Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

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Azar Nafisi – now living in the United States – is a professor, journalist, and an author who writes of her experiences in teaching English literature in Tehran, Iran. Her book is broken down into four segments of different time periods ranging from 1979 to 1997. Within each segment Nafisi correlates the occurrences of her life in Iran with the works of different authors.

The book begins in 1995. Nafisi is no longer employed by the University of Tehran, but is teaching a private class at her home. She gathers seven highly intelligent women for a weekly meeting that resembles a book club. The first book they must read is Lolita. Nafisi is quoted as saying her objective was “choosing a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Iran every woman is a Lolita; marriage is allowed at the age of 9”. So Nafisi makes Xerox copies of her censored book and the class begins. As the seven young women share their thoughts, their experiences, their pain and their joys with their facilitator and the rest of the class, we learn many facts about every day life in Iran.

Streets of Tehran are patrolled by armed militia in white Toyotas, called “The Blood of God”, or “Morality Squads”. Their sole function is making sure women are veiled and covered properly when in public. Women may not wear make-up, show any hair, or let their finger nails grow “too long”. These “crimes” result in arrests, floggings, and jail sentences. But it is not just women who suffer. Iran is intent on purging the country of “decadent western culture”. The entire country is deprived; no alcohol, no satellite dishes, no modern music, no touching someone of the opposite sex, in fact men are strongly discouraged from even looking at a woman’s face when out if public.

The second segment of the book drops back in time to 1979. Nafisi was teaching at the University of Tehran and the class is reading The Great Gatsby. Nafisi dissects every little nuance of Gatsby and then proceeds to compare it’s substance with what the people in Iran are experiencing…. in an intellectual, abstract sort of way. Her analysis is that The Great Gatsby is really about the “great American dream”. But it is a false dream. And Iran is also facing a false dream. They are in the midst of a revolutionary takeover. There are demonstrations, sit-ins, violence, arrests, and executions. This should have been one of the most interesting segments of the book, but I had a hard time staying interested. I just didn’t get the connection between Gatsby and Iran. And I felt Nasifi literally had her nose buried in a book, and everything that happened merely resulted in her giving a more intensified literary evaluation/comparison to The Great Gatsby.

The third and fourth segments revolve around the continued chaos that the revolution brings, and the Iran/Iraq war. Many facts about every day life in Tehran and the lives of the women in the “book club” paralleled with the literary works of Henry James and Jane Austin. Discussions about social decorum, personal power struggles, relationships, love, happiness, integrity, and freedom. It was fascinating to read about life in Iran but unfortunately the history and culture of Iran were overshadowed by Nafisi’s ongoing literary lecture. I would only recommend this book to someone who is an avid reader of the authors mentioned in the book.

Rated 3 Stars.

All contents © 2014 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.

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