(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In 1995, literature professor Azar Nafisi gathered together seven of the best woman students from her years in various universities in Tehran and started a special class she had been pondering for some time. For the next two years, until Nafisi’s departure for the United States, the group would meet every Thursday morning in her home and discuss books. These books—Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), among others—are generally considered classics of English and American literature. Under the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, they were considered dangerous examples of Western decadence, and for respectable young Iranian women to read and discuss them was a suspect activity at best, a punishable offense at worst. Reading “Lolita” in Tehran is a memoir of these years and a powerful commentary on how repression and fear can damage people’s lives—and how literature and the imagination can help them to survive. During the course of the book, readers come to know a good deal about Nafisi, her students, her family and friends, and the culture of postrevolutionary Tehran.

Nafisi was born into a prominent Iranian family. Her father was the youngest mayor Tehran had ever had, though he was eventually to fall out of favor and even serve a jail term for insubordination to the national authorities. Her mother was among the first small group of women elected to the Iranian parliament in 1963. Among the privileges afforded by Nafisi’s background was the chance to receive her secondary education in Europe and to attend college and graduate school in the United States. In the late 1970’s, recently married and full of hope for her future and that of her homeland, she returned to Iran and took up a post teaching literature at the University of Tehran.

Before long, though, revolutionary forces under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini began to solidify their power and establish the Islamic Republic of Iran. Soon the freedoms Nafisi had long taken for granted—including the freedom to dress as she pleased, to conduct her classes as she saw fit, and to speak in public to men—began to be restricted. Though the new standards of behavior imposed by the Islamic Republic affected all Iranians, women were particularly burdened, and Nafisi describes the sensation of having her most cherished notions of self challenged: “I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.”

Nafisi’s students have had a rather different experience. By the time the group began meeting in 1995, the Islamic Republic was sixteen years old. The youngest of her students have only distant childhood memories of Iran before the revolution. As adults, they have never walked outdoors without wearing veils and heavy robes, nor have they experienced free mingling of the sexes outside of their families. Few of them ever had the opportunity to travel abroad and experience different ways of living. Their lives and identities, much more than Nafisi’s, are restricted by the notions of women’s propriety imposed by the government. For them, the literature class is much more than an opportunity to discuss great books. It is a rare chance to mingle with friends (unveiled, if they choose), to laugh out loud, to share stories, and to have their opinions taken seriously.

“The girls,” as Nafisi calls them (rather jarringly, given her self-proclaimed feminism) range in age from their early twenties to their early thirties and are surprisingly diverse in their attitudes and backgrounds. Some are religious, others secular; some are married, others single; some are outspoken, others quiet. One was molested by her uncle when she was an adolescent. One is beaten and threatened by her husband. More than one has spent time in jail for political or moral offenses. Nafisi comments on how such individual differences among women tend to vanish under the required veil, emerging only when the women are alone together and at their ease. Thus, the portraits of Manna, Mashid, Nassrin, Yassi, Azin, Mitra, and Sanaz (all pseudonyms used to protect the women and their families still living in Iran) emerge slowly in the memoir, building in increments as their stories mingle with those of characters in the novels they read. Drawing a connection with Nabokov’s young Lolita, Nafisi...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)