Reading Lolita in Tehran (Nafisi)

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi, 2003
Random House
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812971064

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 university. 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," as they imagined her in Tehran.

Nafisi's account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—December 1955
Where—Tehran, Iran
Education—M.A., Ph.D., Oklahoma University
Currently—lives in Potomac, Maryland

Azar Nafisi is a professor at Johns Hopkins University. She won a fellowship from Oxford and taught English literature at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University in Iran. She was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil and left Iran for America in 1997. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New Republic, and is the author of Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov's Novels. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

There are certain works of western literature that most students in the United States will probably read at some point in their college careers. Pride and Prejudice. The Great Gatsby. Lolita. On American shores, these books are generally considered classics — must-reads for anyone with the slightest interest in literature. Of course, this is most assuredly not the case in the Tehran, Iran. Since the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and began the anti-Americanism that caused Western culture to essentially be purged from Iran, such titles became all but forbidden. To teach them in the classroom — especially one containing female students — would be a genuine and punishable act of rebellion.

When Azar Nafisi was teaching literature at the University of Tehran, her syllabus was the least of her problems. Imagine living in a society in which it is an offense for a woman to show so much as a strand of hair in public. Now imagine how a woman who was encouraged by her father to explore her own personal history and engage in the art of story telling as a young girl might react to such a society. Nafisi was an independent, free-thinking woman living under a repressive regime. She was also an avowed fan of western culture: the films of the Marx Brothers, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of the Beatles, the literature of Jane Austen, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov. No longer able to adhere to the stringent rules of Islamic society, Nafisi refused to wear her veil in class and was summarily expelled from the University in 1981.

However, Nafisi's dismissal did not put an end to her teaching career. She returned to her profession in 1987, but had not lost her taste for testing the limits of the system. She would ultimately resign from her post for good in 1995, seeking a more creative means to educate. Nafisi secretively gathered a group of seven women, all former students of hers, to read and discuss those very novels that were deemed inappropriate for women in Iran.

For two years, Nafisi and her small class gathered together at her home on Thursday mornings where they would study Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller, and, of course, Lolita. And as the women explored and analyzed these classics, discussing the books in an open forum with a teacher who encouraged the women to express themselves freely, they also opened up about their own lives. Together they talked about their dreams, their failures, and the changes for which they wished.

Azar Nafisi's literary experiment would become the subject of her breakthrough debut memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book poetically recounts both those liberating Thursday mornings and the Ayatollah's rise to power fifteen years earlier.

Reading Lolita in Tehran has deservedly become something of an instant classic. Due to its lyricism, and the courage at the core of the story, the book has won Nafisi nearly universal praise. The New York Times called it "an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual."

Since 1997, Nafisi has lived in the United States, where she continues to teach. She also continues to write, having op-ed pieces and articles published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, and New Republic. Meanwhile, Reading Lolita in Tehran continues to inspire readers, grateful that Azar Nafisi had the courage to step out from behind the veil.

From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

• When I was in college I, like so many other students, became involved in the student protest movements, but somehow I could never rid myself of certain 'bourgeois' habits: reading works by those authors called 'bourgeois,' or seeing 'bourgeois' films were among some of my unforgivable sins.

• The first time I visited Washington, D.C., ....I came across Dali's The Last Supper. There I stood, transfixed until I was forced out of the museum....I realized with a shock of the existence of a sense of beauty and dignity that went beyond any transient concern, especially a political one. Through what other means can we reaffirm mankind's highest sense of individual integrity and strength, overcoming not just life's obstacles but death's absolute dominion?

• Whenever I am really nervous and sometimes unhappy, I take out some scoops of coffee ice cream, mix it with coffee and nuts (either walnuts or almonds) and immerse myself in the soothing cool of the coffee ice cream going down my throat. When an idea comes to me for writing, this nervousness reaches its heights and along with it my consumption of ice cream, coffee, and nuts.

