I considered several books to review for our banned books issue. I chose Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Dr. Azar Nafisi because the author has some interesting insights about the importance of literature in society.
Dr. Nafisi was born in Iran and raised during a progressive time in her country’s history. Muslim women could appear in public sans scarves, travel unescorted, pursue careers in traditionally male dominated fields, and be part of their government. Despite these freedoms, many Iranians were growing restless under the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. They believed his administration was being corrupted by Western influences, namely the government of the United States.
Nafisi received her PhD in English literature from the University of Oklahoma; she returned to Iran to begin her teaching career shortly before the Iranian hostage crisis.
The political struggle between the old regime, student Marxists, and fundamentalists triggered unexpected consequences for the Iranian people.
The revolution brought about a time of violence, corruption, and repression that shocked the world. Nafisi taught at several universities in Iran from 1978-1997 when she returned to the United States. Her refusal to teach classes wearing the veil resulted in her being dismissed from the University of Tehran for several years.
During and after the revolution, news agencies were censored and many reporters were fired, arrested, or executed. Many books were banned. At one time, the official censor for Iran was a blind man who instructed his aides to read him any “objectionable” passages they found in books.
University students and faculty members were often arrested, imprisoned or executed for their political leanings. Women were forced to wear veils in public, and they were called to be modest in all things – no makeup, no vivid colored clothing, no laughing in public. Showing wrists, ankles, or wisps of hair could result in arrest, imprisonment, or public stoning.
Nafisi continued to teach classes about the writings of such literary giants as Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald despite pressure from her superiors to teach from a list of books written by Iranian authors who condemned Western values and supported the teachings of the Ayatollah.
During this time, Nafisi invited a small group of female students to form a book group which met in her home. She intricately weaves details of these women’s lives into her memoir.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four sections: "Lolita", "Gatsby", "James", and "Austen". Nafisi relates the events in her life to these authors and their works.
She adheres to the interpretation of Lolita by Vera Nabokov, the wife and editor of Vladimir Nabokov. Vera Nabokov insisted her husband’s novel was about the rape and exploitation of a 12 year old girl who was powerless to protect herself in her environment, not about a young temptress. He wrote the book through the eyes of Humbert Humbert to show how easily the truth can be subverted. Nafisi equates the rape of Dolores (Lolita) with the treatment of women in her country and the abuse of power by the government.
She teaches Austen and James because these authors created strong female characters reacting to repressive social mores – sometimes with tragic results. She included the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald because he wrote about love and the American dream.
Nafisi believes great literature provides a place for the imagination to soar and ideas to flourish. The struggles of many fictional characters can mirror our own, and their hopes can sustain ours. Her views were often challenged in class by Marxists as well as loyal fundamentalists who read the assigned works looking for ways to discredit or reject them.
I have always believed the purpose of education is to teach people how to think not what to think. Throughout history, the first actions of any repressive regime have been to restrict the flow of information to the public through censorship of the press/media and books. After reading Nafisi’s accounts of her classes, I see the importance of reading fiction, and the importance of reading with an open mind. Don’t be like the blind censor - put away any preconceived notions you have about politics, morals, or religion when you read anything, especially Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Dr. Azar Nafisi has written several books. In addition to teaching at universities in Iran, she has been a visiting Fellow and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Reviewed by Fran Joyce
Photo of Azar Nafisi: Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Dr. Azar Nafisi Book cover. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3734465
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