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Azar Nafisi:  citizen, woman, professor, wife, mother, daughter, friend. Reading Lolita in Tehran is her memoir recording her time spent in Iran previous to and during the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini and the oppression which went along with control of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The memoir tells of her personal struggles along with those of her friends, family, students, and fellow citizens to attempt to live during times of deep change, war with Iran, and death all around them, while still trying to go on living and make sense of the world around them.

A professor of English Literature, Nafisi teaches at the University of Tehran which is considered the most liberal University in Iran. This fact not only makes it a target for the government in terms of oppressing the curriculum, it also means that its students are extremely active politically. There are immediately questions involving the choices of material Nafisi chooses to teach in her courses.

She decides despite her fears of losing her job or much worse, she will teach the books and lessons she believes will be valuable to her students.  Upon discussion of The Great Gatsby in her class, are select students, supporters of Khomeini’s regime, who argue that the book is immoral –its characters are sinful Imperialists. Many of the students cannot see past the fact that the writer and settings are American in origin. Nafisi allows all opinions to be stated yet always argues and hopes they will see that literature is meant to be read for empathy and emotion not race and religion.

The difficulty for these young people to transcend cultural barriers is difficult to understand for an American reader, yet is made easier by further explanations of the world they live in.  As the regime becomes more powerful Nafisi explains the ways the oppression disturbs day-today life.  Her work as a professor is impeded by making it difficult, and most times impossible to purchase books she reads or wishes to teach. Students and citizens in political parties protesting the government are murdered or jailed for years. Women refusing to wear headscarves in public are jailed or lashed. Random virginity testing is given to women who are considered “suspect of crimes.” Propaganda lines the streets indicating that America, the Imperialist, is the Great Satan, dismissing the fact that the current war is with Iraq.  A foreign reader never having known anything similar begins to imagine how these atrocities may not be comparable to a student in Tehran to empathize with characters in Fitzgerald’s or Joyce’s fiction.

When the regime began expelling the Universities best professors for not complying with restrictions or being too liberal, Nafisi had been planning a class to continue teaching her best students for some time. She would ask her 7 best female students to meet once a week in her home to read banned books.

These were the girls and women who had attended her courses and had actually appreciated the literary value of English Literature. As students, they had carefully examined the texts to see what they could learn about life, themselves, and the past to gain insight into the future. Instead of learning in the oppressive environment of the University where they had been afraid to express themselves, the girls were free to discuss personal experiences and receive feedback. In the midst of the war and bombs falling around them, reading fiction became a parallel universe they could escape to.

On the first day of the meeting, the girls were asked to write in their journals about their self-image. They weren’t ready yet. Later they each turned in their images separately. Sanzaz who had recently been wrongly jailed, lashed, and subjected to a virginity test gave a black and white drawing, ‘She is crouched in an almost fetal position, hugging one bent knee. Her other leg is stretched out behind her. Her long, straight hair follows the same curved line as the contour of her back, but her face is hidden. The bubble is lifted in the air by a giant bird with long black talons. What interests me is a small detail as opposed to more imagery of the girl, the bubble and the girl’s hand reaches out of the bubble and holds on to the talon. Her subservient nakedness is dependent on the talon, and she reaches out to it.’ Sanzaz’s hand outside the bubble (which is like a cage to her) indicates her inability to transcend her captors. Will she be able to see a life beyond this forced submission?

Nafisi provides background information about her 7seven girls, which creates a larger picture regarding the suffering of women under Khomeini’s rule in Iran. She remembers growing up in her generation before women were forced to wear headscarves, cover their bodies in public, or were unable to graze a male friends hand in conversation. These girls would never know to miss these small things; they would only wish not to be subjected to lashings for having their finger nails painted or wearing mascara. In telling their stories, Nafisi shows their beauty, and individuality while still depicting the commonality of their emotional experiences.

Through the process of reading and analyzing literature, the students were given a chance to view the world with alternative perspectives, something they may not otherwise have had the opportunity to do in Iran. Although they are not completely free where they live, they know much more than others.  Afansi once described Nabokov’s description of a sort of alternate dimension in Invitation to A Beheading: “rare kind of time…the pause, hiatus, when the heart is like a feather…part of my thoughts is always crowding around this umbilical cords that joins this world to something-to what I shall not say yet.” It is an implied escape to another place to be reached by anyone brave enough to go. It is a new beginning.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

For more information:

Similar subject matter: Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Makes my top 10 all time favorite list)

Faith, Power, and Fantasy: the History of America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren

author’s website: http://azarnafisi.com/