mother as a young woman. Nafisi's grandmother, who plays a part in the book, was freer still.

To ensure her children would not have cramped horizons imposed, Nafisi took her family to the US where she teaches in the Foreign Policy Unit at Johns Hopkins University. But her books show she has never really left Tehran.