Friday, November 9, 2012

Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

As mentioned in a previous post, I recently came across a list of books for book lovers.  Reading Lolita in Tehran was referenced as a book that anyone in a book club has already read, but was still worth mentioning.  While under usual circumstances a statement like that would have turned me off to a book suggestion, something about Azar Nafisi's work intrigued me.  Reading Lolita tells the true story of Nafisi's time in  Iran as an English literature professor and as the organizer of a small women's book club.  The memoir covers Iranian history from a civilian viewpoint from the pre-revolutionary days to the mid-nineties.  Iran once again has become a popular topic of discussion in the foreign policy conversation and I did not know much about it.  This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to learn simultaneous to enjoying Nafisi's literary insight.

Azar Nafisi did not spend her years in Iran trying to appease the rising revolutionaries, even once they held power.  As a professor or literature, specifically Western literature, she clearly valued works and ideas that the extremist Muslims did not.  The middle portion of the memoir discusses her years at the University of Tehran during the revolution.  Nafisi frames her story around various classic novels, each significant to her in a different period.  She discusses Lolita by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov in correlation to the start of her in-home book club.  While Nafisi does recognize that the situations are very different, she and her girls acknowledge some similarities between the oppression of women in Iran and the oppression of Lolita, who is kidnapped and sexually abused by her stepfather.  Nafisi recounts the early years of the revolution in the second section of the book.  Here, her university students, populated heavily by revolutionaries, put The Great Gatsby on trial in her classroom, claiming that it directly defies the morals of Islam and the revolution/ Nafisi goes on to describe the years following the revolution, during which the Iran-Iraq war took place.  The University expells her from teaching and the laws become more strict.  Finally, Nafisi returns to her final years in Iran, the years of her book club.  She and her girls discuss Jane Austen's works and, consequently, the roles and decision making abilities of women.  It is at this point that she and some of her student make the decision to leave the country.

Nafisi demonstrates her intelligence on every page.  Her writing reflects a lifetime spent studying the pages of the most talented authors in history.  Her life story weaves seamlessly with literary analysis of the great works.  The way she moves from one to the other shows a love for literature which infiltrates every part of her life.  The books she mentions do not all fall under the category of mainstream American classics.  Her studies, understandably, have penetrated a deeper level than a general education literature course reading list.  
Her analysis of the books and the discussions she has with her students are the types of conversations of which a consciousnesses reader dreams. Beyond her thoughts on the novels, though, Nafisi reflects on the place of fiction in our lives.  Her words can only speak for themselves.
"The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted.  It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable."
"It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else's shoes and understand the other's different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless.  Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed.  But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them...."
For all the correlations Nafisi draws between the literature and life in Iran, she adimitely insists that literature is not to be interpreted as a copy of life.  Fiction can be a metaphor, nothing more.  Fiction reveals truth.  As Nafisi tells her students:
" not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth." - don't try to see yourself in literature, just search for truth."
Nafisi's insights do not end with her views on literature.  She lived through an historic time in history, a time around which modern Middle Eastern history pivots.  It fascinated me to read about life in Iran.  As I mentioned, I was relatively unfamiliar with Iranian history before reading this book.  As much as the topic of Iran shows up in the news these days, I thought it high time that I changed that fact.  The timing worked out well, as Kevin and I saw Argo last weekend, Ben Affleck's latest movie focused around the embassy hostage crisis in Iran.  I found it incredibly interesting to see the cultural differences between Iran and the US.  Perhaps that sounds simplistic, but reading Nafisi's accounts truly clarified the contrast between our countries for me.  For instance, Nafisi describes the energy and allure of the crowds after the death of Ayatollah Taleghani.  The mass mourning is stunning.  We don't have anything like this in the US, nor could we.  Even Nafisi's descriptions of attitudes toward the US helped me to understand why our relationship with Iran is so volatile.

To read about Iran from the perspective of a citizen, and a woman at that, was nothing short of enlightening and inspiring.  At the risk of being cliche, it reminded me how precious my freedoms are and how I take them for granted.  Nafisi feels similarly.  Toward the end of the book, in discussion with a friend, she talks about her desire to write a book, this book.  Her description of said book encapsulates perfectly what life in Iran taught her to appreciate.
"I said to him that I waned to write a book in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me - to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom."

Pages: 400
Date Completed: November 7, 2012

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