Reading Lolita in Tehran
“I am not good with dates and figures,” says Azar Nafisi, “but I remember feelings and images.” I’m grateful for her visual memory, because though dates and figures have their place in history and storytelling, it’s the feelings and images captured in Nafisi’s memoir that give flesh to eight serious, seeking women in revolutionary Iran. Like The Kite Runner did for my knowledge of pre-Taliban Afghanistan, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books introduced me to life in Iran before and during Khomeini’s dictatorship. In this sense, Nafisi’s articulate voice enables me to read her memoir the way she teaches her literature students to read a novel: by inhaling the experience. “A novel is not an allegory,” she tells them. “It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel.” Breathing in Nafisi’s feelings and images, I am borne along as she poetically recounts how exploring a stack of remarkable novels sustained her and her friends during a time when missile attacks, domestic violence, and religious persecution by their own leaders dominated their lives.
Nafisi, whose father was removed by the revolution as mayor of Tehran while she was in graduate school in the U.S., was a professor of Western literature at the University of Tehran. After she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil, she decided to start a private class in her home. She hand-picked seven women, all former students, with whom to discuss literary classics that by then had been banned by the regime, including: Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James’ Daisy Miller, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It may not be everyone’s response to political upheaval to start a book club, but this was an unusual book club with a courageous leader. She describes her action this way:
Lolita [the character in Nabokov’s novel] belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her. We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.
As these eight women meet weekly in her living room for two years, they discover that as they articulate the themes of these books and discuss the characters’ motives, they are also shaping their identities and preserving their individuality.
W. H. Auden once remarked that “our judgment of an established author is never simply an aesthetic judgment. In addition to any literary merit it may have, a new book by him has a historic interest for us as the act of a person in whom we have long been interested. He is not only a poet or novelist; he is also a character in our biography.” Nafisi’s memoir demonstrates this poignantly; the great Western novelists her heroines discuss in secret are influential characters in their personal dramas of political oppression and existential confusion. Nabokov, for example, helps them identify the “falsely attractive” (what he calls “poshlust”) and shows them that the danger of totalitarianism is losing the ability to differentiate between your savior and your executioner. From Fitzgerald they learn about the perishability of dreams when those dreams are transformed into reality by means of violence. From James they learn that when one has nowhere else to call home, one’s true country is that of the imagination. And a theme of Austen that they most relate to is that the worst cruelties may be those that occur not under extraordinary circumstances but ordinary ones, the everyday indignities our culture forces us to accept as privileges. These literary themes become survival lessons for women whose government has subjected them to job termination, strip searches, jail, and torture, in the name of religious purity.
Nafisi’s story is one of identity, of overcoming the ultimate indignity of irrelevance:
I had not realized how far the routines of one’s life create the illusion of stability. Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.
Erased, perhaps, the way the regime tried to erase the great books and films by closing the theatres and executing the booksellers and publishers. But the Iranian people—who were “not with the regime in our hearts” but had few outward forms of resistance–were buying books on the black market, watching the BBC via hidden satellite dishes, and drinking bootleg vodka behind closed drapes. And Nafisi, in fighting against the attempt to make her irrelevant as a contributing member of society, is forced to plumb the depths of her potential and becomes a stronger leader. Over a forbidden ham and cheese sandwich, she and a colleague decide to “thank the Islamic Republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted.”
In fiction the most unforgivable crime is blindness, Professor Nafisi tells her college students; victory is found not necessarily in happiness, but in empathizing, in seeing into another’s world with care. Thus the real heroes and heroines of great fiction are not always happier in the end, but they are the better for the striving. Like the stories of her favorite characters, Nafisi’s is not a happy memoir, but though it records a dismal period, it is hopeful, and her losses are remembered with affection and discernment. For Westerners, her story opens a window on the experiences of women living under the thumb of Islamic extremism. Mostly, it a book about a woman who loves books and who believes in the power of literature to communicate clarity and hope to those who, for whatever reasons, have lost them.