Memoirs Show Two Sides of the Islamic Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

I have always loved escaping into a good book. In my younger years, I escaped into the invented world of fiction. Nowadays, I escape into the lives of real people, through whose eyes I see a different view of my own world. Two memoirs I read within the same month provide a perfect example of this educational benefit. Ed Husain’s “The Islamist” took me inside the Islamist movement in Britain, and Nazara Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” showed life in Iran under Islamist rule. The knowledge I learned in one book deepened my understanding of the other, amplifying the value of each.

Ed Husain, “The Islamist”

Ed Husain was a teenager in Great Britain in the early 1990s. His parents and most of his neighbors were immigrants from Bangladesh. In fact, he didn’t have any white friends. His family’s spiritual approach to the Muslim religion cultivated a prayerful, almost mystical atmosphere in his home life. Then, as a teenager, Husain fell in with a crowd of boys from the Indian sub-continent who felt prayer was obsolete. Their goal was to overthrow Westernized governments and create the kind of world God intended, one all-encompassing Islamic state. At first, Husain’s loyalty was torn between his parents and his new friends. Gradually he aligned with his activist peers, fighting against Western values such as freedom and democracy.

The Islamists didn’t want their anti-Western message to be the dominant one. They wanted it to be the only one. When other activities were scheduled on campus, Husain and his friends stayed up late into the night creating plans to disrupt the competing event. They agreed in advance on the lies they would tell to make themselves look innocent and divert attention from their predatory practices. Whenever pressed on their unethical or manipulative behavior, they quickly shifted the conversation to global politics, claiming all their actions were caused by colonialism. I was especially intrigued by their coaching to “speak sharply,” to create an aura of fury and righteousness around their words. Between their angry tone, their rehearsed lies, and their instant shift to global politics, they controlled, and won, debates among the young Muslims on campus who were struggling to find their own path.

Azar Nafisi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

After reading about Ed Husain’s firebrand belief that Islamic law should take over the world, I read a memoir by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian girl who grew up under the secular government of Shah Pahlavi. The Shah promoted Western culture and violently suppressed opposing Muslim groups, earning a reputation as a ruthless tyrant in some circles and a forward-looking leader in others.

Taking advantage of the respect afforded to women in Iranian society, Nafisi attended college in the United States to study English Literature. Like many other intellectuals in the 1970s, she took part in the anti-U.S. demonstrations that pervaded campuses in the wake of the Vietnam war. She rallied against Western culture and especially agitated for the removal of Shah Pahlavi who was denounced as a “pawn of the West.” In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” within a few years, her revolutionary dream came true. Shortly after she returned to Iran in 1979, the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini took over, bringing into power an Islamist government similar to the one Ed Husain would be advocating 15 years later.

Iran’s fundamentalist rulers quickly squeezed out so-called “decadent elements.” Reminiscent of the excesses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, bands of armed young men patrolled the streets looking for women who dared walk with an unrelated man, who had a wisp of hair showing from beneath her veil, or who possessed cosmetics in her handbag. Women were flogged, imprisoned, and executed for such crimes. Nafisi lost her teaching position for refusing to wear the veil.

Two sides of the same page

The two books cover the Islamist movement from two entirely different perspectives and in two vastly different styles. Husain’s journey from boy to man leads him to street corners where edgy, pressured boys hand out fliers and engage in aggressive rhetoric. Later, after Husain distances himself from the movement, he begins a historical investigation trying to tease apart these two threads of his religion. In ancient writings, he discovers the religion of his father, the one that encourages an introspective, worshipful relationship to God. Husain also tracks the political aspect of the religion, and shows how it emerged in the twentieth century through the inflammatory writings of a few men who have had an increasing influence, especially on young Muslims in recent decades. While these men claim ancient authority, Husain finds their thinking to be more closely aligned to Karl Marx than to the Koran.

Nafisi is driven by ideas, too, but of a very different variety. She seeks her wisdom in English Literature. On her tongue, passages from Vladimir Nabokov and F. Scott Fitzgerald come alive, providing a rich poetic subtext to her own narrative. Her compatriots are the young women who have been forced by the Islamist Revolution to hide their femininity and enter the university through a separate door so they can be searched for cosmetics. When her girls come to a private literature class held in her home, they remove their scarves and Nafisi sensually describes their locks of hair. She bites into pastry, pours coffee over ice cream, and, above all, revels in the delicious pleasures of her beloved literature. Whereas Husain’s investigation is done with the protection of the democratic freedoms of Great Britain, Nafisi’s drama plays out in a police state, where students are seized and held in secret and summarily executed in the night because they showed signs of “Western decadence.”

