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Reading Lolita in Tehran

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003) Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi lived and taught English literature in Tehran during the upheaval of the Islamic Revolution. Her memoir is not only of her memories of that time, but of how attitudes towards women changed, and how not just she–but also her students–used English literature to both escape and understand their lives.

These is no an autobiography in the strictest sense. In order to protect the men and women who were her students, she changed names and details and combined individuals into different characters so that no one looking for these individuals will be able to find them.

Yet it is the feelings around the incidents the Ms Nafisi describes that invoke the most feeling: her struggle against the veil; her desire to teach the books she felt her students could learn from rather than the books deemed appropriate; the disappearance of English books from the book stores of Tehran. All of these small incidents create a world that to me would be intolerable–a world that many times Ms Nafisi seems to have been driven nearly mad by herself.

One passage in particular struck me:

The polarization created by the regime confused every aspect of life. Not only were the forces of God fighting an emissary of Satan, Iraq’s Sadaam Hussein, but they were also fighting agents of Satan inside the country. At all times, from the very beginning of the revolution and all through the war and after, the Islamic regime never forgot its holy battle against it’s internal enemies. All forms of criticism were now considered Iraqi-inspired and dangerous to national security.

Although I understood why she did it, the presentation of dialog bugged me. Since she was not truly quoting, she didn’t place conversations in quotation marks. But this kept throwing me, as I kept trying to figure out where the conversation began and ended.

The most interesting thing to me was how–despite everything–how difficult it was for Ms Nafisi to leave Iran. She railed against the veil and being forced to wear it in public. She hated the restrictions placed upon women, and the fear that an authority figure would take offense at some small thing. I think, even more than the fear of bombing during the war with Iraq or the upheaval during the revolution, it would be those day-to-day things that would be most wearing.

Yet, to leave one’s home? To give up the fight and flee? What a wrenching decision it was for her and her husband. And one that I can only imagine trying to make myself.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Random House

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