When I saw Azar Nafisi‘s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” on the shelves in my beloved Maui, Hawaii, I distinctly heard it beckon me. The time has come to read this book. I was in paradise, as anyone who has ever set foot in Hawaii knows well. The warm perfect breeze combined with Mother Nature’s pristine beauty plays tricks on your mind, sets your whole being in deliriously happy motions, and you disconnect from all reality for a while. Reading this book in this sweet heaven would only shake me awake to the worst of realities — to memories locked up in my sanctum, to my childhood years, and to my never ending sorrow for Iran and for its fate.
But it was time. After all, it has been over 23 years since we left that intolerably bleak, frightening totalitarian regime that took over my beloved home country and changed it forever in one fell swoop. Surely I am strong enough to read Azar Nafisi’s stories of Iran and keep them at arm’s length. Surely this novel won’t give me nightmares and anguish after all this time. Surely it will be only insight into another author, another story and another journey.
The human range of emotion is large and moves in unpredictable patterns. Mine has never been an exception, and if anything, perhaps more of a stellar example of such patterns. During initial chapters of reading this book, outrage is the name of what I felt the most. This story made me want to explicitly state my freedom, lest I ever become complacent about it. It made me want to wear glossy lipstick, smoky black eyeshadow, thick mascara, rich colors, exotic styles, sexy shoes and perfume. It filled me with desire to let my hair loose in the wind and take long confident strides down the street, any street. It afforded me inspiration to emphasize my freedom through frivolous gestures: to bite apples seductively in public, to hold my husband’s hand and kiss him on the beach, and to laugh. In public.
It made me remember that I can walk anywhere, and talk to anyone, even and especially to my male friends, however I damn well please. It filled me with an urge to express my outrageous opinions, my sweet thoughts and my vivid dream to the fullest. It also made me want to act out of hopeless frustration: to scream at the insanity of how innocent young girls of past and future generations of Iran are robbed of these simple acts of freedom every day.
I wonder why I was the chosen one, the luckiest among so many unlucky ones, to live in Iran long enough to remember it with trepidation and sorrow but not so long as to become a victim of its unspeakable acts of violence toward its citizens. I feel a sense of duty to succeed and make something of my life, when I am reminded by the sheer enormity of this stroke of great luck.
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.
The stories about life in Iran and especially, the onset of the revolution in the late 1970s, were some of the hardest to read. Nafisi takes us through a heart wrenching account of the dark revolution days, followed by the 8 year senseless Iran-Iraq war. My childhood terrors relived from days of sirens and bombs aside, I am so very happy I was too young to grasp the full atrocity of what was happening around me.
Now I am older and when we are older, the past seems to us more dear, more vulnerable, more nostalgic. Only now can I begin to imagine the depth of bitter sorrow which my parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and their friends were grappling with — soon after the birth of revolution, they were watching their youth slip away day after day, year after year, in the hands of an angry demon set for revenge against all society and humanity.
The central theme is Dr. Nafisi’s journey as a professor in the universities of Tehran, her resignation from her post for refusing to wear the veil, the denial of her resignation by the Islamic officials, and her struggles with the loss of her career and her freedom. Some years later, she hand picks her entrusted group of students, smart intelligent women who share the passion of reading and the Western literature, to conduct her secret weekly classes at her home. As you come to know these women and something about their lives, their dreams, their daily battles just to live normal lives, Nafisi weaves the threads of a journey that touches you, even as you try to keep the book at arm’s length.
The main focus of this book is the experience of reading Western literature in Iran. While Lolita is the chosen title of the book, Nabokov’s novel plays no more a significant role than works of Jane Austen, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Bronte and several others. When reading such books becomes banned in Iran and books vanish from shelves of every foreign book store, as human nature would have it, the curiosity and desire to read them only becomes more intense — perhaps a slap in the face of revolution’s lopsided logic.
How ironic it is that the average American high school student abhors the task of reading The Great Gatsby or Wuthering Heights, and these girls inhaled the novels, hung on every word, discussed the traits of every character, could recite passages from memory and would write long articulate essays around the novels’ themes, ethics, writing styles, and influence. The ironies in this book along with the self-deprecating mental outlook of the girls and Nafisi herself give us even humor.
Nafisi quotes from many of her favorite authors. Her choices are inspiring and compliment her beautiful writing well. She has a gift in her ability to brilliantly depict situations. Even as I tried not to imagine the fullness of her circumstances and the depth of her characters to avoid the sharp pain of sorrow, I failed time and again. You cannot half-read Azar Nafisi, and that is credit to an accomplished writer.
While Azar Nafisi’s writing is beautiful, I was not prepared to read about the gruesome stories, the truth of which makes them even more gruesome. I did not want to learn about the manner with which the bodies of countless murdered students were moved so that their loved ones could not find and identify them. About the experience of innocent women in jail who suffer plenty and yet after their release, much to my horror, look back on their days in jail when they recount prison days and consider life outside the prison to be worse. About people disappearing suddenly from their homes without a trace, much like the holocaust, facing a similar fate for similar non-crimes.
I did not want to read it anymore than Azar Nafisi and the girls wanted to live it. You won’t want to read it either. Nonetheless, reading it is knowing it, and learning strength and courage from it.
One of the passages in the book is the conversation between Azar Nafisi and her magician friend. While she goes on about the miseries and desperate situation of her girls, as she has come to refer to them, her magician asks her to stop blaming the revolution for the source of all her miseries, a statement that Nafisi is too shocked to swallow. He reminds her that Jane Austen managed to be deaf to all politics and social barriers around her to create the world of Pride and Prejudice for us, and that Vladimir Nabokov locked himself inside his basement, at the time of war, bombings, and utter despair in Russia, to keep his mind clear for writing. There were the conditions in which Nafisi’s own heroes had created her favorite pieces of work — the work she talked about and taught every day, the books she carried under her arms and kept in hiding and treated as her most valuable treasures.
So why is it, her magician was wondering, that she cannot follow these authors and learn from their perseverance against the odds, and apply this mindset in her daily life? No doubt the revolution has taken away even basic human rights and continues to demoralize and destroy hopes and dreams of its own society, for reasons even they cannot clearly articulate. No doubt there are better places on earth to live and those who are far more fortunate. No doubt there is much room for self-pity for what we have lost, for the days when life was richer and freedom was taken for granted, oh freedom that is sorely missed every day, yes no doubt. But will you please try, her magician begged her, to just appreciate Pride and Prejudice, and not focus so much on the sham and drudgery of Iran’s regime every single hour of every single day.
Azar Nafisi refers to Joseph Conrad’s interpretation on humanity — one of Fitzgerald’s favorite passages. She reads it so eloquently during a literature conference in the US when talking about Reading Lolita in Tehran. I think perhaps it best summarizes her idea of what this book meant to tell us and the magnificent passage goes like this:
“The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspiration, in illusion, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. “
Perhaps it is the literature and the arts that allowed imagination and dreams to stay alive in the lives of these women, and therefore, helped them survive against insurmountable odds and difficulties of living in Iran.