Synopsis: Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.
Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Author: Azar Nafasi
Publisher: Random House
Pub Date: 30 December 2003
“Every fairy tale offers the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies.”
I’m not quite sure how to review this book. Since reading it, I’ve thought about it, I’ve looked at my favourite passages again and again wishing for inspiration. Then, after feeling immensely guilty for not writing a word, I’ve avoided it – even hidden it – in the hope that I’ll have a lightbulb moment and it’ll all come to me.
Why am I struggling? Simply because this novel took me completely by surprise. I knew the premise, I’ve heard of life in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, I even read Lolita in preparation. But nothing could prepare me for the effect this novel had on me.
Firstly, I felt like a student that had showed up for a lecture without doing the required reading. Despite reading Lolita and enjoying it immensely, my thoughts on the themes were childlike compared to Nafisi’s. Granted, I never studied English and she is a professor, but her ability to explain these modern classics floored me. At first I found her tone a little self-important but, once I got over my own ego, I actually really enjoyed studying the novels in a new light.
“It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them. . .”
Secondly, and most importantly, it opened my eyes to the world my parents faced during the Iranian Revolution. As a second generation immigrant, I’ve grown up with stories of ‘the old days’, ‘the revolution’, and ‘the aftermath’. These recollections were always told simply, as Nafisi tells them, with a little humour and a pinch of sarcasm; parcelling them up in sweet pastry and adding a little rose water syrup to make them edible because – if they were told factually – they would be too terrible to bear.
“It wasn’t courage that motivated this casual, impersonal manner of treating so much pain; it was a special brand of cowardice, a destructive defence mechanism, forcing others to listen to the most horrendous experiences and yet denying them the moment of empathy: don’t feel sorry for me; nothing is too big for me to handle. This is nothing, nothing really.”
Growing up with these stories has almost desensitised me to them; but reading them suddenly made it all real. Reading Lolita in Tehran suddenly became extremely difficult and resulted in multiple outbreaks of tears in public – simultaneously ruining any street cred I may have had and guaranteeing a seat on a packed train (there is a silver lining, at least!).
“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”
I know that for many, the nuances I know (and love) as a person of Iranian descent will be missed. I know this book will have more meaning for me than it might another. But what it offers in abundance, and to everyone, is the ability to view the world from another’s eyes. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what reading fiction is all about, right?
Whether it’s Daisy Miller, Humbert Humbert, Nick Carraway, Cincinnatus C, or the girls in Nafisi’s English class, Reading Lolita in Tehran not only creates a window into these character’s lives, their motives, and feelings; it reminds you of the importance of fiction and imagination in making sense of the very real world we live in.
“In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.”