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Reading Lolita in Tehran
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B+ : fine memoir of life for women in Iran, and of the lure of literature
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Reading Lolita in Tehran is presented as a memoir.
Nafisi taught literature at a number of Iranian universities in the 1980s and 1990s, but eventually was forced out and/or left these positions.
She begins her account in 1995, less than two years before she left Iran, when she gets together seven of her "best and most committed students" and begins to hold class again (having left the last of her academic positions) -- now in the privacy and relative safety of her house.
This book group, and the books discussed, are the focal points of the memoir, but her account is more comprehensive, as eventually she recounts much of her life (and some of that of her students) in the Islamic Republic of Iran -- as well as a bit from pre-revolutionary times.
The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds -- surely I could see ? I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual.Nafisi is unable (and/or unwilling) to see as novels as (convincingly) pragmatic, literature as engaged. She mentions a few "revolutionary" novels -- And Quiet Flows the Don, and Gorky's The Mother -- and seems hard-pressed to keep the contempt out of her voice. She actually did concern herself with such literature, writing her dissertation about Mike Gold (editor of the New Masses and an influential writer in the US in the 1920s and 30s) -- but in her descriptions ridicules his writing:
What Gold had only dreamed of had been realized in this faraway country, now with an alien name, the Islamic Republic of Iran. "The old ideals must die ..." he wrote. "Let us fling all we are into the cauldron of the Revolution. For out of our death shall arise glory." Such sentences could have come out of any newspaper in Iran.Clearly, such writing deserves contempt and ridicule. Nevertheless, such examples (and other Zhdanovite glories) prove only that this is not the way to write literature that is, in the broadest sense, political -- and not that such writing can't exist, per se. (To offer only one example: Peter Weiss' masterpiece, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance).) But Nafisi's preference seems to be for passivity: enjoyment over engagement, literature allowing a getting-away from reality. Indeed, tellingly, most of the books discussed here at any length could fit right on any American small-town book club list (though admittedly they don't have the arc of a particular triumph over adversity favoured by Oprah), and, though there are subversive elements to many of the books (Nabokov's risqué Lolita especially), the politics of at least three of the four central authors are, by contemporary standards, extremely conservative.
Nafisi writes a considerable amount about living in Iran (though she glides over some things too easily -- including the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a matter of some literary interest). She focusses on the post-1979 Iranian government and the outrages committed under it. Most specifically, she rails against the mandated veil-wearing (all women have be practically entirely covered when in public, except for their faces) and all the limitations that go with that. She does also mention some of the brutal repression and elimination of opposition and other undesirable voices that was and is common in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the lengthy (and arbitrary) jail sentences and executions (complete with pre-execution deflowering of virgins, to make sure that they won't be received in heaven).
The regime she portrays seems more along the lines of the Soviet-totalitarian model than religious-idealistic, the laws tailored and applied to fit masters who have very odd notions of morality and justice -- considering it, for example, fine to lower the marriageable age of girls to nine, but punishing any adult woman whose neck might be visible in public, and willing both to send its sons to essentially senseless slaughter (in the Iran-Iraq war) and to ruthlessly murder those opposed to it. Nafisi doesn't describe much of the previous regime (and doesn't even mention that there was one before that), but even the few examples she does offer suggest that it isn't the ideology that's at fault (though religion and all-knowing god (always on the right side) are always a cozy, effective, and often popularly accepted shield to hide behind). Her father was mayor of Tehran, and was jailed (for no good reason) for four years by the Shah's regime, during which period her family was told "alternately that he was going to be killed or that he would be set free almost at once" -- tactics and an approach that sound identical to those of the Islamic Republic-regime. And this approach -- where brutality is the currency of choice, and democratic process and rational debate of little interest -- apparently transcends Iranian borders: in one of the most disturbing episodes in the book, Nafisi describes how when she lived in Oklahoma a student was suspected of being a SAVAK agent and lured by other Iranian students to a hotel, where they tortured him in their attempts to expose him. (The FBI was called in, but the victim didn't give his torturers up, out of some sort of perverted nationalist loyalty.)
