Bahai News -- The Rule of the Bus
The Rule of the Bus
by Cynthia Ozick
Post date 07.10.03 | Issue date 07.21.03
Reading Lolita on the Bus
by Azar Nafisi
(Random House, 347 pp., $23.95)
Toward the close of Reading Lolita in Tehran, her troubled yet inspiriting memoir of life under the ayatollahs,
Azar Nafisi recounts the course of an attempted massacre. Twenty-one writers, members of the Iranian writers' association, had been invited
to attend a literary conference in Armenia. Government agents at first discouraged the trip, then appeared to relent. The long bus journey
had stretched well into the night, with most of the travelers asleep in their seats, when an alert passenger all at once became aware that
the driver was missing and the bus was motionless: it had been abandoned at the brink of a precipice. Someone seized the wheel and swerved
the vehicle out of danger. As the dazed writers emerged, the security forces that had been posted at the site beforehand to "discover" the
unfortunate "accident" sped forward to arrest them. A plot to dispatch an entire cohort of intellectuals had gone awry. "The next day,"
Nafisi writes, "the whole of Tehran had heard the news.... There were many jokes about this incident."
As it happened not in Tehran but at home in New York, and some time before coming upon Nafisi's despairing history I had already
encountered one of these jokes, as well as two of the targeted passengers. In autumn of 1999, during an interval of thaw in the Islamic
Republic's unsparing regime, a group of four Iranian writers was permitted to depart for New York. It was a private visit, closed to the
press, and presided over by an Iranian exile, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at an elite American university. In response to an
invitation from the Freedom-to-Write Committee of the American PEN Center, the visitors, their academic cicerone, and a pair of
translators joined an attentive circle of about twenty American writers at a large round table in a small secluded room. The mood was
cautious, hesitant on both sides. The Americans, conscious of their liberties in the face of writers under duress, feared giving offense
by pressing too hard; and the Iranians, accustomed to wary reticence, seemed apprehensive, unsure of what unsuspected quagmires might
await. But there was a prevailing good will, edged by mutual watchfulness, and the suppressed jubilation that accompanies sympathetic
Here they were, these alien messengers bearing the unfathomable scars of tyranny yet what were they really? Familiar middle-aged
scribblers in shirtsleeves, worn intellectuals marked by deepening creases. You could meet their like anywhere, splitting literary hairs
and grinding out cigarette butts in coffee dregs. One had a droopy Mark Twain mustache and a humorous shoulder tweaked upward by spasms of
irony. He was the first to tear down the curtain of formality that shadowed the table, and it was from him that I heard the joke it was a
kind of joke about the bus. In Iran, he said, we don't have the Rule of Law; instead we have the Rule of the Bus, mandated to pitch a
score of writers over a cliff, and good riddance to critical thinking. He had spent the last twenty years, he confided, "humbly, in the
corner of the kitchen" a refuge from the despotic storm.
At the time of this visit, the despotic storm had engulfed thirteen Iranian Jews falsely accused of spying for Israel; they were
charged with the sin of "world arrogance" and threatened with execution, a public iniquity that was drawing international protest and
dominating the news almost daily. Only the year before, in July 1998, another scapegoated Jew had been hanged, the most recent in a series
of "anti-Zionist" persecutions. In view of the Rule of the Bus and since hatred of "Zionists" remained a salient and enduring tenet of the
ayatollahs' statecraft it struck me as imperative not to exclude the condition of Iranian Jews in a conversation touching on human rights
and free expression. The gruff and shaggy spokesman for the four, who had been introduced as "the poet of the streets," began instantly to
reply in rapid Farsi. One word leaped into comprehension: Falastin. It was on account of the Palestinians, he explained stiffly;
that was why Jews born in Isfahan were guilty. "A governmental answer," I countered, "not an answer from the corner of the kitchen." But
the kitchen finally won out: the poet of the streets, it developed, had his work banned for years, during which he earned his living
writing advertising copy. He had been accused of "accepting money from Israel." He was officially a dissident. They were all dissidents;
they were all secularists; they were all subject to the malevolent whims of a theocratic tyranny.
"Theocratic tyranny": this was the professor's scalding phrase. He was angry at the ayatollahs; he was angry at the fanatical
influences that had corrupted a society and was punishing its intellectuals; clearly he was on the side of freedom and humanity. Yet now
startlingly, improbably he stepped forward, bitter, strident, enraged. It was not the distant ayatollahs who were inflaming him at this
hour: it was something nearer, something that was happening in this very room. The professor was white-faced. He was shouting. While an
entire nation of millions is suffering under a theocratic tyranny, you, he scolded, are unfair, you are arrogant, to ask about thirteen
Jews! Why do you pick out only the Jews to worry about? Why do they deserve separate mention?
