Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir told through literature. It shifts in time, but it is a complete story of one woman’s experience in Tehran before, during, and after the revolution. She has changed names to protect some from possible punishment and others from probable embarrassment.
Azar (Azi) Nafisi and her husband, Bijan, live on the second floor of an apartment building in Tehran; Azi’s mother lives on the first floor, her brother on the third. After resigning from her university position in 1995, Azi selects seven of her most committed students to conduct a literature study group in her home. She wrote a book about Vladimir Nabokov, and this is the basis for their new studies together as well as much of Azi’s philosophy. This memoir introduces each of the characters in the story both as they appeared at the beginning in their robes and scarves and as they really were after their time in a literature group, studying the realities found in fiction over the course of two years.
The women she chooses for this group are all loners; although they were all Iranian, they do not have much in common other than their “fragility and courage.” Their lives have been shaped by the revolution. Mahshid spent five years in jail for her affiliation with a religious dissident organization and was forbidden to attend a university for two years after her release. She wore a scarf for religious reasons before women were mandated to do so, and now she resents being forced to wear a scarf. Manna is a poet; her husband, Nima, desperately wishes he were allowed into the group. Manna lives in vivid colors despite the rather colorless world around her, which was caused by the revolution. Sanaz is influenced by Ali, her longtime love who bullied her brother; he has been in England for the past six years. Yassi is the youngest and a lover of words, exploring them with her mouth and tongue as often as she can. Mitra, Nassrin, and Azin make up the rest of the group. Mitra is married to Hamid and will eventually try to immigrate to Canada. As a young girl, Nassrin was sexually molested by an uncle who tutored her and wanted to keep himself “pure” for his future wife. Azin is tall and blond and has been unhappily married three times.
At their first meeting, they share tea and start keeping journals of their thoughts about their reading. A Thousand and One Nights is their first book to discuss. They examine the roles of the passive, powerless virgins; the aggressive, outwardly acquiescent queen; and the courageous, outspoken Scheherazade. While living in this restrictive Islamic regime, these women have to find a way to create and live free in their “own little pockets of freedom.” It is a different world than the one their mothers grew up in: armed soldiers look for women who do not cover all their hair, who wear makeup, or who do not sit in the women's section at the back of the bus (while they are often “harassed” by the men in the back of crowded taxis and minibuses); oppressive slogans are painted everywhere like graffiti; and those who dare to rebel are punished of flogging and humiliation.
To find some freedom in the middle of such restriction, these women gather for a literary workshop:
It is amazing how, when all possibilities are taken away from you, the minutest opening can become a great freedom. We felt when we were together that we were almost absolutely free.
Another book they study is Nobokov’s Lolita, a story about a young girl who has essentially been absorbed into a much older man’s life. Readers only know Lolita through Humbert; in much the same way, these women are only known through the men around them. Lolita is both a “vulgar insensitive minx” and a lonely orphaned girl—and for the duration of the novel she lives in utter helplessness and dependence. While vastly different in many ways, these women are in much the same situation as this twelve-year-old fictional girl. Only a few of them have the actual book because it is banned by the government; all three hundred pages have been copied from an annotated edition.
The women in this group meet in to preserve their individuality in a world that punishes it. They are all plagued with nightmares about getting caught by the government doing things that are no longer permitted. Azi fears being caught hosting this gathering with forbidden books. Despite their fears and their marked differences, they are able to connect in ways nothing else in the country allows:
It created and shaped our intimacies, throwing us into unexpected complexities.... I constantly felt as if I was being undressed in front of perfect strangers.
They keep journals and write poetry that yearns for things women of their generation did not experience:
stolen kisses, films they had never seen and the wind they had never felt on their skin.
Azi recounts her journey back to a very different Tehran than the one she left seventeen years before. Her father was the former mayor of Tehran who was jailed as a dissident, which changed her life forever. She married young and quickly, knowing she would divorce even on her wedding day. She traveled with him to America and studied literature at a university in Oklahoma. When she returned to her home country, she was stunned at the changes she saw. In fact, before she even left the airport in Tehran she was pulled aside, interrogated, and inspected—while her husband was left untouched and unnoticed.
As a university student in the United States, Azi had participated in her share of protests and demonstrations. As a professor of literature at the University of Tehran, she tries to maintain some continuity for her classes at a time when every day there are deaths or revolutionary calls to cancel (boycott) classes. The battle between the leftists and Islamics is being played out on university campuses. In this environment, where revolutionary writings are sold and debated in the hallways, Azi is armed with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby and the simple desire to teach. She sees both Twain and Fitzgerald as revolutionaries and wants to explore these concepts with her students. She meets both resistance and acceptance for her teaching, but her classes become enormously popular.
Gatsby is a novel that captures the American Dream, the hopefulness of a future filled with love—the antithesis of this culture, which looks back and worships what has gone before. It is a difficult semester, interrupted by protests and demonstrations and killings; no one is immune from governmental scrutiny. One of Azi’s students respectfully expresses his view that reading Gatsby is a negative influence because it teaches American values. It is “immoral” and it poisons their minds. Azi decides to place the novel on trial; the students will be judge, jury, and lawyers. No one will advocate the novel by acting as Gatsby, so Azi plays him in the trial. It becomes the Islamic Republic of Iran against The Great Gatsby, and not only is the book on trial but Azi’s philosophy and literature itself is being tested. It begins as a heated discussion about morality but ends as a commentary on the nature of literature:
A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way a novel is called democratic—not that it advocates democracy but that by nature it is so.
Azi’s personal realization after teaching Gatsby is that they are on the same self-destructive path as Gatsby is—trying to fulfill a dream by living in the past only to find that “the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future.”
The spring semester is difficult. After shutting down most forms of nongovernment publishing, the government targets the universities. Only a few classes are offered; instead, both professors and students march and protest to keep the university open. They do not prevail. Some students are killed or have simply “disappeared,” and the faculty still shows up but do not teach.
War broke out on September 23, 1980: “unexpected, unwelcome, and utterly senseless.” Schools are to open the next day, but they do not. The war lasted nearly eight years.
The rules have changed, and Azi and her female colleagues must now wear...
(The entire section is 3638 words.)