Azar Nafisi

In The Eyes Of The World, A Reimagined Iraq

Iraq seems to have entered the world’s consciousness mainly through violence _ through murderous coups, brutal suppression of Iraqi citizens and, for the past three decades, wars and invasions. Today, five years after the start of the U.S.-led invasion, whenever Iraq appears in the news, references to suicide bombs, casualty numbers, the military “surge” and terror usually accompany it.

To reverse the tide of violence in Iraq we in the Western world need to change not just our political positions and military tactics but our very perception of Iraq and its people. And that perception cannot be shaped by the claims of the tyrants who once ruled the country or the extremists who are currently trying to gain control over it. Instead, we need to look at the similarities between Iraq’s culture and ours, and understand that the people there want the same basic human rights that we in the West enjoy.

For many years another, more peaceful, Iraq existed in the book market on Mutanabi Street in Baghdad. Then, on March 5, 2007, the book market was devastated by a car bomb. Salim al-Kushalli, who lost five brothers in his family’s print shop, was not surprised by the attack. “Of course we were expecting Mutanabi Street to be targeted one day,” he said in an interview on National Public Radio, “because anyone targeting Mutanabi Street is targeting Iraq’s civilization.”

Named after the revered 10th-century Arab poet Abul Tayyeb, Mutanabi Street was a democratic space where books by Shia ayatollahs, Sunni theologians, Communist theorists and Western writers lived side by side in a sort of republic of imagination that transcended the boundaries of nationality, religion or ethnicity. Here, people from different backgrounds lived in peace, and poets, philosophers and even fundamentalist clerics, could express their ideas on the pages of books without retribution. With its bookstores, print shops and cafes, Mutanabi Street resisted the idea of invasion or totalitarianism.

If the Bulgarian philosopher Tsevan Todorow was correct when he said, “only total oblivion demands total despair,” then it is places like Mutanabi Street that protect the Iraqis against despair. Such places also remind the rest of the world that Iraq is represented neither by Saddam Hussein nor by the Iraqi Shiite leader and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, that Iraq cannot be defined by either its political elite or its invaders. Another Iraq had existed before them and would continue to exist in the imagination of its people, in the same books that were destroyed on that March day when a bomb murdered the booksellers and their customers.

The country we now call Iraq _ which was carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the British and the French in 1921_ was once part of the Cradle of Civilization, with a history going back to ancient Mesopotamia and Sumer. It was a land in which different ethnicities and religions lived and the Islam it boasted of was not that of the ideological extremists, but of the rich civilization that existed during the 8th and 9th centuries under the Abassid caliphs.

A country’s past reminds us that if things were once different, then there is some promise that the future can also be different. That promise once thrived on Mutanabi Street.

Why do people who live under the threat of guns and bombs care about books? Would books save the woman who walked the streets without the veil from getting raped or killed? Would they save her children from bombs? Would they protect the universities where faculty and students have died? Would they save the religious and ethnic minorities from being murdered or driven out of their homes?

What Mutanabi Street offered was a sense of security that was just as important as national security: It restored to the Iraqi people a dignity that was not steeped in violence. After all, the most important arsenal democracies have is not military but cultural. Tyrants are terrified of the kind of perception that allows every individual to regard the right to life, liberty and happiness as their birthright.

I was against the war before it started, but that has not prevented me from feeling the responsibility of what has happened and what is happening there. There were people who supported the war not because of their affinities with the U.S. administration, but because they had been frustrated by the world’s silence in the face of monstrous crimes committed by Saddam Hussein: the relentless persecution and execution of Iraqi citizens, the use of chemical weapons on the Kurdish. These atrocities occurred when the world’s leaders averted their gaze, carried on business as usual with Saddam and encouraged him in his war against Iran. Only a few human rights groups, activists, Iraqi dissidents and journalists showed empathy with the Iraqi people.

Are we not paying for that silence today? This was the wrong war, at the wrong time and in the wrong place, but the concern for the rights of the Iraqi people and the Kurdish minority was not wrong and remains valid today _ especially when elections in a country without democratic institutions are celebrated as a sign of democracy, and factional wars between Shiites and Sunni are defined as part of the Iraqi people’s cultural inheritance.