Unfair? During the regime's ongoing campaign against Jews, the thirteen had been selected for maltreatment in a place where, as the
professor knew, the notion of judicial fairness was Galgenhumor. Arrogant? Surprisingly, the professor's idiom was almost identical
to that of the abusive regime's typical canard of "world arrogance," employed in the usual way. And why, the American inquired, shouldn't
a demographic minority Iranian Jews merit the same attention as the majority of millions? Didn't the demographic minority count as part of
those millions? Who was it really who was focusing too zealously on the Jews of Iran? Was it the objectionable American, or was it the
Islamic Republic, with its nonsensical anti-Semitic inventions and its persistent cry of "Death to Israel"? Or was it, just then, the
distinguished professor, for whom the mere mention of Jews was an irritant?
And that is how, on November 2, 1999, the mephitic vapors of Tehran seeped, all unexpectedly, into a human rights colloquy in New York.
It may be noted, though, that afterward, when the meeting was done, the man with the droopy Mark Twain mustache the same man who had joked
about the Rule of the Bus approached the chastised American, shrugged his wry shy shrug, and smiled his tired, sensible, honest
ince then, I have often thought of the man with the droopy Mark
Twain mustache, and of the clandestine heroism of the corner of the kitchen. I fancy that I have met him again in Azar Nafisi's pages, where
he can be fitfully glimpsed now forcefully, now flickeringly. Nafisi calls him "my magician." His face (perhaps he is clean-shaven?) is
hidden from us; how he gets his bread is left indistinct. But his principles are plain: he has succeeded in living as a free man in a brutal
society. He will not accede to becoming, as Nafisi puts it, a figment of the ayatollahs' imagination. His credo is anonymity: "I want to be
forgotten; I am not a member of this club. . . . In fact, I don't exist." His dissent is as absolute as it is private and only because it is
acutely private can it be absolute. Yet there is always the twisted paradox of oppression: in the ayatollahs' imagination, all privacy,
including the most sequestered corner of the kitchen, is transgression, and all transgression is rebellion. Hence the private individual, the
invisible dissenter, is "as dangerous to the state," Nafisi concludes, "as an armed rebel."
Inspired by her magician, Nafisi herself took up arms. She and her coconspirators seven young women gathered secretly on Thursday
mornings in Nafisi's living room, on soft couches, over tea and cream puffs. The cream puffs and cushions are misleading: this was a war
room, roiling with insurrection; the young women, arriving shrouded in their long robes and head scarves, were ardent insurgents. Their
maps and weapons were at the ready Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice. And also A Thousand and One
Nights, banned in Iran and available only on the black market: the dangerously subversive Scheherazade, who knows how stories can
outwit ruthlessness and confer life.
That Nafisi's rebels were women is not insignificant. In the Islamic Republic, all citizens, male and female, are subject to the
caprices of tyranny; but women, even as victims, are less than equal. With the ascension of Khomeini and the introduction of
sharia, Islamic law, the age of marriage for females was reduced from eighteen to nine. Stoning became the punishment for
prostitution and adultery. Women were obliged to cover themselves from head to toe; to sit in the back of the bus; to avoid bright colors
in coats and scarves and shoelaces. A hint of lipstick or a wayward strand of hair was likely to draw the savage solicitude of the roving
moral police. Running was forbidden; licking an ice cream cone in public was forbidden; walking with a man not one's near relation was
In her covert seminar, Nafisi's retort to these depredations was literary generalship. Her allies were Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and
Austen each of whom yields a powerful refraction of internal freedom and cultural despotism, of autonomy and usurpation. "The desperate
truth of Lolita's story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man," Nafisi argues, "but the confiscation of one individual's
life by another.... Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people's lives." James's
Daisy Miller declines to be ruled by the expectations of her conditioning; Catherine Sloper of Washington Square resists not merely
local convention but a deep-seated drive to manipulate and subordinate her. In Pride and Prejudice, Nafisi points out, "there are
spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist," and it is this many-voiced disharmony dialogue on all
sides that underlies Austen's "democratic imperative." Nafisi had come to this perception alone; but in a period of grim discouragement,
reinforcement was at hand. "You used to preach to us all," her friend the magician reminded her, "that [Austen] ignored politics, not
because she didn't know any better but because she didn't allow her work, her imagination, to be swallowed up by the society around her.
