Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books


Jane and Kimberly find answers that ring true to the culturally ripe question – what do women want? – in Azar Nafisi’s insights into what happens to the natural female self in a society with oppressive practices against women.

Summary: Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely–their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

“What we search for in literature is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”

 As I read RLT, I identified with Nafisi’s students as a reader, remembering to imagine myself in my most extraordinary moments and staying awake against the tyranny of time. I’ve recently been re-reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and, one more time woke up to what he meant by his title. As much as the book has been popularized as erotica, its point is really about the cancer of time – and/or timelessness as he says – that eats away at the specialness of being alive and, against all odds, relishing our aliveness. Nafisi adds politics to Miller’s time and as she teaches literature to who she calls ‘her girls,’ she makes the point that she wants to keep alive the feeling of reading literature rather than seeing in literature a mirror of outer reality. In other words, she encourages us to see a mirror of our inner world in literature and take sustenance from that connection.

 Yes, and that sustenance from the connection to literature became a substitute for faith in religion. It was written in the book that, ironically: “Many people, especially women, clung to religion as a means to survive the very conflict caused by it, relying on the ideas of a higher power to explain, justify, and protect them from the current situation.” Yet these young girls in her class saw the flaws in faith for faith’s sense, saw the hypocrisy in intensely religious men marrying girls of age nine who would ban the book Lolita, and instead turned toward the imagination as a stronger tool lending themselves a source of comfort in their volatile lives.

I felt a strong love for this book because although my life can’t possibly compare to the tyranny these girls suffered, I could relate to the use of books for salvation. As a young girl, in a very dysfunctional family of addicts who were inconsistent parents, I, too, reached for books. I can still remember with a shiver of goosebumps, being eight and receiving a bunch of miniature classics for Christmas. I would sit in my room and read Little Women, Moby Dick, and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and feel these real visceral “a-ha!” moments that my world wasn’t the only world in existence, the only possibility for me, and that someday maybe there would be a time and a place I could carve as my own. Without the bridge to other stories, I may have become darkened to the thought of the world being only the one I intimately knew at home. Instead, the mere existence of other stories gave me hope.

 To put this book into context, I found myself trying to establish a timeline for Nafisi’s experiences in Tehran. In 1977 the Shah visited the U.S. In 1979 the Revolution began. In 1979 Nafisi returns, married, and becomes a professor at the University of Tehran. She teaches there until 1987 when she tries to resign and – get this – because only the regime can terminate her employment – not her – she stops going to the University and teaches the class of her dreams in her home with a group of women students, and eventually one man who is husband to one of her students. Her general organizing principle is how great works of the imagination can help in their present trapped situation as women. Sometime previously, around 1980, when she’s teaching in the University she puts Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, on trial with her students playing different roles in a courtroom for one of the most fascinating segments of the book. I never thought to put a book on trial before but I guess if you have defended the value of teaching controversial literature, it’s a great way to get students involved. I’ll return to this later. I think she left Iran in 1997 and started writing this book the year after.

 And it’s important to note that the books she was teaching in this secret class were banned. All of these women who came to this class were doing so at risk of great trouble, but what starts to emerge is that these women are accustomed to being in a constant state of potential trouble. If they wore their veil wrong, showed a strip of hair, or walked through a wrong door, they might get harassed. Their lives were embedded in this constant buzz of potential punishment yet they were sisters in this unspoken act of subversion anyway. Why would they put themselves at risk? Nafisi alludes to this reality when she illustrates from Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading the concept of a character literally dancing with his jailer to parallel the metaphorical dance women had to do with the government and the men who policed their lives.

 Yes, she makes a great point. Nabokov’s character is not so much interested in the nightmare going on around him as he is in the nightmarish quality of his experience. This brings up a parallel for me to our thoughts about the TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, where I had so much trouble watching the horror of Offred’s torture but was drawn to puzzle about what kept her going. In Nabokov’s book, he points out how his main character refuses to become compliant like all the rest and keeps an eye on the frailty of those in power. She makes the point for her students and us that literature helps us keep an essential boundary in place between fiction and reality. When trust in the outside world is no longer possible, it’s possible to turn inward to survive if one can see the line, see the absurdity of reality. Putting her finger on the ability to differentiate is an amazing insight drawn from Nabokov. This honoring of the differentiating ability of our inner world is, I think, what you like to call ‘the new.” What do you think?

