Reading Lolita in Tehran
Reading Lolita in Tehran takes you to another place–really–I mean you are “not in Kansas anymore!” Author, Azar Nafisi envelopes you with the textural content of a post-revolution Tehran and with scenes from her teaching experience there. She teaches fiction at University of Allameh Tabatabei, where her feminist interpretations of literary texts are met with opposition by university administrators and the mostly male student activists poised to toe the conservative line.
In response, Nafisi organizes a curious klatch of female students that continue their studies in the privacy of the professor’s home. They name themselves a book club. Although as time unfolds they gather to discuss much more than literature. Their conversations turn intimate and sometimes confessional. You’ll find yourself ushered along with Nafisi’s students into loyal and lasting relationships. Your love of western literary classics will find new vitality in light of the restrictions placed upon them in this era, and you’ll develop deep concern for these club members with which you have become friends.
I found I was on the edge of my seat, advising them, admonishing them, fearing for them, rooting for them, and ultimately wishing they could share my freedoms. They are reading banned books, removing dark glasses meant to hide their painted eyes, uncovering their colored coifs, and baring their souls in closed company—the only company in which many of them can be themselves. Nafisi demonstrates how palpable the danger is that accompanies personal expression. Actions that seem innocuous to western readers are illicit in this ‘90s setting, as one of the women faces detainment, another disappears upon threats from her family, and they all eventually concede to the dismantling of what had been a lifeline to knowledge and exploration.
Suddenly it’s not hard to see why Nafisi uses Lolita in her book title. She has cleverly drawn a parallel between Iran’s overbearing state and Nabokov’s character, Humbert, who molests Lolita under the guise of “loving benevolence.” Lolita is a simile for the innocence of Tehran’s people. They are the state’s object of desire and control, therefore Nafisi proffers that the actions of the state echo Nabokov’s theme of driving away the love it seeks.
I highly recommend this book for its clear snapshot of life and learning experienced by progressive Iranian women before the millennium. Freedoms and education have since developed on a forward trajectory in Iran, and Nafisi’s book lends recent historical context to this development. You can also enjoy the audio version of Reading Lolita in Tehran performed by Lisette Lecat. Azar Nafisi’s writings are prolific and beautifully displayed on her website, so take the time to visit.