Whether we are against the war or for it, whether the United States pulls out of Iraq or remains, we know that in a democracy not just the governments are accountable. We, the people are all implicated. Our silence implicates us and does not protect us from the violence that happens in other parts of the world. A secure and democratic Iraq will make the rest of the world a more secure and free place.

We can support the besieged civilians in Iraq by joining the organizations that support the rights of Iraqi women and minorities and by lobbying their government to help relocate Iraqi refugees. We can help by rebuilding universities, restoring museums and libraries, by supporting the new institution that was almost immediately built after the destruction of Mutanabi Street, the Iraq National Library and Archives. Through our support and empathy, it will become easier to answer the question: Where will the Iraqi people go to restore their confiscated dignity, which they need in order to resist the violence that is imposed on them by both domestic terror and foreign invasion?

Perhaps to a street named after a poet who lived more than 1,000 years ago, whose nickname, al-Mutanabi, meant “the man who wants to be a prophet,” and who wrote poetry so close to the original language that it became untranslatable. That is where you go to regain your pride; that is where you go to remind yourself and the world that killing women because they do not wear the veil, butchering one another in the name of Islamic factions and bombing civilians and streets that are named after poets are not the only things the world should remember of Iraq.

22 thoughts on “In The Eyes Of The World, A Reimagined Iraq”

  1. Fazi Vafaie says:

    Azar jan,

    Hopefully you will remember me from old days. I just got your new book. Say hi to Bijan for me and send me an email when you get a chance.



  2. Raina says:

    Unless I did not read your website completely, it seems that I am unable to contact you personally, however, I assume you might read comments left on your blog. Professor Nafisi, thank you for your books. I read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and was envious of your courage, a feeling only intensified after finishing “Things I’ve Been Silent About”. You have stood up against injustice (personal, cultural and political), I wonder if I would be able to stand up for my own beliefs (In my 30 years, my resolve has never been severely tested) but I hope if the time comes, I can think of you and do the right thing. Well, I have much I would like to say to you and much I would like to ask, but a public blog may not be the right place. Anyway, thank you. Raina

  3. farhad says:

    man az daneshjoyane daneshkade alaameh hastam/ ostadane in daneshgah hamisheh az shoma be niki yad mikardand/man va hamsaram ke oo ham az daneshjoyane adabiate farsi haman daneshkadeh ast dar hale didane barnameye shoma dar sedaye amrika hastim va lezat mibarim/ doosteton darim hamishe va hanoooooooooooz

  4. Maya Ghaneh says:

    Dear Azar,
    I just finished your book (Things i’ve been silent about). I really enjoyed it.
    Also just saw the documentary about the youth in Iran…It’s really sad…But what can we do?…what can I do?
    Reading your book you talk about the history of Iran since Reza shah Kabir, and throughout it seems we never had freedom!!!
    I wasn’t born but I’m Iranian and have been there man times. Every time I go there and I see all these young people on the streets, malls, doing nothing it frustrates me. Is it really the government? Or is it more of a culture? I was there this past january for my sister’s birthday…a simple thing as driving really makes you think. Have you ever thought why do people drive like that? They don’t give a …
    In a conversation with the youth of my family we talked about this , they don’t see it as horrible as I do and they think this is part of our culture.
    Do you really think new regime will change people’s mentality?
    I really hope so.

    Maya (Manijeh) Ghaneh
    San Francisco, CA

  5. Jan Beattie says:

    Whenever I think about Iraq, I can’t help but remember a friend from Northwestern University where I worked in the 80’s. He was a student of dermatology, and I was a clerk. He explained the nature of the Hussein regime and we had long discussions about why he and his family had left. He talked about bodies hanging from street lights-that is one memory I have.

