Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Iran has been a hot topic in American news publications and broadcasts for over three decades. The Islamic Revolution, a hostage crisis, the execution of intellectuals, an ayatollah calling for the death of Salman Rushie, women losing their rights to work and dress as they please, a war with Iraq, reform movements, reform movements backtracking, the development of nuclear weapons, the expulsion of diplomats, the stoning of adulteresses, and on and on. Never a warm and friendly story as a headline from Iran. From a distance, it might seem that there are no friends of the West left in Iran.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi testifies that there is and has always been opposition to the Islamic rule that has dominated for thirty years. Many people may have supported the overthrow of the Shah in the late 1970s, but they wanted an end to tyranny and corruption. What they got was more of the same but worse. Nafisi was one of the demonstrators against the Shah longing for justice. She quickly became disillusioned as she saw how women suffered from laws that reversed decades of liberalization. As an intellectual and professor of English literature in a country claiming that all things Western are evil, she was always close to censure and arrest. Only a fairly low profile kept her from danger.

Nafisi lost her position at the University of Tehran after breaking too many rules - mostly concerning the use of her scarf. She quit before being fired, but the expulsion was coming. In response, she invited some of her best students to come to her apartment for a highly illegal class about Western novels, including Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice. For two years, seven young women came one morning a week, removed their burqas, reveal their jeans and dangerously painted fingernails, and debated the merits of characters and ideas in books that had disappeared from Tehran bookstores. In time they also began to tell about their troubles and dreams; the scheduled two hour classes sometimes became all-day affairs.

Listening on a Playaway, I never did get all of the women straight. That probably does not actually matter, as Nafisi says upfront in her introduction that she renamed them and masked their identities to protect those who still live in Iran. They represented many positions that women take in a repressive country. Some were agnostic and long for Western freedom. Others were devout Muslims who felt that their government was not truly Islamic. Together they formed a loose bond that lasted until Nafisi herself left the country.

While Reading Lolita in Tehran is on the whole a serious book, there are lighter moments. I had to laugh about how often Nafisi turned to pastries, ice cream, and chocolates to entertain or seek solace. The women also spent significant time joking about the awkward and repulsive men who sought to be their suitors. The author even pokes fun at herself at some of the most stressful moments. In one revealing scene, Nafisi allowed Iranian police in her home as they watched the house next door; instead of worrying about her neighbor, she tried to hide her illegal satellite dish.

When I picked out the Playaway, I thought I had a good 8.5 hour audiobook for my gardening and housework. Later, examining more closely, I saw the seam of the plastic pocket on the case hid a 1. After 18.5 hours of listening over 10 days, I have no regrets. I have now put Nafisi's Things I've Been Silent About on my reading list.

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. Recorded Books, 2004. Playaway ed. ISBN 9781428141117.

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