Azar Nafisi – Reading Lolita in Tehran

‘Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to “see” others, hence to empathize with them. What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert). We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others.’

Spoiler alert: this post contains spoilers.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.

Reading Lolita in Tehran was undoubtedly one of my highlights in the past year. The book isn’t fiction, of course; it is a memoir which tells us of Azar Nafisi’s life in Iran between the start of the Iranian Revolution, and 1997, when she leaves Iran for the US. She tells us of her return to Iran during the revolution and of life in the Islamic Republic and during the Iran-Iraq War. A professor for Western literature, Nafisi narrates how she is expelled from university and starts another job at a different university some years later before quitting and founding her own private literature class at home with a select number of (female) students. 

The book is divided into four sections: ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’ and ‘Austen’. Each section discusses these (and other) works of literature and, in my opinion, relates them not only to Nafisi’s personal life but also to life in the Islamic Republic in general. Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, is about a middle-aged man, known as Humbert Humbert, who engages in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old, Dolores Haze (‘Lolita’). I haven’t read Lolita, but it appears that Humbert practically seizes Dolores and that the story is only told by Humbert, who is an unreliable narrator – the reader finds out little to nothing about Dolores and her point of view: she is silenced. Lolita appears to be a metaphor for life in the Islamic Republic as a woman.

‘Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own recommendation and choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but perhaps Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.’

‘Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling love and listening to forbidden music.’

‘The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. We don’t know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not engulfed her. Yet the novel, the finished work, is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not just of beauty but of life, ordinary everyday life, all the normal pleasures that Lolita, like Yassi, was deprived of.’

This is, as usual, my personal take on a book and I won’t discuss every aspect, storyline and detail. In any case, Reading Lolita in Tehran has been much reviewed, analysed and written about already – published in 2003, the book became an instant bestseller and has been translated into over 30 languages. Despite this, I want to write about it: it is a book from which we can learn a lot. 

One reason I like Reading Lolita in Tehran so much is because I am fascinated by Iranian history. I took a course on Iran during my Master’s Degree in History at the LSE and while I focussed more on the Shah and US-Iranian relations up to 1978/79, I am still very much interested in what happened in Iran after the revolution. The great thing about Reading Lolita in Tehran is its highly personal nature. We get to know Nafisi’s life and her opinions and find out more about life in the Islamic Republic and what Nafisi thinks of it. She provides us with much detail and it is in those details that we learn many new things about Iran. While I’m not claiming to be an expert on the country, I’ve thoroughly studied Iranian history and yet Reading Lolita in Tehran has taught me so much. Iran, I think, is a country much misunderstood and misrepresented in the West, both by politicians and the media. While much has changed since the book was published in 2003, Reading Lolita in Tehran can teach us a lot and improve our understanding of Iran. This, I think, is where the book’s value lies. 

‘The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics – Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December and, yes, Lolita.’

‘The first day I asked my students what they thought fiction should accomplish, why one should bother to read fiction at all. … I explained that most great works of 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 too immutable. I told my student I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.’

I also love the general idea behind Reading Lolita in Tehran – using works of fiction to analyse, or reflect, on life. It’s certainly an original, if not unusual, way to structure a book. I’ve said this in one of my other posts but I believe this to be one of the key roles books should take: to reflect on life, society and the world in general. It’s my way of reading a book, anyway: I always look out for things I can relate to or that I think tell me something about the wider world. That isn’t to say, of course, that books always have to have a meaning. Sometimes, they are just what they say they are: works of fiction, with no reference to real life. 

Nafisi uses ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’ and ‘Austen’ to give her story structure. An added bonus is of course that Nafisi discusses these works in the process, providing the reader with extra information and analysis. I haven’t read Lolita or James and will therefore focus on the other two, in particular Gatsby. I won’t discuss Austen much – although I love her books, I don’t actually think Austen contributes much to the story in Reading Lolita in Tehran, except in a few cases (for example when Nafisi talks about relationships between women and men). 

Gatsby, in turn, clearly contributes to the story (I call it a story, even though it’s a memoir). One example stands out to me: after a student complaint on Gatsby, Nafisi decides to put the book on trial, with a prosecutor, a lawyer for the defense, a defendant and a jury – she calls it ‘the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran versus The Great Gatsby. It is fascinating to see what the students accuse Gatsby of and how they defend it. In fact, Nafisi says that the class’s ‘discussions of Gatsby for a short while seemed as electric and important as the ideological conflicts raging over the country’. Some students – mainly the religious and radical revolutionaries – accuse the book of being immoral, others defend it. Others again – the leftist students, for example – defend it against the religious students, but with similar arguments: it needs to be read because one needs to understand the American enemy.

‘No, Professor, not against Mr. Gatsby himself but against the novel. The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds – surely I could see? I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual. … Maybe Gatsby was all right for the Americans, but not for our revolutionary youth. … There was, for Mr. Nyazi, no difference between the fiction of Fitzgerald and the facts of his own life. The Great Gatsby was representative of things American, and America was poison for us; it certainly was. We should teach Iranian students to fight against American immorality, he said. He looked earnest; he had come to me in all goodwill.’

