Last fall, I talked about Azar Nafisi's book, The Republic of Imagination. I have finally caught up with her first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which was published in 2003. It was deservedly a best seller and deserves to be read fifteen years after it was published.
Reading Lolita in Tehran fills out the picture of what happened to her and her family during and after the 1979 revolution, adds stories of her students and colleagues, and connects all this to works by Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and more. She lived through—and describes in painful detail—the rise of the theocracy. (You don't want to live in one, not Muslim, not Christian.) She lived through the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the one in which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein. She held private classes in English literature for eight young women in her living room. She tried to open minds under a regime that—my impression—was doing its best to limit them.
For example, one of her senior colleagues in the university did not want her to teach The Great Gatsby. "The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds—surely I could see. I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual. Surely I could see, he insisted, that these novels and their characters became our models in real life? Maybe Mr. Gatsby was all right for the Americans, but not for our revolutionary youth . . ."
With the revolution, came new government regulations punishable by fines, lashings, and jail. Nafisi writes, "Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear [new rules ordered women to wear only chador or long robe and scarf in public], walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe."
Toward the end of the book, she writes that the dilemmas of the girls she taught "stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspiration by the regime. This conflict lay at the heart of the paradox created by Islamic rule. Now that the mullahs ruled the land, religion was used as an instrument of power, an ideology. It was this ideological approach to faith that differentiated those in power from millions of ordinary citizens . . ." My opinion is that ideologues make terrible presidents, senators, representatives, judges, and mayors.
My selection of quotations may unfortunately give the impression that the memoir is a screed against the Islamic Republic. Nafisi certainly points out the difficulties of living in a theocracy even if one is a believer. What makes the book far more than war stories of living through a revolution, however, is Nafisi's and her students' thoughts and observations about the books they read. Anyone who is interested in literature, in Iran, in another culture, or in all three should find and read Reading Lolita in Tehran.