At a time when the world was engulfed in the Napoleonic Wars, she created her own independent world, a world that you, two centuries
later, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, teach as the fictional ideal of democracy. Remember all that talk of yours about how the first
lesson in fighting tyranny is to ... satisfy your own conscience?"
She remembered; she did not forget. Unlike her students, born into the ayatollahs' imperium wherein women were legally half the value
of men, and "temporary marriage," a form of sanctioned philandering, was the law Nafisi had experienced the pre-Khomeini era. Her father
had been the mayor of Tehran. Her mother had been elected to Parliament. After the Islamic revolution, the two women who had been Cabinet
ministers were sentenced to death, "for the sins of warring with God and for spreading prostitution." The first happened to be safely
abroad. The second the former principal of Nafisi's high school was put in a sack and stoned. Denunciations, coerced confessions, the
murder of political prisoners, amputations of the limbs of thieves, show trials, and an unending procession of executions were now
The young women in Nafisi's private seminar suffered from nightmares, both in their dreams (the fear of going about unveiled) and in
quotidian reality. One was allowed to attend by means of a ruse: her father believed she was translating religious texts. Another had a
dictatorial husband who beat her. Still others had been jailed or subjected to humiliatingly invasive virginity tests. Everywhere in the
streets slogans on posters bawled, "Death to America! Down with Imperialism and Zionism!" It was against all this that Nafisi's seven
seditionists were pitted. In the conspiratorial sanctum that was Nafisi's living room, where a mirror reflected distant mountains, they
threw off their somber scarves and shapeless robes and burst into an individuality of color and loosened hair. In all of Iran on a
Thursday morning, it was only here that Gatsby's green light burned.
afisi had once been a revolutionary of a different stripe. An early
marriage (it ended in divorce) took her to the University of Oklahoma, where her husband was studying engineering. When he returned to Iran,
she stayed on, joining the demonstrations protesting the Vietnam war, "occupying" a university building, reading Lenin and Mao together with
Melville and Poe. Oklahoma's Iranian students were radical Marxists. Nafisi went to their rallies, yelled their slogans, and speechified
against American support for the Shah. Along the way she acquired a doctorate in literature: her dissertation was on the American proletarian
novelists, exemplified by Mike Gold, the editor of New Masses, a 1930s periodical sympathetic to Bolshevism. Her career as a professor
of literature began in the English department of the University of Tehran, just as the regime was starting its religious and political
penetration of public institutions. "Almost every week, sometimes every day of the week," she recalls, "there were either demonstrations
or meetings, and we were drawn to these like a magnet, independently of our will." When a popular young ayatollah a hero of the revolution
died, rivalrous Islamic factions fought over delivering the body to its grave, while an oceanic crowd frothed in a mania of mourning and
chanting. Nafisi was caught up in the communal rhapsody; she had voted for Khomeini, she had willed the revolution.
And then, as revolutions do, it swallowed her up. Vigilantes and fanatics took over. The veil was imposed on women. Books were banned.
Bahai burials were prohibited. The enemies of God multiplied; torture and executions multiplied. Nafisi's students were turning rigidly
ideological. Characters in novels were judged by Islamic standards and condemned for "cultural aggression." Gatsby's Daisy was denounced
as dissolute and decadent, and Gatsby was scorned as a swindler representing Western materialism. In a mordant parody that Nafisi plainly
recognized "be careful what you wish for, be careful of your dreams," she admonished one of her students, "one day they may just come
true" the ghost of the doctrinaire proletarian novel, dressed now in radical Islamic robes, rose up to haunt her: once again literature
was being cut to fit prevailing dogma.
To undermine the spreading zealotry, Nafisi devised an ingenious pedagogical scheme. "This is a good time for trials," she commented
dryly and so her classroom would assume the trappings of a court: The Great Gatsby was to be put on trial. The novel would be the
defendant. The students would enact judge, prosecutor, defense, and jury. Here was the prosecutor (a young man): "Imam Khomeini has
relegated a great task to our poets and writers.... If our Imam is the shepherd who guides the flock to its pasture, then the writers are
the faithful watchdogs who must lead according to the shepherd's dictates.... This book preaches illicit relations." And here was the
defense (a young woman): "Our prosecutor has demonstrated his own weakness: an inability to read a novel on its own terms. All he knows is
judgment, crude and simplistic exaltation of right and wrong. But is a novel good because the heroine is virtuous?" And now the defendant
(in the voice of Nafisi): "A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and
prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil." Gatsby, the defendant insisted,
is "about loss, about the perishability of dreams once they are transformed into hard reality."
