My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Dr. Azar Nafisi is a memoir of a woman teaching literature in Islamic Iran. In 1979, Nafisi has returned from America to begin teaching literature at the University of Tehran as the revolution unfolds.
The book is broken into 4 sections (this has become a common trend among modern books– 4 sections, approximately 70-75 pages in length):
1) the chapter “Lolita” focuses on Nafisi’s book club with several women who are reading Nabokov as well as others, and their struggle to deal with being a woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran
2) “Gatsby” deals with Nafisi’s time as a university professor immediately following the revolution in the late seventies and early eighties
3) “James” involves much of the Iran-Iraq war throughout the eighties
4) “Austen” concerns Nafisi’s difficult decision to leave Iran and her “girls” in the book club and return to America.
Each section is beautifully written and by the end one cannot help but imagine a circle has been completed. Nafisi is adept at analyzing literature and the way she blends books and reading and her time in Iran is smooth and enjoyable. There are some memorable passages, and some will be quoted, but perhaps one of the most memorable is the time Nafisi and her literature class put The Great Gatsby on trial for being an immoral book and the debate that ensued.
In addition, Nafisi is skilled at making great intellectual leaps from the books she is teaching and to every day events that transpire around her.
“In all great works of fiction,” writes Nafisi, “regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, and essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter. This is why we love Madame Bovary and cry for Emma, why we greedily read Lolita as our heart breaks for its small, vulgar, poetic and defiant orphaned heroine” (pg. 47).
What is so very unique and delightful about this book, and so intellectually rewarding, is the mixture of reality and imagination–the desire to live in a free world and the passion to live in an imaginary one, and not entirely without a sense of humor. “I heard Yassi laughing. Trying to lighten the mood she was saying, ‘How could God be so cruel as to create a Muslim woman with so much flesh and so little sex appeal?’ She turned to Mahshid and stared at her in mock horror” (pg. 52).
“But my girls spoke constantly of stolen kisses, films they had never seen and the wind they had never felt on their skin. This generation had no past. Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack of, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry… As long as he accepts the sham world the jailers impose upon him, Cincinnatus will remain their prisoner and he will move within the circles of their creation,” this last part referencing Invitation to a Beheading by Nabokov (pg. 76).
What some people fail to realize, or have never learned or mislearned at one point, is the true reason behind Iran’s revolution. At the end of the 1970s, the revolution in Iran was not to install an Islamic Republic but to dispose of Pahlavi’s monarchy. Many protesters called for a democracy (a call for more freedom not less, writes Nafisi), but as King Pahlavi fled the country, he left a hole wide open for a despotic and zealous regime to step in and impose religious order on the masses. What was once sacred, became mundane.
“There was a very brief period, between the time the Shah left on January 16, 1979, and Khomeini’s return to Iran on February 1, when one of the nationalist leaders, Dr. Shahpour Bakhtiar, had become the prime minister. Bakhtiar was perhaps the most democratic-minded and farsighted of the opposition leaders of that time, who, rather than rallying to his side, had fought against him and joined up with Khomeini. He had immediately disbanded Iran’s secret police and set the political prisoners free. In rejecting Bakhtiar and helping to replace the Pahlavi dynasty with a far more reactionary and despotic regime, both the Iranian people and the intellectual elites had shown at best a serious error in judgment” (pg. 102).
“We all wanted opportunities and freedom. That is why we supported revolutionary change [much like the modern revolutions a few years ago in Libya and Egypt]– we were demanding more rights, not fewer” (pg. 261).
Oh, what could have been for such a wonderful nation like Iran. But their path forked, their destiny changed. And the wearing of the veil, which took several years to become implemented, became a symbol of the regime’s power and not of religious devotion for many. “All through my childhood and early youth, my grandmother’s chador had a special meaning to me. It was shelter, a world apart from the rest of the world… Now the chador was forever marred by the political significance it has gained. It had become cold and menacing, worn by women like Miss Hatef and Miss Ruhi with defiance” (pg. 192).
For the past three years, I have spent much of my time in studying Iran and the revolution that changed the fate of a nation and a people the year I was born, and this is one reason why I read Nafisi’s book, to understand the changes post-revolution on a more intimate level from the point-of-view of one who lived under such tyranny. One of the most profound statements I came across in the book was this: “Islam has become a business,” writes Nafisi, “like oil for Texaco” (pg. 275).
Later, I strongly agree with a statement she makes at the back of the book in the interview section: “No government or state should tell its people how they should worship God, and in fact no government or state should tell its people that they should worship God. It should be completely free and private” (pg. 367). If God granted men and women free will (as most man-made religions claim), so should men and women grant free will upon each other when it comes to one’s spiritual path.
Nafisi’s book is enchanting at times, relating accounts of women in love and women jaded, and, yet, at other times it is horrifying to read the accounts of rapes and murders and the bombings during the Iran-Iraq war. Nevertheless, and in the end, Nafisi has a special way of showing how truly important, and life-changing, literature can be when shared with friends and strangers alike.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a strong recommend. A truly rewarding read.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers