“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
“Truth is always a call to action.” Azar Nafisi
I’m an American, a citizen of the good old USA, born about the middle of the century that Henry Luce called “the American century.” Naturally, absorbed in the humdrum daily hustle of grocery lists and commuter traffic, I don’t think about this fact much. One might say that so far I’ve led an easy life, a comfortably solipsistic life – in a word, an American life.
But every so often the Great Opthamologist likes to flips the lens through which I see existence. A couple weeks back I attended a one-day symposium on the Iranian blogosphere at George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. Suddenly the meaning of the First Amendment and the subversive power of storytelling got much clearer to me.
First speaker up was Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a work I’ve admired because of her interpretation of one my favorite novels, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I’m among those seduced by Nabokov, the great artificer of the English language who manages to make Humbert Humbert – his deeply unreliable narrator – credible, amusingly self-ironic, and not entirely despicable.
Nafisi and her reading group of young women in Iran read the novel in a different way. For them, the story is about Lolita as a powerless person whose identity has been usurped by an authority figure. This reading seizes on the small bits of Lolita the child that Nabokov allows to glimmer through Humbert’s telling of the story.
“Lolita,” Nafisi writes, ”belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but her life story is taken from her.”
Yes, this is a legitimate reading of the novel. But what I really like is the way Nafisi’s reading group has demonstrated an old truth about great literature, that it generates a rich array of meaning, a diversity of truths.
As you might expect, Nafisi in person is a quick, passionate speaker. “The first act of any totalitarian society,” she said at the blogging conference, “is to take away all the voices and reduce everything to a single image.”
Iran for her is a “complex, enigmatic, contradictory” country, with a long history and a deep culture that existed well before the present regime. “The present dissident movement in Iran will succeed,” she said, “because it is existential. It is beyond politics.”
I culled more bits about the Iranian blogosphere from the first panel, mostly from Mohamed Abdel Dayem, a staffer with the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Because of the Iranian government’s crackdowns on newspapers and other publications in the 1990s, the line between Iranian bloggers and journalists is a fuzzy one. Many journalists converted to blogging, and they’ve since been joined as bloggers by doctors, students, and other amateurs.
Between 2000 and 2008, Iran’s blogosphere increased 13-fold. The total number of Iranian bloggers is now between 700,000 and 1 million. Of these, 70,000 post at least once a week.
The Iranian government has been prosecuting bloggers under a complex mix of laws that makes it difficult for a blogger to know where the lines are drawn. The first wave of blogger arrests, 30, came in 2004.
Some were tortured in prison, and one prominent blogger was told the reason: the government wants to shut off this movement by making examples of the most prominent bloggers.
Because of the jailings and technical hurdles the regime has set up within Iran, many serious bloggers have left the country and moved to Turkey, Syria, other Middle Eastern countries, Europe, or the USA. Those in the Iranian diaspora are making concerted efforts to tell the stories of those jailed in Iran.
The March 18 Movement commemorates one of these stories, the death of the first Iranian blogger to die in prison. According to an article by Hamid Tehrani on the Global Voices website:
“Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, a 29-year old Iranian blogger and journalist died in Evin Prison in Tehran on March 18 . In December, he was sentenced to two and half years in prison for allegedly insulting religious leaders, and engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mir Sayafi was still awaiting an additional trial for insulting Islam.
“According to the Human Rights activists in Iran website, Omid Reza suffered from deep depression in jail and was prescribed medications of which he apparently took too many. Dr. Hesam Firouzi, a jailed doctor and human rights activist, says he urged prison authorities to send Omid Reza to a hospital outside prison but that prison doctors refused, and would not perform even basic tests.”
To view a short video on the March 18 Movement, check this website.
The Iranian bloggers are not the only ones in jail. At least 68 bloggers, Web-based reporters, and online editors are under arrest worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports.
Bloggers seem particularly vulnerable to crackdowns. “Many are not attached to media companies and often do no
t have legal resources or political connections to help them fight for their freedom once in jail,” says a report from the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance. “Unlike traditional journalists, bloggers often work from home or in a solitary location making it easy for government officials or thugs to abduct them.”
I left the conference pondering the sort of deep thoughts that seldom enter my brain. In telling their thousands of individual stories, the Iranian bloggers are participating in a grand historical struggle, an epic story that would be familiar to Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, Josef Brodsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and, yes, Vladimir Nabokov himself.
As an American, of course, I can blog my heart and guts out and the only cost to me, as far as I can see, is time. We writers in the West often like to weep and moan about what in this context seem tangential issues – writer’s block, getting published, time to write. Much of 317am, you may have noticed, is devoted to the psychological games of the writing trade – ways to trick your mind into getting your butt into that chair and overcoming the negative force that Steven Pressfield terms Resistance. The number-one problem for me as an American writer has been what you might call self-mastery.
Quick thought experiment: what if writers in the West had a real opponent – a regime run by genuinely threatening authorities who were ready to toss us into prison and worse for telling the truth as we saw it? What if our very selves were at stake in the words we produce?
I don’t have an answer, but a remark by Salman Rushdie occurs to me: “In this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escapes from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss.”
World Press Freedom Day arrives next week, May 3.
Thanks to John Kelly and Bruce Etling for use of that opening image of the Iranian blogosphere published in their 2008 paper, Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere. For a good short summary of this paper, see Matt Armstrong’s mountainrunner blog.