Book Study as Insubordination Under the Mullahs

by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

A review on Reading Lolita in Tehran by: Azar Nafisi

Rozaneh: There has also been reviews of this valuable book in other periodicals/newspapers/magazines throughout the country.  Among them Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Publisher's weekly, The Providence Sunday Journal, Johns Hopkins Magazine, and several others, click for more

Azar Nafisi's remarkable new book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," is a memoir of the author's life in Iran from the late 70's to the late 90's, but it is also many other things.

It is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students.  It is a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs.  And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction - on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Ms. Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, held a reading group at her house for seven of her former students.  In the past, she and her students at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University had been attacked by the authorities for many offenses: for not wearing the veil, for not wearing it properly, for refusing to espouse a hard-line ideological stance, for studying decadent Western texts and for embracing the ambiguities and conundrums of fiction.  While the members of the group, who came from different religious and political backgrounds, were initially shy about sharing their views and experiences, they gradually came to see their weekly meetings as a kind of sanctuary, as a place where they might share confidences both literary and personal.

Though this might sound to the American reader like some kind of Oprah Winfrey tea party, it quickly becomes clear that for these Iranian women, who had so little freedom in their daily lives, the group provided a rare opportunity to converse freely, to talk and laugh about their relationships with men and to refract their own daily hardships through the prism of classic works of literature.

They soon formed a special bond, Ms. Nafisi recounts, with the woks of Nabokov, most notably "Invitation to a beheading, " with its lonely, imaginative her whose originality set him apart in a society "where uniformity is not only the norm but also the law,"  and "Lolita, : which MS. Nafisi reads as a chilling story about "the confiscation of one individual's life by another."  Her students' identification with this Russian émigré's works, she notes, went deeper than their identification with his theses, to a shared sense of the precariousness of life.  "His novels are shaped around invisible trap-doors, sudden gaps that constantly  pull the carpet from under the reader's feet," she writes.  "They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality's fickleness and frailty." 

She and her students find an analogy between Gatsby's thwarted efforts to repeat the past and the Iranian revolution, "which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream,"  and they discuss the Jamesian heroines Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper as women who "both defy the conventions of their time," who "both refuse to be dictated to." 

As for Jane Austen's characters, Ms. Nafisi writes: "Austen's protagonists are private individuals set in public places.  Their desire situation within a very small community, which keeps them under its constant scrutiny.  The balance between the public and the private is essential to this world."

Ms. Nafisi and her students themselves discovered - often after being warned, arrested or in some cases beaten and jailed - that there were no boundaries between the public and the private in the Islamic Republic of Iran: the government and its morality police told people what they could read, what they could wear, how they should behave.  "The colors of my head scarf or my father's tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies, " Ms. Nafisi writes.

"Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture."  She adds that being accused of being Westernized in Iran in the 1980's could result in years in jail, even execution.

Having grown up in Iran before the mullahs came to power, Ms. Nafisi writes of living in "two different time zones simultaneously.:  She had grown up in a prominent family (her father had been mayor of Tehran; her mother was of the first six women elected to Parliament, in 1963), she had been educated in Switzerland and England, and she had lived in the United States.  She returned to Iran in the late 1970's, just as the revolution was cresting, and by the time her daughter was born several years later, "the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother's time": the age of marriage was lowered to 9, adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death, and "women, under law, were considered to have half the worth of men."

Unlike her generation, Ms. Nafisi says, her students did not have a past to compare with the present.  "Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had.  It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspect of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry."

In these pages, Ms. Nafisi, who had been part of the Iranian student movement in her youth, describes watching the revolution gather speed and run amok, and she blames "the Iranian people and the intellectual elites" for "helping to replace the Pahlavi dynasty with a far more reactionary and despotic regime."  She describes the purging of faculty members and students at universities and her own realization in the spring of 1981 that she had become irrelevant as a teacher.

Why did Ms. Nafisi stay in Tehran for another decade and a half?  In part it was her devotion to her native country, her family and friends; in part it was the devotion of her husband, Bijan Nader, "to the idea of home."  In time many of her students also left, one going so far as to have herself smuggled out of the country overland through Turkey.  Others stayed on in Iran and became teachers themselves.  In this resonant and deeply affecting memoir, Ms. Nafisi pays tribute to all their lives and to the books that sustained them during some of the darkest days of the Iranian cultural revolution.