Book Ramblings: Reading Lolita in Tehran

I read the first chapter of this book while still in Madrid, and was determined to read the rest of it after having read Lolita. I think in retrospect it was even more interesting reading Lolita with the premise of this book resonating in my mind. Set in Iran during the Cultural Revolution and the rise to power of the dictator Ayatollah Khomeini, this engaging memoir discusses how the lives of several Iranian women intersect because of their love for literature at a secret workshop that Dr. Azar Nafisi, the author of the book, establishes in the comfort of her home.

During the Revolution, Nafisi is banned from teaching Western literature at the University of Tehran because of her refusal to wear the veil in class and to compromise on her ideals of Western literature. She decides to resist the stifling laws of the new Islamic Republic by creating a safe space where her female students can discuss works of literature, but most importantly, where they can talk about their own lives in relation to the similar themes of control and totalitarianism they find in works of fiction.

I found this book rather fascinating in the way that it effectively creates for the reader a feeling of the absurd, confined life that women experienced during the Islamic regime. It also plants the seed of hope that through inspiring figures like Nafisi, these women were able to silently rebel in their own way and nurture their own growth and education, which the government so feared and wanted to crush. Nafisi’s comparison of Khomeini’s dictatorship to Humbert’s control over Lolita was perhaps a bit simplified and overworked, but I find it very interesting nonetheless that she likens Khomeini’s reign to an agent who wants to confiscate, manipulate, and shape the lives of others according to their own fictitious vision of the world: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her” (41).

Like Lolita, Nafisi’s girls are deprived of the simple joys of daily life, having been engulfed by the regime and the way it collapses the private and political spheres. The regime makes them cherish the things that once seemed normal to them in their every lives:

Oh, the things we have to be thankful for! And that memorable day was the beginning of our detailing our long list of debts to the Islamic Republic: parties, eating ice cream in public, falling in love, holding hands, wearing lipstick, laughing in public and reading Lolita in Tehran (55).

Along with Lolita, many other works of literature are discussed, including Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby, which is put on a mock “trial” in one of Nafisi’s university classes because of the revolutionary students’ protest against the Western “decadence” and “sinfulness” that they claim the book upholds. Nafisi tries to convince her students of the art of literature for literature’s sake, that the beautiful thing about a book is its lack of moral agenda and its ability to bring characters to life — characters who are courageous, cowardly, abusive, or righteous. She tries to teach them that In the world of literature, there is no black and white, right or wrong; it is where gray spaces thrive.

I like that Nafisi’s insightful writing makes the reader experience how the lives of these women come in contact with the imagined world of these books, and how important literature can become by empowering an oppressed group and giving them the tools necessary to make sense of their own reality. Nafisi says about The Great Gatsby:

What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven…[Gatsby] wanted to fulfill 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? (144)

On the whole, this was a truly fascinating read that weaves a very real and complex issue into the problems of reading, analyzing, and appreciating works of literature.

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