At the close of the mock tribunal a virtuoso passage in this vividly braided memoir Nafisi appears to confront her own complicity, and
that of her generation. "What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald," she muses, "was this dream that became our obsession and took
over reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified and
forgiven." But was the dream of a politicized Islamic society, even one initially pledged to reform, ever as beautiful as it was surely
terrible? When Nafisi speaks tenderly of religion, it is through her regard for her grandmother's chador, "a symbol of her sacred
relationship to God.... It was a shelter, a world apart from the world." This serene image of pious withdrawal, an expression of inner
devotion, is inescapably foreign to the bristling political belligerence of the chador under the ayatollahs' hard rule. In the falsified
name of holiness thousands were arrested, movie houses were burned down, teenagers were sentenced to death, gun-toting morality squads
prowled. With provocations on both sides, the eight-year war with Iraq was soon to be prosecuted. Tehran would be repeatedly bombed, and
hundreds of young "martyrs," the keys to heaven swinging from their necks, would be sent to march through fields littered with land mines.
n circumstances such as these, Nafisi was expelled from
the University of Tehran. She had refused to wear the veil; her refusal seemed to signify an end to teaching. She would not compromise, she
could not be coerced. She entered the silenced zone of interiority, though not in the style of her friend the magician, whose principled
disappearance she could not approximate. Occupied with family life, a husband and children, she was perforce in the world of common necessity.
Was there, then, a middle way between compliance with the ayatollahs and the desolating seclusion of internal exile? A determined academic
dynamo named Mrs. Rezvan claimed that there could be: she pressured Nafisi to take a position at Allameh Tabatabai, her "liberal" university,
where, though the veil was mandatory in the classroom, Nafisi would be permitted to teach what she pleased and besides, given that the veil
was law, wasn't she already veiled when she walked out to the grocery store? A university is not a grocery, Nafisi objected; but she yielded.
"Some thought I would be a traitor," she writes, "if I neglected the young and left them to the teachings of corrupt ideologies; others
insisted I would be betraying everything I stood for if I worked for a regime responsible for ruining the lives of so many.... Both were
But "liberalism" in a state-controlled university was relative. The president of the faculty averted his eyes from her; religion
forbade him to look at a woman. The Muslim Students Association and Islamic Jihad were active and fanatic. The walls were lined with the
usual inflammatory posters. The students, constrained by beliefs and certainties that allowed no independent thought, were fearful of
individuality and it was the perplexities of individuality and autonomy that Nafisi drew from the novels which her impassioned readings
illumined. Jane Austen was pelted with charges of being "vile," "decadent," "corrupt," in the regime's hackneyed terminology.
Unaccountably, there was still another source for the perversion of the aims of literature:
One day after class, Mr. Nahvi followed me to my office. He tried to tell me that Austen was not only anti-Islamic but that
she was guilty of another sin: she was a colonial writer. I was surprised to hear this from the mouth of someone who until then had mainly
quoted and misquoted the Koran. He told me that Mansfield Park was a book that condoned slavery.... What confounded me was that I
was almost certain that Mr. Nahvi had not read Mansfield Park.
Nafisi's astonishment was dispelled much later, presumably in an American academic environment, when she was introduced to the views of
Edward Said; it hardly counts as a witticism to note that she was spared this particular debasement of fiction only by the intellectual
isolation imposed by life under tyranny. That a Muslim fundamentalist with a circumscribed mind had gotten wind of Said's lucubrations on
Mansfield Park suggests something about the uses of foolish ideas.
ecause the intensity of the Iraqi bombings had grown unendurable,
Khomeini was compelled to accept what he called the "cup of poison" the recognition of defeat and the termination of the war. Domestic
loyalties now emerged as the regime's latest motif, and again there were mass executions. Nafisi's classes expanded strangers, students from
other universities, former graduates, and other outsiders crowded her lectures. They came for Nabokov, for James, for Austen; they came to hear
what had been taken from them. In 1989, Khomeini died. The mammoth funeral, the turbulence of the mobs, the prolonged official lamentations
ignited a public frenzy comparable (though Nafisi does not tell us this) to the orgiastic obsequies surrounding Stalin's death. The ruler who
was mourned as "the breaker of idols" was placed in an air-conditioned glass case. His image, it was said, could be seen in the moon. "Even
perfectly modern and educated individuals came to believe this," Nafisi marvels. And Mrs. Rezvan, despite her zeal for the possibility of the
liberalization of at least one Iranian university, escaped to Canada. Allameh Tabatabai had been tagged by some in the Ministry of
Education as no better than Switzerland a touchstone of Western decay.
