Newest Review: ... the start of the book, where Nafisi discusses Nabakov's Lolita in great detail. I found this part very interesting, despite having n... more
...and living to tell the tale.
Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books - Azar Nafisi
Member Name: grahamt
Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books - Azar Nafisi
Date: 25/09/09, updated on 25/09/09 (45 review reads)
Advantages: Brilliantly written ; very revealing
Disadvantages: Some harrowing sections
Iran, Zimbabwe and North Korea are prime examples. Such secretive societies work hard to obscure the true workings of their regimes. For instance, what is the truth about the "election" of Ahmadinejad? Did he, as his opponents claim, steal the election, Bush Jr style, or was he truly elected by the majority will of the people?
What really goes on "behind closed doors" can occasionally be appreciated through the writings of those who live or lived under the effects of those who enforce the Rule of Law, such as it is determined, and reveal what it means to them and those around them. We have to decide whether their revelations are honest and representative or just politically motivated.
One such is Azar Nafisi, a former professor of literature at the University of Tehran. Nafisi had been raised during the reign of the late Shah and witnessed at first-hand the events that led up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini, the renaming of the country as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the resultant imposition of an extreme, some may say perverted, interpretation of Islamic Law.
As Nafisi watched all her freedoms, freedoms we in the West take for granted, taken away from her and her fellow citizens by the male-dominated regime, she came to realise that her work of bringing great literature to a wider audience was becoming impossible. In not inconsiderable danger and with the moral support of her liberal husband, she decides that she will continue her work in secret.
She invites a small group of former sudents to meet weekly in her own home to discuss the great classics of Nabakov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen in an atmosphere of openness that simply could not be achieved in the oppressive atmosphere of the universities under the new regime.
The title of her book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran", may be titillating but the book itself is anything but. This is not a sensationalist exposť but an intriguing and engrossing account of one woman's desire to enthuse others in great literature, set against the events and forces that seek to prevent her from so doing.
The book is not an autobiography but an eye-witness account of a particular episode of Nafisi's life, in Iran, interwoven with her recollections of the actual discussions within her group of the books that they were studying, under her guidance. We learn much about the books themselves but as much about the members of the group and how their involvement influences their own opinions and lives.
The narrative is superbly written and allows the reader to form his own judgement, both about the books, their authors and also about the life of people in Iran as they are radically changed by the imposition and brutal enforcement of controls and restrictions dictated by the religious clerical hierarchy. We read how even against this background Iran's citizens, mostly the women, for these controls are largely directed against them, seek to circumvent these controls, to rebel in their own small ways and how even these minor indiscretions too often lead to the ultimate sanction.
The book is divided up into books/authors and equate to the successive periods of Nafisi's life, leading up to the departure of her and her family for a new life in the US in 1997. Although motivated to seek the relative freedom of the West, she remains as long as she does simply because she feels that she can do more good in Iran than she can outside of it. Ultimately though, life becomes intolerable and you read this in her descriptions of the brutality meted out on her friends and students.
Her description of the impact on Iran of the 10 year war with the US supported and armed Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, is harrowing. Descriptions of how children and old enforced conscripts were forced to walk across minefields in order to clear them with their own deaths so that more "valued" soldiers could attack the enemy was some of the hardest parts for me to read. Fortunately it isn't all like that.
Undoubtedly the Iranian regime will claim that her accounts are a pure invention and a pack of lies written from the safety of an evil empire (America) but the book doesn't come across like that. This is no diatribe by an embittered exile though God knows, Nafisi would have every right. This is a measured, thoughtful account by one who probably knows as well as anyone what living under an oppressive regime feels like. You will probably not often read anything much better written.
The version I read was in paperback, published by Harper at a cover price of £7.99.
Summary: A superb account of life during the Iranian Revolution against a background of classic literature.
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