Azar Nafisi


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Reflecting on America in 2015 with a tapestry from Iran

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In 2015 we witnessed too many acts of violence & terror the world over, names of countries & cities associated with life & joy, Tunisia, Cairo, Paris, Istanbul, Yemen, Lebanon, again Paris, San Bernardino. We have seen the Syrian refugees, victims of their own regime & of terror, being once more victims of so much indifference & fear around the world & in this country, where many, especially some among the political elite negate the words promised by the Statue of Liberty replacing them with a most vulgar & cruel rhetoric against refugees, illegal immigrant, Muslims, & minorities. As an Iranian American under the new visa waiver law approved by both the administration & houses of congress, my family & I like other Iranian Americans also feel more vulnerable in the generous country we made our home, escaping persecution by the regime in our beloved country of birth. This arrogance is only possible because of the ignorance that feeds it. Although Donald Trump has the privilege to represent the current reign of ignorance, the rest of us, especially among the political elite are not free from responsibility.

We need to take action against the dominance of fear, terror & ignorance by refusing to enter that domain, refusing to act out of the same sense of brutality & entitlement. This is where the curiosity, empathy that imagination and ideas evoke is essential to our survival. I remember Henry James, advising a friend who had lost her husband in the terror of First World War, that she should “repine & rebel” against this horror & “Feel,feel, I say–feel for all you’re worth, and even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live at this terrible pressure, and the only way to honour & celebrate these admirable beings who are our pride & inspiration.”

In order to begin this rebellion of feeling against the rule of ignorance & arrogance I want to share with you, at the start of the new year, the beautiful tapestry at the top of the post. It is a Persian carpet at the United Nation, gift of Iranian government, that is adorned by a poem by Saadi the great 12 century Persian poet. Today more than ever do we need to remember these words. Emerson admired Saadi to the point where he compared his poetic language to that of Bible and also wrote a poem called Saadi. This is how cultures from such different times & places reach out to one another, find a common language, celebrate their common humanity. This is also how we become intimate with strangers, this is how we share our common humanity.

Happy New Year!

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Books, film, and art that inspired me in 2014

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This is not a recommended reading list or my choice of the best books of 2014. I just want to share with you some of the most memorable books I have read or reread this year. Afterall what better way to celebrate and share the New Year than share your favorite books. Apart from books I also want to mention a few other items from the Republic of Imagination.

Gabriel, a long elegy for his young son, by the great American poet Ed Hirsch, published in 2014. There is no consolation against death, no real closure, especially when one mourns the death of one’s young son. But poetry can be a way to respect, to celebrate,  to continue to love, & in one way, perhaps the only way, defy death, resist & protest its absolutes, its indifference. This is what Ed Hirsch does, without an ounce of sentimentality or self-pity, or self flagellation. It is celebration of a life & mourning for an irretrievable loss in which through the poem life wins even the mourning will continue.

Conference of the Birds, (2011?) by the great Check born illustrator & artist, Peter Sis, who by the way created the tapestry for Vaclav Havel in the Prague airport & for Seamus Heaney in the Dublin airport. I so love this book. I especially love the hard cover version because it is so very sensual. Peter Sis has turned the mystical Persian poet Attar’s (born in mid 12 century)  famous poem, Conference of the Birds, into a festival of color & imagery. Images are so lyrical, so filled with movement. Seldom have I felt the poem within and through the image in this way…a feast for the senses.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum (2014) beautifully written essays, self-deprecating in a good funny way, in the way of people who are self-confident, and who know what they are doing— in this case writing. She has insight but unlike some who have insight but are too full of themselves to let go, she is clearly enjoying what she writes. So the essays have an airy manner about them, while being quite serious.  

My Uncle Napoleon, (1973) by Iraj Pezeshkzad, just in case you want to read a tender, funny, heartbreakingly comic, lovingly critical novel from Iran. I have written this before and I still believe in it: best recommendation for those who take foreign policy seriously enough to pay attention to a people’s culture. The book became an all time best seller, turned into a great and popular television series before the Islamic Revolution and even after the revolution although it was banned it enjoys enormous popularity. Anyone interested in great Persian literature, classical and modern you can go online & check out the Mage Publishers. They are the best, from great Persian Cooking and wine to poems, history, fiction… 

This year I took time off to watch some classical films, a sort of private festival, which happened to have Humphry Bogart stat in them: Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman, The Big Sleep, Have & Have Not, with Lauren Bacall, & Maltese Falcon with Mary Astor. I also taped & watched Love & Death, with Woody Allen& Dianne Keaton, discovering that I still enjoyed watching that film.

By the way if you live in DC or are visiting, don’t forget the museums. We saw an amazing exhibition of Andrew Wyeth at the National Gallery, Freer has Nastaaligh, & of course the one & only Philips Collection,  their current exhibition on neo-Impressionists is fantastic.