Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
reviewed by Dr. Alison Kafer
Feminist Studies Program
As an academic, reading is something I do without thinking much about it. I might plot out where I’m going to read (the sofa? the coffee shop?) or what I’m going to read when (novels on airplanes, newspapers with breakfast), but the act of reading itself is something I rarely contemplate. Such inattention is one of reading’s pleasures: getting lost in a book means getting so caught up in its ideas that the rest of the world falls away. Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is a love letter to reading (and, of sorts, to Tehran, but we’ll get to that later), but the reading she encourages is a more self-conscious one. Although Nafisi writes about her own moments of such captivated reading, reading to have the world drop away, her aim is pedagogical: she wants her readers to think about what it means to read, how we read, and what such reading gives us.
Reading Lolita tells the story of a small group of women, seven of Nafisi’s favorite students, who hold a private class on western literature in Nafisi’s home in the Islamic Republic of Iran. For two years, the group met every Thursday morning to discuss works of fiction, but as Nafisi demonstrates, talking about Nabokov’s Lolita requires talking about Tehran, and the group’s discussions stretched accordingly. Nafisi’s passion is to explore the interplay between text and reader, and throughout her memoir, she lets her experiences of Tehran instruct and inform the books under discussion.
Nafisi structures Reading Lolita around four literary giants—Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen—and she uses each author to explore a facet of life in Tehran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Her first chapter, “Lolita,” serves as an overview of Nafisi’s reading group, introducing us to each of her students and describing the circumstances of their meeting. Although she warns against casting her and her students as Lolita, it’s clear that her reading of the novel colors her reading of Iran. Nafisi explains that what makes Humbert the villain of Lolita is his lack of curiosity, his insistence on “his own vision of other people.” She indicts the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers for similar crimes, for trying “to shape others according to their own dreams and desires” (48, 33). Women in Iran, she writes, “had become the figment of someone else’s dreams,” and Nabokov excelled at “expos[ing] all solipsists who take over other people’s dreams” (28, 33).
In “Gatsby,” her second chapter, Nafisi gives a brief history of the Islamic Revolution, its motivations, its dreams, its schisms. She writes about the narrowing of revolutionary visions, the sacrifice of personal liberties in the name of “the cause,” and the silencing of dissent. She uses this chapter, then, to continue her ruminations on dreams, on the ways in which people get caught up in other people’s dreams as well as their own. Gatsby is destroyed, she argues, by trying to impose his perfect dreams on an imperfect reality, an act similar to those of Iran’s revolutionaries: “Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?” (144). In the face of such repression, Nafisi celebrates the power of fiction to unsettle us, to make us “consider the world…through different eyes” (94).
“James” begins in 1980 at the dawn of the Iran/Iraq War. Nafisi intertwines excerpts from Henry James’ writings about WWI with her own descriptions of the Iran/Iraq War and its impact on her students, her classrooms, herself. She sets both of these war stories alongside her battles with the university. Early in “James,” Nafisi is expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil in the classroom, and she describes both her expulsion and the institution of compulsory veiling as a process of “becoming irrelevant.” If Nabokov provides Nafisi with stories to understand the villain in the novel, James offers her a glimpse of the hero, “one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost” (224).
In “Austen,” Nafisi’s own struggle for personal integrity, a theme that runs throughout the book, reaches its climax. As she debates whether to leave Iran for the United States, Nafisi uses Austen’s treatment of social expectations and mores, and their effects on personal relationships, as the backdrop for her reflections on the toll of living in the Islamic Republic. We read extended conversations among her students about the strict codes of conduct placed on her students’ relationships to each other, to their beloveds, to their faith.
One of the greatest crimes of the regime, in Nafisi’s eyes, is its failure to distinguish reality from imagination, a failure that leads to the condemnation of all works of fiction not deemed “revolutionary” enough; Lolita, The Great Gatsby,andDaisy Miller were all faulted by the regime’s supporters for spreading moral corruption. Nafisi counters such claims partly by suggesting they result from misreading the novels’ own critiques, but mostly she insists that novels are not reality and the imagination is not to be patrolled. The power and beauty of the novel—and its transgressive potential—stems from its democratic nature, its ability to convey multiple opinions and perspectives.
Indeed, throughout her memoir, Nafisi reminds us of the power of fiction; novels not only help us cope with stressful experiences (as when she loses herself in novels during the long nights of the war) but they also serve as potent resources for resistance. Fiction cultivates our imaginations, gives us a way to understand the worlds we live in, the worlds we remember, the worlds we hope for (282). Quoting from James, she argues that when we find ourselves being made into the figments of others’ imaginations, “[w]e must for dear life make our own counter-realities” (216).
This assertion takes on another hue in light of the criticism Nafisi has received from scholars such as Fatemeh Keshavarz, author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran. Keshavarz faults Nafisi for crafting an orientalist narrative, one that perpetuates western stereotypes of Iran as barbaric, Islam as populated only by militant extremists, and Muslim women (or women living in predominately Muslim countries) as hopelessly oppressed. It’s hard to dispel Keshavarz’s fears that the book will be taken up in exactly those ways. As even a cursory search of news headlines reveals, media outlets in the United States tend to present the experiences of Muslim women as beginning and ending with the veil, a practice typically presented as inherently oppressive. Nafisi’s own focus on the veil does little to counter such assumptions, and she barely addresses the problem of western misperceptions of Iran and Islam.
But here it might be useful to return to this notion of Reading Lolita as a love letter to Tehran. Love letters are often written to absent or missing loves, even lost loves, and thus carry a yearning for what is no longer present. Nafisi’s memoir is imbued with a longing for a city, a country, that has largely disappeared. But the longing remains, and its persistence makes clear that Nafisi’s departure was not easy or simple, that Iran maintains a presence in her imagination, and that she continues to draw inspiration from Iran’s artists, dissidents, and intellectuals. We are left with Nafisi’s hope that things will again be otherwise.