Surveillance States

Azar Nafisi in The New York Times:

AzarFor a while, every time I borrowed a book from my local library in Washington, D.C., I was greeted by an Orwellian poster: “Big Brother Is Watching You!” I often wondered if others paused to reflect on the implication of these words, if they understood how profoundly living under surveillance distorts a society. It transforms your perspective, your manners, your relationships with friends, colleagues, students, with every waiter and cabdriver you meet. It changes your relationship with yourself. When I lived in Tehran in the 1980s, I kept a diary in an idiotic secret language I can no longer decipher. To write about my relatives and friends who were imprisoned or on the run, I’d fictionalize them and make myself a character: a westernized woman who, alienated from her traditions, sees everything in black and white. My mother developed elaborate codes to evade the censors while talking on the phone. Her conversations were almost nonsensical. She would say, in Persian, “Agha marizeh” (“The gentleman is ill”) to signal that things were going badly for the regime, and then whisper anxiously, “Do you understand? Do you understand?”

Censorship entered our minds and hearts early. Veils were added to the illustrations of children’s books like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Daddy Long Legs” and “Beauty and the Beast.” A friend’s 8-year-old daughter became afraid to go to the bathroom alone because her religious teacher had told her that if blasphemous thoughts entered her mind there, each strand of her hair would transform into a snake. In university literature classes, love scenes were regularly stricken from novels. The word “wine” was excised from Hemingway’s stories. Censors frowned on villains in fiction or film having beards or having religious names. A theater director I know used to complain that every scene with a husband and wife in a bedroom required a quarrel. Tenderness was too risky.

More here.