Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi

‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ is a book by Azar Nafisi who was a professor of literature in Iran and now teaches at John Hopkins University. The book is description of how and what Prof. Nafisi discusses inside and outside her classrooms in a turbulent period in Iran (when it was being transitioned from a democracy to a totalitarian regime). Through the classes and the students, we are shown the atrocities but more than that, the ideologies, the propaganda which was being perpetrated by the regime in the minds of young people ( students or not ). We see how patriotism is used as a tool to engage and call people forward to participate in wars and follow strict adherence to religious code. The struggle between duty towards homeland and the desire to be free in thought and manner is one of the main themes of this book.

However, any review would be incomplete if it does not mention the writing style of the novel. The book is divided in 4 parts and each part belongs to one classical author. For that whole part, it is this author’s ideas which are discussed and focused on as well as compared with others. Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen are the 4 authors with much focus being on Lolita and Gatsby.

The most important theme running throughout the book is that of struggle and uncertainty.

Let’s look at struggle first:

Like Iran, its children are struggling to accept the identities which are being forced on them. They are not comfortable with it. Some dislike it with a vengeance, some accept it but none are comfortable in the surroundings. Women are struggling to accept the compromise of their basic freedoms, Men are struggling to resolve their feelings of affiliation towards their motherland and their personal desires. Everyone is struggling to ignore the disruptions in their lives which come in forms of protests, rallies, bombs, executions and torture. There is a constant struggle to adjust to the new normal in Iran.

The next theme is uncertainty:

Uncertainty is a concept which Prof Nafisi expects her students to appreciate while she is teaching them James or other such writers. She gets annoyed when she finds her students to be ill equipped to handle uncertainty. Then, she realizes that they have forever been conditioned, regularly and strongly, to follow dictum without asking questions and that has been their definition of good. Some of the novels which are discussed in class do not espouse very clear boundaries between black and white. This makes the students confused. This is especially true of more radical students who have placed their complete faith in the hands of the regime. They constantly challenge and are unable to grasp the concept of ‘ambiguity’.

Another prominent recurring theme of this book is morality.

Through some of the radical Islamist students in the class, we see ideas and views about good moral conduct. There are discussions on the morality of characters in the novels. Words like ‘western decadence’ are put forth again and again to support this idea. Again, this also shows a failure to accept gray: West is ‘decadent’. No redemption. In fact, there is a very interesting incident which happens in the book – The Trial of Great Gatsby – whether its characters are moral/immoral and should they be taken as models. Let alone taken as models, should they be studied in class at all.

The strongest undercurrent/sub theme of the book is the importance of ‘Imagination’ or ‘Dreams’.

At many places, Nafisi mentions the need to create their own spaces – a home, to which they can escape or at least retreat to, in the face of demolition and destruction all around. When hopelessness is being peddled on a daily basis, it is important to dream up scenarios where you can fly and buy some hope. To the students in her reading group, this dreamland becomes the West while to some, it becomes a refuge in their homes, exclusion from all public activities. For herself, it is her class and the discussions which become a kind of sanctuary. The books are one place in which all the main protagonists choose to get lost. This point comes up when discussing Gatsby and his dreams. When he achieves his dreams, it gets destroyed. He is killed. So, dreams and imaginations are not really the places you reach but those where you constantly try to reach.

Women and their concerns form the backdrop of the book throughout.

All 7 participants in the reading group are women. The relations among these women and their relationships with men are a constant topic of discussion along with the pressing and more familiar concerns of women rights and freedoms in their personal and public spaces.

Another minor theme is the diminishing of the space between personal and public.

The regime is so total and so pervasive that there is no distinction between public and private. Its the death of individualism and that of extremely personal feelings like love.

This book strongly reminded me of one of the courses I took in college in English. This brought back so many fond memories from there. I am missing the course so much that I have ended up writing an almost assignment like paper about the book. Now, I am wondering what grade would have mam given me on this paper 🙂

Above all, I again realized that the highest purpose of literature is to enable us to question, to empathize and to feel. A novel can make you a better person. I love literature.

I found this book superb because it is a strange and delicious mix of academic and realistic elements. The style in which its written is scholarly and so fresh. Prof. Nafisi is a proficient writer and has written some sentences which made me stand up and say ‘Yes!! Absolutely!! I know!!’. This is a great book.


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