    I am loving reading “Lolita” because it also reminds me of the Iranian roommates and students I knew at Michigan State University in the 70’s. (There were hundreds.) I participated in the demos against the Shah and felt (still feel) the rage my country was instrumental in ensuring that Mossadegh wasn’t allowed to govern. I wonder if you have ever considered writing about the American students who wanted to show international solidarity with those from Iran who were so passionate about getting rid of the Shah? I admit it got very confusing trying to figure out the various muslim organizations and the splits. I know what my opinion was about the best government that could have developed there, and I was sure Khomeini was not the answer for Iran, but the US got involved in the Central American revolutions and I shifted my focus to that part of the world and lost track of the Iranians I knew. I find myself now as a 50 something, wondering if anyone I knew then is in the current government or if I will run into them in or around me here in Michigan. Thanks for writing “Lolita”! I’m not done yet and have savored each section as much for the insights on Iran and the Iranian people you write about, as for the insights on literature. (Never liked Gatsby, never read James) So, I’m leaning a lot on many levels and that’s what makes me glad to be alive.

  6. Gregory Slater says:

    Hello Professor Nafisi,

    May I ask if it is possible to view the replies submitted in response to your blog post ‘A Reimagined Iraq’ ? I don’t seem to find the link.

    Thank you,

    – Gregory Slater

  7. Carme says:

    I live in Cambridge and work for the university as a research associate studying a parasite that causes much devastation in some areas of subsaharian countries.

    I am not british and coming from a very conservative family, from parents that left school aged eleven maybe twelve, I struggled coming here, Ive been an Uncle Napoleon myself and Ive been part of the scheme of Uncle Napoleons.

    Reading your blog on In the Eyes of the world, a reimagined Iraq has shed some light in my reduced world, because its reminded me as it did your preface to “My uncle Napoleon” that there are many ways to look at what’s going on around us.

    And so I would like to thank you for its given me some hope.

  8. I listened to you on this morning on TV and wonder if you will add to your blog in light of what is going on in Iran now. I would be interested to read more. Really was interested in reading “Lolita.”

  9. Cynthia De Santis says:

    I suppose you will be way too busy for this, but would you be interested in speaking at a library event in Rye, NY, just outside of NYC?

    Cynthia De Santis

  10. Dear Professor Nafisi:

    Like many others I watched you on C-Span this morning (6/18/09)…and like you an Iranian (living in the U.S. since 1980) it was powerfully heart warming to listen to your explanation of some of the causes and roots of the current iranian protests. What was especially profound was your statement that without a shift in mindset the Iranian people will find it difficult to reach their aspirations…these days I am more proud to be an Iranian and like so many others my thoughts and prayers remain with the brave Iranian people and youth.

    On behalf of so many others thank you personally for all you are doing.

  11. Dave Perkins says:

    Your writings are opening new doors for me, giving me new visions and views of Iran, Iraq, and, in general, the “Middle East.” Thank you for writing and please continue.

  12. I’ve been reading “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” and wanted to write to you to say I wish I could have met you when I lived in Iran from 1976-79. While in Iran, I had lived in Rasht, Tehran, and Isfahan. In 1979, I was evacuated from Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Much of what you said in your book, I can very much relate to. I am extremely impressed with your knowledge about literature; if I were still a graduate student, I would have loved to have taken your class. As a teacher myself, I very much understand and relate to the experiences of teaching which you describe. I never thought Iranians would be happy with the current government, so I am not surprised to see the unrest. Much of it reminds me of the circumstances of 1978-79. I am sure that a number of people I knew in Iran are dead. Even in the worst of times, Iranians went out of their way to be nice and to be protective towards me. I hope your countrymen will be able to finally get the kind of government they so desire, and that the women of Iran will regain the freedoms they once knew. Your insights and connections of literature to life experiences are right on the spot. Great work!

  13. raouf zangeneh far says:

    salam khanome nafisi, shoma ro dar barname tafsire khabar didam,baraye avalin bar, vali engar salhast ke mishnasameton. cheghadr afsoos khordam ke chera bayad ba nevisandeye shahiri mesle shoma inghadr dir ashna sham!!! yek hafte dige emtehane ielts daram, age omri baghi bood hatman ketabhaton ro tahie mikonam va mikhonam. rasti mikhastam baraton e-mail bezanam vali bazi moshkelate fani nazasht, in shod ke dar bakhshe nazarate weblogeteton neveshtam, be in omid ke bekhoonin. rasti agar hamle bar por rooei va jesarat nashe, khastam begam ke vaghean chehreye delneshini darin. rastesh enghadr majzoobe chehraton shodam ke harfhaton ro az dast dadam. kamtarin doostdare shoma raouf 27 sale az esfahan.