The absence of much historical context is problematic. Nafisi does walk readers through the Iranian revolution (and mentions some enthusiasm in joining in the overthrow of the corrupt regime), but there isn't much sense of what was being overturned: despite the fact that the her father was jailed by the Shah, she has little else to say about that regime's doings -- and offers practically no criticism. Her justified hatred against the small-minded clerics who have done so much damage almost seems to blind her to what the popular uprising was a reaction against. (At least in her descriptions -- of the classes she taught and students she had -- Nafisi does convey well the Iranian student-politics of that time, with (perhaps surprising for American readers) a very strong Marxist element right alongside the Islamic groups jostling for power, at least in the early days.)
There are also personal issues that aren't adequately dealt with, in particular her early marriage, dismissed fairly easily and quickly:
Later, I was insecure enough to marry on the spur of a moment, before my eighteenth birthday. I married a man whose most important credential was that he wasn't like us -- he offered a way of life which, in contrast to ours, seemed pragmatic and uncomplicated; and he was so sure of himself. He didn't value books (.....) The day I said yes, I knew I was going to divorce him.Male-female relationships are complicated throughout the book (dating isn't very easy in the Islamic Republic), but Nafisi prefers to wonder about her students' relationships rather than trying to explain this first, failed marriage -- despite the fact that her motives (and her urgency) in getting married so hastily (and despite her better judgement, from the sounds of it) seem clear manifestations of fundamental issues faced by all women Iran, before and after the revolution. Nafisi so easily condemns the later Islamic regime's ridiculous limitations on what women can do, and yet she herself specifically sought out and embraced such a terribly limiting option. Surely her rush to tie herself for life to a man "whose most important credential was that he wasn't like us" is much like the general rush to accept the change brought about by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his lackeys, simply because he promised something different than the brutal, corrupt, and in some ways very decadent regime of the Shah (and presumably many Iranians also knew as soon as they hailed -- or accepted -- the rise of Khomeini that they were going to divorce him, i.e. look for something new too.)
Ultra-privileged Nafisi -- the one thing she was grateful for when her father was arrested was that it meant she didn't have to stay at her Swiss boarding school any longer -- never herself seems in much danger. She fights the good (and losing) fight at the various universities she teaches at, but even in challenging the authorities never puts herself in a position where she appears to be truly in danger -- unlike some of her students, who are jailed and even summarily executed. It is unclear from her account exactly how untouchable she was, but with her father mayor of Tehran (and jailed by the Shah), and her mention of a long Nafisi tradition, it seems she was in rather a different position than most Iranians, and even her students. The veil, of course, and all the limitations that came with it were a great (or, rather: horrible) equaliser -- and so it is also that that she focusses on.
Of particular interest -- and not adequately explored -- is also the bizarre and shifting cultural policy in Iran, as well as other aspects of repression by the regime Women had to go veiled in public, but it was still possible to teach Lolita or The Great Gatsby; indeed, Nafisi even published a book on Nabokov in Iran in 1994. Compared to several other Islamic countries (notably Saudi Arabia) -- or even the Soviet Union -- there seems considerably greater tolerance in many cultural matters (though a description of a concert Nafisi and her family go to (where monitors make sure the crowd doesn't sway to the music or anything like that !) shows some strict limitations here too). Also: leaving the country -- and, in many cases, returning -- are a relatively simple matter (at least for the privileged classes) -- and among the more interesting discussions are the arguments for staying and going various students, friends, and family members make.
The selection of books discussed is somewhat disappointing -- books of exile, or Lysistrata-like uprisings, more obviously addressing issues closer to home, would have seemed more apt for this particular group of readers. Too often, the books are seen only as escapes, food for the imagination, a respite from real life -- and, eventually, merely an excuse for a Kaffeeklatsch (which then allows her to dwell more on the admittedly interesting personal lives of her students). For Nafisi literature has a specific place and role, and she doesn't care to consider greater possibilities for it.