• After a particularly hard day, I like to watch Seinfeld, Law and Order, (not Criminal Intent) and mystery films, especially the British mysteries. The most reliable news show I watch is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart! I also love the classic movies on Turner Classic Movies.

• I love paintings. Sometimes I steal an hour or so and go to the Phillips Collection, which is close to my work, and watch and watch. I like to watch only a few paintings at a time and focus on them for a while and then move on to others. Every once in a while I go to the National Gallery in D.C. to pay homage to the one Da Vinci they have. In order to remember a painting or a view, I look at it for a long time, then close my eyes and try to reconstruct the image in my mind, then open my eyes and look again.

• I love going to theater, especially with my family, and three friends with whom we share a great deal. I also love reading poetry and sometimes Shakespeare aloud when I am alone. I hold the book in my hands and move around the house, reading and reading, thinking, If this is not a miracle I don't know what is.

When asked what book most influence her life, here is what she said:

This is an almost impossible question! If I have to answer it, I would say One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, especially its frame story about the cuckolded king whose kingdom is on the verge of annihilation by his decision to wed a virgin every night and kill her in the morning, thus avenging himself on womankind. His murderous hand is finally stayed by the wise and beautiful Shahrzad, who offers herself as his bride and keeps him entranced for one thousand and one nights by her stories until he is finally cured. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Critics Say . . . 
[The book] is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students. It is a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs. And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.
Michiku Kakutani - The New York Times

The meaning of Nafisi's title at once becomes clear: How we read works of literature can depend as much on who we are and where we are as on the works themselves. Reading Lolita in Tehran in the 1990s was not the same as reading Lolita in Washington in 2003. The story of the nymphet Lolita and her guardian/rapist Humbert Humbert strikes different chords in different places, thus reminding us of the limitless power of literature — of art — to reveal and to transform, and of the limitless legitimate interpretations to which great literature lends itself.
Jonathan Yardley - The Washington Post

This book transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb as all three. Literature professor Nafisi returned to her native Iran after a long education abroad, remained there for some 18 years, and left in 1997 for the United States, where she now teaches at Johns Hopkins. Woven through her story are the books she has taught along the way, among them works by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen. She casts each author in a new light, showing, for instance, how to interpret The Great Gatsby against the turbulence of the Iranian revolution and how her students see Daisy Miller as Iraqi bombs fall on Tehran Daisy is evil and deserves to die, one student blurts out. Lolita becomes a brilliant metaphor for life in the Islamic republic. The desperate truth of Lolita's story is... the confiscation of one individual's life by another, Nafisi writes. The parallel to women's lives is clear: we had become the figment of someone else's dreams. A stern ayatollah, a self-proclaimed philosopher-king, had come to rule our land.... And he now wanted to re-create us. Nafisi's Iran, with its omnipresent slogans, morality squads and one central character struggling to stay sane, recalls literary totalitarian worlds from George Orwell's 1984 to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Nafisi has produced an original work on the relationship between life and literature. 
Publishers Weekly

Nafisi taught English literature at the University of Tehran from 1979 to 1981, when she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil, and later at the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai in Tehran. In 1997, she and her family left Iran for the United States. This riveting memoir details Nafisi's clandestine meetings with seven hand-picked young women, who met in her home during the two-year period before she left Iran to read and discuss classic Western novels like Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice. The women, who at first were suspicious of one another and afraid to speak their minds, soon opened up and began to express their dreams and disappointments as they responded to the books they were reading. Their stories reflect the oppression of the Iranian regime but also the determination not to be crushed by it. Nafisi's lucid style keeps the reader glued to the page from start to finish and serves both as a testament to the human spirit that refuses to be imprisoned and to the liberating power of literature. Highly recommended for all libraries. —Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan, KS 
Library Journal

