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Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Story of Love, Books and Revolution Hardcover – 25 Apr 2003
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An inspired blend of memoir and literary criticism, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a moving testament to the power of art and its ability to change and improve people's lives. In 1995, after resigning from her job as a professor at a university in Tehran due to its repressive policies, Azar Nafisi invited seven of her best female students to attend a weekly study of great Western literature in her home. Since the books they read were officially banned by the government, the women were forced to meet in secret, often sharing photocopied pages of the illegal novels.
For two years they met to talk, share and "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color". Though most of the women were shy and intimidated at first, they soon became emboldened by the forum and used the meetings as a springboard for debating the social, cultural and political realities of living under strict Islamic rule. They discussed their harassment at the hands of "morality guards," the daily indignities of living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime, the effects of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, love, marriage and life in general, giving readers a rare inside look at revolutionary Iran. The books were always the primary focus, however and they became "essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity", she writes.
Threaded into the memoir are trenchant discussions of the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and other authors who provided the women with examples of those who successfully asserted their autonomy despite great odds. The great works encouraged them to strike out against authoritarianism and repression in their own ways, both large and small: "There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom." In short, the art helped them to survive. --Shawn Carkonen, Amazon.com
A passionate and thought-provoking account of reading English literature in adverse conditions.A book of extraordinary interest. -- Reviewed by Robert Irwin for the Times Literary Supplement, 4th July 2003
A remarkably original account of one woman's experience of the Iranian revolution, generously interspersed with erudite passages of literary criticism. -- Reviewed by Parviz Radji for The Times Higher Education Supplement, 19th September 2003
A story that is vivid, often heroic and sometimes funny in a ghastly way. -- Reviewed by Paul Allen for The Guardian, Saturday 13th September 2003
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She describes the difficulties of being a woman, especially an intelligent woman or intellectual, in this society. These are interwoven with discussions of books and authors. It has to be said that if you don’t know the books in question this will be a slog.
She asserts that the ideas in these books threatened the bigotry of the Islamic regime. Intelligent women who came to her classes – “my girls” - found solace from their oppression. Memorably, she describes how, when they came to her apartment, they discarded the veil and set out to discover and create their true selves.
It sounds like this should be a wonderful read. But it was not – as many others have noted. I will set out some of the problems.
She comes from a privileged background – privately educated in Switzerland, England and America. Her family's position was undermined when the Shah fell from power. She states clearly that Islam is incompatible with women’s rights and scoffs at those who suggest otherwise. For her all the great ideas are western.
Then, as others have noted, she exudes a personal vanity and self-regard that drained me. Throughout she declares that the Islamic Republic denies what every great novel declares – feeling and imagination, empathy and respect for the individual. Unfortunately, she does not apply her own dictum. Some of the judgements she passes on those who are not her favourites [“my girls”] are not just lacking in feeling, but cruel and nasty.
I do not dispute that the author is erudite and learned. But I feel the intellectual life for her is “witty, clever and sophisticated chat”, the novel or poem a comfort blanket to shelter under at best. At worst she seems to use ideas and knowledge as personal weapons, not agents of social change.
Yet it is important to ask how change can come to societies like Iran. How can intellectuals unpick the web of religious repression – but not just for themselves, the select literati like Azar Nafisi, but for everyone – men and women, rich and poor, the less educated and the college graduate, believer and non-believer.
Today, the tradition of great white novelists she so admires – the great western male novel - is under attack as elitist and offensive – in the Ivy League schools of the US. It will need better defenders than Azar Nafisi.
I must admit, it took me a few chapters to get into "Reading Lolita". I thought it was going to be a strict memoir, and when she digressed into these elaborate dissertations on (especially Lolita), I found myself getting bored. Now, I'm not one to ever eschew an intellectual conversation or debate on ANYTHING, but I really wanted to hear about the girls and their lives and Azar Nafisi's life in this horrible theocratic regime. I also wanted to know how they managed to get away with reading such blasphemous stuff. When Azar Nafisi talked of these things, I couldn't put the book down, but when she started on her diatribes and nuanced descriptions of "Lolita", Nabokov, Fitzgerald and Austen, I found my mind wandering, wondering, "What am I going to wear tomorrow?" I suppose if I had picked up a book entitled, "The In-Depth Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita", I wouldn't have felt that way, but as you know, this isn't that book. As the book progressed, I really did have affection for some of the characters, and I truly felt scared for them and hoped that this book didn't have a horrible ending like all the women getting executed in a soccer field or something. Luckily, we didn't have to deal with that, but I wish Azar Nafisi would write a book JUST talking about the lives and feelings and situations of young women in Iran, so that people throughout the world can really figure out what's going on over there. Unfortunately, I believe that would be hard for Nafisi to do. She is definitely an intellectual, and I think her interest lies in absolutely dissecting fiction in a way that no one else is interested in, and I believe she is a bit self-promoting.
Finally, I do believe this book is worth reading. I learned some things about what was going on when the Ayatollah was in power- things I didn't realize- and I did find myself sort of missing "the girls" after I read the last page and closed the book. If I could have, I would have made the rating 3-1/2 stars just for a little added oomph to her rating.
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