Also noteworthy is the absence of discussion of almost any Persian/Iranian literature. Possibly this is because Nafisi was writing with an American audience in mind, and names like Sadeq Hedayat, Houshang Golshiri, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, and Simin Daneshvar (all authors whose work has been translated into English) mean nothing to such readers. Nevertheless, the omission is a glaring one. Even whenever she discusses what she reads, listing titles and authors, there are no Persian writers among them. It is only when she is no longer teaching and has had two children in quick succession, in a chapter that begins: "For a long time, I wallowed in the afterglow of my irrelevance", that she: "joined a small group who came together to read and study classical Persian literature." There's barely a page about this -- and it's all about poets who have been dead for centuries.
Elsewhere the mentions are derogatory asides ("the so-called realistic fiction coming out of Iran", with no further elaboration) or say nothing about the literary works ("dissident writer Saidi Sirjani, who had the illusion of presidential support, was jailed, tortured and finally murdered"). Only in the epilogue, when she is in America and she is teaching once again is there mention of a single Iranian novel, Iraj Pezeshkzad's My Uncle Napoleon ("one of my favorite Iranian novels" she writes -- but it's the only one she names in the entire book !).
Nafisi taught foreign literature; nevertheless, it's astonishing how completely any and all Iranian fiction is ignored in the book. Even if only as an obvious point of comparison for the students one would have expected some such novels to crop up in the discussions.
Her refusal to do so (or to admit doing so in this book) also seems to again demonstrate her unwillingness to consider that literature might be relevant in other ways than she allows for. In her final chapter she quotes two paragraphs she wrote shortly before leaving Iran: she dreams of:
the right to free access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions.It is a worthy ambition -- and yet Nafisi does not focus on the familiar problem that states in which there is totalitarian repression are often those where the need and hunger for imagination is greatest -- and that once freedom has been attained, imagination is often relegated to distinctly secondary status (a complaint most recently heard in Russia and Eastern Europe in the post-Soviet era). It is also under repressive regimes that much great work is produced -- not the official literature, but that written specifically against or apart from the regime. It is laughable that Nafisi foists -- as revolutionary, no less ! -- Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don and Gorky's The Mother on her students (or is she merely appeasing the Marxists among them ?): these books are of some value, but as far as literature that might be relevant to the Iranian condition of the time they are surely poor choices. But many others (including far more recent -- and less official -- Soviet literature) could probably speak to Iranians -- as could, one suspects, many Iranian authors (though admittedly there probably was some difficulty because many of these books were surely also banned or difficult to get hold of -- not that Nafisi discusses that issue much either).
Nafisi has no difficulty in dismissing the concerns of her religious students (who believe some of the books are simply immoral), as well those of her politically active students ("At any rate, my radical students' main objection to the novel was that it distracted them from their duties as revolutionaries") -- and she doesn't wonder what "free access to imagination" might mean for them (or whether they can even conceive of such a thing, or how their eyes could be opened to the possibility). She is unable to speak to their concerns -- yet surely they are in most need of discovering the possibilities of fiction, the flights of the imagination it might allow for. But Nafisi prefers to focus on students who are satisfied with reading-as-escapism -- students who, as women in Iran, have little opportunity to effect change in any case.
Nafisi's disdain for political matters might be rooted in her family background: her father was mayor of Tehran, her mother "one of the first six women elected to Parliament in 1963". Nafisi describes her own involvement in some student protests and the like, but, for the most part, she doesn't seem to take it very seriously. Using literature as a force for change (beyond the strictly personal sphere) doesn't seem to occur to her. (Tellingly, also, she -- and most of her students from her last class -- eventually leave Iran.)
It's also worth remarking that this is a woman-focussed book. Almost all the men come off fairly badly, and men are to blame for pretty much everything. In dominating the Islamic Republic's power-structure there's clearly some validity to this complaint, nevertheless, Nafisi's perspective in this regard often seems limited.
