Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir about the power of literature

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi is the memoir of Nafisi and her life as a literature professor during the changing times in Iran. She meets with a group of students to read and discuss books which are quickly being banned under the new regime. Through the world’s classics, she must teach against increasing oppression of thought, ideas and overall freedom.  In the twenty years that the book covers, the streets of Tehran become a war zone under the ayatollah as she calls him, “the self-proclaimed philosopher/king” who came to restore a past that he claims was stolen and women became the “figment of someone else’s dream.”

Nafisi describes life in the Islamic Republic as “capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms.” The cycles of changes and crackdown, arbitrary rules which distracted her teaching. She would eventually teaching, in secret, a group of students in order to escape the censor. They wanted to live, think and exist freely as human beings which was being suppressed by the government. She uses world classics as parallels to what is happening around them. For Lolita, she attributes Humbert as a dictator who “was interested only in his own vision of other people” and when they didn’t live up to the vision, he turns “vicious and violent.” Nafisi tells stories of the horrors some of her students suffer at the whim of the guards for, what we would call minor infractions, and received horrible treatment.  “No matter how they may be broken, the victims will not be forced into submission” she writes as it fuels their resolve to resist and live according to who they are, not who the government says they should be.

During the time when the Iranian government heated against the United States. The debate between the regime’s dictates for their lives and the outside world heats up when her class discusses The Great Gatsby. Her class discusses the novel as the government begins to use the evil of American imperialism as reasons for their oppressive rules. American become “the never-never land” a land of both Satan (to the government) and the Promise Land (to the people). She decides to have a trial to discuss the merits of the book. The student representing the prosecution uses the novel as evidence that to “kill the American dream” is to kill the American society. The defense uses the novel as an example of how people destroy themselves. She ultimately ends the trial with “Dreams are perfect ideals, complete in themselves. How can you impose them on a constantly changing, imperfect, incomplete reality? You would become a Humbert, destroying the object of your dream, or a Gatsby, destroying yourself.” Many would still be unable to see The Great Gatsby as a lesson in what not to do rather than how to live.

After she leaves the university in the spring of 1981, for refusing to teach wearing the veil, books because her own sanctuary as her husband fails to see her turmoil about the new restrictions on women. She grows increasing restless and insecure in her home that she wants to leave. She tells her husband that “living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe.” She described it as making your mind bland and pretending to be somewhere else. She would finally leave on June 24, 1997. She ends her memoir with an epilogue which follows her student around the world. Some are still in Iran and some are in other countries. Some she has lost contact with and some she hears from on occasion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I cheered with her as she defended herself, her beloved books and her freedom. I love she writes a story about resilience against tyranny and the liberating power of literature. Nafisi writes that “the best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable.” While many criticism of the book say it’s one sided, I find that to be the whole point. Throughout the book, she illustrates how we cannot be all of one thought, of on belief. We all have different points of view. My description of an event with different from someone who sat next to me and saw the same event. I find that her point is that through literature, we can see lessons for our lives. We can have different opinions about life, books and still live together. While I disagreed with her assessment of Jane Austen, I found her passion for literature and what it can bring to our lives as exhilarating. I recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran. It will open your eyes to new literature, a different way of life, and perhaps appreciation for what you took for granted.