Reading Lolita in Tehran (Nafisi)

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.)

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