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Azar Nafisi keynotes launch of School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences

Author and champion of the liberal arts, Azar Nafisi, speaks at The OShaughnessy in April.
Author and champion of the liberal arts, Azar Nafisi, speaks at The OShaughnessy in April.
Rebecca Zenefski 10

In a culmination of the “Year of the Liberal Arts” at St. Catherine University, Azar Nafisi delivered the keynote address for the launch of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences on April 19.

Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, joined St. Catherine University as the Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence in April. She visited with faculty, staff and students in several University-sponsored events and the culminating event packed The O’Shaughnessy Tuesday evening.

Following an address by President Andrea Lee, IHM, the Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences, Alan Silva, gave Nafisi a warm introduction, adding that her residency would help to usher in a new era for the University.    

“To officially launch this school, we knew we needed someone special to help us get underway." said Silva. "We knew we needed to make a statement about the power of liberal arts in our University."

Nafisi, who is also a professor of aesthetics, culture and literature at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., anchored her speech to literature, extending its reach to "The Republic of Imagination" — a state of mind that she argued can exist anywhere literature is present.

“One of the most amazing things about books is the connections they make, because they connect you to people you should be connected to — not people that you relate to because of where you were born, or because of your job, but people who genuinely share your passions and your dreams,” said Nafisi. 

Discovering humanity through the liberal arts
Nafisi said the liberal arts and sciences are both based on two fundamental human tendencies.

“One is curiosity," she said. "The whole idea of knowledge is based on this almost sensual urge to know. And this whole feeling of wanting to come out of yourself, and to go to strange terrains, and even become like the others who you have never met.”

Among the allusions she made to writers across the world, Nafisi referenced the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, who penned Lolita in 1955. Nabokov called curiosity “insubordination in its purest form,” encouraging critical thinking.

“Vladimir Nabokov, who himself was a scientist as well as a poet and a writer, he used to tell his students, 'You need to have the precision of the poet and the passion of the scientist,'” said Nafisi.

Nafisi said many students would ask Nabokov if he meant what he said in reverse — he did not and that was his point.

“Because both the scientist and the poet deal in and celebrate the small details of life,” said Nafisi. “They need to be precise and they need to be passionate." 

A sense of home
As scholar-in-residence for a University grounded in the liberal arts, Nafisi said she felt completely at home at St. Catherine University. She lauded the University’s interdisciplinary programs as well as its diverse population, and she urged her audience not to fall into step with injustice just because speaking out may be considered “politically incorrect.”

“A lot of times these days, we talk about multiculturalism only in terms of difference. But if we genuinely believe that we are only different from one another, I think this concept becomes very, very dangerous,” said Nafisi. She said instead, individuals should recognize their similarities across cultures and celebrate the differences. “Tyrants, what they lack is this curiosity, because all they want to do is impose their own views upon the island, upon others… I think that is the greatest lesson that we learn from history: That the shock of recognition when you read a great work of art is not how different we are, but in fact how alike we are.”

When Nafisi finished her dissertation in 1979, she returned to Tehran to learn that her native country and culture had succumbed to those in power.

“When the Islamic Republic came into power, their first targets were human rights and individual rights. And their first victims were women, minorities and culture,” said Nafisi. “The first law they changed was the law in regards to women and their rights at home and at work. Iran had some of the most progressive laws not just in the Middle East, but in the world.”

Under the Islamic Republic, according to Nafisi, the minister for higher education and the minister for women’s affairs, who were both female, were removed. Female judges were defrocked, the age of marriage for females was changed from 18 to 9, and for the first time in Iran’s history, a law was passed permitting stoning to death as punishment for adultery and prostitution.

“I realized home was not home, because a group of people had come to my country — and in the name of that country, in the name of its traditions, in the name of its history, in the name of its religion — had confiscated all of that,” said Nafisi. “The issue of the day was never the issue for or against religion. It was about freedom of choice. It was about the fact that no state, no authority has the right to give one version of religion and impose it on the rest. No authority on earth can tell a woman how she should come out into the street or how to relate with her god.” 

"The Republic of Imagination"
Through "The Republic of Imagination," or the liberal arts and sciences, Nafisi said, individuals can transcend the limitations of reality.

“You transcend the limitations of place, of time, of religion, of nationality, of ethnicity, of race and of gender,” said Nafisi. “When our politicians today dismiss the National Endowment for the Humanities, you have to remind them that in fact without humanities, they themselves lose their humanity, they themselves forget how to talk to one another,” she said, inspiring applause in the audience.

Nafisi also pointed out that no nation is free of blemishes.

“Every culture has something to be ashamed of, and every culture should be proud of change because we look in the mirror, and we don’t like what we see, and we change it,” said Nafisi, inspiring applause again.

In closing, Nafisi advised her audience to go directly to the source, and seek wisdom from the history and the philosophy of their country.

“This is the gift that Iran brings us: It reminds us how these rights that we take so much for granted today have not been given to us by God,” said Nafisi. “We have been fighting for them, lives have been lost for them, and they are very fragile.”

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April 21, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Leadership, Liberal Arts, Social Justice