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February 18, 2009

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi – ISBN – 9780812979305

My contact with the Hollywood film version of Nabokov’s Lolita led to my disinclination to read this memoir the first time around. I recently discovered why it has become widely acclaimed. Sehr Gut! Its author is a western literature professor; an Iranian expatriate who now teaches in the U.S. where she is gaining repute as a mesmerizing professor.

Reading Nabokov is a metaphor for reading literature in a country where literature is without merit unless supportive of ideology. Iran’s liberalizing society was devastated by Khomeini, and it is this calamity which Nafisi skillfully explores. In so doing she reminds of why we read in the first place. As well, she reminds us of why we are—or at least ought to be (though sometimes I wonder about some people)—grateful to live in the West, especially in the U.S.

She shares perspectives on her Iranian students’ plight, the ongoing struggle of a citizenry which had become the most modern in the Muslim world, and her own travails with this violent, oppressive regime. Her description of the mind set acquired by living in such a place is riveting. She recalls a student who once shared with her “an illegal dream.” Imagine, if you can, an illegal dream. Abject fear has been so instilled that it even impacts the unconscious.

As well, she shares the differences between her generation and that of her young students, noting that while her generation rues the void in their lives, created when their past was stolen, while the young have no past to steal. They speak only of “stolen kisses, films they’ve never seen, and the wind they’ve never felt on their skin.” (Recall that they must wear burkhas when leaving home.) Again, imagine!

“The worst crime committed by the totalitarian mind-set,” she opines, “is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, is an act of utmost brutality.” All private space is invaded, and every gesture shaped as they endeavor to force everyone to be one of them. “Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe,” is one of her more graphic observations. Another is that “genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions.” In Iran, imagination is subversive. It is dangerous to the narrow minded, autocratic power structure. Everything is in black and white. There is no room for the “polyphony” of democratic thought or experience. The study of literature emancipates one for a while, at least, which is why it is so important.

The book primarily revolves around a class composed of a handful of earnest young women, conducted in clandestine fashion outside the university. “There, in [my] living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, we tried [as did] Lolita, to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.” She used Lolita to emphasize that the truth of present day Iran could be temporally immaterial to those who appropriated Lolita’s attitudes about life. “A half-alive butterfly who can only come to life through her own prison bars.” (If you haven’t read Lolita, it’d help. I’d add that her “take” on the novel is nothing like the idea one gets from watching it tortured by Hollywood.)

Nabokov is not alone in her memoir. As well, she taught Fitzgerald, James and Austen with similar ease and effect, exposing her students to a world they would not otherwise know, and from which they profited despite their situation. She was explicit in adapting the discussions to how they might assist the students in coping with the reality of their situation. She uses the precarious situation of the students to help crystallize the reader’s understanding of the evil extant in Iran as it is comported today, while also addressing the basic humanity of the struggling Persian people.

This is an inspirational book, if not an uplifting situation. It exemplifies the triumph of normal people over oppression, if only in minor ways, but it humanizes them nevertheless.

Posted by respeto at February 18, 2009 12:25 PM