Fiction was not a panacea,” Azar Nafisi writes late in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.” In her book, which defies categorization as it variously assumes the guises of memoir, historical and political analysis, and literary criticism, Nafisi utilizes this capacity of fiction to illuminate reality to its fullest.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is an account of the eighteen years that Nafisi spent in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Educated in Switzerland and the United States, Nafisi returned to Iran in 1979, as the Muslim cleric-led revolution against the shah was winding to a close and the shape of the new Iran was still unclear. Nafisi accepted a post teaching modern fiction at the University of Tehran, a position which allowed her a first-hand glimpse into the turgid political world at the time, a time in which various factions—fundamentalist Muslims, Marxists, constitutionalists—were struggling against one another to determine the future of Iran. There, as in the United States, the universities were the sites of massive protests and student demonstrations, and in Nafisi’s classes, discussions of fictional works inevitably became bound up with political debates. Nafisi was soon expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil. Several years later, however, she returned to teaching at a different university. Through her engaging and—to the young Muslim revolutionaries at the time, anyway—often explosive lectures, she gained a following, especially among young Iranian women. In the final two years of Nafisi’s stay in Iran, before she returned to the United States to teach, Nafisi invited seven of these women weekly into her home to discuss great works of western literature. These discussions, as well as the personal relationships which developed from the weekly sessions, form the focal point of the work. After introducing the members of her reading circle, Nafisi takes the reader back in time to the early days of the revolution and then moves forward in roughly chronological order, detailing the conversion of Iran into an increasingly stringent, anti-western, anti-intellectual, and, perhaps most importantly for her and her female students, anti-woman nation of hypocrisy and fear. Even as she relates events which occurred before the establishment of the reading circle, however, Nafisi often returns to the circle and the discussions which it provoked; the seven women and the literary works which represented their major defiance of the regime are never far from her mind.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is adequately, if not beautifully, written; Nafisi’s style certainly never approaches the heights scaled by her favorite authors, including Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen. At times her writing is merely pretentious and awkward, apparently bloated by the conviction that the same scholarly style used to analyze a work of literature must be applied to the events and relationships described in the book. What Nafisi doesn’t seem to realize is that what she describes, whether a passage from Daisy Miller or the harassment of one of her students, can stand alone. What makes Reading Lolita in Tehran such an absorbing, powerful, and, yes, important book is not Nafisi’s style; in fact, her style is almost irrelevant. The stories she tells are enough, and she is best when describing particular incidents rather than attempting to draw grand and often vague conclusions and metaphors. Nafisi’s accounts of protests and demonstrations, of bombings and the murders of intellectuals, help to place the reader into the context of Iranian history; thankfully, however, Nafisi has chosen not to focus on these events. Instead, the primary concern of the book is the little ways in which the ideology of the Islamic Republic has insinuated itself into the lives of ordinary Iranians, the way in which it has forced men and women to compromise themselves and their beliefs at the same time that it has driven them to be more creative than ever in finding outlets for their dreams and passions. The external political chaos of the time is ultimately less interesting and, indeed, enlightening, than the more personal histories and concerns of Nafisi and the members of her reading circle. As Nafisi notes in one simultaneously amusing and horrifying anecdote, many Iranians are just as worried about their illegal satellite dishes being confiscated as they are about witnessing shootings in their backyards.
One of the most admirable aspects of the work is the way in which it encompasses a variety of perspectives and experiences. Nafisi, after years of western education, is incorrigibly westernized in her thinking and passionately opposed to the Islamic Republic. This trait would weaken the book, making it merely a protest novel of little educational or literary value to westerners, if it were not for the fact that several of the women in her reading circle, as well as several of the male students in her regular classes, are the antithesis, insisting with equal fervor on the importance and necessity of Islamic ideology and regulations. Nafisi is adept at showing the sharp ideological and political divisions between Iranians, obliterating the stereotype of a uniformly anti-American, radical Muslim nation. The characters in her book, regardless of their political stance, are human, with all the anxieties, insecurities, and paradoxes that being human entails. Many are like Sanaz, one of the women in the reading circle who “vacillated between her desire for independence and her need for approval,” an experience certainly not unknown to women from non-Islamic backgrounds.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is an effective blend of the personal and the political. What begins as an intensely personal pursuit—that of reading novels by western authors—for Nafisi and her students takes on political dimensions. As Nafisi notes early in the work, “It is of Lolita that I want to write, but right now there is no way I can write about that novel without also writing about Tehran. This, then, is the story of Lolita in Tehran, how Lolita gave a different color to Tehran and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov’s novel, turning it into this Lolita, our Lolita.”
The responses of Nafisi’s students to the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen provide a remarkable insight into the thoughts of young Iranians who grew up with the specter of Khomeini and his reforms. In one particularly telling passage, Nafisi observes, “My students were slightly baffled by Gatsby. The story of an idealistic guy, so much in love with this beautiful rich girl who betrays him, could not be satisfying to those for whom sacrifice was defined by words such as masses, revolution and Islam. Passion and betrayal were for them political emotions, and love far removed from the stirrings of Jay Gatsby for Mrs. Tom Buchanan.” To a reader who takes the idea of romantic love for granted, who accepted Gatsby’s unrequited love without question, such a response is chilling, intellectually exciting, and stimulating in its strangeness.
Chilling, exciting, stimulating: Reading Lolita in Tehran is all of these, and thus has the power to enlighten and inspire readers on a political, historical, literary, and even personal level. “Don’t go chasing after the grand theme, the idea . . . as if it is separate from the story itself,” Nafisi tells her students. “The idea or ideas behind the novel must come to you through the experience of the novel and not as something tacked on to it.” Those looking for a grand vision of Iran had best look elsewhere; but those open to a more nuanced experience of a life of curiosity and protest against a background of world-shaking conflict and change will be richly rewarded by Nafisi’s “memoir in books.”