52 Books: Book 7


I just completed the book, Reading Lolita in Tehran – a Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi. This memoir is a look at revolution, censorship, the affects of an extremely religious regime, women’s rights and the Iraq-Iran war. 

Nafisi writes of her experience growing up in a time of freedom, becoming a professor at a university and subsequently having to give up many of her rights because of a revolution. She eventually starts a small reading group in the privacy of her own home that allows a handful of women to study and share their opinions without the heavy hand of censorship.

I found this story to be inspiring, but was also saddened for the women who lost their rights as well as those who grew up without rights.

Nafisi separates her memoir into four parts that focus on different books and authors. Part I is a discussion of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. She uses the story of Lolita as a framework to discuss how the villain can never truly possesses his victim: “no matter how they may be broken, the victims will never be forced into submission.” Likewise though a government may enforce strict laws, it can never truly own its people.

Part II centers on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is probably my favorite part of the book. Nafisi shares an experience while teaching at the University in which one of her radical Islamic student’s questions her morality in teaching this particular book. She chooses to “put the book on trial.” One student is assigned the task of judge, the radical Islamic student is the prosecutor, a female student is assigned the defense. Nafisi plays the part of the defendent and the students are the jury. I found this entire section to be fascinating.

Part III focuses on the author Henry James with more emphasis on the Iraq-Iran war. And finally Part IV circles back to the secret book club and focuses on Jane Austen.

Excerpts from the book:
Does she compare her own situation with her mother’s when she was the same age? Is she angry that women of her mother’s generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women? Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from eighteen to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?

“curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.”Vladimir Nabokov

These students… were different from mine in one fundamental aspect. My generation complained of a loss, the void in our lives that we created when our past was stolen from us, making us exiles in our own country. Yet we had a past to compare to the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away. But my girls spoke constantly of stolen kisses, films they had never seen and the wind they had never felt on their skin. This generation had no past…

We in ancient countries have our past – we obsess over the past. They, the Americans have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.

The novel was its own defense. Perhaps we had a few things to learn from it, from Mr. Fitzgerald. She had not learned from reading it that adultery was good or that we should become shysters. Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they go whaling after reading Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that? …This is an amazing book, she said quietly. It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also; to look for integrity in unusual places. Anyway, she enjoyed reading it, and that counts too, can’t you see? {Zarrin defending Gatsby during the in-class trial}.

In retrospect, when historical events are gathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time. For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless.

When I think of how their talents were wasted, my resentment grows for a system that either physically eliminated the brightest and most dedicated or forced them to lay waste to the best in themselves…

“Feel, feel, I say – feel for all you[re worth, and even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live.” – Henry James

Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all the others flowed.

I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions.
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