Azar Nafisi, human rights activist and author of the international best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, challenged the Tate Lecture Series audience on Dec. 3 to look beyond current news headlines and to read the works of famous Persian poets Hafez, Rumi or Sa’di in order to better understand Iran and Islam. Read more.

A native of Iran, Nafisi attended school in England before coming to the United States, where she earned a Ph.D. in English and American literature at the University of Oklahoma. She returned to Iran in 1979 to teach English literature at the University of Tehran. She was later expelled from the University for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil. Nafisi returned to the United States in 1997 and currently is a visiting professor and director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Her forthcoming book, Things I Have Been Silent About, is due out in 2008.

What is affecting the way people understand politics?

Everything is becoming so politicized and segregated that politics are losing their meaning. Watching channels and shows that you already agree with only creates greater polarization which leaves no room for any outside opinion or abstract thought in order to gain a broader perspective of things.

What is a barrier to our understanding of Islam and Iran?

When you think of Islam you think of fundamentalism when in fact Islam has just as many interpretations and translations as Muslim or Christianity or Judaism. You don’t hear about [Iran’s] poets, its philosophers and its history. If you look at the world through the lenses of imagination, would you get the same picture?

What roles do imagination and curiosity play in how one views the world?

Imagination is a brand of knowledge. It is a way of relating to the world. Without that alternative eye of imagination, without that poetic vision to see what exists, what could exist, I think we are in serious trouble. In this republic of imagination there are no political boundaries. Scandal and celebrity-dom have replaced the life of thought.

Curiosity is almost a physical urge to know what you don’t know. If we want to be an agent of change, we need to be curious. [Quoting Vladimir Nabokov] “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.”

Why do books continue to be important?

Books create connections. I often think of books as one’s children.