Nafisi escaped to her living room, where her surreptitious confederates, stripped of empathy in the ayatollahs' withering domain, found
it in the voices of novels and in the safety of an intimate confessional space. Satire became the lance to pierce the hide of repressive
law. Jane Austen, far from conspiring with the imperialist subjugation, was, in this room of a thousand hurts, a rebel captain:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old
virgin wife." So declared Yassi, in tha tspecial tone of hers, deadpan and wildly ironic, which on some occasions, and this was one of
them, bordered on the burlesque.
"Or is it a truth universally acknoledged," Manna shot back, "that a Muslim man must be in want
not just of one but of many wives?"
Inexorably, the personal travail of the seven began to wash over their Thursday mornings. The social condition of women in Iran where
nail polish remained an offense worthy of flogging and prison and the outrage of authoritarian confiscation possessed the seminar: there
it was in Lolita, here it was in Tehran.
One of Nafisi's recurrent "jokes" not unlike the joke about the Rule of the Bus is her account of the official censor, whose job it was
to guard against insult to religion in film, theater, and television. What made him highly suitable as a judge of the visual arts was that
he could not see what he condemned he was virtually blind. The sightless censor is Nafisi's metaphor for the Islamic Republic: it declined
to see, and in not seeing, it was unable to feel. This blind callousness Nafisi rightly terms it solipsism ruled every cranny of the
nation's existence. The answer to governmental solipsism, Nafisi determined, was insubordination through clinging to what the regime could
neither see nor feel: the sympathies and openness of humane art, art freed from political manipulation the inchoate glimmerings of
Fitzgerald's green light, Nabokov's "world of tenderness, brightness and beauty," James's "Feel, feel, I say feel for all you're worth."
ut the strains of insubordination and the tensions of
oppositional thinking could not last. "You will be leaving us soon," her friend the magician said. She left Iran in 1997, impelled by what the
great novels reveal: the right to choose. Or perhaps it was only the ayatollahs' Iran that she abandoned. She kept the Iran she prized: the
mountains in her living-room mirror; the Persian classics, whose names Rumi, Hafez, Sa'adi, Khayyam, Nezami, Ferdowsi, Attar, Beyhaghi are an
elixir of language; the memory of her underground magician, on whose repudiations civilization finally depends.
In Iran, until recently, the straits of courage through which one might pass with conscience nearly unscathed seemed few. The magician's
way: I am not a member of this club. Mrs. Rezvan's way: why deprive the young of what they deserve to have and only you can give? which led
first to compromise and then to disillusionment. And last, emigration, whenever it proved feasible, and if not, then through the connivance
of smugglers. The Rule of the Bus rendered any other solution unthinkable. Yet lately there are rumblings of cracks in the ayatollahs' regime.
A fore-echo was heard even before Nafisi's departure, when a former student, no longer wearing the chador, confided that she had named her
child Daisy: "I want my daughter to be what I never was." Once an ideologically indignant adherent of the Muslim Students Association, she had
resisted Nafisi's charge that a novel is "not an exercise in censure." She had admired a professor who erased the impious word "wine" from his
readings. And she had emphatically assailed James's Daisy as licentious. "As I write," Nafisi notes in her epilogue, "I open the paper to read
about the student demonstrations in support of a dissident who was sentenced to death for suggesting that the clergy should not be blindly
followed like monkeys."
And as I write, I open the paper to read about student protests in Tehran the burning of tires, the burning of trees directed against
Khamenei, the current ruling ayatollah, and also against President Khatami, the designated reformist figure. (When Khatami appeared on
American television some months past, it was all a matter of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.) Twenty-four years ago, the students of the
Islamic revolution were chanting, "Death to America!" Now their sons and daughters are chanting, "Death to Khamenei! Kill all the
mullahs!" And still the tune is death. A generation has been reared on death death as justice, death as retribution, death as religion,
death as victory, death as intoxication. Revolutions are rarely velvet, and most often cannot be, especially when sanctified thugs and
their truncheons come calling but death yelps as the birth pangs of democracy?
Azar Nafisi's anguished and glorious memoir contemplates another theme. "How fragile is his life," she thinks, visiting her magician
for the last time. She is with him in the corner of the kitchen, imagining the future. She will go on reading Lolita in the United
States. He will stay behind. How much more promising it would be if the beleaguered summoners of a world yet unborn were moved to cry,
"Long life to Scheherazade!" in the streets of Tehran.
Cynthia Ozick is the author most recently of Quarrel and Quandary (Knopf).
©Copyright 2003, The New Republic (Washington, DC, USA)
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