The courage to read
Far from the prying eyes of the Iranian thought police, a professor of literature and seven female students declared the freedom of the individual
"Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books" by Azar Nafisi, Random House, 384 pages
Imagine a book that is an autobiography, memoir, literary criticism and novel all rolled into one. "Reading Lolita in Teheran" is an intriguing blend of all these various genres, usually found on separate bookshelves. The book describes the arena in which a fascinating struggle is waged between government rule and the individual, between rigid totalitarian dictatorship and literature; between the extreme anti-Western Islamism of the Iranian Ayatollah type and American literature; between draconian laws against women and an independent woman, a professor of English literature fighting an uncompromising battle for her right to think, feel, imagine, dream and teach as she sees fit, with literature - specifically fiction - as her only weapon.
Azar Nafisi was born into a respected Tehran family when the Shah still reigned in Iran. Her father was the mayor of Tehran and her mother among the first six women elected to the Iranian parliament. Educated in London and Switzerland from the age of 13, she went on to study English literature at the University of Oklahoma. She then married an Iranian student and became active in left-wing Iranian circles that opposed the regime of the Shah along with the Americans that supported him. She divorced, and a short time after the Iranian revolution returned to Tehran with her second husband after having lived in the West for 17 years.
This is where the book actually begins, from the midpoint, from which it moves forward and backward in time. Nafisi began teaching at the University of Tehran and personally experienced the drastic changes that occurred in Iran during the transition from the Shah's regime to the fundamentalist Iranian republic. Along with the other female instructors, she refused to veil herself in black robes and fought with all her might to preserve her individual and intellectual independence along with her right to think, teach and dress as she pleased.
Nafisi chose Nabokov's "Lolita" as the battleground between herself and the extremist regime in Iran. In the university in which she taught, "Lolita," like all other American books, was read as an example of Western decadence that seeks to destroy the Iranian regime, of corrupt Western morals and female manipulation, whose goal it is to tempt men and lead them to the gates of hell.
Nafisi also read "Lolita" in political terms, but as a struggle between tyranny and individual freedom. The essence of the book, she writes, is not the rape of a 12-year-old girl by a middle-aged man, but rather the "confiscation of one individual's life by another." Humbert completely takes over Lolita's life and treats her as if she were his own property. In "Lolita," Nabokov is attacking against totalitarian regimes that seek to reshape individuals, force their ideology upon them and appropriate every corner of their lives.
Nafisi tells of a professor who vehemently criticized the book, explaining that Lolita had "seduced an intellectual poet," destroying his life. However, when that same professor was looking for a second wife, he insisted that her age not exceed 23 years - so that she would be at least 20 years younger than him. However, says Nafisi, an expert on the writings of Nabokov who has written a book on his novels, "Lolita" is first and foremost an optimistic book that defends life's small pleasures, those that were stolen from Lolita, just as they are stolen from other people's lives, and in particular the lives of Iranian women.
Purges and punishments
The pressure that the regime of the Ayatollahs exerted on the university's faculty and student body was unbearable. Groups of students appointed themselves the guardians of religion and morality. They patrolled the corridors, supervised lectures and dictated what students and teachers could and could not do and say. They punished female students who dared to run up the stairs when late for class, laugh or exchange a few words with a male student. During classes, they separated male and female students and punished professors who did not obey their strict rules.
The teaching faculty occupied itself with such issues as how to purge the word "wine" from a story by Hemingway and whether Emily Bronte should be removed from the reading list because she "encourages adultery."
The male students and staff entered the university through the main gate, whereas the women had to enter through the "green gate," a narrow opening that led to a dark room where they were carefully inspected to see if a stray hair had escaped their head covering, that they were properly dressed, that their faces or nails bore no sign of cosmetics, that their rings were "modest," that no lipstick or any other suspicious object was hidden anywhere in their bags, that their veil was thick enough and their shoes the right shape. At the same time, the guards - male or female - searched and "massaged" their bodies.