 Yes, maintaining a deep relationship to this inner world is what gives these women a sort of power that is theirs and theirs only. No one can take that away from them. In this place, they don’t have to conform or to operate under some forced authority. It is a kind of silent activism connected to an inherent ability to imagine. One student in the book puts this nicely as “It is only through literature that one can put oneself into someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature, only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them.” These women are getting keen insight into their oppressors through Nabokov, knowing thy enemy intimately, while their oppressors take the opposite route—simply banning anything that might get them too intimate with the “other.”

 For me, one of the fun things about Reading Lolita in Tehran has been teasing out, making clear what studying Nabokov means, really means to Nafisi, to her students, and to us. She gets me to identify with Nabokov, not Humbert nor Lolita nor the tragedy. He is inventing a way to be in charge while living in a slip and slide reality. The real deal is that by writing Lolita, he found a way to tell us how by trying to turn reality (the girl, Dolores) into fantasy (his image, Lolita) Humbert destroys her. To quote, ‘Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.’ It is a defense of the normal pleasures that girl-women are deprived of when they live in an oppressive society. Just amazing. What a gift. It’s so difficult to get a hold of these internal concepts of ordinary living.

 That statement struck me profoundly as well because I realized these female student’s lives were also confiscated without their consent. In one instance, Nafisi asks the girls to conjure an image of their selves and they struggle to do so because their identities were never something for them to own. “Manna saw herself as a fog; Yassi described herself as a figment.” Later, Nafisi tells of going through a dark period herself in order to mentally deal with the mandate to cover her body in which she would imagine her body not existing at all. It was difficult to cultivate a respect for the self for these women when no foundation for it had ever been laid. But eventually, through this covert act of discussing literature together, the girls begin to discuss their own lives with each other, to indeed start to reveal their own natures through the dialogue about various other characters. Nafisi writes in the book that “respect for others, empathy” is a core side effect of reading literature. When she compares James and Austin, she points out that when people go through trying times it is not happiness that is gained, but self-respect.

 Okay, so now I’m reminded of a movie, actually a documentary with cinematic magic, that I saw at the Palm Springs Film Festival that I hope you and all our readers will be able to see. Liyana is about an orphanage in Swaziland where all the children have lost both parents to AIDS. A storyteller comes in to lead the kids in telling a story. These young kids have seen a lot and keep creating life-threatening situations in which their heroine, Liyana, has to deal. As with Nafisi, this storyteller proves to the kids that they have the potential to surpass present limits when they apply their imagination to the task. It’s the connections with potential, not the actual feat, which the kids need to survive. And to a question we often ask each other, why do some kids under adverse circumstances go beyond survival to thrive and others succumb, Nabokov – along with other great works of fiction – gives a clue.

 Exactly. I am reminded of a story I heard once about Holocaust survivors and how many of the survivors related a common coping mechanism while imprisoned in the camps. Despite their harsh situations, they would visualize being free, seeing the outside of the gates, the snow, and imagine themselves there. They never gave up hope. These books were the key to unlocking in these women readers, the very essence of hope because literature is a concrete manifestation of the power of the imagination. It is evidence to some degree.

 It’s interesting to me that Nafisi could only write this book after she left Iran. I think this gives testimony to the terrible helplessness felt by women under a regime like Iran after the Revolution of 1979. She describes a drawing by one of her students of a naked girl caught in a black bubble that is being lifted into the air by a giant bird with long black talons. The girl reaches out of the bubble and holds onto the bird’s talon. Nafisi comments, ‘Her subservient nakedness is dependent on that talon, and she reaches out to it.’ In other words, the girl’s survival depends on her reaching out, not submitting, not sliding into a disconnect with her own inner sense of self, source, vitality, and viability. Perhaps Nafisi had to get out of Iran before her thoughts of RLT could break the bubble and tell us why bother reading fiction. The answer I got was that literature really helps us question what we take for granted. How about you?

 It helps us question what we take for granted for sure, especially the fact that our belief systems are set in stone, or that any one belief system could possibly be the ultimate. As Nafisi wrote in the Gatsby portion of the book, “You don’t read Gatsby, I said, to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are. A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.”