Some of the criticism may be valid, but it also isn't adequately developed. Nafisi mentions the outrageous fact that girls can be married off at the age of nine under the laws of the Islamic Republic, and she begins the Austen-section of the book:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife." So declared Yassi in that special tone of hers, deadpan and mildly ironic, which on rare occasions, and this was one of them, bordered on the burlesque.The idea is shocking -- but Nafisi doesn't explore the reality of it. She doesn't mention a single nine- or ten- or eleven-, etc. year-old child being married off. She obviously doesn't know any personally, and can't even come up with a newspaper report of one. So what is the reality of this law ? Clearly, it is an obscenity that even the mere possibility exists, but it seems, to say the least, far from the norm even in contemporary Iran. In fact, more of her students sound like (relatively) old maids, and practically no one she knows has been forced into marriage. This is presumably in large part a question of social class, the privileged Nafisi and the university students she assembles around her leading a very different lifestyle than the lower classes. But Nafisi almost never concerns herself with class differences and issues (considering the perspective of her Marxist students barely better than a joke) -- much as her view of life in Iran is relatively limited. (There's nothing wrong with it being limited -- this is what she knows, after all, and she tells what she knows fairly well -- but she might have tried to make it clear to readers that vast numbers of Iranians lead a rather different life.)
There is one final, major question surrounding the book. Nafisi begins it with an author's note:
Aspects of characters and events in this story have been changed mainly to protect individuals (.....) The facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful, but I have made every effort to protect friends and students, baptizing them with new names and disguising them perhaps even from themselves, changing and interchanging facets of their lives so that their secrets are safe.So, while presented as fact (and maintaining it is as-true-as-possible), Nafisi has made changes, shifting around facts and events so that maybe even some of those described wouldn't recognise themselves. Sounds a lot like fiction to us ..... Protecting the innocent is a good excuse for dispensing with the straightforward presentation of facts. But if that is really necessary, then the question surely becomes: why not write a fiction instead ?
The reason, of course, is that Nafisi wants her book to be taken seriously in the way that readers take non-fiction seriously, finding there some sort of authenticity that impresses them. Fiction, after all, is just made-up stuff, and needn't be taken nearly as seriously. It reinforces a message found throughout the book: novels are just fiction -- something limited, something lesser. But this, she wants readers to believe, is real, and therefore more. Except that she has chosen to distort reality, which would seem to seriously undermine her ambition.
Nafisi is clearly aware of this, and toys with the idea -- though only turning back to the issue in the very end. A significant figure in her life (and rare positive male figure) is a man called "the magician", and in the book's last pages, when she says good-bye, she recounts his words:
You can say this sort of crap in the privacy of these four walls -- I am your friend; I shall forgive you -- but don't ever write this in your book. I say, But it's the truth. Lady, he says, we do not need your truths but your fiction -- if you're any good, perhaps you can trickle in some sort of truth, but spare us your real feelings.The suggestion here is that Nafisi (or at least her magician) understands the superiority of fiction over simple factual reports -- and that she has perhaps been wonderfully sly and indeed presented a complete fiction to her readers, in the guise of a memoir, allowing a bit of truth to trickle in but not worrying too much about it. In her epilogue, reflecting on the magician, she even tantalizingly suggests:
I ask myself, Was he ever real ? Did I invent him ? Did he invent me ?(Note also that while the US subtitle is A Memoir in Books, the UK subtitle is: A Story of Love, Books and Revolution.)
The problem she leaves the reader with is: this creative leap is a bit much to take if she means to have written a factual memoir, while if this is all one grand invention, well, she doesn't seem to have utilized the possibilities of fiction anywhere near as well as she might have.
There are a lot of problems with Reading Lolita in Tehran, but there's also a lot of fascinating detail -- and a true love of literature shines through as well. It is a worthwhile account -- though it should be read with a critical eye, aware of what is being left out, what she is blind to, as well as the possibility that facts and characters have been twisted to her ends.
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Azar Nafisi teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
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