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Being Lolita in Tehran
Azar Nafisi's observations of post-revolution Iran from Olympian heights


June 30, 2005

Well, then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent. Because the European Enlightenment is more important than people. -- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notebooks for Brothers Karamazov (Quoted from Snow by Orhan Pamuk)

The success of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is by now a matter of record. The book's timely publication after 9/11 when the public's interest vise a vie the Middle East was high, its remarkable run on the New York Times best selling list and Nafisi's well publicized book tour assured the book was widely reviewed.

This is then not a book review as such, the interested reader will find plenty of that elsewhere. What I'm interested in is the politics of Nafisi's book and the case study it offers of the uneasy, asymptotic relationship between modern Iranian intellectuals and the Iranian society; between an intelligentsia which came of age as the result of the contact with the West and a society knee deep in tradition. The modern intellectuals and the greater society in Iran throughout the last eighty years or so have danced to their own tune, brushed against each other occasionally but have never truly made contact.

As the book's subtitle announces, Reading Lolita in Tehran is no straightforward memoirs but "a memoir in books".  Briefly, the book's centerpiece is the informal weekly readings of Anglo-American literature Nafisi conducted with a select group of her former students who kept in touch with her after she'd resigned from her post at Allameh Tabatabi University in Tehran.

The book is divided into four parts, each named after one of the author's favorite books or writers: Lolita, Gatsby, James (as in Henry James) and Austen (of the Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility fame). The author revisits the events of the 18 years prior to her departure from Iran for the United States in context of her reading of the classics of the Anglo-American literature.

In Nafisi's reading, Nabokov's Lolita becomes an allegory for tyranny; Gatsby's tragic fall and crushed dreams a parallel to the dreams of the Iranian revolution; James's conception of the place of the artist in relation to her society a beacon for the author herself; and Pride and Prejudice a mirror of Iranian womanhood condemned by a patriarchal society to her virginal solitude and labyrinthine inner life.

For a book that purports to abhor the naked role of politics in literature Reading Lolita in Tehran is awash in politics, and this is nowhere clearer than the book's central conceit, Nafisi's reading of events in Iran through the lens of Anglo-American literature. This may seem natural since the author is after all a teacher of English literature but I think this looking outward -- Westward -- is a clearly political act.

This looking to the West is the antithesis of what the Iranian revolution set out to do -- looking away from the West, inward. Nafisi's dilemma is the same as Iranian intellectuals in the past eighty years. Tradition or modernity?

Unfortunately her articulations are more often than not ahistorical and disconnected. Throughout the book, Nafisi makes a number of bold, brash statements regarding the players in Iranian politics, the role of writer in her society, theory of novel, etc, mostly only hinted at with minimal elaboration(1).

As I got further and further into the book I had the nagging feeling that I was reading a travelogue, the eye witness account of a tourist trapped in a cruel and exotic land who finally managed to escape her captors and return home.

It's 1979, only weeks after the overthrow of the Pahlavis when a young Nafisi arrives in Tehran after a stretch at a Suisse boarding school and a longer one at Norman, Oklahoma, breathless and fresh-faced clutching a PhD, flushed with Fitzgerald, Mike Gold and Nabokov, eager to educate the natives to the subtleties of James and tragic beauty of Gatsby. But much to her chagrin she finds the natives unwilling and the universities dominated by the red and black reactionaries.

Except for a few students (naturally mostly women in this book) the student body consists of underdeveloped minds in an underdeveloped country. Nafisi loves her country, wants to lift it from its aesthetic poverty but this love must be strictly on her terms (crack the whip professor. It's for their own good, the poor bastards).

History, as presented in Reading Lolita in Tehran starts when Nafisi arrives back in Tehran. Except for a brief mention of her father's trouble as Tehran's mayor with the former regime, there is no evidence of the sequence of events that led to 1979. Of course Nafisi is not a historian and no one should expect a historical analysis from a book of memoirs, except that the author insists on issuing sweeping judgments on everything and everyone from her ivory tower.

No mere peasant Ms. Nafisi (she of long standing cultural family, the daughter of a former mayor no less), she would, following Nabokov's example, observe the events from the Olympian heights of literature rather than participating in them. No earlier has she started teaching in the university that she becomes disgusted with the general turn of events. "... as time went by, it was the values inherent in Gatsby that would triumph but at the time we had not yet realized just how far we had betrayed our dreams."

What dreams and whose dreams exactly? Like most of her broad statements Nafisi doesn't elaborate.

The main problem with the Iranian revolution was that there was no articulated dream. There was mostly a hatred of the Shah that bordered on pathological and a desire to get rid of him at any cost. The highly polarized opposition had no clear vision (or dream for that matter) of the future. Even the clergy played their hand as they went along, unsure of the future since the Shah's rule was perceived as unbreakable.

Having witnessed the Stalinist tactics of the Confederation of Iranian Students Abroad and hence cured of any overt political interest, Nafisi expresses revulsion at the rash of executions of the former regime's lynchpins in the immediate aftermath of the revolution.

The way Nafisi juxtaposes the events, moving from her traumatic experience with the Confederation to the post-revolutionary executions is characteristic of her ahistorical and wishy-washy approach, and one might say revealing of her politics(2).

