News & Politics

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” Author Azar Nafisi on How Freddie Mercury of Queen Helped Her Survive Life in Iran

Books weren’t the only things that got her through.

Photograph courtesy of MARKA/Alamy.

“I first heard him in the early ’80s when I was living in the Islamic Republic of Iran. A group of friends had dinner meetings where we would talk about everything from philosophy to politics to arts. This woman was in love with Freddie Mercury, so she would be talking to me about him and I would be talking to her about the Doors, and that became one way of connecting. You have to know that musical cassettes were forbidden in Iran. You could go to jail. But we all had the underground cassettes, the underground videos—also the underground vodka.

“When I watched Freddie Mercury, he was like a snake, as if he had no bones. That was one of the things that mesmerized me, that he sang with his body. It seemed as if he had sprouted out of the earth. You know his song ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’? It was the way he said it: ‘I’m going slightly mad.’ But the tone was definitely not just slightly, and I felt that way so much in the Islamic Republic. There were so many reasons to be going slightly mad, to try to evade the reality that was worse than madness.

“Imagination has been my way of survival. I learned from childhood, especially when I was sent to England at the age of 13, that everything that life gives you can be taken away. Look at Ukraine. Ukraine is very obvious, but a tornado or an earthquake can take away everything you call home. I realized that I need something that will not be taken away from me, no matter where I live.

“That is how we connected to the world in Iran—through forbidden music, art, books. These imaginative spaces gave us room to breathe. So to let Freddie Mercury’s music take over me was a way of not feeling that that claustrophobic reality was all that I had. It was a way out to another world.

“I mention in [my book] Reading Lolita in Tehran a concert we went to, the Gipsy Kings, where two men would come onstage, and every time the audience tried to move with the music, they would tell them to sit down and not react. The musicians could not have any expressions—they had to just sing. The audience would get excited, and these men would come and say, ‘Sit down, sit down.’ You can imagine what that would do to Freddie Mercury.”

This article appears in the June 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.