‘A few of the leftist activists defended the novel. I felt they did so partly because the Muslim activists were so dead set against it. In essence, their defense was not so different from Nyazi’s condemnation. They said that we needed to read fiction like The Great Gatsby because we needed to know about the immorality of American culture. They felt we should read more revolutionary material, but that we should read books like this as well, to understand the enemy.’

‘The novel was its own defense. Perhaps we had a few things to learn from it, from Mr Fitzgerald. She had not learned from reading it that adultery was good or that we should all become shysters. Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they go whaling after Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that? And are revolutionaries devoid of personal feelings and emotions? Do they never fall in love, or enjoy beauty? This is an amazing book, she said quietly. It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. Anyway, she enjoyed reading it, and that counts too, can’t you see?’

And, similar to Lolita, Nafisi compares Gatsby to her present situation in Iran (in this case, the Revolution): 

‘Dreams, Mr. Nyazi, are perfect ideals, complete in themselves. How can you impose them on a constantly changing, imperfect, incomplete reality? You would become a Humbert, destroying the object of your dream; or a Gatsby, destroying yourself. … how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfil his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that 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?’

Moreover, Nafisi has a great way of describing people in her book. She paints the people in very fine detail, with very colourful language. I am, of course, referring to the way she describes the seven students of her private literature class: Manna, Mahshid, Nassrin, Yassi, Azin, Mitra and Sanaz (as well as Nima, Manna’s husband). From the very first pages of the book, we get to know their personalities. Manna is the ‘poet’ with a ‘withdrawn and private nature’, Mahshid sensitive and like porcelain, who adds another dimension to the word ‘lady’, Yassi the ‘comedian’ of the group. Azin is always ‘outrageous and outspoken’, relishing the ‘shock value of her actions and comments’, while Mitra is perhaps the ‘calmest’ in the group. Sanaz, then, is torn between ‘her desire for independence and need for approval’, while Nassrin can’t be described, she is her ‘own definition’. They are a ‘peculiar mix of fragility and courage’, loners, ‘who did not belong to any particular group or sect’. Nafisi goes on to describe their individual stories in more detail throughout the book, and it is in those stories that we find out more about daily life in Iran. 

The only character I don’t like is the ‘magician’ – a man Nafisi apparently turns to when she needs help, advice or support. I’m not sure why I don’t like him. Perhaps because in a story defined by women, it is a man she turns to for help? Perhaps because of the term ‘magician’ which gives this character a kind of superpower, makes him better or smarter than the rest? It is possible that I’ve misunderstood the ‘magician’ and the role Nafisi assigns him in her life; however the parts of the story which feature him were the only ones I didn’t enjoy.

One more point:  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve learned a lot reading this book – especially about daily life and, more importantly, about the situation of women in the Islamic Republic. However, I will not attempt to discuss this in further detail: I’m a white Western woman and can only to a certain extent imagine the struggles people face in the rest of the world, including Iran. Instead, I put together a list of quotes from the book which I found most impressive. You can find them at the bottom of this post – and, to my readers who have read The Handmaid’s Tale – do some of these quotes seem familiar?

Overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran – thanks to its personal nature and how much we learn from the book, the way Nafisi describes people and, of course, the way she uses books to aid her story. I’d highly recommend it.

About Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi is an Iranian writer and professor of English literature. Raised in Tehran, she completed her studies in England before moving to Switzerland. She holds a PhD in English and American literature from the University of Oklahoma. She returned to Iran in 1979, where she taught at several universities. She left Iran for the US in 1997 and became an American citizen in 2008. Between 1997 and 2017, Nafisi worked at the Foreign Policy Institute of John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Her other works include: Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memoirs of a Prodigal Daughter, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books and BiBi and the Green Voice, a book for children. More on her website.

