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“Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” – Azar Nafisi

by Farzeen Mughal

Book Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Writer: Azar Nafisi
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4/5

Last month, I was raiding my sister’s shelf to find something to read, as it is a truth universally acknowledged that a book lover in possession of countless books must be in want of the ones that are not on his/her shelf and found this book titled ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books,’ by Azar Nafisi. I had this book on my TBR list for quite a long time, therefore, I decided to finally give it a read.

As the title suggests, the book “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books,” is a memoir by Iranian-American author Azar Nafisi, who is also a professor of English Literature. In this book, Nafisi relates the time of her life when after completing her education in America she returned to Iran only to find it in the clutches of religious fanatics. The book is set during the late 1900s, the time when the last Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by Imam Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious leader who wanted to run the country on Islamic principles, however, he only turned it into a hub of religious fanaticism, hypocrisy, and tyranny by usurping the rights of its citizens. The book tells not only the disruptions caused by the regime but also describes the atrocities caused by the war against Iraq. Like all revolutions, the Islamic revolution also turned out to be a bloody one. Iran was declared the Islamic Republic and instead of becoming a place where Muslims could breathe in peace, it became a place where their rights were usurped and their freedom of choice taken.

Although it affected the whole country, women were the ones who had to face the brunt of the extremist policies and ideologies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the most. They were blatantly discriminated against, their freedom of choice was snatched, and was forced to wear hijab. They were flogged, arrested, humiliated, called names, and even raped if they showed even the slightest sign of defying the rules and were penalized for sins as small as accidentally showing a strand of hair or a small patch of skin from the hijab. They were not even allowed to talk to the opposite gender or run to their classes as it was considered immodesty. Not only were the rights of women taken away from them but also the rights of minorities were snatched to the extent that they were refused the ground to bury their dead. Moreover, the universities, as Nafisi puts it became “the battleground for various political forces,” which also became a source of disruption among students.

Hence, during this time when Nafisi realized that her teaching methods and syllabus were being hindered and interfered with by the Islamic regime for being too westernized, she called it quits and decided to pick seven of her “best and most committed” female students of literature and invited them to her house where they studied and discussed the most controversial pieces of literary works and writers. The book tells how these classes and the works of literature they discussed there became a refuge for these girls and Nafisi herself from the suffocating atmosphere created by the regime. Nafisi tells how these seven girls, Manna, Mahshid, Mitra, Yassi, Nassrin, Azin, and Sanaz as well as Nafisi herself found a safe haven in the drawing room of her home where they found liberation in these books. This book is divided into four sections that are, Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen as these are the books and writers they discussed in their classes and how they reflected their own problems.

As I read the book I realized that one of the biggest problems in any society is hypocrisy and abuse of power and this sort of hypocrisy is often seen through people having a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. It is the people who believe that taking a certain appearance or believing that they are more religious gives them the right to judge others on their actions. Imagine someone with this mentality is given power over a whole country. This memoir not only analyzes the controversial classics but also the impact of oppression and abuse of power. I love how Charles Dickens beautifully sums up the result of oppression and abuse of power in the last chapter of his novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in which he says,

“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”

What fanatics fail to understand is that hate begets hate. The moment the oppressive party forgets to see humans as humans, they sow a seed of hate and distrust among its people that when grows become as poisonous as the seed itself destroying everything around it including itself. This mistake was also made by the last Shah of Iran. If Khomeini was a religious extremist, Pahlavi was an extreme liberal who was too impressed by Westerners and their lifestyle. Long before the revolution, the last Shah of Iran banned the hijab as a result of which the hijab used to be forcefully taken off the head of any woman who chose to wear it in a public space. Khomeini’s Islamic regime was the reaction to Pahalvi’s non-Islamic westernized regime. However, the problem with both Pahlavi and Khomeini was that they were both extremists and acted as tyrants. They both took away the freedom of choice from their people. Both parties took away their liberation. What extremists, be it extreme conservatives or extreme liberals, fail to understand is that hate and oppression are not peaceful solutions to any problem. In fact, it is a problem itself that makes things worse.

However, Nafisi, in her memoir conveyed the message that one can survive troubling times through books and literature. It tells how books and literature can become one’s refuge in tough times. Literature for Nafsi and her students became a window for them into the suffocating atmosphere created by the regime and their own problems. This window became the only way through which they could breathe and survive through these uncertain times when their existence as women and members of society was threatened and reduced to nothing. For them, it was a light in the darkness that they followed to get out of the misery caused by the regime.

The parts I loved the most in the book were the ones where Nafisi analyzed the literary texts. I have read a lot of reviews of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov so I have an idea of what that book is about, however, I was never brave enough to read I but the way Nafisi analyzed the story and the characters of Humbert and Lolita, made me tempted to give this book a chance. Out of all the books and writers she mentioned in her memoir, I have only read The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice but still loved the analysis of all the other books she mentioned as if I was familiar with the characters. Hence, I made a mental note of reading Henry James’ ‘Daisy Miller’ and ‘Washington Square,’ and Nabokov’s ‘Invitation to Beheading’ and ‘Lolita.’ I loved the Gatsby trial that she held in her class. Her classes seemed so much fun. Also, the whole home-based classes gave a book club meeting vibe.

The stories of Sanaz, Nassrin, Mahshid, Azin, and even of Nafisi all suggest that they were all victims of the hypocritical values of a male-dominated society. I found the accounts of war and how the revolution ruined so many lives quite moving. I had a lot of sympathy for Nassrin, and though Nafisi wrote in the last pages of her book that after Nassrin left for England she never contacted her back but I wish that she did find her happiness.

I really enjoyed the book mainly because of the literary discussion and analysis written by Nafisi, however, in some places, it seems the book was written to appeal to the Western audience or maybe it was just me. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will give it 4 stars