For instance, It would've been nice for the author to have mentioned that the Confederation (as it was know back in the 60' and 70') was regularly infiltrated by the SAVAK, their leadership and rank and file members often beaten up and punished by the regime. Their paranoia was not without basis and their behavior not simply a symptom of the memberships' sadism.

Yes, the Confederation did employ Stalinist tactics in resolving their internal conflicts (who didn't back then? Right, Left and Centre all employed the same tactics) and were often politically naïve and misguided but they also worked hard in exposing the abuses of political rights in Iran in spite of the regime's expensive and very effective public relation campaign abroad. This selectivity of the events as presented by an author who trumpets the democratic nature of the novel, is telling.

Nafisi rightfully mourns the grotesque nature of the executions after the revolution. I'm not familiar with the case of the gentleman friend of Nafisi's but I assume her former high school principal executed by the revolutionary courts must be Ms. Farrokhrou Parsa, the former Minister of Education for life in the cabinet of the former Prime Minister for life, Hoveyda. Kangaroo courts are despicable and dehumanizing under any name: lynching party, people's court, revolutionary tribunals, Military tribunals. They dehumanize both the victims and their executioners.

But to paraphrase Mr. Bahri, the nasty villain of the first part of the book, there was a revolution going on. The cycle of violence that concluded in 1979 had indeed started 25 years earlier in 1953 when the Anglo-American coup toppled Mossadegh's government. Hundreds of regime's opponents, including army officers, writers and poets and social activists were tortured, executed and sentenced to long prison sentences.

Having destroyed all semblance of a democratic framework, the regime then ruled mostly by fear (the dreaded SAVAK) and graft, and then later on was briefly boosted by a boom in oil revenues that trickled down and benefited a thin layer of the middle class.

For 25 years the state monopolized political violence. After years of resentment and oppression, in those heady days after the Pahlavis were gone, revenge was the currency of the land. The members of the former regime reaped what they had sown. The hangmen also die, something worth remembering for everyone. When the big machinery of violence is set in motion, the beast acquires a life of its own and is not easily harnessed.

Had Nafisi gone back to Iran a year earlier and witnessed the bloody demonstrations in the streets of Tehran, the carnage of 17th of Sharivar, the morgues full of bodies, the spectacle of daily burials, the massive tanks patrolled by fully armed soldiers parked outside of high schools which at times shot up unarmed students, maybe she would have understood why the average Tehrani didn't shed much tear for the bullet ridden bodies of Hoveida or Parsa. Revenge may be ugly but it's an all too human emotion.

And of course there were other factors. The new regime still vulnerable and shaky wanted to demoralize the supporters of the old regime by showing off the bodies of its former leadership. The showcased brutality of the executions was also a warning for the folks who fancied themselves the future opposition, namely the Marxist Left and the Mojahedin-e Khalgh.

It is in relation to her disgust at the brutality of the revolutionaries and their corresponding aesthetic poverty that Nafisi shows her most vociferous contempt for the Marxist Left, even more so than the purveyors of the current regime, for they are at least players in her narrative whereas the Marxist Left (including some of her students) are relegated to the sidelines. She bestows some of her vast humanity to the likes of Mr. Bahri and the disillusioned Hezbollah student who sets himself on fire in a hopeless protest against indifference, but the Left doesn't even deserve her glance.

Were it not for her own admission that she gave up on Leftist politics before returning to Iran (thanks to the thugs of the Confederation) her bitterness would have smelled the rancor of an ex-fellow traveler. This contempt, though not quite undeserving, is just a tad self-serving. Because even as hundreds of the Left's young sympathizers were being imprisoned and executed during the Eighties, some of whom possibly Nafisi's students, the closest Nafisi ever came to putting her neck on the line was refusing to wear the hijab. Big deal!

In one of the book's several half-baked statements, Nafisi declares that the realistic novel never took roots in Iran. "These readings made me curious about the origins of novel and what I came to understand as its basically democratic structure. And I became curious as to why the realistic novel was never truly successful in our country." This again is really a sweeping political statement disguised as theory of novel.

Nafisi's implication seems to be this: novel as originated in 18th century Europe is a democratic form. The novel requires a sense of empathy for all characters, a cacophony of voices. The realist novel never took real root in Iran therefore Iran's political culture is incapable of fostering democracy, unless perhaps through a wholesale dumping of its past and acceptance of the West? An attractive theory on the surface with its allusions to Asiatic despotism and Islam, and one espoused by scores of so-called Orientalists. But the actual record of Iranian literature seems to suggest otherwise.

I may not hold a PhD in literature but how do you classify the novels and short stories of Simin Daneshvar, Ale Ahmad, Choobak, Hedayet, Dolatabadi, Golshiri, Golestan and others. The subject matter of these writers' books was the every day realities of their society, rendered in a realist, non-allegorical language containing a multiple of psychologically varied characters. Nafisi's negligence of this body of literature seems to stem from her dislike for their often politicized content. She doesn't like them because they don't fit her concept of literature.

