Re-reading Lolita in Tehran
September 1, 2004
Lolita in Tehran, A Memoir in Books (Random
House, 2003) is an eloquent and enticing tale of Azar Nafisi's
English literature class at her home in Tehran, where she passionately
taught the forbidden Western works of fiction to a group of seven
young women from different social and religious backgrounds.
clandestine class than ran every Thursday, from 1995 to 1997, became
a "place of transgression" against the absolutism and
aberration of the Islamic regime. The memoir is also a chronicle
of the 1979 Revolution and the way it affected these Iranian women's
lives, which are expressed in parallel with, and woven into, novels
by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane
Reading these works of fiction and interpreting them
from the perspective of life in Iran, served several functions
free-spirited women. It allowed them to escape from the harsh realities
of life under the Islamic Republic, to invigorate their murky and
monotonous lives, and to gain insight into their personal predicaments.
But most importantly, it allowed them to celebrate
and democracy, as literature by its
very nature promotes
divergent views and multiple lifestyles. Finally, it allowed them
to accurately define dictators as those who are interested only
in their own vision of other people, those who turn other people's
lives into "the figments of their own imaginations."
I felt that Nafisi's class had gradually turned into something
that resembled the 1960's and 1970's encounter groups or consciousness-raising
groups in the West. Yet, the peculiar thing about this class is
that the coming together of the women in an all-woman group was
not so much a conscious choice made by Nafisi or her students
as it was an accidental configuration, a result of the mandatory
segregation of the sexes under the Islamic Republic.
At some point, the constant depiction by the author of what each
of the female students was wearing becomes annoying to the reader
as it begins to evoke the trivial content of gossip magazines.
But the uneasiness is outweighed by the realization that Nafisi's
obsession with her students' attire is probably an attempt to portray
the individuality of each of them in the face of a totalitarian
regime that denies it to its subjects.
But as soon as this uneasiness
fades, another one emerges: the author's unrelenting resolve to
call her students "my girls." My very uncomfortable feeling
about this expression came from the fact that while Nafisi was
trying to give her students an individuality of their own by giving
each one of them a separate nick-name such as "our comedian" or "the
wild one," she was also putting them back into a new category: "my
In other words, Nafisi chose these particular young
women because "they were what you could call loners, who did
not belong to any particular group or sect," and because she "admired
their ability to survive not despite but in some ways because of
their solitary lives." But simultaneously she took away
from them their isolated lifestyles by putting them in a "space
of [their] own," "a sort of communal version of Virginia
Woolf's room of her own."
I also believe that calling any
group of young women "my girls" is paternalistic and
contrary to the very spirit of Nafisi's thinking that wishes
that each of her students remain her own person at all times.
Although her students break the middle-class taboo of discussing
their private lives "in public," Nafisi overlooks the
domestic tyranny in Iran and focuses exclusively on the State tyranny.
She does not pay much attention to the thousands year-old domestic
tyranny practiced by many Iranian men under the Islamic regime,
the Shah's regime and all Iranian regimes before that.
Nafisi's students are oppressed by their male relatives in a flagrant
way. Sanaz is being harassed by her brother before everyone's eyes,
Azin is being regularly beaten by her husband, and Nassrin has
been sexually molested as a child by her "pious" uncle.
These men who oppress their sister, wife or niece, are not the
agents of the Islamic Republic, but ordinary Iranian men, probably
as much opposed to the regime as Nafisi and her class are. The
despotism of these men is certainly as confining as that of the
Women's lives in Iran have always been confiscated not
only by the brutal kings, sultans and khalifs (mullahs) who ruled
the country but also by the no-less brutal men who ruled their
homes. And the "perverse intimacy of victim and jailer," as
Nafisi describes the relationship between Lolita and Humbert, seems
to apply more to the male-female relationship in Iran than to the
citizens-Islamic Republic relationship. In the same vein, Nafisi
alludes to the tyranny of some Iranian traditions without elaborating
Not only Nafisi does not elaborate on the devastating impact
of many Iranian misogynistic traditions (as distinct
from religion) on women's lives, but also she fails to see
that so many of the Islamic Republic's fascistic practices
have their roots in these traditions.
When the author describes
Sanaz and her friends' experience of being arrested by the
morality squad and submitted to the virginity tests by a woman
gynecologist, she writes as if the IRI has invented this practice.
In reality, this degrading custom has existed in Iran for many
centuries. The majority of Iranian women would have to go either
through the "virginity test" done by a midwife or a doctor
on the eve of their nuptials or exhibit a bloody sheet as a sign
of their virginity on their wedding night. It is important for
an Iranian man to make sure that his wife-to-be has her hymen intact.
This manifestation of the "right" of an Iranian man
to the ownership of his wife's body even before having known her,
has been appropriated by the Islamic State as a self-appointed
representative of the Iranian male and his "natural" rights
vis-à-vis his female counterpart. The connivance between
the Islamic Republic and the Iranian male regarding the latter's
female relatives is evident in admonitions that Sanaz's younger
brother displays. "How could they let six unruly girls go
on a trip without male supervision?"
Nafisi relates Sanaz's
disappointment in her brother but leaves it at that. Instead, in
the next paragraph, she goes back to "they," the agents
of the Islamic Republic. Nafisi forgets that to preserve one's
individuality as the only way not to be complicit in the crimes
of the totalitarian mind-set applies as much to a woman's
male relatives as it does to any totalitarian State.
There is a certain disdain and contempt towards ordinary people
that one notices in Nafisi's book. Nafisi feels as much separated
from these ordinary people who live in the city "below" her
upper-class house as from the Islamic Republic. The reader wonders
what happened to the "empathy" whose absence Nafisi so
rightfully identifies with evil and despotism. Didn't Nafisi
defend Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" by announcing
that "Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many great
novels - the biggest sin is to be blind to others' problems
Furthermore, for someone who genuinely believes in democracy
and personal freedoms, it is quite strange not to have evoked the
1953 CIA coup against the democratic government of Prime
Minister Mohammad Mossadegh; a coup that brought
the despotic and misogynistic Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back to
power. Is this calculated censorship? A lapse of judgement? Or
an unconscious self-delusion?
The irony is that whichever way,
by precluding it, Nafisi only makes us see, on every page of Reading
Lolita in Tehran,
this dark side of American foreign policy as one of the historical
reasons behind what is happening to Iranian
women today. By its absence from Nafisi's otherwise delightful
book -- that was published on the 50th anniversary of the coup
-- the shadow of this anti-democratic American intervention into
domestic affairs jumps into the reader's mind.
It is also disturbing that Nafisi does not mention the repressive
atmosphere of the Pahlavi era and the reality of life
experienced by Iranian women under the Shah during the 1960's and
1970's. The author's
silence on the tyranny of the Shah's regime is even more puzzling
in light of her father's 4-year incarceration
as mayor of Tehran.
Nafisi speaks of her students as having had "both a real
history and a fabricated one." I have a problem with Nafisi's
contention. Young women of my generation under the Shah's dictatorial
regime, too, had both a real history and a fabricated one. We were
defined by the Shah's regime as Aryan women and our personal histories
We were defined also, like Nafisi and her students,
by Iranian men. Nafisi's argument is truthful only when it is
applied to all dictatorial regimes of Iran and to most Iranian
the last three thousand years. Why is it that Nafisi gives
us the impression that women's lives in Iran have been confiscated
for the first time and exclusively by the Islamic regime?
I truly wonder.
All I can say is that Reading
Lolita in Tehran is
a witty source of intellectual stimulation and insightful learning
about life under the Islamic Republic of Iran -- not only for what
it portrays poignantly but also for what it leaves out so surprisingly.