Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

It is always a fascinating experience when personal interests collide. Fortunately, my two principal passions – literature and human rights – are constantly intersecting. This said, with the majority of my day typically given over to human rights-based research, I do tend to steer clear of giving my personal reading time over to the subject. But in the case of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, I was prepared to make an exception. Consideration of the human rights situation in Iran, particularly relating to the experience of Iranian females, dominates academic study of the field. Always controversial, debates typically centre on the issue of cultural relativism – a question of where the line should be drawn between universal standards and cultural sensitivity. While I do not believe that this argument will ever be settled, I am always hyperaware of the dangers of academising (not a word, but one that works in this context) an experience as personal as that of human rights. Reading Lolita in Tehran bridges this gap. Coming to me as a recommendation from the Knebworth Book Group (run by my friend and attended by my Aunt) and having caused some heated debate between its members, I was happy to bring my two worlds into collision.

“Those of us living in the Islamic Republic of Iran grasped both the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected. We had to poke fun at our own misery in order to survive. We also instinctively recognized poshlust – not just in others, but in ourselves. This was one reason that art and literature became so essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity. What Nabokov captured was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises, where you can no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran is Nafisi’s account of her life as a professor of literature in 1990s Iran. It focuses on the subversive, underground reading group that she creates with seven former, female students, in which forbidden works are read and discussed. From Nabokov’s Lolita to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the girls come together every Thursday under threat of discovery and punishment. Nafisi’s revelation of the group’s activities and the hopes and fears of its members are intertwined with a memoir of her experience as a university professor. Through her account, the evolution of post-revolutionary Iran is traced, as restrictions are placed on Iranian women and society. Nafisi’s memoir is one of both repression and resistance, where the power of literature as a tool for empathy and understanding is central.

This book is an essential read for a number of reasons. Not only does it demonstrate the fundamental importance of fiction as a means for understanding and challenging the status quo, it also offers a unique, personal insight into the characteristics of 1990s Iran. While the account is undoubtedly subjective and restricted as the insight of one individual (Nafisi was clearly in the upper echelons of society as a married woman of Western education), the incorporation of the stories of the seven book group members offers a diverse narrative. It is through the experiences of these women that a comprehensive picture is painted: a picture of backward progress.

“You might well ask, What is Sanaz thinking as she walks the streets of Tehran? How much does this experience affect her? Most probably, she tries to distance her mind as much as possible from her surroundings. Perhaps she is thinking of her brother, or of her distant boyfriend and the time when she will meet him in Turkey. Does she compare her own situation with her mother’s when she was the same age? Is she angry that women of her mother’s generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women? Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from eighteen to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?”

Reading Lolita in Tehran should be read first and foremost for its insight into one of the most troubling contemporary eradications of human rights standards. For all my time spent studying the subject, this memoir taught me a huge amount. Because, divorced the need to justify and contextualise, it offers a personal account of experience under a repressive regime. This is a story that cannot be grasped from textbooks, and is notably absent in any depth from television and news reports.

On another level, this book is a wonderful exposition of the personal and social roles of literature. Through reflection on the impact of her chosen novels on the lives of her students, Nafisi effectively demonstrates the threat that such books are perceived to pose to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The chapters in which she describes the reaction of her university class to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the subsequent decision to put the novel ‘on trial’ in the classroom, is a brilliant examination of the tension. In addressing one of her more radical and dissenting students, Mr. Nyazi, Nafisi summarises:

“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. This was what we had in common, although we were not aware of it then. Dreams, Mr. Nyazi, are perfect ideals, complete in themselves. How can you impose them on a constantly changing, imperfect, incomplete reality? You would become a Humbert, destroying the object of your dream; or a Gatsby, destroying yourself.”

This book makes for uncomfortable reading because it exposes a reality from which many of us would rather turn our heads. But Nafisi’s style and approach to structure make Reading Lolita in Tehran a truly compelling read. To believe in the power of literature through the changes it has worked in our own lives is a wonderful thing. But such an introspective approach misses too much. Through Nafisi’s account, the reader is exposed to an extreme – in which the classical works being read stand in superficial opposition to the values and norms of a society. Yet what we take away from Nafisi’s account is that these books retain their power, wherever and by whomever they are read. Because great works are fundamentally about empathy, about seeing the world through the eyes and experience of another. This is a fact that translates across and transcends cultural difference. Not only does Reading in Lolita in Tehran offer a window into the personal experience of Nafisi and ‘her girls’, it achieves what all great books should look to – in creating an empathy that transcends national borders.


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