Reading Lolita in Tehran

A Memoir in Books (2003)
Reading Lolita in Tehran

The transformative power of literary fiction is debated, challenged, and celebrated in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi.  A former professor of literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nafisi uses prolific authors the likes of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov to connect with students coming of age during a  very tumultuous time in Iran's history.  The Memoir illuminates the delicate fabric that is Iran by weaving a story set against the backdrop of a revolution and subsequent war with neighboring Iraq.  

Though the book highlights those years between 1977 and 1997, chapter one begins in 1995.  Shortly after the ceasefire with Iraq, Nafisi resigns from her latest teaching position at an Iranian university.  She realizes a long held dream when she invites a select group of female students into her home each Thursday morning to discuss classic works of literature.  For those few hours each week, the women meet to discuss books in many instances banned from bookstores as well as minds.  They come together for a united purpose, and shed not only their veils but also their fears and inhibitions.  The women share ideas, pastries, and laughter.  Members of the reading group find they have much in common, and yet their individual struggles are also very different.  "Reading Lolita in Tehran" allows readers into the lives of women living, and surviving, their own destinies in a country divided over the direction of its future.     

As the memoir unfolds, Nafisi offers a better understanding of the Iranian culture and the fascinating women of Iran.  She exposes the brightly colored lives hidden under the garments they wear.  Reading fiction becomes an escape from the realities of their lives and offers hope for the future.  The irony of the situation is that the women learn more about their true selves through the fictional lives of the fictional characters they read about.  For instance, "Pride and Prejudice" helps them with issues related to love while "The Great Gatsby" and "Lolita" explore morality and freedom of choice.    

The book proceeds to her teaching years at the University of Tehran and other universities in Iran.  This is the stage where Nafisi introduces many of the men in her memoir.  They are the students who deal with the unrest through demonstrations or sometimes acts of violence.  They are the students who question her views and agree to put "The Great Gatsby" on trial in the classroom.  They are also the students or fellow faculty members who respect her position and engage her in intellectual conversations.  While the men written about in Nafisi's memoir may have enjoyed less restrictions than women to express themselves in public, the men of Iran also suffered and lost so much during the years of revolution and war while sacrificing for their families and for their country.  

The novel covers a span of twenty years that sees the author returning to Iran after living and studying in the United States, undertaking marriage and raising of a family, forging friendships, being expelled from her teaching position at the University of Tehran, and remaining in Tehran when the war was fought so close to her home.  The novel concludes with sorrowful goodbyes as Azar Nafisi returns to the United States and accepts a teaching position at John Hopkins University in Washington D.C. 

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a story about culture and books as much as it is a history lesson about a land of mystery and intrigue that often seems so removed from our own experiences living in a democratic society.  Yet, so many of the desires, fears, and goals are universally the same.  The author can be heavy on the details, but the rewards of exercising reading patience make it well worth the effort.  And rest assured that though sometimes long on words, Azar Nafisi tells a story which is nothing short of mesmerizing.       

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