The Book Lover’s Tale

Using literature to stay afloat in a fundamentalist sea.

Azar Nafisi’s engrossing Reading Lolita in Tehran is the sort of book that ruins the sleep of those in charge of placing books in bookstores. Where to shelve it? Under literary criticism? No, for although it subjects a number of classics to revealing scrutiny, that would miss much of its point. Under memoirs? Similar problems: although its story is intertwined with the life of its author, it is not that life.Women’s issues or feminism would not be entirely out of place—the main characters who both act and suffer in this book are female—but again, in such a classification something would be lacking. A mischievous soul might stash it under book groups, which would be about as close as my college library’s choice of veterinary medicine for Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: there is a book group in Reading Lolita, but it is more like a life raft than an after-work social gathering.

Reading Lolita needs a category all its own. “An approach to the serious reading of mostly modern Western classics under a fundamentalist Muslim dictatorship, with hanging, shooting and bombing complications” might be a beginning. Its author, Azar Nafisi, is at present a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a frequent visitor to talk shows, now that Iran is increasingly a subject of conversation, but her situation was not always as secure. She grew up in Iran, in a family not without standing—although her father was imprisoned by the Shah at one time—then went to college in the United States in the 1970s. There, at the University of Oklahoma, she explored western literature and ideas of freedom—especially freedom for women—and took part in protests against Shah Reza Pahlevi’s brutally repressive regime, where the secret police organization SAVAK indulged in assassination and torture.

As she describes it, Nafisi found this period of her life confusing. She opposed the Shah’s regime, but from what position should she oppose it? Should she advocate western liberalism, which was being attacked for failing to come to the defence of individual rights in her country because it put its own oil interests foremost? Should she veer toward the left, back then when the Soviet Union still existed and was doling out funds and party lines? Or was that too modern, too secular, too materialist? The Shah after all was modern and secular and materialist. Some felt Iran should go in the other direction—toward the past, toward some version of Islam that would have the strength to overthrow the Shah’s regime, purge the country of corruption, and deliver justice to a people who had been too long deprived of it. But if you were a woman, the Islamic option presented risks. “When I was growing up, in the 1960s,” she says, “there was little difference between my rights and the rights of women in Western democracies. … We all wanted opportunities and freedom. That is why we supported revolutionary change—we were demanding more rights, not fewer.”

Nafisi became involved with a faction on the left, but claims she was never entirely convinced by any of the ideological lines. Her real loyalties were to her homeland and to literature. But a homeland is never identical to the government of the moment, and literature transcends ideology: thus totalitarianisms have always tried to co-opt national sentiments and censor or harness writers. As Nafisi says in hindsight, “Like all other ideologues before them, the Islamic revolutionaries seemed to believe that writers were the guardians of morality. This displaced view of writers, ironically, gave them a sacred place, and at the same time it paralysed them. The price they had to pay … was a kind of aesthetic impotence.”

Filled with idealism and with a passionate faith in the dream of an Iran as it might yet be, Nafisi returned to her country to take up a teaching post at the University of Tehran just at the moment when the Shah’s walls came tumbling down. Although she did not know it, this was like returning to Paris when the French Revolution skidded out of control. Turmoil was the order of the day, as various revolutionary groups fought for political power. On the one hand, everything seemed possible; doors opened, exiles returned, prisoners stepped into the light. On the other hand, the reign of the mullahs was to become worse and worse—bloodier and more corrupt than the Shah’s regime had ever been. But many Iranians did not see this coming. They hoped. They believed.

Into this cauldron stepped Nafisi, armed only with her good intentions, her devotion to literature and a kind of foolhardy innocence. Hearing of the risks she took, the reader is amazed she was not arrested or killed. As a teacher, she was inspired by her students’ thirst for knowledge, although she was also angered by their ignorance and their unwillingness to think for themselves. But as one of her students admonishes her—a student who was later murdered by the regime— “‘Most of these girls have never had anyone praise them for anything. … Now you come in and confront them, accusing them of betraying principles they have never been taught to value. You should’ve known better.’”

Almost immediately Nafisi’s classroom became a focus for the tensions of Iranian society. Oddly enough, it was the books North American readers might find the most innocuous that caused the wildest clashes. Jane Austen roused the ire of fundamentalist students for the very reason that their western equivalents might dismiss her with a yawn: she wrote books about private life, private love and personal choices. But as Nafisi points out, in a totalitarian regime the biggest affront is a non-political book—a book that exists for its own reasons. “It is said that the personal is political. That is not true, of course. At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives. Political and personal are interdependent but not one and the same thing.The realm of the imagination is a bridge between them … it was perhaps not surprising that the Islamic Republic’s first task had been to blur the lines and boundaries between the personal and the political, thereby destroying both.”