 Oh, dear, on to Gatsby. They gave Nafisi a lot of trouble with this one. The values shaping Gatsby are so clearly the exact opposite of the Revolution. But the lure of the money world in the West, according to Nafisi, is the least of the problems for an oppressive regime in great fiction. Such literature incites a first-hand sensual experience of another world. The emotional solidarity it rouses in its readers knits people together in a shadow world apart from the outside world. All that human emotion regardless how dark – sadness, loneliness, sorrows, illusions, hope, fear (see Conrad’s preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’) – ties people together, dead and alive!   So what did she do? She put Gatsby on trial in her classroom. Mostly books that are put on trial are done so to be banned. Nafisi puts Gatsby on trial to be discovered. I’d love to hear what you made of this part of the book.

 I loved it but mostly for the way it screwed with the security of the male students. They tended to project the book’s loose moralities and so-called sins onto their own life experiences, which made them entirely uncomfortable. Whether they were in disdain or perhaps jostled to uncover a pocket of their own internal immoral repressions, it had a bombastic effect. But the best thing was how Nafisi noted that the trial took the entire class, men and women, out of their current politically and socially tense realities and into another world. Although they were fighting, they were fighting over a book! Not out in the streets! A momentary escape.

 Nafisi often teaches by omission, if you will. By seeing that the biggest sin is to be blind to other’s problems, she emphasizes what has disappeared by taking note of losses her girls have not yet experienced because they were not living their lives before the Revolution. Literature gives them hope while Gatsby shows them the price to be paid when dreams are lost. Makes me want to go back and take literature classes all over again. As much as I learned from being a psychologist with real people and real dilemmas, I always was freed up to think when I read great books. William Styron’s book, Darkness Visible, is an eye-opener about depression that clinical reportage lacks. Empathy seems to be something much better reached through literature than clinical supervision. Gatsby is an eye-opener about the significance of empathy.

 I totally agree. It is one thing to talk about yourself and your problems and then become advised what to do, which for these women is simply not an option. But when you can read about imaginary characters going through their own problems in safe detachment from yourself, your inner world can take hold and internalize the lessons in a place of safety. Empathy with the characters becomes a way for these ladies to have dreams, once removed.

 You must value your dreams but be wary of them. You must look for integrity wherever it appears, anywhere you can find it. And then come to the realization that we enjoy the darkest fictions when they bring in the light needed to get through the night. Funny, don’t you think, to read a book to get in touch with how feeling sorrow is a natural human connective tissue.   Anyhow, I recommend all our readers read this section of Nafisi’s book.

 Yes, these women were able to find the light needed to get through their own dark nights. I am sure it stoked longing, and whether or not that longing was painful or delightful, it certainly became a suspension bridge for them that could momentarily lift them from their everyday life.

 I could talk a lot about the value and the burden of longing. I once had a young woman client who said to me, “Oh, I think I’m getting this therapy thing. There is no future. You just make it up as you go along.” As you can tell, it made an impression on me. And I think Nafisi looks at Gatsby much the same. She felt her fate similar to Gatsby who she paraphrases as discovering the past was dead, the present a sham and there was no future. What keeps us going is the dream. What keeps us safe is the discrepancy, knowing that the boundary between inner and outer is intact and ours to maintain. As Nafisi intertwines her teaching experience with her living in Tehran during ominous times, I felt encouraged to take note of my own navigation between worlds as I feel the cancer of time, taking a page from the books I read to live lively as I can from dream to loss and back again. I want to keep looking in the mirror and seeing myself, not some stranger. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a big help with that endeavor.

 Yes indeed. I have come a long way from that little girl who read books to feel the promise of a future in which I would formulate my own character. Now books remain a way not to become complacent, to continue sparking my own evolution of imagination through the deliciousness of others’ imaginations. Books are the perpetual food that feeds my inner sense of self, challenges it, and provokes it to continue to dream. Like you I want to look in the mirror and see myself. I hope that the women in Nafisi’s class have come closer to this themselves.

 Nafisi makes a comment toward the end of the book that Khomeini tried, like Humbert, to fashion reality out of his dream and managed to destroy both reality and his dream. I think she’s cautioning us to be careful not to destroy dreaming when dreams are lost and stick with living, not dying until we’re dead.









2 thoughts on “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books”

  1. Wonderful insights in your dialogue, and good questions too. I have to ask – where have I fallen asleep to my life, where has my life been confiscated?

    many thanks

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