Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi
Published 2003

I LOVE THIS STORY!!!  Where do I begin?  

This true story is a unique and intimate memoir by a woman, Azar Nafisi, who lived in Iran during the Islamic Revolution (1978-81), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), and thereafter.  It is her own personal journey of life in Iran as a university professor of literature (between 1979-87), and later as a friend to seven young female students who met weekly to read and discuss Western literature in the privacy of her home (1995-97), and finally to her difficult decision to leave Iran and emigrate to the United States (1997).  

Nafisi (center) and "her girls" in Iran

Reading Lolita in Tehran is broken up into four sections that represent different ideas, themes, and periods of the author's life.  It is not in chronological order. 


Nafisi begins a private book club with "her girls," seven young serious women whom she deliberately chose to discuss great works of literature at her home.  The setting is sometimes somber as the women use literature to make sense of life in the Islamic Republic.  Nafisi told her students that "these great works of imagination could help [them] in [their] present trapped situation as women."  At the end of this section, Nafisi uses Invitation to a Beheading by Nabokov to express their existence with the Islamic Republic:
The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one's individuality, the unique quality which evades descriptions but differentiates one human being from the other.  [The State] invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.


Backtrack to the Revolutionary period.  Teaching literature at the University of Tehran, Nafisi explained to her students that "great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home.  The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed to be immutable." 

During this time, she rejected Islam as a political entity.  She said the veil "had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols."  She said, "The Islamic Revolution . . . did more damage to Islam by using it as an instrument of oppression than any alien ever could have done."
It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else's shoes and understand the other's different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless.  Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed.  But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them . . .
The students of Nafisi's university class put the novel, The Great Gatsby, on trial.  Some students claimed they had to read Gatsby to understand that adultery was immoral, but Nafisi contradicted: 
A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.
She also discovered that Iran's fate was that of Gatsby's.  "[Gatsby] wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past and . . . he discovered the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future.  Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?"

Nafisi called The Great Gatsby the quintessential American novel.  "We in ancient countries have our past - we obsess over the past.  They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future."  The ability to dream had been extinguished from the Iranian people.

During the Revolution, women became the punching bag or pawn of the new Iranian theocratic leadership, even though men felt the iron fist of government, too. No longer were women able to choose to wear the veil or not (as some did choose to wear it for religious symbolism), but now they must also wear a black robe to cover themselves entirely.  It was like a cloak of invisibility; all individual creativity was stolen from the people, though women mainly felt the brunt of that MAN-MADE statute.

Iran was being purged of everything Westernized - because the West invented immorality [insert SarcMark] - so you can imagine how challenging it was for Nafisi to continue teaching Western literature to her students.  She saw no other way to think about and teach fiction than through Western literature, and she never compromised her ideas.  Eventually, Iran began closing the universities.


Iran was now involved in a war with Iraq, which lasted eight years; their enemies: fellow Muslims.  

This is when Nafisi is expelled for refusing to obey the mandatory veil law.  To Nafisi, the Ayatollah "decided to impose his dream on a country and a people to re-create [women] in his own myopic vision.  So he had formulated an ideal of me as a Muslim woman, as a Muslim woman teacher, and wanted me to look, act, and in short, live according to that ideal."  It was not the veil that she rejected, "it was the transformation being imposed upon [her] that made [her] look in the mirror and hate the stranger [she] had become."  

The Ayatollah was more concerned with perception than truth.  (This reminds me of Matthew 23, when Jesus rebuked the Pharisees who only cared about what their morality looked like in public, but inside they were hypocrites.  They only cared about the "outside of the cup.")  

During her time away from teaching, she wrote and focused on her family; but there seemed a great disappointment and void in her life.  When universities were permitted to reopen their doors and search for professors, she returned to teach literature at a different university, which was quite a fascinating experience; but she later resigned and eventually started her private book club.


