March 14, 2011

Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

This is a book that I have heard about for years, but have not had a chance to read until this past week. And once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down.

It is the latest in a series of books about life in The Islamic Republic of Iran under theocratic rule that I have read in recent years (Persepolis and Prisoner of Tehran being the others). The subtitle is "A Memoir in Books" and that is truly what it is.

Azar Nafisi was from Iran originally and grew up under the regime of the westernized Shah, but was sent abroad at age 13 for her education. She returned back to Tehran in 1979 on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, newly married, and ready to teach English Literature at the University of Tehran. She eventually quits her job there after refusing to comply with the law that women must wear headscarves; spends several years (though the Iran-Iraq war) hiding at home; and then accept a job teaching at the more liberal Allameh Tabatabai University (where she teaches, wearing the mandatory headscarf - though as carelessly as she can get away with, with hair showing!). When she eventually leaves this job, she starts up an illicit study group with young women - some of her best students - out of her home, where they freely discuss classics of western literature.

I quite enjoyed the structure of this book. There are four sections with the first and final sections centered around the discussions that she and her "girls" have in their sessions; as well as the friendships that grew out of these sessions. The middle two sections are more of a chronological relating of events that led her from America back to Iran and through the revolution and war with Iraq. Always, the story revolves around books that are being read and discussed; and parallels are drawn between the books and events in real life. Even though I haven't read many of the books that are discussed, enough of the plot of each is outlined for the comparisons to have made sense to me.

Compared with the other books about Iran in this time period, this book hit home a lot more to me. I suspect that this is because the author was a bit older than the authors of Persepolis (who was a child through the Islamic Revolution) or Prisoner of Tehran (who was imprisoned at age 16 early in the revolution), and she had lived abroad before returning to Tehran; therefore she had a better perspective and could give more background to what was happening. But still it is a memoir, and is one person's experiences of historical events.

My roommate from university was born in Tehran in 1976 and told stories of the bombings through the Iran-Iraq war; as well as the liberation that they felt when they could leave Iran on holiday and leave behind all of the imposed Islamic restrictions. My brother-in-law was also born in Tehran in 1980, and his mother (my sister's mother-in-law - another Azar) was a student of Azar Nafisi at Allameh Tabatabai University. I asked our Azar what she thought of Azar Nafisi as a professor in the time period being written about, and this is what she said:

I can't tell you much about her from 20 years ago when I was doing my B.A. It was a dark time from political point of view, most educated people including Dr. Nafisi didn't have political/democratic activities at that time because of the regime.

She was only teaching english literature and linguistics. She was bright and deep but not talking about things other than linguistics as I remember.

My sister read this book and passed her copy on to me. She didn't enjoy it as much as I did, and found the author to come across as condescending. (Laura - if you are reading this, please feel free to expand your opinion in the comments section!)

There was a great question that Azar Nafisi posed to her very first class, on her very first day of teaching at the University of Tehran. "What do you think fiction should accomplish? Why should one bother to read fiction at all?" She gives part of an answer at this point, "... most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their reading to consier in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes." She expands a bit more later in the book when she talks about novels allowing the reader to experience different worlds, and through different points of view. You can expand your world view in this way, but you can also then draw comparisons between yourself and your situation, and others.

So this made me ask myself, why do I read fiction? I read fiction because I love it. Why do I love reading fiction? I am very much an escapist reader. When I am reading (well-written and engaging) fiction, I am in another time and place while I am reading. But that may not always be a good thing, when the fiction takes me away from the here and now. This Lent, we were posed the question, what distracts you from God?, and after much soul-searching, I have decided to fast from fiction this Lent. I am hoping to now have time over the next to read some non-fiction that has been sitting on my TBR stack for a while. Watch for upcoming reviews...


lj said...

I can send you "True Patriot Love" that you can read if you want some more non-fiction ;)

I didn't like the book because I thought Azar N was trying to show how smart she was with her essays on the Novels that were scattered into the book.

I also didn't like how she was thrown into a great depression over having to wear the hijab to work when there were much, much, much more terrible things happening in tehran and iran at the time. She spent so much time in the book talking about something that really didn't matter compared to women being tortured, raped and executed by the regime and little boys being sent to war with Iraq with promises of going to Heaven. I think in that respects, she trivialized the more serious things that were going on at that time. Arash's best friend's uncle was arrested, tortured and murdered in the early 80s for being a communist. Being forced to wear the hijab is NOT that big of a deal.

Kate said...

lj - I'm finding enough NF to read without delving into Iggy's family memoir!!! Have you read it? Is it readable?

That is a very valid point about the hijab. I think that one point though is that it was something that she could rebel against. She couldn't rebel against the rapes and torture and false imprisonments (otherwise she probably would have been raped and tortured herself) but she could rebel against and protest the hijab. But you are right in saying that she didn't touch as deeply on what was going on in the wider context of the Islamic Republic of Iran - it was much more a telling of her personal story.

lj said...

I bought it a while ago, but haven't read it yet

John Mutford said...

I loved this book for making me rethink how much I am affected by what I read. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Kate said...

John - that is another good point. I too relate to the world around me in part by the books that I read.