10 May 2006

The Meaning of Tolerance in Tehran

About two weeks into my second semester of teaching at Allameh, as soon as I opened the door to my office, I noticed on the floor an envelope that had been pushed under the door. I still have both the envelope and the yellowing piece of paper I found inside, folded once to fit. My name and address at the university is typed, but on a piece of paper there is only one line, childish and as obscene as its message: The adulterous Nafisi should be expelled. This was the welcoming gift I received on my formal return to academia.

Later that day, I spoke to the head of the department. The president had also received a note, with similar message. I wondered why they told me this. I knew and they knew that the word adulterous, like all other words confiscated by the regime, had lost its meaning. It was merely an insult, intended to make you feel dirty and disqualified. I also knew that this could happen anywhere: the world is full of angry, pathological individuals pushing pieces of paper with obscene messages under doors.

What hurt, and still hurts, is that this mentality ultimately ruled our lives. This was the same language that the official papers, the radio and television and the clerics from their pulpits used to discredit and demolish their foes. And most of them succeeded at their task. What made me feel cheap, and in some way complicit, was the knowledge that so many people had been deprived of their livelihood on the basis of similar charges—because they had laughed loudly in public, because they had shaken hands with a member of the opposite sex. Should I just thank my lucky stars that I escaped with no more than one line scrawled on a cheap piece of paper?

I understood then what it meant when I was told that this university and my department in particular were more "liberal." It did not mean that they would take action to prevent such incidents: it meant that they would not take action against me on account of them. The administration did not understand my anger; they attributed it to a "feminine" outburst, as they would become accustomed to calling my protests in the years to come. They gave me to understand that they were prepared to put up with my antics, my informal addresses to my students, my jokes, my constantly slipping scarf, my Tom Jones and Daisy Miller. This was called tolerance. And the strange thing is that in some way it was tolerance, and in some way I had to be grateful to them.
SOURCE: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004), pp. 189-190

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