Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What struck me about this book was its depiction of what women went through in Iran over the course of the years described in the book. Nafisi focuses her writing on the relationship between the teaching of literature and her survival in Iran from the end of the era of the shahs to the turn of the millennium. The beauty of this book for an English major and novel-reader like me is that I am familiar with the texts she is discussing; while I know the general outlines of the history she depicts – the Iranian revolution, the rise of the Islamic republic, and the war with Iraq – I had never read a book in which the feeling of those changes was so evident. This is a book I’ve owned for a long time, begun some years ago, but never read all the way through until now. I am sorry for waiting so long. The book is as important now as it was when it was published in its portrait of the lives of women. It is one thing to know that Muslim women are supposed to wear the veil; it is another to read the detail of what that means in a day to day life. Big Brother becomes your neighbor, your police, your family. The mixture of religion into the police state is disconcerting, and gives the book its poignancy in 2021 when my country is feeling the pressure from so many of its citizens to shape itself in line with religious beliefs. The counterpoint to this narrative of surveillance and interference is the passion of these women for literature. It is in discussions of novels that they find scope to explore themselves as people and not simply as objects owned by the state, the mosque, and their families. There are many ways to quibble with the book; there is, for one, the irony that three of the four novels on which she focuses are written by men. It is true that the book will have less impact on readers who are not familiar with the texts Nafisi discusses. But they are certainly books that should be familiar at least by name to most people, and the written discussion of the works offers enough of the plot of the novels to sustain the reader who is not an English major or even one who has not read the books. Lolita, Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride & Prejudice are all movies as well as novels, and all of them have had significant cultural impact even beyond their readership. So I believe Nafisi’s approach is valid. It is a very beautiful book, and it echoes in importance even years after its publication.