Literature matters. I could argue for hours about the importance of stories and the transformative powers of words. But whatever I say pales in comparison to the experience of people like Azar Nafisi, who lived in Iran for 18 years during a time when literature was a matter of life and death. Her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, covers Nafisi’s life from the late 1970s to 1997, when she left Tehran for the United States. During those decades, Nafisi taught at several universities and was expelled from two before creating a secret literature class for women. Reading Lolita in Tehran is also about the trials of being female in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where improperly wearing the veil can get you beaten in the streets.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four sections, centered on four different writers and their works. The book selections mirror what’s happening in Nafisi’s life—though the events of the book are not related chronologically. First comes the notorious Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. While discussing Lolita, the secret literature class—made up of women Nafisi taught while she was at the University of Allameh Tabatabai—ponders the ways in which Humbert Humbert traps the object of his desire. Nafisi also tells us of her history before she returned to Iran to teach at the University of Tehran just as the Islamic Revolution was heating up. In the 1970s, Nafisi herself was a revolutionary. But shortly after her return, Nafisi started to realized the ways that the revolution—like many before it—was going sour.
After Lolita, Nafisi takes us to The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This section covers Nafisi’s tenure at the University of Tehran. I felt a palpable sense of dread during this part of the memoir. In the early 1980s, universities in Iran came under fire as the revolutionary and Islamist government tried to bring them to heel. Classes were canceled or boycotted at the drop of a hat as students rushed to attend demonstrations or protests. Nafisi’s classes are depicted as a microcosm of the divisions between various political and religious factions. At one point, a student’s outrage over the immorality of The Great Gatsby goads Nafisi to putting the book on trial. She plays the defendant, the book itself, while the student acts as her prosecuting attorney. The scenes of the trial are deadly serious, but there is a thread of hysterical giddiness to them that makes one ponder how everyone came to this.
In the last two sections, Nafisi turns to Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Washington Square and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I found the last section the most affecting. Nafisi’s students come to the fore in this section and we learn about their struggles to find love and cope with all the barriers that have been placed around them. Nafisi writes, earlier in Reading Lolita, “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” (111*). This quotation is particularly relevant in light of the Austen section. The classes are a way for Nafisi and her class to escape from the Islamic Republic for a while, where they can take off their veils and robes and chadors, and say what they think. Some of the girls in the class are contemplating marriage, lamenting that they won’t experience love because they don’t know what it is. Others are frustrated by their prospects.
All through Reading Lolita in Tehran is the affirmation of the importance of literature. Not only does it provide escape, but “even with the book closed, the voices do not stop—there are echoes and reverberations that seem to leap off the page and mischievously leave the novel tingling in our ears” (Nafisi 269). This is why Nafisi keeps teaching The Great Gatsby and Daisy Miller even though some of her university students believe that the characters should be killed and the books banned in favor of properly moral and revolutionary texts.
Reading Lolita in Tehran was pressed on me by a colleague. I’m glad he talked me into reading it, over my objections about reading books about reading. (I think that reading about another reader reading books has the potential to be the most meta-boring experience.) That’s not at all what I found in Nafisi’s memoir is about. She rarely discusses the reading experience itself. Instead, Nafisi’s book contains passages of literary criticism that helped me understand Lolita and Henry James much better**. There are sections about the politics of the veil that had me feeling righteously feminist. Some of the brief chapters in which Nafisi writes about writers, journalists, critics, artists, and others being disappeared by the government that had me genuinely worried for her safety.
I’d like to wrap up my rambling review of Reading Lolita in Tehran with a video I watched just a few weeks ago. In “100 Years of Beauty – Episode 3,” a model is made up to reflect the ideals of beauty in Iran. The veil appears, then disappears by the 1930s, before being mandated in the 1980s. In the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, however, the veil reveals more and more of the model’s hair. The 2003 edition of Reading Lolita had hints of hope that real progress was coming to Iran. We know now this didn’t happen, but the situation—as alluded to by this video—is not as bleak as it was during the darkest days of Khomeini’s rule.
* All quotations are from the 2003 Random House trade paperback edition of Reading Lolita in Tehran.
** Lolita is still on my Nope List, though.