Softskull Press‘s website offers a downloadable sample chapter of Paul Berman’s new book, Power and the Idealists (2005). The chapter is entitled “The Muslim World and the American Left.” One of the people it discusses is Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Nafisi is an Iranian, and she grew up in the gilded districts of Tehran under the shah during the nineteen-fifties and sixties—the daughter of Tehran’s mayor (though he ended up in jail, a matter of pride for the family), with distinguished and cultured ancestors tracing back eight hundred years. Somebody might object that, with her glorious background, Nafisi can hardly be regarded as typical of her part of the world. But who is typical of anything? The medieval ancestry might suggest, at the least, that here is someone with a sharp eye for Iranian traditions. Nafisi went abroad to study—and this, surely, was a typical thing to do, for the educated elite in what used to be called the Third World. She studied in Switzerland and Britain until the serendipities of life and love brought her, in the nineteen-seventies, to the University of Oklahoma, at Norman. She explored American literature at Norman—the only foreign student in the department. The American New Left was at high tide, and Oklahoma did not escape its many currents. All over the American university system in the seventies, clever left-wing students were organizing study groups to pore over the texts of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Lukacs, Debray, and the Frankfurt School—the alternative syllabus of the world of Marxism. These groups formed at Norman, too, and Nafisi took her place among them….
Student leftism back home in Iran grew noisier and more militant over the course of the seventies, agitating against the shah. The shah’s secret police, the Savak, cracked down, and students were killed in terrible massacres. And, as these grisly events took place far away in Iran, the Iranian students in America likewise grew noisier and more militant, and marched in picket lines that, as I remember well (from observing a demonstration in New York, not Oklahoma), were weirdly vehement, radiant with violence, and slightly mysterious, too, with the marchers’ faces wrapped in scarves to conceal their identities from the agents of the Savak and the FBI. Iranian students were especially active at Norman. They were fervent for Maoism. They hung out in the Norman student union, sipping coffee and Coke, and declaiming in favor of Stalin and, as Nafisi remembers, “the need to destroy once and for all the Trotskyites, the White Guards, the termites and poisonous rats who were bent on destroying the revolution.” This, too, expressed the spirit of the age….
In 1979 the revolution broke out for real—not in Oklahoma but in Iran. Nafisi completed her dissertation … [and] set out for Tehran—she and a good many other Iranian radicals, full of enthusiasm for the revolution and for their own opportunity to play a role. The Tehran airport was bedecked with slogans written in black and red: DEATH TO AMERICA! DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM & ZIONISM. She took a position as a professor of literature at University of Tehran, where the Marxists were especially strong. And yet, in those early days after the shah’s overthrow, to be alive was not necessarily bliss, nor was it Heaven to be young. The revolution came to power because Ayatollah Khomeini and his radical Islamists put together a broad front with the Iranian Communist Party (the Tudeh) and the Marxist Fedayin Organization, together with a couple of popular organizations that favored liberal democracy, and the mixture of mosques, Marxists, and liberals turned out to be powerful. The shah fled for his life. But Khomeini and his mullahs stood at the head of this absurdly wide United Front, and, once the mullahs had succeeded in establishing the United Front’s revolutionary government, they and their Marxist allies turned against the liberals and crushed them. Then the Islamists turned against the Marxists. A battle for control of the university and of every institution of Iranian life got underway—mullahs against Marxists and everyone else. And the Islamist victory, as it crept across the landscape, turned out to be dreadful.
Berman writes in a very blunt, engaging, and often poignant style, but everything he writes has the flavor of an epitaph.