The university quickly became the battleground for warring ideologies. Fundamentalist students attended Nafisi’s classes in order to denounce her choice of subject material. Morality was constantly under discussion, often presented in black and white terms. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was so contentious that the class put it on trial. It should not be taught at all, claimed the fundamentalist prosecution, because there was drinking and adultery in it. Henry James’s Daisy Miller was deeply troubling to the students because, like the story’s narrator, they could not decide whether Daisy was a “good” girl or a “bad”one. “A novel is not an allegory,” Nafisi tells the class. “It is the sensual experience of another world … This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience.” Years later, Nafisi meets a former student, a woman who had attacked her but is now married, and has chosen a “secret” name for her daughter: Daisy, after Daisy Miller. “I want my daughter to be what I never was—like Daisy. You know, courageous.”

While Nafisi was attempting to teach, the fundamentalists were tightening their grip. Women’s bodies became highly charged political and religious symbols. When the university demanded that she wear the veil, Nafisi quit, only to find herself shortly in a world in which all women, university folk or not, were forced to veil themselves or face imprisonment and worse.

(The regime had a nasty habit of “marrying” virgin women to guards, who would rape them before executing them. Why? Because there was a popular belief that virgins went to heaven. Nafisi says that it was the “persistent lack of kindness”— extended to every sphere of life—that frightened her the most. Similarly, for the novelists she teaches and admires, the worst sin is the failure of empathy—the lack of imagination that must lead inevitably to the persistent lack of kindness.)

As external space became more and more closed to Nafisi and the religious police stepped up their harassments, she set up a private reading group, which met in her house. The only criterion for membership was a wish to discuss western literature. It is at this point that Reading Lolita in Tehran begins: from this midpoint in its own narrative, it ranges backward and forward in time, filling us in on the events that have led to the group’s formation, and telling us what happened next to its various members. Their identities are disguised to protect them. Only one former student appears as herself, but that is because she is dead. The stories of the women range from horrifying to heartbreaking to touching, with a couple of muted happy endings. Every one of them—even those who were in favour of the government at the outset—feels herself ground down, obliterated.

Reading Lolita provides us with a chilling account of what it feels like to live under such conditions: the heaviness, the constant weighing down—which is what we mean by “oppres- sion”—and at the same time a lightness, a sense of unreality—they can’t be doing this!—and a feeling that one is becoming both invisible and fictional. Nafisi’s reading group paid so much attention to Nabokov partly because of his absolute fidelity to the primacy of the aesthetic imagination and partly because they saw, in the fate of the defenceless Lolita at the hands of Humbert, their own position reflected. Lolita was turned into a fantasy object, just as every woman in Iran had become a fantasy object for the regime—a regime that wanted to censor all narratives but its own, and to force everyone else to play a preordained part in it. “The desperate truth of Lolita’s story,”says Nafisi,“is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.”

Despite the grimness, the pain and horror, and the human malice that Reading Lolita describes, it is enthralling nonetheless. It explores with fervour and conviction the tacit pact among writer, book and reader. It is also a reminder that reading is subject to the Zeitgeist, just as we are told writing is. Nafisi reads T.S. Eliot and Dashiel Hammett as the bombs from Iraq are falling close to her house; she reads Lolita with her secret group; she rediscovers Austen in Iran. Reading a book creates a memory of itself, and that memory includes the circumstances under which it was read. Where reading is so curtailed and readers so deprived, the books themselves acquire a heightened value. They become an alternate reality, a source of hope, a matter of life and death. This book causes us to reflect on our own reading habits,which by comparison seem casual and lacking in seriousness. It is the old human story: we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.

Nafisi’s valued friend—a recluse she calls her “magician”—says to her when she is on the verge of leaving Iran, “You will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us … This is the Austen you read here, in a place where the film censor is blind and where they hang people in the streets…”

“I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination,” says Nafisi. Reading Lolita in Tehran is both a fascinating account of how she arrived at this belief, and a stunning vindication of it. All readers should read it. As for writers, it reminds us, with great eloquence, that our words may travel farther and say more than we could ever guess at the time we wrote them.