Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
This is the best-selling 'bibliomemoir' (a memoir in books) that was written by Azar Nafisi, who on every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, held a secret gathering of her most committed and brilliant female students (seven in total) to read and discuss forbidden Western classics including Lolita, Daisy Miller and The Great Gatsby. An all-female book club meeting may not seem very radical to most of us, but what makes it a revolutionary act is that under the Islamic fundamentalist state that existed in Tehran at the time, reading Western works of fiction, not wearing a veil, owning a satellite, appearing in public without a male relative (for women), wearing make-up(even applying nail polish), expressing strong emotions publicly – were all illegal and punishable by law.
As the so called morality squad under the regime of Khomeini stages arbitrary raids, executes dissidents, imprisons rebels without notice, shuts down universities and bookshops, and at a time when the censor of the film board is blind( literally, the head of the censor board at the time was blind!) – it is amidst these distorted and unnerving reality that the girls with the guidance of Dr. Nafisi, their former professor, employ their readings and discussions to make sense of a world that otherwise they couldn’t come to terms with.
Writing against the tyranny of time and politics, in what I have come to identify in her writing – a very lyrical prose, she travels down memory lane as she reconstructs her life spent in Iran, but chooses to explain that through the novels she deeply connects to. It is through the writings of Nabokov, Henry James, Fitzgerald and Austen that we come to understand Tehran and her life and times there during the revolutionary and war-torn regime that effectively and meticulously strove to erase the liberal and culturally advanced past of Iran.
The memoir has four sections each named for one author/work in focus – Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen. As she begins the first section we are in 1995, soon after she has resigned from her academic post and having begun her secret rendezvous with her select group of students. They are all keenly passionate about literature and have all been her students at some point or other in the past. It is not a group that would have gathered voluntarily if not for their ex-professor’s invitation. They all have different ideological standpoints and have even suffered imprisonments at the hand of the regime for revolutionary activities. You may come to ask why would they, who have probably seen the crumbling world of hopes and dreams around them, turn to fiction for sustenance? What could Nabokov’s Lolita or James’ Daisy Miller teach them that they cannot live without?
For each writer she discusses, their works seem to gather a significance attached to the state that Iran was in at the time. For instance as they discuss Nabokov’s writings (they do discuss other writings by him as well) we realize that Nabokov too was no stranger to totalitarian regimes, and he does understand what they seem to be going through. His works were a way of him telling the world to strive to keep their integrity in times of social and political turmoil.
“ The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes….the only way out is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality.”
Azar Nafisi brings in other colourful characters from her memories - eccentric professors, former colleagues, revolutionary student leaders, idealistic fellow Iranians etc. Through it all she emphatically asserts the epiphany of truth that are hallmarks of great literature. As she herself puts it in her next venture The Republic of Imagination, “If we need fiction today, it is not because we need to escape from reality; it is because we need to return to it with eyes that are refreshed..” She continuously, relentlessly and passionately upholds the case of fiction in face of surmounting odds that were once against her.
For instance, when she teaches Gatsby in one of her classes, a lot of Islamic fundamentalist male students react against the story by calling it an immoral tale of adulterous love and materialistic greed – the very thing that the decadent West were characteristically known for. So, Dr. Nafisi in a brilliant move, puts the book on trial – and thus in section two, we have a highly stimulating discussion between the Islamic State of Iran vs. The Great Gatsby (guess who wins?).
A lot of political happenings that force a lot of the professors and students to flee from Tehran ensue and gradually the University is itself shut down indefinitely. She also narrates her personal stories in between this, and helps us understand the depth of her belief in the power of fiction to help us understand each other.
Admittedly the whole book isn’t around the book discussions by Nafisi and her selected students. And I felt Austen wasn’t discussed enough, hardly discussed in fact. But nevertheless, it did show the impact that reading these works of fiction had a transformative power on all their lives. What begins as a recollection of a few years spend in Iran, subverting the edicts of authority by holding a secret book club, ultimately comes to an end when Azar Nafisi, herself decides to move to the U.S. with her husband and children. Soon her students also leave, only a few stay behind in Iran.
What Azar Nafisi does in this captivating memoir is that she pays an ode to the undying spirit of the Iranian men and women who despite the tragedy that engulfed them, decided to look beyond their immediate realities to fully understand the timeless magic of fiction and words that helped them weave a protective garb for their imaginations instead.
She continues to write and includes political happenings and social tensions in her analysis of her beloved fiction. In this article here she discusses the need of the what The Little Prince can teach us in the heartless times we live in today.
If we read fiction, or have enjoyed fiction at any time in our lives, I believe what Azar Nafisi has to say in her works will be something we had long held to be true in our hearts but never completely realized in words. But she has done exactly that.