Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The best introduction to modern Iran, its tragedy and its beauty that you’re likely to find anywhere.

Reading Lolita in Tehran takes us on a journey through the recent history of Iran through the personal, relating her own experiences of the Islamic Revolution and those of her friends. By turns, lyrical and personal, Azar Nafisi offers us a portrait of her country set against the backdrop of her own love for literature, abstracting classical themes and employing them to understand what has become of Iran under the sway of the Ayatollahs.

Azar Nafisi begins reading Lolita in Tehran with a description of the secret reading group she organized of 7 female students whose love for literature emboldened them to study forbidden texts.

Whilst the Morality Squads (the secret police looking for un Islamic behaviour) patrol the streets outside, Azar Nafisi and her students probe the deeper meaning of works by Austen, Fitzgerald and, in particular, Nabakov. To those not familiar with Lolita, it’s the tale of pedophile by the name of Humbert who marries in order to possess his wife’s daughter. He arranges for his wife’s death and then spends two years on the road with the 12 year old Lolita, living in dingy motels and compelling her to satisfy his sexual fantasies.

Nabakov gives the narrative to Humbert, through whose voice the story unfolds and we never hear Lolita’s side at all. Humbert could not care less about her thoughts and dreams, only intent on maintaining his fragile ecstasy for as long as possible. In the same way, Nafisi asserts, the rulers of Iran have projected their vision of the Islamic Republic on the Iranian people, without a thought for whether they want it or not. A new verb is born – to solipsize.

“At some point the truth of Iran’s past became as immaterial to those who appropriated it as the truth of lolita’s is to Humbert. It became immaterial in the same way that Lolita’s truth, her desires and life, must lose colour before Humbert’s one obsession, his desire to turn a twelve year-old unruly child into his mistress.”

Thus Reading Lolita in Tehran begins in a literary, even academic, fashion and the reader has the slight feeling of being back at school. It’s no longer enough to merely enjoy the story, it’s necessary to understand the themes in relation to modern day life.

For Nafisi’s students, the weekly classes are an oasis where they can take off their veils, emerge themselves in another world and remember that they, too, have an existence that no tyranny can define for them. They also learn from Nabakov that the greatest defence against such tyranny is not in resistance but in establishing their own identity and conscience.

Yet they also sense the absurdity of literature being so prohibited. One of the students, a bold girl called Nassrin, explains her absence each Thursday morning to her father by saying she’s volunteered to translate Khomeini’s writings into English. She discovers that the Ayatollah spent a good deal of time discussing ways for young men to release their sexual energy without sin; chickens are seen as an acceptable receptacle but then the dilemma comes in – can he then eat the chicken? The dilemma is solved by deciding that neighbours who live at least two doors away may eat the meat.

“‘My father would rather I spent my time on such texts rather than Austen or Nabakov?’ She added, rather mischievously.

Until this point it seems that Azar Nafisi will confine the horrors of religious Iran to the raids by the morality police on the schools and young women found traveling, to cut their nails short and submit them to virginity exams. But then she steps back twenty years to her days to studying in Iran, her enthusiasm for revolution in Iran, and how that revolution as betrayed.

Iran’s history is a sad one, full of exploitation and manipulation of foreign powers. In the 70’s full of the heady socialist spirit of Mao and Fidel, left-wing Iranian students mixed uneasily with the political Muslim agencies in deposing the American puppet, the Shah. Nafisi details how the power quickly fell into the hands of the Ayatollahs and how the battle for control of hearts and minds was carried into every sphere, even into literature.

Teaching at Tehran University, Azar Nafisi found herself obliged to defend texts such as The Great Gatsby against charges that it promotes adultery and promiscuity. Hard line religious students in her class lay these charges with all their black and white agendas, backed by such influence that no one in the class dares to contradict. Whilst intellectuals and people deemed to be too Western are being dragged away,imprisoned, tortured and executed, Nafisi decides to put The Great Gatsby on trial – rather like the show trials that political prisoners are being subjected to.

As books become scarce, the religious pressure at the university makes it impossible for Nafisi to teach, she withdraws into a private world and gives us the war years of the 80’s in ever more violent ripples. We learn of the female prisoners raped before execution, for fear that virgins might make it to heaven despite their sins. She tells us of all her old friends and students who are murdered or ‘disappeared’ as the years roll on. She describes the fear of the missile attacks from Iraq and the teenage kids that Khomeini convinces to walk across mine fields to martyrdom.

Then Reading Lolita in Tehran comes back to her reading group and it becomes clear why it was so necessary. As her students grow in trust and confidence, gradually their own tragic stories come out and their frustration at being imprisoned behind the chador, unable to feel the wind or the sun. They tell of the their fears of never learning who they really are, of allowing the tyranny of the Islamic regime to define their morality and sexual values.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a every personal tale and that makes it all the more empowering as a vehicle to understand modern Iran. The pages are filled with Nafisi’s doubts, longings and attempts to understand what is they are passing through and how best to deal with it. The hearts and minds of her fellow Iranians pouring out in each chapter, we finally see the human reality behind the slogans, the religious decrees and the marching armies.

A teacher to the last, Nafisi includes a reader’s guide at the end with questions for discussion and a list of books for recommended reading.

[If you’re interested in Iran you’d probably also enjoy Persepolis}