By Azar Nafisi
Every week for two years, former Professor Azar Nafisi and seven handpicked female students secretly gathered in her home to discuss literature. Most of the books they read were forbidden because of their Western content, so the girls often had to read photocopied versions of the novels.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a compilation of “profiles” of Nafisi’s students, book analyses (pieced from the perspectives of the author, her students at the university, and the girls in the book group), and life in Tehran. This book is divided up into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, based on four of the books they read within the two years. Within each section Nafisi writes of her students, Islamic life and politics and literature, threading them together with discussion and themes from that section’s book.
Nafisi compares and contrasts the lives of the girls in her group to the lives of the characters they read about. Their life under the Islamic regime very much resembles the life of young Lolita with manipulative Humbert. Nafisi writes, “The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality.”
During their meetings each week, Nafisi and the girls discussed their lives and relationships but the most important part was always books. Nafisi writes that those texts were “essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity.”
Readers come to understand how fiction informs these girls’ lives during their two years of reading literature. They were able to escape into different worlds and discuss themes and ideas apart from the turmoil of their own lives. Novels and the ideas and themes within them could no longer be taken for granted in their highly restricted society. Western classics were banned from bookstores, the classroom and even personal possession. As Americans, we take for granted freedom of speech and being able to read and write whatever we want without being censored. Reading Lolita in Tehran presents the idea that books are a precious commodity, and hopes the reader will realize the importance of the words inside these texts.
A short review cannot do justice to the craftsmanship of Nafisi’s prose. She handles her students’ lives so carefully and writes of Islamic life so realistically that readers cannot help but sympathize. Most importantly, she writes about literature with such passion that readers want to immediately run out and buy all the texts.
I believe Nafisi succeeds in doing what I hope this blog will do. She brings life to fiction and magic to reading. If Reading Lolita in Tehran does its job correctly, readers should put this book down with a renewed awe of literature and a sense of the beauty it can bring to the world.