Word of the Week 6: Screed
Welcome to Wednesday Word of the Week, a hump-day cyber celebration of skillful and felicitous word choice selected from my current reading.
This week’s word comes from a New York Times bestseller that Margaret Atwood described as “a literary life raft on Iran’s fundamentalist sea,” Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.
I was inspired to return to this poignant and searing reflection on life under Iran’s Islamic regime by two dovetailing events, one personal and one that is playing out its cacophonous and dissonant notes on the global-political scale even as I write. I’ll get to the personal event presently, but that global political reference should be obvious to anyone following the breaking headlines: the so-called nuclear deal reached just yesterday with our long-time swathed and turbaned foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So, now you rightly ask: What personal connection could Jeanne possibly have with Iran, that fervent hotbed of repression, that evil bullhorn spewing vociferous calls of “Death to America!” for the last four decades? Just this: my husband (aka the Professor) quite unexpectedly received, just two weeks ago, an invitation to teach a 3-day seminar in October to engineering and social science students in Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city and home to several World Heritage sites. Naturally, the invitation includes the Professor’s wife and partner.
How this invitation came to be is fodder for a much longer post. Suffice it to say that the responses to this bit of news were uniformly ones of alarm. “Iran? You’d have to be crazy to go to Iran.” “Don’t go!” “What, you want to disappear into a dark cell for five years?” My brother went so far as to ask to be added to my will.
Yes, we need to move cautiously as we consider this invitation. As I like to explain to loved ones, we are practicing due diligence in researching the possibilities (including calls to the State Department). But for me, the thought of getting an unvarnished view of the people and culture of Iran, of practicing some citizen diplomacy at this historic moment, fills me with excitement.
I’ve met several Iranians, going back to my teaching days. I gaze now at the the lovely inlaid box an Iranian student gave me in the late 1990s and think of the rich aesthetic sensibility it represents. I reverently turn the pages of an exquisite illustrated volume of the classic Rubaiyat by the 13th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, a gift to the Professor from an appreciative Iranian attendee at the recent conference we attended in Finland (a nice companion to the three volumes we already own of this work.) I remember my very first exposure to this exotic land when, during my freshman year in college, a couple of Iranian students invited me to their apartment for lunch. I had never eaten yogurt with meat before; it was a culinary epiphany of sorts.
And then I think of tyranny, of how I know nothing of what it means to experience a loss of my freedom. I think of Islamic morality squads and radical Islam’s war against women and the mysterious way our Iranian friend, a futurist and scholar, regularly disappears for days or weeks at a time from all social media. I think of fanatics and of crowds shouting “Death to America.” I wonder how much and how little I really know about the situation on the ground in that far-off land against which my country has waged a bitter ideological war all of my adult life.
So, hovering in the space between safe consideration and final acceptance of the offer, imagining with equal parts trepidation and intrigue all the “what-could-be’s,” implicit in such a visit, I return to this week’s word and book. Re-reading select passages should serve as a necessary reminder of just how nefarious the regime under which I may soon place my fate has been. But I think it may just also fill me with an even greater desire to grab at this unprecedented and unique opportunity to visit Iran at this historic moment.
Dr. Nafisi is a professor of Western Literature and essayist who left Iran in 1997. In this braided memoir, she reflects on her pre-Revolutionary days as a student, her increasingly repressive reality as an academic teaching English literature at the University of Tehran, and on the clandestine study group she led at her home in the final months before she left. Through her vivid descriptions of the eight women who joined her weekly, we witness both the terrible stress of authoritarian rule on young lives and the ultimate futility of such repression to quell the human spirit. In the following passage, one of the young women present explains her vicious jubilation upon hearing news of the death of one of the leaders of the Muslim Students’ Association.
“You don’t know him, Mojgan told me. Next to him Mr. Ghomi is an absolute angel. He was sick, sexually sick. You know, he got a friend expelled because he said the white patch of skin just barely visible under her scarf sexually provoked him. They were like hounds. Then Nassrin jumped in with a screed about one of the female guards. Her searches were like sexual assaults, she insisted. One day she squeezed and fondled Niloofar until she became hysterical. They expel us for laughing out loud, but you know what they did to this woman when she was discovered? She was reprimanded, expelled for a semester and then she was back at her job.”
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a sad and sparkling tale of transcendence over tyranny. It is also a reminder of the critical role that scholars and teachers play in the lives of a free citizenry. I will return to it again and again for Professor Nafisi’s inspiring critiques of the best-loved work in Western Literature, and thrill each time to the layers of thought she unveils.
That’s it for this week. If you’ve encountered ‘screed” in your reading recently (as I have just this morning in the New York Times), consider sharing your thoughts here.