Blast From the Past: Reading Lolita in Tehran, Part I

Before I had a book blog, I sporadically wrote about books on my personal blog.  From time to time, I like to share here some of my favorite books I’ve read during the last three years. Here is Part One of my Nonfiction Files edition of Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read.

Author: Azar Nafisi

Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks

Copyright date: 2003

Pages: 384

Format: memoir/nonfiction

Reason for Reading: TBR list

Rating: A+

Publisher’s Synopsis: We all have dreams-things we fantasize about doing and generally never get around to. This is the story of Azar Nafisi’s dream and of the nightmare that made it come true.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at the univrsity. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading-Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller and Lolita-their Lolita, imagined in Tehran.

Nafisi’s account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she had first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi’s class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work that preached falsehoods of “the Great Satan,” she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and stood as the sole witness for the defense.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice.

my thoughts so far:

First I have to say that I have never read Lolita, which the first section focuses on, nor am I overly familiar with the Iran revolution. but I intend to do a little research on the revolution before I read further because some terms confuse me and I don’t have a context to put the events in. I have never wanted to read Lolita because I didn’t think I could stomach it; however, after reading Nafisi’s and her students’ perspectives it has altered my view of the book and I may consider picking it up in the future.

Azar Nafisi’s story is an interesting one so far. At age thirteen she moved from her native Iran to America and didn’t return for seventeen years. The Iran she returned to is not the same one she left. When she was a girl she wasn’t forced to wear the veil, didn’t have to worry about stray hairs showing, books weren’t forbidden and girls could wear nail polish.

“Life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms. It was unpredictable: the regime would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crack-down. Now, after a period of relative calm and so-called liberalization, we had again entered a time of hardships. Universities had once again become the targets of attack by the cultural purists who were busy imposing stricter sets of laws, going so far to segregate men and women in classes and punishing disobedient professors.”

The main story is the class she formed in her home after she finally left the university. I can’t imagine how scary that must have been, to do something so simple as hold a class in your home, but worry about the revolutionary guards catching you with books that the land has deemed forbidden.

The image I find most striking is of everyone arriving on her doorstep. As soon as they cross the threshold and are safely hidden away in Nafisi’s apartment, the women slowly remove their veils, scarves and robes, revealing layers of clothing, color, hair and jewelry. I imagine it like a painting emerging, a butterfly breaking free of its cocoon. The same image reversed is just as striking and distressing. all that color and personality cloaked away. However, the women have their small rebellions. They wear nail polish under their gloves. they may purposely leave a strand loose.

It’s hard to imagine walking the streets of Tehran as a woman, holing up within yourself lest the revolutionary guards take notice of you. The world seems so small and stifling. so many rules to be aware of.

Nafisi weaves literary criticism into her tale. This is the bulk of her story, how she and her students interpreted these forbidden western works and related them to their lives. She references several books, but the main novel of the opening section is, of course, Lolita. They make Lolita their own. She does address the question, why Lolita? and her answer is thought provoking.

Nafisi’s main assertion is that “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.” She is also quick to point out that they do not view themselves as Lolita or Lolita as a critique of the Islamic Republic, but they focused on it because “it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.” in class they speak on Lolita without a past, that Humbert has taken it from her and creates one for her. As much as she asserts that they are not Lolita, the way they speak about her and relate to her, how the Islamic Republic creates their own history, refuses to let them create their own or be who they are, it would seem to me, that they are Lolita, at least in that respect. But I do have to point out again that I haven’t read Lolita. I am only basing my opinions on the in-depth discussions Nafisi and her students have.

The next section is Gatsby, which incidentally, I have read. I am really liking this book so far, its literary criticism and insights into the lives of Iranian women.

“A couple of years after we had begun our Thursday-morning seminars, on the last night I was in Tehran, a few friends and students came to say good-bye and help me pack. When we had deprived the house of all its items, when the objects had vanished and the colors had faded into eight gray suitcases, like errant genies evaporating into their bottles, my students and I stood against the bare white wall of the dining room and took two photographs.

I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing against a white wall. They are, according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head scarves, covered except for the ovals of their faces and their hands. In the second photograph the same group, in the same position, stands against the same wall. Only they have taken off their coverings. Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.”

Part II: Reading Lolita in Tehran-Gatsby/James

Part III: Reading Lolita in Tehran-Austen

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This entry was posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Posts by Jehara and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Blast From the Past: Reading Lolita in Tehran, Part I

  1. Staci says:

    I’ve never read Lolita either but like you I loved this book and was certainly transported to Iran with these people reading this book.

  2. Margot says:

    I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a long time. This is a good push for me to get going on it. Last year I discovered the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis and Persepolis 2) that outlined her childhood experiences in Iran. It was a great eye-opener for me and I determined to know more about the lives of women in Iran. I’m glad you shared this book with us.

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