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Reading Lolita in Teheran

by Azar Nafisi

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered together seven young women, all former students, at her house every Thursday, to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. Nafisi had taught literature at universities in Tehran before the Revolution but gave up her academic positions when the climate in the Islamic Republic of Iran became too inhospitable for her liberal teaching. The small, thriving book group became increasingly important in the lives of the young women and their teacher. Some came from strict religious backgrounds, others had had a more liberal upbringing and some had spent time in prison because of disagreements with and perceived wrongs in the new Republic.

The book group moves beyond a discussion of the literary merits of the works, and interweaves glimpses into each of their lives, charting their aspirations and dreams. The book also details the literature courses taught by Nafisi at the universities, to a mixed sex student body, and these descriptions make fascinating reading, chronicling the increasingly intolerant attitude to the West as portrayed in Western literature. This is beautifully demonstrated by a student's powerful rejection of The Great Gatsby.

Nafisi's love of literature and her dismay as her beloved works were deemed decadent and unsuitable and eventually banned, is powerful. Nafisi is bold in discussing the banned works and closing down of booksellers, seeing this as symbolic of a revolution which purposefully shut the doors to knowledge, particularly for women. The formation of the little book group and its passionate and urgent discussions of books, culminating in reading Lolita, is a powerful symbol of hope and small triumphs in a harsh climate.

There are some questions surrounding this book. The group's choice of literature is strange indeed. My own mixed feelings towards Lolita drew me to read Nafisi's book in the beginning, and I still feel very ambivalent about the group's discussion of Nabokov's work, even though the setting in Tehran makes for some interesting parallels and perspectives in a book which is fundamentally about abuse and oppression. Also the question of authenticity is raised. Clearly these women are drawn from life, and this is a memoir, not fiction. However Nafisi has changed not only names but events and aspects of characters as well, in order to preserve the individuals anonymity. This does leave the book as a bit of a hybrid. However, all this can be put aside as this is a remarkable and fascinating glimpse into women's lives before and during the Revolution in Iran, and would make for interesting discussions among all book group members as to the role and function of reading groups.

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