Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Reading Lolita in Tehran / Azar Nafisi
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Monday, 28 November 2005
Reading Lolita in Tehran is the first-person account of the author, Azar Nafisi, then a literature professor in the University of Tehran and today a visiting fellow and lecturer in the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. From the American safe harbour Nafisi can retell her adventures under the reign of the Ayatollahs. Her adventures as a woman, which already puts her in an uncomfortable situation; her adventures as a secular woman, which further complicates matters; and her adventures as a liberal secular woman, which sounds like a suicidal tendency. It is a documentary book, and if some of the protagonist names are pseudonyms, that is done to protect their lives, since they still live behind the Iron Veil.

Following the rise of the Ayatollahs, Nafisi refused to cover her face, and was therefore dismissed from her work in the University of Tehran. She reconciled herself after a while, and began teaching while wearing that symbol of religion’s victory over freedom. Not in the University of Tehran, but in Allameh Tabatabai University, which “had been singled out as the most liberal university in Iran” (p. 9). In that university, which some Iranian government officials likened to Switzerland -- the symbol of Western laxity,

(From the book) Female students were being penalized for running up the stairs when they were late for classes, for laughing in the hallways, for talking to members of the opposite sex.

What can I say, a true sanctuary of liberalism.

Teaching in the university involved a constant clash with students, some of which were afraid to voice their opinions, the others searching every Western work for proofs of degeneration, promiscuity, and wantonness. “The one good thing about this book,” claims one of the students regarding The Great Gatsby, “is that it exposes the immorality and decadence of Americn society [...] what kind of a model are we setting for our innocent and modest sisters [...] by giving them such a book to read?” (p. 127).

Nafisi tried to cope with such claims in a variety of ways, and prove to the muslim students the importance of knowing other ways of life, and the greatness of literature that is not compatible with their religious belief. She decided, for example, to put Gatsby on a trial: let the muslim students present their claims against the book, and other students will attempt to plead for it, and for the importance of studying it. But such original teaching methods could not last for long, and the horror regime of the muslim students was gradually worsening. Not surprisingly, Nafisi did not last for long in her job; she had quit after learning that the heads of the muslim students' union were strong enough to bend management and lead, for example, to the dismissal of a lecturer that they considered promiscuous.

After quitting, Nafisi traded university classes with a small and personal study group. She chose seven of her female students from various years, and gathered them at her home for a daily literature class. These lessons, given in hiding, form the heart of the book; this is where they have read Lolita, enjoyed the works of Henry James (while sipping mother’s coffee), and analyzed the writings of Jane Austen. This is where the girls could remove the veil, walk around in a jeans and t-shirts, while the religious girls remained veiled because they chose to, and not because they had to. There, in the underground, you could understand how horrible was the revolution.

We must remember that the revolution in Iran was not originally a religious one. Left- and right-wingers, religious people and liberals, fought together to bring down the Shah’s monarchy. Only after the revolution succeeded did the Iranian public stop to consider the nature of the new regime. While the muslims had no doubt that the future lies in a religious regime, the liberals believed that Iran will be facing westwards. It was soon clear who’s hand was on top. Yet tragically, with the religious regime came hate of the religion. Many devout muslims realized that they hate the regime, because it was clear that the rulers cared more about ruling than about Islam; just as the “revolutionary guards” were not devout religious people but rather young punks who enjoyed their new-found power to torment women for exposing some hair in public.

The book is divided into four sections: “Lolita”, “Gatsby”, “James”, and “Austen”. Each section deals with the book or writer it is named after, with studying this in Iran (either in the university or underground), and -- between the lines -- in how these works are reflected in Iranian life. The section about Lolita, for example, discusses the situation of women in the land, and men facing the horrible temptation of exposed female skin or a little bit of lipstick; and in the invasive and humiliating checks that any female student -- and lecturer -- had to go through when entering the university gates. The section about Austen discusses, among other things, the marriage dreams of the girls. For some of them, these were also dreams about leaving Iran for lovers who lived across the sea, in Turkey or in the UK.

Sadly, the book itself is far from being a masterpiece. There’s the cruel saying, “Those who can't do, teach,” and while Nafisi might be a very good literature teacher, she’s not a very good writer. Many of the characters have background stories that can fill an entire novel, and yet Nafisi failed to create any interest (for me, at least) in any of the studying girls. It was so bad that I had trouble tracking the various life-stories and connecting a student’s name with whatever was said about her so far.

Americans who read the book will probably enjoy every moment, seeing that the book is woven with praise to the American culture, from the point of view of one who craves it from afar. But when reading it, remember that Reading Lolita in Tehran is not an allegory about a the horrors of an intimidating regime. That’s because an allegory, by definition, deals with fictional characters and situations, whereas this story is real.

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