Quotes

  • Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.’ 
  • This is Tehran for me: its absences were more real than its presences.’
  • ‘Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation, was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules. Always, the joy of teaching was marred by divisions and considerations forced on us by the regime – how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair? Could one really concentrate on one’s job when what preoccupied the faculty was how to excise the word wine from a Hemingway story, when they decided not to teach Bronte because she appeared to condone adultery?’
  • ‘Reality has become so intolerable, she said, so bleak, that all I can paint now are the colors of my dreams.’
  • ‘There were two very important men dominating Sanaz’s life at the time. The first was her brother. He was nineteen years old and had not yet finished high school and was the darling of their parents, who, after two girls, one of whom had died at the age of three, had finally been blessed with a son. He was spoiled, and his one obsession in life was Sanaz. He had taken to proving his masculinity by spying on her, listening to her phone conversations, driving her car around and monitoring her actions.’
  • ‘We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent – namely ideology. This was a country where all gestures, even the most private, where interpreted in political terms. The colors of my head scarf or my father’s tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies. 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.’
  • ‘How can describe this other world outside the room? I have no choice but to appeal once again to your imagination.’
  • A few weeks ago, while driving down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, my children and I were reminiscing about Iran. I noticed with a sudden misgiving the alien tone they had adopted when talking about their own country. They kept repeating “they”, “they over there”. Over where? … They did not remember many things. Some memories made them sad and nostalgic; others they dismissed. … What triggered our reminiscences? Was it the Doors CD that my children were so accustomed to hearing in Iran? … Even while we lived in Iran, they, like most kids of their background, had little affection for Persian music. For them, Persian music was identified with political songs and military marches – for pleasure they turned somewhere else. I was shocked to realise that their childhood memories of songs and films in Iran would be the Doors, the Marx Brothers and Michael Jackson.’ 
  • ‘Perhaps it is only now and from this distance, when I am able to speak of these experiences openly and without fear, that I can begin to understand them and overcome my own terrible sense of helplessness. In Iran a strange distance informed our relation to these daily experiences of brutality and humiliation. There, we spoke as if the events did not belong to us; like schizophrenic patients, we tried to keep ourselves away from that other self, at once intimate and alien.’
  • ‘There were discrepancies, or essential paradoxes, in my idea of “home”. There was the familiar Iran I felt nostalgic about, the place of parents and friends and summer nights by the Caspian Sea. Yet just as real was this other, reconstructed, Iran about which we talked in meeting after meeting, quarrelling about what the masses in Iran wanted. Apparently, as the movement grew more radical in the seventies, the masses wanted us to serve no alcohol in our celebrations and not to dance or play “decadent” music: only folk or revolutionary music were allowed. They wanted the girls to cut their hair short or wear it in pigtails. They wanted us to avoid the bourgeois habits of studying.’ 
  • ‘In a few month’s time, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were very difficult to find. The government could not remove all of the books from the stores, but gradually it closed down some of the most important foreign-language bookstores and blocked the distribution of foreign books in Iran.’
  • ‘My experiences, especially my teaching experiences, in Iran have been framed by the feel and touch of that aborted handshake, …’
  • ‘After we all helped create this mess, we were not doomed to have the Islamic Republic.’
  • ‘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.’
  • ‘Battles were being fought and lost. One of the most significant of these was over women’s rights: from the very start, the government had waged a war against women …’
  • ‘“The law?” Vida interrupted him. “You guys came in and changed the laws. Is it the law? So was wearing the yellow star in Nazi Germany. Should all the Jews have worn the star because it was the blasted law?”’
  • ‘Like all ideologues before them, the Islamic revolutionaries seemed to believe that writers were the guardians of morality. This displaced view of writers, ironically, gave them a sacred place, and at the same time it paralyzed them. The price they had to pay for their new pre-eminence was a kind of aesthetic impotence.’
  • ‘Sometimes, almost unconsciously, I would withdraw my hands into my wide sleeves and start touching my legs or my stomach. Do they exist? Do I exist? This stomach, this leg, these hands. Unfortunately, the Revolutionary Guards and the guardians of our morality did not see the world with the same eyes as me. They saw hands, faces and pink lipstick; they saw strands of hair and unruly socks where I saw some ethereal being drifting soundlessly down the street.’
  • ‘If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat.’
  • ‘It is said that the personal is political. That is not true, of course. At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives. Personal and political are interdependent but not one and the same thing. The realm of imagination is a bridge between them, constantly refashioning one in terms of the other. … When I am asked about life in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I cannot separate the most personal and private aspects of our existence from the gaze of the blind censor. I think of my girls, who came from very different backgrounds. Their dilemmas, regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs, were shared, and stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspirations by the regime. This conflict lay at the heart of the paradox created by Islamic rule.’
  • ‘“You should stop blaming the Islamic Republic for all our problems”, said my magician.’
  • ‘Every great book we read became a challenge to the ruling ideology. It became a potential threat and menace not so much because of what it said but how it said it, the attitude it took towards life and fiction.’
  • ‘“ … about how all of us – girls like me, who have read their Austen and Nabokov and all that, who talk about Derrida and Barthes and the world situation – how we know nothing, nothing about the relation between a man and a woman, about what it means to go out with a man.”’
  • ‘Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe, … if you’re forced into having sex with someone you dislike, you make your mind blank – you pretend to be somewhere else, you tend to forget your body, you hate your body. That’s what we do over here. We are constantly pretending to be somewhere else – we either plan it or dream it.’
  • ‘Daisy was the character my female students most identified with. Some of them became obsessed. … her courage, something they felt they had lacked.’
  • ‘I left Tehran on June 24, 1997, for the green light that Gatsby once believed in.’
  • ‘I left Iran, but Iran did not leave me. Much has changed in appearance since Bijan and I left. There is more defiance in Manna’s gait and those of other women; their scarves are more colorful and their robes much shorter; they wear makeup now and walk freely with men who are not their brothers, fathers or husbands. Parallel to this, the raids and arrests and public executions also persist. But there is a stronger demand for freedom.’

Published by claramarleneb

Londoner, LSE History & IR Graduate, Personal Trainer, Horse Rider, Traveller, Reader, Writer, Heavy Metal Fan

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