(This was first published in Biblio, autumn 2004)
Reading Lolita in Teheran: A Memoir in Books
Fourth Estate, distributed by Rupa & Co,
POUNDS 4.99, 343 pages
In a brief musing on postmodernism and contemporary literary criticism, Mario Vargas Llosa wrote: “Responsibility and clarity go together with a certain conception of literary criticism, with the conviction that the realm of literature spans all of human experience since literature reflects experience and helps shape it. Along the same lines, this conception holds that literature should belong to everyone, since it draws upon the common resources of the species and we can always return to it to seek order when we seem buried in chaos, hope in moments of discouragement, and doubt and uncertainty when the reality that surrounds us seems too safe and predictable.”
Llosa wasn’t one of the authors included in Azar Nafisi’s very unusual book club, but he echoes her own sentiments just as well as any of the other authors—Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, Henry James, F Scott Fitzgerald—she and her small group of students clung on to like a lifeline.
Reading Lolita in Teheran is a remembrance of things past, a memoir written in a time and place of relative peace about a time and place of almost unimaginable turbulence. Azar Nafisi grew up in England, Switzerland and America, but as she recounts, she dreamed of the “beckoning and seductive” lights of Tehran for seventeen years. Like all involuntary exiles, she dreamed of going home and never having to leave again.
She survived a bad early marriage and divorce in America; in Iran, she had already survived the imprisonment of her father, who was the mayor of Tehran; she had cut her teeth on both the early revolutionary fervour sweeping Iranian students and the freethinking ways advocated by Berkeley rebels. Her second marriage, to a man whom she admired for his sense of confidence and his loyalty rather than for his “revolutionary rhetoric”, helped to bring her back “home”, where she taught at the University of Tehran. “It was the navel, the immovable center to which all political and social activities were tied,” she writes of the university, “…the scene of the most important battles.”
As the new regime began imposing Islamic law on the citizens of Iran, Nafisi would find herself at the heart of the biggest battles sweeping Iran, the country she had lost, and recovered, only to lose again. Like other women in Iran, she would find her movements increasingly monitored, and judged, and curbed; she would participate in protests and demonstrations but be forced to wear the headscarf and then the veil; eventually, she would be forced to resign from the university, forced into relative uselessness.
It was from that period of utter desperation, the point at which her career appeared to have been consumed by the oppressive nature of a regime that used religion as a weapon, that Nafisi formed the group at the heart of this book. Every week, seven young women who were once her students in class, came to her house to be liberated for a brief while from the constraints on their movements, their clothes, their minds and their freedom, in order to discuss books. Not politics; not revolutions; not religion; not gender theory, but books. All of these forces, these disparate things that shaped the ordinary lives of these women would come into the discussion eventually—but the doors were opened by writers and their books.
* * *
In more free countries, we prefer to take our literature in small, therapeutic doses, alongside equally measured doses of Art, Culture and Entertainment. Books are to be kept in their proper place, as a diversion, as a brief escape; and it may seem to readers brought up on this particular diet that this would have been their proper place in the lives of Nafisi and her students as they were caught in the grip of the Iranian Revolution of the late ‘90s. Literature would have been a solace, a comfort; a band-aid to be applied over a minor cut, allowing them to ignore the deeper wounds inflicted on their psyches; an escape into the worlds of the imagination for a short while.
Under the whip of a regime that would allow them no freedom, nothing but airlessness, that sought to police not just their behaviour but their imaginations, however, Nafisi’s little reading groups discovered what literature really had to offer. The limits of what their world in Iran was allowed to see was defined by the image of the blind censor: the chief film censor in Iran who was, truly, almost blind, and who depended on an assistant to explain what was happening onscreen to him while he, in turn, dictated the parts to be axed. “Our world under the mullahs was shaped by the colourless lenses of the blind censor,” Nafisi writes bitterly. “Not just our reality but also our fiction had taken on this curious coloration in a world where the censor was the poet’s rival in rearranging and reshaping reality, where we simultaneously invented ourselves and were figments of someone else’s imagination… We lived in a culture that deinied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more important—namely ideology.”
A “literary discussion”, as dictated by the gaze of the blind censor, could descend into the realms of the absurd. One of Nafisi’s students, Nassrin, was employed in translating The Political, Philosophical, Social and Religious Principles of Ayatollah Khomeini. Among other things, it contained a serious consideration of the dilemmas involved in having sex with a chicken: can the man who does such a thing eat the chicken afterwards in accordance with religious law? The answer is no; the bird is, post-coitally, off limits for him and his immediate neighbours. However, a neighbour living two doors away can eat the chicken concerned without incurring any taint!
Against this, Nafisi sets the classics. In a key section of the book, her class at university puts The Great Gatsby on trial: should the novel be read at all, shouldn’t it be condemned for its exposition of adultery, its defence of the American way of life, could it not be considered a corrupting influence on students? “A novel is not an allegory,” Nafisi tells her students. “It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved with their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.”
As she shares her memories of her students and their discussions with the reader, this is what happens to us: we begin to inhale their experiences, we begin to understand how it is possible to make a “normal” life under the yoke of tyranny, we empathise with the desperate tiredness that invades Nafisi’s later recollections. And in this story of a struggle to read classics when the texts are no longer available, in a country where books were seen as either for or against the revolution, we are reminded yet again that tyranny and despotism come about because of a failure of empathy, and a failure of the imagination. Without empathy and imagination, you cannot read; but if you excise these two qualities from your life, you may very well be able to run a successful regime through hatred and fear.
Nafisi makes an important distinction when she answers the question all readers surely carry in their heads about this book: why Lolita? And why Lolita, of all books, in Teheran?
“I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert, and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea,” she writes, the italics forceful, “Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.” What Lolita had to offer Nafisi and her students cut to the bone: it taught them all they already knew but hadn’t been able to articulate about “the perverse intimacy of victim and jailer”, about obsession and about the urges that might make one human being try to confiscate the life of another.
By the end of Reading Lolita in Tehran, we understand the small subterfuges by which Nafisi and her students sustained the pretence of normal life. The small comforts of coffee icecream with walnuts, of a battered book given as a present, of sharing anecdotes. There’s the man Nafisi identifies only as “the magician”, a former teacher whose response to the pressures of a dictatorship is to become a recluse, but who shares his wisdom unsparingly with her. The sufferings of women under the regime are chronicled in the most personal way of all, with students being jailed, being compelled into arranged marriages they’re unsure of, being punished for small infractions of the no-makeup rule, being tortured in prison and, in the case of some of them, being executed. Through it all, Nafisi clings to the idea that everyone must have “the right to free access to imagination”, that “genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions”.
She escapes, finally. And we know the rest of the story from the papers: Reading Lolita in Tehran became a surprise hit, the darling of the bestseller charts. Nafisi has her freedom; she continues to teach in the West, and she will continue to believe in the power of books and reading and the imagination. But there is a word that she and her students seized upon, from Nabokov’s writings, to describe everything in their lives that has been debased: poshlust, which means “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.”
The dream of revolution the Islamic Republic of Iran was selling turned out to be poshlust. And perhaps Nafisi and her small circle of readers discovered the only way in which you can oppose poshlust: not through wars and demonstrations or gestures of protest, though all of these are important, but through reading the world as closely as you can. With imagination, with breathless wonder, with acceptance and curiosity, with clarity and finally, with empathy.
Nilanjana S Roy