Reading Lolita in Tehran: a Memoir in Books

by Azar Nafisi
ISBN: 081297106X

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A Review of: Reading Lolita In Tehran
by Gordon Phinn

About twenty years ago, not long before he slipped into the editor's chair at Books in Canada, then contributor Paul Stuewe journeyed west from Toronto to Ontario's Huron County to uncover the outrage behind the headlines: the ideologues of censorship had once again been awakened from their routines and were pressuring local school boards to remove certain books from the shelves of school libraries. Margaret Lawrence's The Diviners was among them. Local worthies bandied about words like blasphemous with monotonous regularity. Decadent modern books were blamed for the rise in the rates of teenage pregnancy and gonorrhea infection. Big city sophisticates shuddered: Well, we rationalised, at least they can't get their hands on the bookstores and public libraries.
While Iran after Khomeni was undoubtedly an infinitely more repressive and dangerous society than small-town Ontario beset by squabbles, it is sobering to hear similar accusations hurled at modern novels by Farsi-speaking fanatics determined to condemn and lay blame. Azar Nafisi, now a professor at John Hopkins, certainly evokes the post-revolutionary hysteria that gripped Tehran with the calm precision which comes from years of outrage and bitter retrospect. As a card-carrying member of the educated, liberalised upper crust that perhaps lost the most to the marauding mullahs of righteousness, she most certainly has old scores to settle-an uncomfortable fact often overlooked by western commentators keen to co-opt the most useful elements in her memoir to their own Big-Brother-strikes-again agendas.
Though Nafisi can speak eloquently of how reading is actually "inhaling experience" and empathy being "the heart of the novel," and charm our western literary hearts with her repeated insightful disquisitions on Vladimir Nabokov, she can also feed the heart of darkness when she describes the torture and death of a general under the Shah who had conspired against her father, a former mayor of Tehran. Perhaps the atmosphere of blood lust and repression is best conveyed in her descriptions of funeral processions: "That was the first time I experienced the desperate, orgiastic pleasure of this form of public mourning: it was the one place where people mingled and touched bodies and shared emotions without restraint or guilt. There was wild, sexually flavoured frenzy in the air."
Finally banned from teaching at the university for refusing to wear the veil, she invites a few of her prize students to her home to continue discussions in secret of those decadent western novelists our chattering classes take for granted, Nabokov and Fitzgerald. Even the seemingly innocuous, such as Jane Austen and Henry James, have to be smuggled in under wraps. Nafisi's fond memories of her hand-picked protgs, and their daily trials and triumphs over family and state, are pitched against her nightmarish recall of the predatoriness of post-revolutionary Tehran, where life was indeed cheap and women even cheaper. Gruesome anecdotes abound, generally of the men-run-amok-with-power variety.
Like all rituals enacted under prohibition, the success of their clandestine book clubbing seems ever more delectable in retrospect, the oligarchy of terror trumped one more time. Even their gossip, naive and salacious by turns, of which many examples are carefully exhumed and framed, seems eminently subversive in the atmosphere of state approved behaviour. As Yassi, one of Nafisi's students declares, "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."
Whether Nifisi's trotting out of the customary grim horrors of fundamentalist repression and cruel retribution serves any greater purpose than propping up the tired propaganda of western secularism remains a moot point for this reviewer. Smug condescension to the barbarous behaviour of others is all too easy when we have become habituated to our own. Certainly, the stoning of adulterers and the whipping of flesh-exposing women seems reprehensible in the extreme, but how does our gun-toting, drug-running, profit-mad laissez-faire science-obsessed culture seem to them?
For that perspective, return to Canadian Alison Wearing's late 90s trek through Iran with her fake husband Ian, Honeymoon In Purdah, as comic a rendering of this ancient civilisation come to grief as Nifisi's is solemn. Under the hejab, an almost anonymous Wearing is treated to many an insightful gabfest with the locals, who, while squishing her with hospitality, harangue about secret government agendas and spies, movies which exaggerate and literature which lies, specifically Betty Mamoody's Not Without My Daughter, which easily wins the ribbon for most grievances. Worried women point to teen pregnancies and abortions, drunken driving and drugs. Why are girls obsessed with looking seductive? Apparently we "simply do not see how atrocious" our own lives are. Of course we have freedom, but at what cost? Are we all slaves arguing for our own imprisonment? One watches the debate and winces...Such pictures remind us that, despite the slew of withering details that would doubtlessly be offered by any disputant, life in Iran has many unsettling similarities to our own.

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