So you want a revolution? If your foe is an ayatollah, try reading Jane Austen. So exiled writer and scholar Nafisi (English/Johns Hopkins Univ.) instructs in this sparkling memoir of life in post-revolutionary Iran. A modest dissident during the shah’s regime, a member of a Marxist study group like so many other Iranian students abroad ("I never fully integrated into the movement.... I never gave up the habit of reading and loving ‘counterrevolutionary’ writers"), Nafisi taught literature at the University of Tehran after the revolution. After running afoul of the mullahs for having dared teach such "immoral" novels as The Great Gatsby and such "anti-Islamic" writers as Austen, she organized a literary study group that met in her home. Fittingly, the first work her group, made up of seven young women, turned to was The Thousand and One Nights, narrated by that great revolutionary Scheherazade. "When my students came into that room," Nafisi writes, "they took off more than their scarves and robes.... Our world in that living room became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of the black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below." Tracing her students’ discussions and journeys of self-discovery while revisiting scenes from her "decadent" youth, Nafisi puts a fine spin on works that Western students so often complain about having to read—The Golden Bowl, Mansfield Park, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway. And, without once sinking into sentimentality or making overly large claims for the relative might of the pen over the sword, Nafisi celebrates the power of literature to nourish free thought in climes inhospitable to it; as she remarks, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita may not have been a direct "critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives," while enjoying the pages of Pride and Prejudice with friends served as a powerful reminder that "our society was far more advanced than its new rulers." A spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. On her first day teaching at the University of Tehran, Azar Nafisi began class with the questions, “What should fiction accomplish? Why should anyone read at all?” What are your own answers? How does fiction force us to question what we often take for granted?

2. Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation upsilamba (18). What does the word upsilamba mean to you?

3. In what ways had Ayatollah Khomeini “turned himself into a myth” for the people of Iran (246)? Also, discuss the recurrent theme of complicity in the book: that the Ayatollah, the stern philosopher-king, “did to us what we allowed him to do” (28).

4. Compare attitudes toward the veil held by men, women and the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran. How was Nafisi’s grandmother’s choice to wear the chador marred by the political significance it had gained? (192) Also, describe Mahshid’s conflicted feelings as a Muslim who already observed the veil but who nevertheless objected to its political enforcement.

5. In discussing the frame story of A Thousand and One Nights, Nafisi mentions three types of women who fell victim to the king’s “unreasonable rule” (19). How relevant are the actions and decisions of these fictional women to the lives of the women in Nafisi’s private class?

6. Explain what Nafisi means when she calls herself and her beliefs increasingly “irrelevant” in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Compare her way of dealing with her irrelevance to her magician’s self-imposed exile. What do people who “lose their place in the world” do to survive, both physically and creatively?

7. During the Gatsby trial Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to “distinguish fiction from reality” (128). How does Mr. Nyazi’s conflation of the fictional and the real relate to theme of the blind censor? Describe similar instances within a democracy like the United States when art was censored for its “dangerous” impact upon society.

8. Nafisi writes: “It was not until I had reached home that I realized the true meaning of exile” (145). How do her conceptions of home conflict with those of her husband, Bijan, who is reluctant to leave Tehran? Also, compare Mahshid’s feeling that she “owes” something to Tehran and belongs there to Mitra and Nassrin’s desires for freedom and escape. Discuss how the changing and often discordant influences of memory, family, safety, freedom, opportunity and duty define our sense of home and belonging.

9. Fanatics like Mr. Ghomi, Mr. Nyazi and Mr. Bahri consistently surprised Azar by displaying absolute hatred for Western literature — a reaction she describes as a “venom uncalled for in relation to works of fiction.” (195) What are their motivations? Do you, like Nafisi, think that people like Mr. Ghomi attack because they are afraid of what they don’t understand? Why is ambiguity such a dangerous weapon to them?

10. The confiscation of one’s life by another is the root of Humbert’s sin against Lolita. How did Khomeini become Iran’s solipsizer? Discuss how Sanaz, Nassrin, Azin and the rest of the girls are part of a “generation with no past.” (76)

11. Nafisi teaches that the novel is a sensual experience of another world which appeals to the reader’s capacity for compassion. Do you agree that “empathy is at the heart of the novel”? How has this book affected your understanding of the impact of the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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