The Muslim religion doesn’t need to be this way

In college, when Husain saw a boy murdered, he realized his terrible mistake. He started to suspect Islamism wasn’t promoting religion after all, but was merely using religious ideas to promote a political agenda. Trying to clarify these conflicting ideas, he moved to the Middle East to learn Arabic so he could read the Koran in its original language. In the Prophet’s teachings, he found an introspective, mystical religion which teaches a personal relationship with God and respect for people, including women and non-Muslims. Based on his findings, Husain returned to the prayerful beliefs of his parents. Through his writings, public appearances, and participation in the British government, he promotes democratic ideals, and raises awareness of the dangers of this divisive movement.

Two books weave a fascinating story

Before I read these books, I only knew about Islamism and life inside Iran from news bites and articles. After accompanying each author through years of personal, in-depth experience, I understand so much more. On one end of this matched set, I saw the Islamist ideas Ed Husain found so invigorating and urgent. I felt his pulse quicken as he rose to the challenge of dominating the world. On the other end, I saw how these very ideas were forged by the men of Iran into bars that imprisoned Azar Nafisi and her students, and stole their freedom and dignity.

The End

Writing Prompt
If you have been part of a political or a religious movement, your memories might seem insignificant, as if you were swept up in something of which you were a tiny part. But these events may have affected millions of people. Your feelings and observations as a believer and participant could offer a valuable contribution to social discussion. List or journal a few notes about the forces that influenced your life and look for scenes that would portray these experiences in your memoir.

For another book that sheds light on the difference between the Muslim faith and the Islamist movement, read Greg Mortenson’s memoir, Three Cups of Tea. Click here for my essay on that powerful story.
Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan

Book Links
The Islamist, Why I became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left by Ed Husain

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

As Husain was growing up to become a young man, he was swept up in a political movement that preached not only the domination of the world, but also the domination of women. This reminds me of another memoir I read, a year ago. Frank Schaeffer, on his way through adolescence, also experienced an exploding interest in ideas that place women in a subservient position. Schaeffer, author of “Crazy for God” grew up in a spiritually oriented Christian commune in Switzerland in the 1960s. As he entered adulthood, his focus shifted from God to women’s reproductive systems. Using his father’s extensive political connections, Schaeffer brought his intense interest in abortion into the heart of U.S. politics, where they took root in the religious right. Maybe Freud was right. Maybe it is all about sex.

See my article about Frank Schaeffer’s memoir by clicking here: One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

How to write a profile

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir is hard work, and to keep myself motivated, I compiled a list of all the reasons for persisting. Of course, I improved my familiarity with the many parts of my past. That was the reason I started writing a memoir in the first place. Another of my original motivations was my desire to bust through my overwrought sense of privacy. As soon as I began to read my pieces in a critique group, I felt that people were interested and accepted me in ways I had not expected. As a result, I loosened up.

Each month, I found a new benefit for writing my memoir, until I began to joke that my mission was like George Washington Carver’s, who had done an exhaustive study of everything you could do with a peanut. I acquired items for my list in a variety of ways. Some I experienced myself. Others I learned by watching students in my workshops or groups. And some I speculated must be true. For example, I assumed that after I told my own story, I would gain the skills to write other people’s stories, as well. The benefit seemed self-evident, but I was not yet ready to test it.

Then, last year, David Bank asked me to write profiles for his organization’s website. Bank is the director of Encore Careers, a site devoted to helping people find new careers in the second half of their lives. My job would be to interview career changers and post their stories. The assignment gave me the chance to meet people and apply my writing skills.

The Assignment
One such career changer was Judy Cockerton. From her website, I learned that she was a Massachusetts toy store owner who sold her business so she could devote her life to helping kids in foster care. Before I called her, I considered my mission – to show readers her journey from business woman to social activist.

The Interview
During the interview, I asked her to walk me through the steps. As a social entrepreneur, Judy Cockerton spoke in urgent tones when she listed all the deficiencies in the foster care system. However, my job was to learn about her career change, so I steered the interview, asking for scenes that would evoke each stage in her journey.

The Beginning

From my work with memoirs I’ve learned the importance of the initial desire. Judy Cockerton’s desire was easy to find. She remembered the exact moment in her kitchen when she read an article in the newspaper about a child who was supposed to be protected by foster parents and yet had been forgotten. Her heart opened to the plight of these children, setting the stage for everything that followed.

