The Iranian Revolution is the period depicted in Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and in Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi each in their refreshingly new way though each has its own problems. Though there are similarities in the backgrounds of both authors since they are both from wealthy and educated Iranian families there are differences in their depictions of the period as well as how they see Iran in the present.
By using the Nabokov novel Lolita as part of its title, Reading Lolita in Tehran implies a certain transgression inherent in the text particularly the scenes wherein the details of the women’s lives and actions not sanctioned by the new found religiosity are revealed.
The women come to represent Humbert Humbert in wanting to act in a fashion not sanctioned by the rules of the new religious regime. Actions appropriate before the Revolution are strictly forbidden and could cause a woman her freedom and social standing. Their inappropriate actions are given a forum when their discussions about literature move from the classroom and into the professor’s salon. Within this haven the professor and her seven best students move from the literary world and into their own private spheres.
The use of Western novels such as Lolita and The Great Gatsby is confounding since it legitimizes the alleged freedom and democracy of these texts and their Western at the expense of Eastern texts and their context. The book though well-written would have been better, more insightful and perhaps would have held more meaning to the students to whom literature was being presented, if the texts used would have been Iranian.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis depiction of the Iranian Revolution in a graphic novel gives an almost comic tone to the revelation of violent and depressing events as seen through the eyes of a child — and further through the prism of a female child’s eyes. This adds pathos to the recounting of events in that it focuses attention to the plight of women under the fundamentalist Islamic regime. The U.S. version of Persepolis is a combination of the first two of four volumes as they were originally published in France. The book has been a best-seller in France, Spain and Italy and has won several awards including the Fernando Buesa Blanco Peace Prize in Spain.
“I wanted to put a few things straight”, stated Satrapi has stated that she felt that the publication of the book was necessary to alleviate stereotypes and educate Westerners about Iran and its culture. She also distances herself and her culture from Arabs in stating that most people upon realizing that she is Iranian expect her to speak Arabic and wear a veil. This was a bit off-putting but if viewed in context she is simply giving attention to her culture and the plight of her people since the Iranian Revolution.
Though both presentations of the Iranian Revolution by Nafisi and Satrapi are valid the latter account is the better account because there is never a doubt that she is an Iranian and that she is equally enthusiastic about her own culture and icons whereas with Nafisi the Occident is presented as the better context at the expense of her own culture particularly in her choice of texts to open up discussions about Iran and its political situation.
In terms of breaking out and effecting change the slow and steady rebellion within the home and on the smaller scale is the best one because it is the one that brings about the most profound change much as Satrapi did as a child and which she continues as an adult from abroad in terms of educating others and maintaining contact with Iran through her visits.
Teresa Camacho is an independent researcher, critic and writer based in Los Angeles.