Azar Nafisi: “Over the years I have often thought of Alice as my ideal reader”

Azar Nafisi in Salon:

Azar_nafisiIt all began one Friday morning, a weekend in Iran, over breakfast. My father had promised me the night before that he would tell me a new story instead of taking me to the movies, which was our usual weekend treat. That was when he first introduced me to Alice. I think he made a fair amount of it up as he went along, as I never found many of his Alice stories when I was old enough to read the books myself. But I can still remember his describing how Alice, having taken a big gulp of a special potion, began to grow smaller and smaller. “And then,” he said, “she discovered a hooka smoking caterpillar.” Now I was quite familiar with caterpillars — in those days we could buy them in cocoons from street vendors with a handful of leaves and watch them turn into butterflies — and everyone had a cousin or uncle who was overfond of a hooka. But Alice, who had never seen a hooka-smoking caterpillar, quite naturally asked him, “Who are you?” And the caterpillar threw the question right back at her, saying: “Who, Who Who are Youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu?” “Tow Tow Tow, Key Haaaastiiiiiiiiiiii?” my father would say, mimicking the caterpillar in Persian. He repeated this several times and each time I laughed louder, with tears streaming down my face as my mother, glancing at me reproachfully, urged me to refrain from spitting out my bread. But my father was in a playful mood, and he paid no attention to my mother’s protestations as he tickled me and said it again.

Later on I would sit my gentle and compliant 2-year-old brother against the wall of our room and say, “Tow Tow Tow Key Haaastiiiii?” tickling him around the navel. He smiled at me in amazement in what may have been the only time I had the privilege of actually amazing him. Since then I have read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” many times in many different places, carrying her with me on a journey that has had its share of unexpected encounters defying all logic and explanation. “Who are you?” Isn’t this what every book asks of us as we chase its characters, trying to find out what they are reluctant to reveal? Is it not also the one essential thing we ask ourselves as human beings, as we struggle to make the choices that will define us? I can describe myself as a mother, a wife, a friend, a teacher, a sister, a writer, a reader …. So it goes. Yet none of these simple labels provides a satisfactory response. We are how we live, constantly in a state of flux. But it is essential to ask and be asked that question, one which I believe is at the heart both of the act of writing and of reading.

Over the years I have often thought of Alice as my ideal reader, the one I aspire to be.

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