'Bad' books hidden under the veil of revolution
Iranian women resist oppression by reading forbidden novels
Azar Nafisi's memoir makes a good case for reading the classics of Western literature no matter where you are. Rich with the author's memories of teaching English during the Islamic revolution that shook her country, "Reading Lolita in Tehran" provides a stirring testament to the power of Western literature to cultivate democratic change and open-mindedness.
Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, was educated in the United States and Europe. During her years in America, she marched with other Iranian students to protest the shah's regime. Like her fellow dissidents, she read Marxist and other left-wing theorists, but she never gave up the habit of "reading and loving 'counterrevolutionary' writers - T.S. Eliot, Austen, Plath, Nabokov, Fitzgerald."
After returning to Tehran in 1979, the year the shah was forced into exile, Nafisi taught her beloved Western writers amid the turbulent changes that so radically altered her country over the next few years: the increasing ideological dogmatism of cultural revolutionaries; the imposition of strict clothing rules; the reign of new morality police; the rise of terror, mass arrests, and executions; and the devastation caused by eight years of war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
After years of fighting her own battles against university administrators (she was expelled from one university for refusing to wear the veil and subsequently resigned from another), Nafisi selected seven of her best students, all of them women, and put together a private class. For nearly two years, this small group talked about forbidden works of literature and their own lives as women in an Islamic republic. Every week, when they came into Nafisi's living room, they "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color," sharing with each other their private beliefs and their struggles with anger, anxiety, loss, confusion, fear, and self-loathing.
Incredibly, "Lolita," the controversial novel that has so often been branded as illicit and dirty, resonated more than any other work of fiction with this group of women.
They understood that the "desperate truth of Lolita's story is ... the confiscation of one individual's life by another." Like Nabokov's character, they too had "become the figment of someone else's dreams," the dreams of an ayatollah who wanted to "re-create" all women in the image of an illusory past.
Talking about the callous villain in "Lolita" - or characters in other novels, such as the convention-defying heroines in Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and James's "Washington Square" - enabled Nafisi's female students to challenge those in power. As they felt themselves slowly suffocating under the totalitarian regime, simply allowing their imaginations to roam freely became an act of political insubordination.
Nafisi devotes the sections of her book to different writers, reflecting the way that her own life has been so intertwined with literature. In each section, she laces her interpretations of literary works with astute cultural observations and her own memories.
Drawing from vivid anecdotes (including an unforgettable scene when her university students put "The Great Gatsby" on trial), she reveals how literature can offer readers a valuable way of understanding the world. Equally fascinating are her thoughtful and perceptive observations about Iranian readers, who must not only grasp the world they live in but also "that other world," the US, which many of them simultaneously hate and desire.
Nafisi's unique perspective on her students' plight, the ongoing struggle of Iranian citizens, and her country's violent transformation into an Islamic state will provide valuable insights to anyone interested in current international events.
Her memoir will also resonate with anyone who loves books, or who wants (or needs) to be reminded why books matter. This passionate defense of literature lucidly demonstrates how its power resides in the personal space between each reader and the writing on the page.
No one - not governments, or their militaries, or religious leaders - can put an end to this conversation.
• Heather Hewett is a freelance writer in New York. For information about Dr. Nafisi's Dialogue Project at Johns Hopkins University, go to www.sais-jhu.edu/centers/fpi/SAIS_Dialogue.htm