It's true that a large part of literature and arts in Iran before the revolution was overtly political but not all writers and poets fit that notion. Socialist realism had its advocates but ultimately the presence of politics in literature was simply a refection of the realities of the society, as has been the case in Latin American and the greater Indian literature.

Ultimately there is only good literature and bad literature. Brecht produced some very good art even though he saw himself as a cultural worker. Gorky wasn't the vulgar writer that Nafisi makes him to be (in this she seems to be repeating Nabokov, whose lack of generosity extended even to the likes of Joyce) even though he did produce some mediocre work. T.S Eliot was a great poet and an anti-Semite. In her dislike for one group of cultural commissars, Nafisi becomes one herself when she sermonizes about the role of fiction.

This rather hysterical revulsion at the role of politics in literature is most telling from her reading of the phrase "The personal is political", which is surprisingly sophomoric coming from an academic. The often quoted expression, "The personal is political" during the activist 60's and 70's in Western Europe and North America (ironically by the Women's Lib movement), links personal acts to a greater political picture. So a woman's right to her body is connected to defense of other democratic rights in the entire society.

It's bizarre that a book which makes the very personal act of a group of women getting together, in the manner of a Tupperware party, and read books into an act of transgression; that rhapsodizes about one woman's wearing a sexy dress under the chador as an act of social defiance, derides the expression "The personal is political".  Of course what Nafisi is rightfully protesting is the dissolution of boundaries between the personal and private, and the public and political spheres; the collapse of civil society and its dominance by the state. But what does that have to do with "The personal is political"?

Throughout the book there is an underlying theme that what Iran needed was a greater exposure to the West and specifically vis a vis aesthetics, Western literature(3); that denying herself of Western literature and culture contributed to an aesthetic poverty and a reactionary revolution. But translating Anglo-American literature as well as works from French, German, Russian and Spanish to Persian was a whole industry in pre-revolutionary Iran. Hundreds of titles were translated. Hemingway, Faulkner, Virginia Wolfe, and Fitzgerald (of whom readers were aware before Nafisi went back to Iran) were well known writers along with Proust and Lorca and Aragon, Heidegger, Russell, etc.

True, there were some very bad translations but there were also excellent ones. I myself read JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye in Persian as a teenager and having read the English text several times since then have to admit that the Iranian translator truly captured the spirit of the book as well as any translation could (I read Charles Bukowski in Persian, also translated by the same translator).

I submit that the problem wasn't so much that Iranian intellectuals (for I assume Nafisi did not expect semi-literate folks in rural areas or the urban poor to read and learn from the classics) read too little foreign texts, that they read too little of their own literature and history. I submit that they were disconnected and ahistorical. Ale Ahmad called this Gharbzadegi. His tone and his traditionalist approach was wrong but his symptomology was spot on. And that their reading of the European and American classics seldom crossed awestruck mimicry into production of a genuine national literature.

Maybe instead of reading Hemingway for the hundredth time, they should have read Naguib Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy (a disciple of Balzac by his own account and an ardent secularist) or Garcia Marquez's One hundred Years of Solitude or, to give a current example, Orhan Pamuk's Snow. Not that there weren't some very good attempts. Mahmoud Dolatabadi's rural novels, Ale Ahamd's own urban stories, Daneshvar's singular Soovashoon, among others, were all with varying degrees of success efforts to articulate a modern Iranian literature. And that's what a national literature does: articulate national destiny in stories of a country's people. It creates a voice that is particular and concrete and recognizable by the citizens.

The failure of Iranian intellectuals was to articulate that grand story, not that they failed to read enough Fitzgerald or Austen. Austen and Fitzgerald did that for 18th Century England and Jazz Age America respectively. The hard work of an intellectual is to burrow into her society's national psyche through its individuals, create characters and stories that possess its colours and textures. This requires the artist to have an intimate sense of the people and their history, warts and all. Iranian intellectuals though more often than not have simply wished for the people to go away, to disappear. Well, the masses won't go away, can't go away. They can't all immigrate to Europe and America.

1) Maybe she did. Maybe her publisher sat her down and said "Look, Azar. Your target market, the 30-50 white middle-class female readers are not interested in the minutiae of political history in Iran. They want the personal stories. What it feels under the veil in the Islamic republic. Give them the details, the juicy stuff." The book's cover itself is just that. A couple of peach-skinned waifs, the chador slightly slipping over their jet black hair looking down at something cleverly framed out. What could they be looking at? What does really go on under the veil?

2) I'll be only guessing about Nafisi's politics although her boosters at Johns Hopkins, Fouad Adjami and Bernard Lewis, both neo-con darlings on the Middle East issues, may provide a hint. As well, there is a faint sense of nostalgia for the good old days and a reference to the Turkish model. Could Nafisi be a closet fan of a secular dictatorship backed by an ever watchful army? I hope not. We've seen that movie before.

3) The kind of literature of course that Nafisi approves, not Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Garcia Marquez and Zadie Smith but Nabokov, James and Borges. By the way when will the Iranian intellectuals ever leave Modernism behind and enter 21st Century? The great dead white men (and a few women) were deserving of their reputation and can still inspire but at least two generations of new writers have written since Faulkner and Hemingway.

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