The Middle
During the middle of any story, the protagonist must overcome obstacles. I found many such scenes in Judy Cockerton’s journey. She visited foster homes to learn more and quickly realized that since not everyone can take a child in, there are ought to be other ways for people to participate. She envisioned a community where people could live and contribute to the care of the children. Next she needed allies to help her implement her vision.

The End

Judy Cockerton was not finished helping foster kids so how could I provide a satisfying ending to the article? I called her back and asked “Tell me about a moment when you knew you were on the right track.” By this time the first Treehouse community had already been built and people were living there. She took me on a verbal tour of the place, describing the children playing, with adults and elders enjoying the multi-generational camaraderie. The mountains in the background completed the scene, which gave me, and hopefully readers, the thrill of her success.

Finished, or So I Thought

The structure of my article followed the structure of any good story. Start with a desire, overcome obstacles, and finally reach a conclusion. I was confident I had nailed this fundamental structure. But after I submitted the article, I realized I had one more lesson to learn. My editor, Terry Nagel, wanted me to move Judy’s success to the beginning. At first it didn’t make sense. You don’t tell the ending of a story first. It would break the suspense.

Difference Between Article and Memoir Structure
My editor insisted, and I kept seeking to understand how the suggestion would improve the article. After thinking about it, I saw what was going on. I was learning the difference between a book and an article.

Before I even the first page of a memoir, I have already become curious about the protagonist. Before I started Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking,” I knew she succeeded at the end. Before I read Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea,” I read the book blurb and knew he built schools for kids in Pakistan. This preliminary information motivates me to read the book. But when I read an article, all I know is the title.

That’s why my editor was telling me to move Cockerton’s success up to the top. I needed to give the reader enough information to stir their curiosity. From article writing workshops, I knew that the second paragraph, or the “nut graf” as they call it in the business, is supposed to tell the reader where the article is heading. But until now the advice sounded like a meaningless formula. Once I tried it for myself, I saw how it worked.

Thanks to my study of memoirs, I was learning how to structure a life story. And now, thanks to the assignment from, I was learning how to apply these skills to describe the journeys of other people. This experience validated my claim that memoir writing results in broader writing benefits. And the rewards keep accumulating. Writing those profiles gave even more insights that helped me increase my range and learn new ways to turn life into story.

Here are links to a few reasons for writing your memoir.

Refute these 14 reasons not to write your memoir
Ten reasons anyone should write a memoir

Here are links to four profiles I wrote about career changers for

Judy Cockerton, Toy Store Owner Transforms Foster Care in Massachusetts

From Basic Training to Training Teachers

Retired as a Nurse, Hired as a Nonprofit Leader

Media Executive Puts Her Experience to Work Para Los Ninos


Encore Careers is a subsidiary of Civic Ventures, a community service organization founded and directed by Marc Freedman. Freedman is the author of “Encore, finding work that matters in the second half of life.” According to their About page, “Civic Ventures is leading the call to engage millions of baby boomers as a vital workforce for change.” Here is a link to an article I wrote after being inspired by Marc Freedman at Philadelphia’s Boomervision conference series.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Lord of the Flies in Los Angeles: The terrible logic of uncivilized boys

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I was a teenager I read a disturbing fantasy about a group of boys stranded on an island. Without any adults to enforce the rules, the characters in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” turned against each other. Their vicious behavior made me wonder, “Could civilization really fall apart that quickly?” Recently I found a chilling answer in the memoir “True Notebooks” by Mark Salzman. At the urging of Sister Janet Harris, founder of a program called the InsideOut Writers, Salzman volunteered to teach creative writing to a class of juvenile offenders. Not only did “True Notebooks” remind me that boys murder each other right here in American cities.

By telling them to write he allowed them to express things they would never have spoken. When the boys read their work, they engaged in some remarkable exchanges that showed me how they think and feel.

It looks like William Golding made some realistic assumptions about the brutality that boys are capable of, but the mental process of the Los Angeles gang members was more sophisticated than I expected. The gangsters maintained fierce loyalty towards their group, passionately defended their honor, and loved their mothers. Rather than being outlaws, they were actually doing their best, even risking their lives to follow the code of their neighborhood tribe.

However, while they were obeying the laws of one tribe, they were breaking the laws of another. When they murdered the kids of the wrong color, they crossed a line. Now that they were murderers, society could look at them with disgust. They had become the enemy.