Finally, in the autumn of 1995, Nafisi gave up; she quit her academic position and decided to make a dream come true. She chose seven of her best and most loyal female students (it was illegal and dangerous for men and women to study in the same group) and invited them to her home each Thursday morning to discuss literature. When they arrived, it was difficult to tell them apart, covered as they all were from head to toe in black, as required by law. But as soon as they entered, they shed their mandatory veils and robes and revealed themselves as young modern women wearing jeans and T-shirts, full of color and youthful vivacity.
The excitement of both the teacher and her students was palpable. For the first time they could discuss literature without the unbearable tension of having to worry about what was permitted and what was not, without the torturous ceremonies that dictated what they could wear, think and say. Through literary discourse and the confrontation of literary characters, the young women contended with their own personalities, humanity and womanhood.
When they discussed Jane Austen, Yasi, one of the students, "translated" the well known opening sentence of "Pride and Prejudice" into "Iranian:" "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year old virgin wife." When one of the students gives birth to a girl, she secretly calls her Daisy, after the rebellious Daisy Miller of Henry James' novella, in the hope that the name will give her child the courage to be true to herself like the literary hero. Like Lolita and like Cincinnatus of Nabokov's "Invitation to a Beheading," they too try to flee from their jailers and create a private place of asylum for themselves, a pocket of freedom within an ocean of proscriptions.
Great fairy tales
The description of the encounters in Nafisi's home, the literary and personal discussions that the young women conduct among themselves and with Nafisi against the background of the brutal reality outside, the story of how each of them deals with the juggernaut of family and tradition - all make for a fascinating read, one that reads more like a novel than nonfiction.
Some of the stories about the cruel treatment received by women from the theocratic government are chilling, such as the story of the female high school students arrested for long periods, repeatedly raped by their guards (because after all, virgins will end up in heaven) and finally executed. In this situation, writes Nafisi, "Art and literature became essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity."
She borrows from Nabokov's own words in order to explain the unique power of the novel: "All great novels are also great fairy-tales." And all fairy tales offer the possibility of overcoming the limitations of the here and now, giving us the freedom that reality denies us. All fairy tales have monsters and dragons, cruel stepmothers who poison their daughters and fathers who abandon their children. But at the same time, the magic of the fairy tale, like any good story, stems from the power of good, teaching us that we must not give in to evil, to the restrictions and prohibitions forced upon us.
"In all great works of fiction regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life," writes Nafisi, "Every great work of art is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life," of not giving in to the limitations and restrictions imposed on us by McFate, as Nabokov called it. When all our options are taken from us, she writes, the novel opens a window to boundless freedom.
How ironic it is when we compare all this to our own lives in a free and progressive society, in which we enjoy a freedom we take for granted to read whatever we want. Not only are art and literature not perceived as vital and necessary for our existence, but the value of literature and poetry is constantly devalued, with some critics even foreseeing the death of the novel and even the book.
In 1997, after 17 years in Tehran, Nafisi moved back the United States with her family. She now teaches in the prestigious Johns Hopkins University but has not laid down her weapons, the weapons of words and literature. Using the detailed documentation that she kept of the years she lived in Tehran as a professor of English literature and her constant battle to think and live independently, she is continuing her battle across the ocean, and successfully too. Her book became a bestseller. Her trenchant protest against physical and spiritual tyranny, against a regime that takes over the lives of individuals, manages to cross seas and continents with her message: There is no regime, as despotic and oppressive as it may be, that can destroy human imagination and the human creative spirit. With piercing words and contagious passion, Nafisi proves the vitality and never-ending power of the novel to nourish and strengthen the human spirit, to develop the imagination and the independent thought of the individual.
My only reservation is that like the Iranian fundamentalists she so abhors, Nafisi too interprets novels in political terms, although she of course reaches different conclusions. It would appear that both sides agree that the novels mentioned in the book represent an incisive criticism of the regime: Whereas the Islamists see in them dangerous decadence and moral corruption, she views them as emboldening the strength of the individual and his or her freedom.
However, the books that we read with such avid enjoyment (as I did "Reading Lolita in Tehran") have an intrinsic value of their own. They are also an aesthetic of the art of writing: of the language, style, manners of writing, choice of words and images - everything that turns a text into literature and art.
Rebecca Rass is a writer