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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

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 Nabokovs 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 Nafisis grandmothers choice to wear the chador marred by the political significance it had gained? (192) Also, describe Mahshids 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 kings “unreasonable rule” (19). How relevant are the actions and decisions of these fictional women to the lives of the women in Nafisis 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 magicians 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. Nyazis 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 Mahshids feeling that she “owes” something to Tehran and belongs there to Mitra and Nassrins 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 dont understand? Why is ambiguity such a dangerous weapon to them?

10. The confiscation of ones life by another is the root of Humberts sin against Lolita. How did Khomeini become Irans 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 readers 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?

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780375504907
Subtitle:
Dilemmas in a Democratic Age
Author:
Nafisi, Azar
Author:
Mitchell, Joshua
Publisher:
University Of Chicago Press
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Women
Subject:
Books and reading
Subject:
American literature
Subject:
Group reading
Subject:
English literature
Subject:
English teachers
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Subject:
Women's Studies - General
Subject:
Ethnic Cultures - General
Subject:
Nafisi, Azar
Subject:
English teachers - Iran
Subject:
History & Theory
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Hardcover
Series Volume:
107-472
Publication Date:
20130827
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
208
Dimensions:
8.5 x 5.5 x 0.9 in

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Related Subjects

Biography » General
Biography » Women
History and Social Science » Feminist Studies » World Feminism
History and Social Science » Gender Studies » Womens Studies
History and Social Science » Middle East » Women and Gender
History and Social Science » World History » Middle East

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Used Hardcover
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Product details 208 pages Random House - English 9780375504907 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "There are certain books by our most talented essayists — I'm thinking in particular of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion, and Dakota, by Kathleen Norris — that, though not necessarily better than their other works, carry inside their covers the heat and struggle of a life's central choice being made and the price being paid, while the writer tells us about other matters, and leaves behind a path of sadness and sparkling loss. Reading Lolita in Tehran is such a book." (read the entire Atlantic review)
"Review" by , “Anyone who has ever belonged to a book group must read this book. Azar Nafisi takes us into the vivid lives of eight women who must meet in secret to explore the forbidden fiction of the west. It is at once a celebration of the power of the novel and a cry of outrage at the reality in which these women are trapped. The ayatollahs don't know it, but Nafisi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic. For many years, she eschewed the easier path of exile, and became one of the brave band of intellectuals and artists who stayed on, stubbornly struggling to save the cultured soul of her remarkable country.”
"Review" by , "I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafisi?s account of how she defied, and helped others to defy, radical Islam?s war against women. Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom — as well as a stirring account of the pleasures and deepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with great literature and with an inspired teacher."
"Review" by , "Stunning...a literary life raft on Iran's fundamentalist sea...All readers should read it."
"Review" by , "When I first saw Azar Nafisi teach, she was standing in a university classroom in Tehran, holding a bunch of red fake poppies in one hand and a bouquet of daffodils in the other, and asking, What is kitsch? Now, mesmerizingly, she reveals the shimmering worlds she created in those classrooms, inside a revolution that was an apogee of kitsch and cruelty. Here, people think for themselves because James and Fitzgerald and Nabokov sing out against authoritarianism and repression. You will be taken inside a culture, and on a journey, that you will never forget."
"Review" by , "[W]ithout 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."
"Synopsis" by , Reading Lolita in Tehran is the astonishing true story of young women who met in secret each week to read and talk about forbidden Western classics — and their lives and loves — in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
"Synopsis" by ,
The Arab Spring, with its calls for sweeping political change, marked the most profound popular uprising in the Middle East for generations. But if the nascent democracies born of these protests are to succeed in the absence of a strong democratic tradition, their success will depend in part on an understanding of how Middle Easterners view themselves, their allegiances to family and religion, and their relationship with the wider world in which they are increasingly integrated.

Many of these same questions were raised by Alexis de Tocqueville during his 1831 tour of America, itself then a rising democracy. Joshua Mitchell spent years teaching Tocqueville’s classic account, Democracy in America, in America and the Arab Gulf and, with Tocqueville in Arabia, he offers a profound personal take. One of the reasons for the book’s widespread popularity in the region is that its commentary on the challenges of democracy and the seemingly contradictory concepts of equality and individuality continue to speak to current debates. While Mitchell’s American students tended to value the individualism of commercial self-interest, his Middle Eastern students had grave doubts about individualism and a deep suspicion for capitalism, which they saw as risking the destruction of long-held loyalties and obligations. When asked about suffering, American students answered in psychological or sociological terms, while Middle Eastern students understood it in terms of religion. Mitchell describes modern democratic man as becoming what Tocqueville predicted: a “distinct kind of humanity” that would be increasingly isolated and alone. Whatever their differences, students in both worlds were grappling with a sense of disconnectedness that social media does little to remedy.

We live in a time rife with mutual misunderstandings between America and the Middle East, and Tocqueville in Arabia offers a guide to the present, troubled times, leavened by the author’s hopes about the future.

"Synopsis" by , 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.
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