When Salzman dragged my mind to the other side of the razor wire fence, I was at first horrified. But the more I listened, the more I saw real children with feelings and dreams and minds. A sob welled up in my throat, caused not by their failure, but my own. We all know there are kids out there being led down these paths.

Can’t we reach out and help them, before they veer too far off the path, the way another memoir writer, Erin Gruwell, was able to do? In Freedom Writers Diary she tells of using writing and literature to help high school kids see each other as human beings rather than enemies. (For more about Erin Gruwell’s memoir, the Freedom Writers Diary, see this link.)

As I broke past my reluctance and started looking at the world through the eyes of these murderers eyes, a light started to dawn. I realized their behavior was more civilized than it first appeared. I grew up watching war movies, during which I cheered every time an enemy died. It was part of my training as a civilized person. Any enemy holding a gun must be shot before they shoot you. The boys in prison had learned the lessons of civilization too well. They had joined their neighborhood army to defeat the enemies in the other neighborhoods. They were doing their best to follow the laws of civilization.

Once a rival was defined as an enemy, his life lost all meaning, making it easy to pull the trigger. My first impression was that these boys were learning some awful, primitive, tribal custom. Now I see that in their youthful enthusiasm, they were playing at the same “kill thine enemy” approach that I grew up admiring.

An even more horrifying observation comes to mind. I’ve been doing the same thing with these boys as they did to each other. I’m perpetuating the situation by my willingness to throw their lives on the garbage pile. If I want to stop them from dehumanizing their enemies, I have to stop dehumanizing them.

William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies” created a sense of terror at the Shadow Side that lurks within the human heart. Salzman did the opposite. He showed me a glimpse of compassion where I least expected it.

When each of Salzman’s boys read his stories, the other boys responded with empathy. They began to see each other as real people instead of enemies. This willingness to open up and see their enemies as people is similar to what happened to me. Before they told their stories, they were outlaws and murders, consigned to the other side of an impenetrable line. After listening to them, the line moved, and I discovered they are people. As I watched their hearts open to each other, and mine open towards them, I am reminded of a much deeper lesson of civilization than “kill thine enemy.” The ultimate way to defeat enemies is to turn them into friends.

Writing Prompt
Have you ever felt like “The Other” for example when visiting a cultural center where you felt like an outsider? What emotions, vulnerabilities, or other human elements would you like to let these people know in order to convince them you are a real person.?

Writing Prompt
When have you felt entitled to remove the rights of others? By hating them, what aspects of that group’s members must you ignore?

Salzman was recruited to teach a writing course by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program,

Amazon Page: “True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman


To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Let us now praise those who serve – a new way to earn fame

By Jerry Waxler

I thought I saw Brooke Shields in a restaurant in Princeton. I didn’t want to be rude and stare, but the woman I was with had no such problem. She said, “Yup, that’s her.” Now, decades later, I still feel I have a special relationship with Brooke. I’ve heard similar star-struck stories all my life. For example, I once walked into a shoe store in Sausalito, California and the salesman gushed that Daryl Hannah had been shopping there a week earlier.

I worry about all this adulation of good looking people, and wonder if we are collectively heading in the same direction as teenagers whose first love is based solely on physical attraction. Such choices often end in disaster.

I wish we could base our collective admiration on qualities that run deeper. And I believe this is exactly the role memoirs could serve. Whether or not I knew the author before I started reading a memoir, by the time I finish, I feel we have grown closer, like traveling companions who have shared many miles.

Through memoirs I know the inner workings of all sorts of people. I know Haven Kimmel’s childhood in a small town in the Midwest. I know Kate Braestrup’s climb out of grief amidst the streams and forests of Maine. I know the horrors Jim McGarrah experienced in Vietnam, and the psychological cruelty endured by Sue William Silverman. I know what it was like for Rebecca Walker to grow up black, white, and Jewish.

While all these writers earn my regard, some emerge from the pages, using their books as a platform from which they can raise awareness of some cause.

Henry Louis Gates and Tavis Smiley raise awareness of intercultural relations in America. Firoozeh Dumas tirelessly advocates to improve relationships between the U.S. and the people of Iran. Ashley Rhodes-Courter lobbies to improve the foster care system in America. John Robison educates the public about Asperger’s. Greg Mortenson started the Central Asia Institute to educate poor children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton publicize the plight of wrongfully incarcerated prisoners.

Several memoirists offer the power of words, not just inside their book but also in classrooms and other literary programs, trying to call our attention to that power in our own lives.