Finally, return to the period during "Lolita."  This  last section is all for the women of Iran.  Nafisi compiled the themes of discussions "her girls" had had about marriage, being in love, and desiring freedom.  Unfortunately, after the Revolution, Sharia law had replaced existing law.  A man was permitted to have up to four wives and temporary wives on the side (because . . . convenience).  He could beat his wife, and it would be her fault.  Mothers had no rights to their children.  This is what Nafisi's "girls" had to consider.  No wonder they all wanted to leave Iran.  But through the works of Jane Austen, they could pretend. That is what life in Iran had been reduced to.

It is during this regretful time that Nafisi decided to leave "her girls," her home, Iran, and go to America.  

Azar Nafisi

This is only a small portion of the story.  Nafisi's journey is profound and individualized.  When I read some negative reviews on Goodreads, I realized that some readers will never connect or understand how deeply personal this story is.  I am grateful I was able to appreciate it; I know what it means to use literature to define seasons of your life, be they full of joy or disappointment.  I will read this book over and over again.  


This story caused me to think about the recent political protests in America.  Feminist/Leftists and political Muslims are marching in union and using one another to push their contradictory agendas; though one day this union will come crashing down because both actually oppose each other.  In the meantime, non-Muslim women treat religious headscarves like trendy beanies, chant "Allahu Akbar" for political slogans, or bow down during the Muslim call to prayer (like Eloi in the Time Machine being summoned underground).  If nothing else, this should offend Muslims, but for now it is deliberately expedient. 

Nonetheless, uninformed American women should read Reading Lolita in Tehran

They need someone who lived under political Islam to expose them to what it feels like when individuality, livelihood, sanity, hope, future, imagination, creativity, liberty, spirit, and life are snuffed out (by men, no less).  Not suggesting that Nafisi was preaching against Islam - she was not (Her focus was on books; she LOVES literature.) - I am the one saying that there is enough evidence to prove political Islam is disguised as a religion and does not have a favorable history toward women.  Some Americans are dangerously oblivious to this, and they need to have their eyes opened. Stories like Azar Nafisi's may help.

For a fascinating interview with the author about her book :


Joseph said...

I've been waiting for your review ever since I saw your 10 Stars if you could on Goodreads. Wow! It sounds like a powerful book (inferred from your powerful review). Well said...both review and political commentary.

Ruth said...

Hi, Joseph, Sorry it has taken a while to finally sit down and reply. Crazy weekend! Yes, this was a wonderfully powerful book. If you love and appreciate reading literature (especially the classics) and you understand how people take fiction personally, especially during times of turmoil, upheaval, and unrest, then you will enjoy this story. I watched a video of a speaking engagement the author gave at a bookstore, and she is passionate about books and reading. She is not political, but she knows how she feels about her country and how her government hurt her. She says it makes her very angry when people generally say that the reason Iran is the way it is is because of the culture. She replies, "It is not the culture. Iranian still hate being stoned."

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you enjoyed this book! It is one of my all time favorites! I completely agree with you that people who connect with literature and find it defining their lives will be able to more fully appreciate the book. Reading is a deeply personal act and for many of us, it's books which provide us sanity and support when the world around us is breaking down! Politicization of religion is bad. There is a reason why many of the leaders of the democratic movement said that Religion and Government should stand apart! I know what exactly what you mean when you say that this book is not political but when a state starts politicizing a religion, it hurts many and Nafisi brought out that point wonderfully!

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

This is going on my TBR list right now. It sounds so deep and thought-provoking! Thanks for your long and detailed review.

Ruth said...

Lately I have been reading books with similar insight - a different perspective of Islam - and it is opening my eyes to the different sides of religion.

I'm so excited about Nafisi, and I want to read her other works. She has one that uses literature to describe her American experience, and another personal story from Iran. She has such a beautiful personality, too. I just love her!

Ruth said...

I think you'll like this one, too, Hamlette, especially the section on The Great Gatsby.

Irans Guest said...

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Anonymous said...

Hello: can you please tell me if your picture of Nafisi with 7 girls is the actual book club? Thanks

Ruth said...

Yes, this is Nafisi w/ her girls who attended her book club.

Unknown said...

Many many thanks