Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
Book Group in Chadors
A review by Mona Simpson
Anyone who has ever held a job and ventured out on a blind date understands this
paradox of intimacy: it is easier to become close to other people when not trying,
while ostensibly doing something else. One of the pleasures that members of book
groups everywhere discover is the gradual and delicately thrilling way in which
they come to know one another as they talk about the books. Reading Lolita
in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi, the daughter of a former charismatic mayor
of pre-revolutionary Tehran and of a woman who won a seat in Parliament in 1963,
chronicles the personal and intellectual unfoldings of a private literature class
she started in Tehran after she left her last teaching post. She'd resigned from
the University of Tehran years earlier, refusing to wear the veil.
The group consists of seven women ("girls," she calls them), children of the revolution,
greatly diverse in religious and political beliefs and backgrounds, who arrive
at her house every Thursday morning for two years in the mid-1990s, take off their
chadors and scarves, and talk about books — Lolita,
Great Gatsby, Daisy
and Prejudice. These young women, who outside the class struggle to live under
the laws and potential daily humiliation of the Islamic Republic, make it painfully
clear that we read not only for the most exalted but also for the most basic reasons.
What reader has not compared his or her own love life to Swann's, or her own husband
to Mr. Darcy? Yet these books take on added, ironic dimensions when we remember
that the legal age for marriage in Iran at this time was nine (younger than Lolita),
and that the punishment for female adultery, such as Daisy Buchanan's affair with
Gatsby, was stoning. The one divorcee in the group, now remarried, gloves her
red-polished nails, which constituted a punishable offense, as did any makeup.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune,
must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife," says the youngest student in
the group. Yet although Nafisi encourages extremely personal reading (when she
realizes that almost all of her students accept the Islamic Republic's dogma about
love — spiritual love good, sex bad — she supplements Pride and Prejudice
Bodies, Ourselves), her analyses of the books are never simple or reductive.
In all the novels she finds evil in the villains' lack of empathy, in an inability
to see and hear, to engage with, or even to dance with another person. "Humbert
was a villain," she writes, "because he lacked curiosity about other people and
their lives, even about the person he loved most."
Nafisi simply can't resist paradox. So although she writes about a society in which a woman can be jailed for dancing, punished for allowing a few strands of hair to fall on her face, disciplined for revealing her singing voice, or expelled from a university for the way she might eat a peach, she also tempts Western readers to marvel at the power this atavistic Iranian regime implicitly assigns to women's sexual allure.
Nafisi divides her book into four sections: "Lolita," "Gatsby," "James," and "Austen." The first introduces the reading group; "Gatsby" and "James" take us back to Nafisi's years teaching at universities in Iran, through the revolution and the war with Iraq. These two middle sections contain a pageant of drama — persecuted and executed professors; air raids; the regular clashes in class between Marxist and reactionary Muslim students; the death in jail of a particularly gifted student, who as a child stole books from the houses her mother cleaned; a young soldier who went to war and then returned to a university where he'd never belonged and set himself on fire.
In the last section, "Austen," we finally learn about the personal lives of the
girls. The "fairy-tale atmosphere" of these Thursday mornings spent talking about
books allowed the eight women to "share so much of our secret life with one another."
The wildest one, the divorcee with red nails, is beaten by her third husband,
who calls her "used" because she has been married before. She cannot easily leave
him, because the courts routinely grant child custody to husbands, and she has
a young daughter. Two of the girls are happily enough married. One of them got
to know her husband in a university class of Nafisi's. "Did you fall in love?"
the teacher asks, as she seems relentlessly to ask everyone. "Well, yes, of course,"
the girl says, in an answer as revealing as a line of dialogue written by Austen.
Sanaz, an attractive young woman from a good family, is jilted by the boy to whom
she has been betrothed since childhood, presumably because after living in England
for five years, he no longer wants the sheltered Muslim girl his parents have
selected. And when Sanaz goes on vacation with five girlfriends, the Revolutionary
Guard arrests and jails the six of them for "Western attitudes," and the girls
are subjected to two virginity tests — the second because the first, conducted
by a woman, is considered suspect. Another of the book-group members is being
presented with a series of suitors for an arranged marriage; at the same time
she is considering emigrating to the United States to continue her studies. To
go or not to go is the question that seems to hover in the air for all these women
except one, who is a devout Muslim and has decided to stay in Iran, not to marry,
and to pursue a career in publishing.
In the way that some American Jews in the seventies read Roth
not only for their literary merit but also to determine whether their portrayals
were "good for the Jews," some American Persians and Arabs may be concerned with
whether Nafisi is "good for the Muslims." But Nafisi has an essentially romantic
nature, and nowhere is it more apparent than in her politics. Watching the wreckage
of the twentieth century's revolutions from far away, one can all too easily forget
the idealism present at the beginning of revolutionary societies, whether Islamic
or Marxist, and the pull that memory exerts even on its opponents and defectors.
Though Nafisi once left a job because she refused to wear the veil and later left
her beloved country, her portrayal of Khomeini is not exactly one of a villain.
Or if he is a villain, he's in the genre of villain that Humbert belongs to. "At
the start of the revolution," she writes, "a rumor had taken root that Khomeini's
image could be seen in the moon. Many people, even perfectly modern and educated
individuals, came to believe this. They had seen him in the moon."
Nafisi, who spent years in Norman, Oklahoma, and loves Mike Gold, Gatsby, and Häagen-Dazs (she has the habit of eating coffee ice cream topped with cold coffee and walnuts whenever she's nervous), has some secrets of her own, which are only teasingly revealed to the readers of her memoir. She, too, struggles with the question of whether to stay or leave, and for her this question sometimes seems to refer not only to the Islamic Republic but also to her husband. Periodically she visits a man whom she calls "my magician," with whom she shares books and ideas, coffee and chocolate. These interludes are the most romantically written sections of the book (she grants her magician the ability to read a person's character from the shape of his nose), yet one feels that the pragmatism that could never govern her political impulses has a strong hold on her family life.
There are certain books by our most talented essayists — I'm thinking in particular
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.
To read an Atlantic Monthly exclusive interview with Azar Nafisi click here.
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