Erin Gruwell started the Freedom Writers Foundation to promote educational reform. English professor Robert Waxler founded a program, Changing Lives Through Literature, CLTL, which offers the alternative sentence of studying books, helping convicted criminals escape their pattern of crime, and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg developed a group, Transformative Language Arts, dedicated to using language to transform and heal society.

My love for all these memoir writers continues to grow. Through stories and activism, we swap passion and build sustainable relationships based on a more solid foundation than beauty.

I don’t mean to imply that the people who tell their story necessarily look bad. In fact, even Brooke Shields has earned her place on this list. Her memoir “Down Came the Rain,” tells about her struggle through the dismal terror of postpartum depression. She has shared her potentially humiliating experience in order to raise awareness of an important mental health issue. In the process she also shows me there is more to her than just a pretty face.

Writing Prompt
Consider ways your life experience could serve a cause, through advocacy or activism. Try writing your book blurb or a press release about your memoir that emphasizes the public service of your private life.


More about Transformative Language Arts Network

More about the Freedom Writers Foundation

More about Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing program

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s home page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

A diary for social change. A young girl’s terrible experience of war.

by Jerry Waxler

Zlata Filopovic was an ordinary 10 year-old girl, living in Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city in Eastern Europe. Her family was well educated, and had warm friendships with neighbors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In 1992, in the name of ethnic purity, armed men encamped in the mountains overlooking the city and began a protracted campaign of terror. Artillery shells destroyed homes, businesses, and schools. Zlata’s apartment building lost electricity and gas so the family had to burn furniture to stay warm. When their water was cut off, her father risked sniper fire to fetch supplies from a distribution center. She stopped going to school, stopped playing outside. The family abandoned the rooms that faced the mountains. Month by month her life descended farther into chaos.

And day by day, she wrote in her diary short, innocent, and sweet entries to record the events, the things she lost, her friendships, and longings. Diaries are usually too introspective and too fragmented to add up to a readable book. Somehow Zlata Filopovic’s diary transcended these limits. Perhaps the readability of her entries arose naturally from the war itself. Dramatic tension erupted when, frightened by explosions, her family scrambled to the basement, not knowing how long they would be there or what would be left of their world when they emerged.

French journalists discovered that Zlata was recording her daily observations and passed the information along to publishers. Billing Zlata Filopovic as a “modern Anne Frank,” the book “Zlata’s Diary” sold out of its first run of 50,000 in France.

When she started writing, all she wanted was a way to record her private thoughts. Once published, the book became an instrument of social awareness, publicizing the plight of the Sarajevo people. The French authorities arranged her escape to Paris where she became an international spokesperson for the war’s assault upon innocence.

Erin Gruwell, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, instructed her class to read “Zlata’s Diary.” To Gruwell’s students, the racial hatred that had ruined Zlata’s childhood sounded eerily similar to their own gang infested neighborhoods. Literature intersected with life when Zlata accepted an invitation to visit Los Angeles to speak to the students. Her story exploded their neighborhood boundaries and instantly catapulted them into a sense of participation in a larger world. They in turn wrote about the meeting in their own diaries.

Their inspiring entries relating the war in Sarajevo to the undeclared war on the streets of Los Angeles eventually became published in another book, “The Freedom Writers Diaries.” The book was made into a movie, thus making the unlikely link between a little girl suffering a war in Eastern Europe and the millions of American kids and teachers who have been inspired by the Freedom Writers Diaries.

Zlata’s book expanded my world, too, offering an intimate, multi-cultural portrayal of a child trying to grow up amidst hardship, prejudice, and violence. The lesson that Zlata taught in her diary entries was that war stinks. There’s another lesson, as well. Through writing, one person, alone in her room, can reach the world.

Writing Prompt

What main “lesson to the world” do you think readers might draw from your life experience? Will it be a cautionary tale, a lesson of survival, or an appeal for harmony and empathy?

Most stories contain many messages. For example, in addition to a prayer for peace, Zlata’s story also portrays the wisdom of youth, the love of a mutually respectful family and community, companionship of a pet, and how people survive under extreme conditions. Extend your imagination and write about other images and ideas your readers might experience through your eyes.


Amazon page for Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo by Zlata Filipovic

Click here for my essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

Carol O’Dell kept a diary, while caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Writing in the diary helped her stay sane, and afterwards, she used the immediacy of the writing to help her write her excellent book about the experience, “Mothering Mother.”   Read mhy essay and interview on Mothering Mother:

Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life