Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi, the daughter of a former charismatic mayor of pre-revolutionary Tehran and of a woman who won a seat in Parliament in 1963, chronicles the personal and intellectual unfoldings of a private literature class she started in Tehran after she left her last teaching post. She’d resigned from the University of Tehran years earlier, refusing to wear the veil.
The group consists of seven women (“girls,” she calls them), children of the revolution, greatly diverse in religious and political beliefs and backgrounds, who arrive at her house every Thursday morning for two years in the mid-1990s, take off their chadors and scarves, and talk about books—Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice. These young women, who outside the class struggle to live under the laws and potential daily humiliation of the Islamic Republic, make it painfully clear that we read not only for the most exalted but also for the most basic reasons. What reader has not compared his or her own love life to Swann’s, or her own husband to Mr. Darcy? Yet these books take on added, ironic dimensions when we remember that the legal age for marriage in Iran at this time was nine (younger than Lolita), and that the punishment for female adultery, such as Daisy Buchanan’s affair with Gatsby, was stoning.
The one divorcée in the group, now remarried, gloves her red-polished nails, which constituted a punishable offense, as did any makeup. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife,” says the youngest student in the group. Yet although Nafisi encourages extremely personal reading (when she realizes that almost all of her students accept the Islamic Republic’s dogma about love—spiritual love good, sex bad—she supplements Pride and Prejudice with Our Bodies, Ourselves), her analyses of the books are never simple or reductive. In all the novels she finds evil in the villains’ lack of empathy, in an inability to see and hear, to engage with, or even to dance with another person. “Humbert was a villain,” she writes, “because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most.” The book is elegiac, a record of a brief experiment in defiance, but it is also a moving tribute to the stubbornness – even when confronted by revolution, war and repression – of the human spirit.
I write a lot, which keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. There is always something to write about, always a new story to craft. Not writing, for me, is like trying to hold back a sneeze. Learning to write was the most powerful influence in my life. I can still remember the awe I felt when I realized I could put real words onto paper and tell out a story. From that first ‘a-ha’ moment I knew I wanted to write.
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