  14. salam khanum nafisi az zamani ke shoma ro dar barname sedaye amrika didam modaty migzare va bavar konin cheghadr be khodam be onvane ye irani balidam vaghty didam ye hamvatane man ostade daneshgahe nanhopkinze pezeshk hastam va bozorgtarin arezoye man edameye tahsil dar daneshgahie ke shoma bar korsi ostadie un tekie zadin…ghablan shenide budam be khatere yekseri molahezat edame tahsile pezeshki baraye kesani mesle man dar amrika sakhte vali bad az entekhabat omidvaram asuntar shode bashe omidvaram shoma ba bakhshe pezeshkie daneshgah ashnaei dashte bashun va mano baraye residan be jonhopkinz va edame tahsil dar reshte pezeshki rahnamaei konin..dar zemn man yek blog ham daram ( tanze siasi tush minevisam khoshhal misham be man sar bezanin…montazere rahnamaei shoma baraye edame tahsil dar daneshgahetun mimunam omidvaram vaght konin va be man komak konin

  15. Aznvik Madadi says:

    I have only just read this today. As an Iranian Armenian and a lover of literature and justice who has lived in England for the past 30 years, found this article very measured, very moving and absolutely spot on. Sadly a sizeable majority of people, at least in UK, think of Arabs as suiside bombers; when mentioning Iranians, the only thing that readily comes to their minds is “the Ayatollahs”. Only the intelectual few would appreciate what happened in this street in Iraq was criminal and unforgetable. A big thanks to you for this very reach, knowledgeable and truthful peace of work of Art. By the way, I tried very hard to get a ticket to your lecture in London but sadly all the tickets were sold out

    Aznvik Madadi
    Senior Midwife Coordinator
    Winchester and Eastleigh Health Care Trust

  16. carol hunt says:

    Your words provide me with the comfort that although we come into the world alone and leave the world alone that somewhere we all share the same heart

    Fondest Wishes

    Mother, daughter, wife and charity fundraiser from the UK

  17. Julia says:

    Pretty inspiring. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s really a tragedy that Iraq was once one of the leading civilization. Hope they will pick up on this soon. Literature will help – thats for sure.

  18. Dear Ms Nafisi,
    When I was introduced to Iran it was called Persia. My uncle took his bride there to be married after WWII; he had met her in a re-location camp. Because of them (they are still living in Arizona, married over 60 years now), I was exposed to a truly wonderful place. Amongst some of my reading was 1001 Nights, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, eventually Khalil Gibran.
    In the 1960’s I was very jealoous of a classmate who was able to live in Tehran while his father taought at the universtiy. Perhaps you knew him: Rex Waldron, Sr.
    It saddens me to know I will likely never set foot in Baghdad, Babylon, Tehran, or any of the incredible places in Mesopotamia I visited through books.
    Thank you for keeping me in touch through your writing. I am a loyal fan. MJ Dills

  19. Dorie LaRue says:

    Ms. Nafisi,
    Books like yours help understanding. Both of them revealed a side to Iran that I did not know existed. Your walks with your father, your mother buying your white chocolate, meeting fascinating friends in coffee shops. Perhaps one day someone can do this for Iraq, write memoirs which do for readers what your books do. I am hard pressed to tell you which of the two I liked better. I am waiting eagerly for your next book.

  20. Jennifer Eicher says:

    As always, your words are as thought-provoking as they are beautiful. My words, I am sure, will fall short of conveying to you how much I esteem you as an author and a human being. I hope you will continue to speak out–it was my pleasure to attend your lecture at my university–so that Americans can begin to understand the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and the strength of those who oppose violence and tyranny. Ignorance is pervasive here, and you are correct that many associate Iraq (and Islam) only with violence. But I believe that your work has an impact. I hope you will not tire of sharing your insight and understanding. I agree with you that a country’s cultural heritage, including its body of literature, is a great resource in times of trouble. Thank you for adding so much to it.

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