Reading Lolita in Tehran

by Azar Nafisi

  • Author: Azar Nafisi
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reissue Edition (November 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812969303
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812979305

A few reflections.

by Åshild Lappegård Lahn

Several books have over the last few years given insight into life during and after the revolution in Iran, with the subsequent establishing of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps one of the best known in Norway is Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, which also has been made into an animated movie. Another such voice from inside the Islamic Republic emerges in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Literature professor Azar Nafisi’s memoir tells of a love of Iran, but a dislike for its Islamic regime, a love for teaching, but a dislike for unreceptive students, a love for café visits, but a dislike for wearing a veil in public. Her love for literature, however, is undivided.

A loose recollection of Nafisi’s life in Iran in between her U.S. education and her arrival back in America with husband and children 13 years later, Reading Lolita in Tehran focuses on her reading group, consisting of a few former female students handpicked by Nafisi upon her resignation from the University of Tehran. Through their weekly sessions, discussing books such as Lolita, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby, each woman develops or challenges her perception of her own identity, struggling to navigate between the identity that resonates from the books they read and the identity forced upon them by the Iranian regime.

Perhaps more than the others in the reading group, Nafisi, who came «home» to an Iran she hardly recognized, struggles with a hybrid identity. With an Iranian childhood, but largely growing up in the United States, and falling in love with English literature, Nafisi experiences a culture clash upon returning to an Iran where her beloved books are increasingly seen as «decadent» and «un-Islamic». Recognizing neither the Iran she knew nor its regime’s depiction of «the West», Nafisi struggles to find her place in a society where she is forced to compromise some aspects of her identity to retain others.

The lines between reality and fiction are blurred as the life under the Iranian regime sees abductions and raping of prisoners similar to Humberts’s of Lolita, and as it becomes more difficult for two unmarried young adults to talk privately than it was for Mr Darcy and Miss Bennet. For Nafisi and «her girls», the literature becomes at times a means of escapism, at other times a prism to see more clearly the truth of the reality that surrounds them.

Criticized for being «too Westernized» and representing a new Orientalism, among others by the Iranian-born literary scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz, Nafisi’s story seems to me surprisingly nuanced in her dealings with the fundamentalists present throughout the novel. Granted, I have little knowledge of Iran, and Keshavarz might have some valid points, in that some of the characters are cardboard-like and simple, and that the book seems directed towards Westerners with little knowledge about Iran. I have not yet read her reply to Nafisi’s book, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (but I’ve added it to my reading list!). But I find, whether it be Islamists, revolutionaries, progressives or radicals, Nafisi more often questions or challenges their unwavering beliefs than bring in simple answers. She compares the current situation of the nation and its society to past rights and traditions, which has been bereaved them by the revolution, rather than merely to an idealized West.

Nafisi’s language is fluent, at times bubbling and playful, and mostly personal, although the teacher in her sometimes tempts her to enter into short, scholarly elaborations upon a theme or thought found in a favourite novel. These parts, however, only serve to encourage the reader to put Nabokov or James next on your reading list. Or, if you know the books, make you able to appreciate a new meaning they can acquire in a different context. As the novel’s subtitle says, it is a memoir in books, and it is evident that for Nafisi, literature is what stitches together her life in Tehran, what keeps her sane during the war with Iraq, and where she recognizes the oppressors of the regime and her dreams for the future. But more than this, she shows how literature can teach us about ourselves and our identity, about human nature and the world we live in. As she herself puts it:

I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions.

Further reading:

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis

Fatemeh Keshavarz: Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran

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Where can I buy this book?

Here and here!

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