READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN
by Azar Nafisi
Random House, 2003
Paperback, 326 pages
Azar Nafisi is an Iranian writer and academic who taught at the University of Tehran during the years following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, by 1995, she felt the restrictions placed upon her impinged upon her ability to teach properly, and she left the university. Instead of teaching large classes at the tumultuous university, she selected seven of her brightest, most committed students to teach in the privacy of her home. For the next two years, this group met weekly to discuss forbidden Western classics including Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Henry James, and Jane Austen.
I have to confess, I was very disappointed with this book. First of all, I thought the description on the back cover is misleading; the description is all about this group of women meeting despite the risks to read forbidden Western works. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that I expected the book to be about these women talking about the books and how they relate to their own lives. I was really looking forward to getting to know these women and learning about their struggles and insights. However, this is not what I encountered.
Although the secret literature class is present in the book, the discussions that took place during it make up only a small fraction of the memoir. A lot of it is about Nafisi’s experience teaching at the university, other “official” classes she taught, other students she taught over the years, and the struggles she faced as a woman and a teacher. These things are interesting, but they were not what I was expecting. I was really hoping for a deeper connection to the women in Nafisi’s secret class. I wanted to learn about their interactions as a group and about them as individuals.
Although there wasn’t as much writing about the private class as I had hoped, I really liked those portions of the book. I could tell there was a really interesting group dynamic, with many of the women having drastically different religious and political beliefs to each other, and I would have loved to read more about them. When I did get to read their discussions of the books, it was interesting to see how they related the books to their lives and the situation in Iran. However, when Nafisi wrote about certain books out of context of the discussions, I sometimes felt like I was reading a dissertation on Nabokov.
Additionally, the format of this book felt disjointed. The book isn’t written in a linear fashion, and the way Nafisi skips around in time over the 18 years she lived in Iran as an adult was often confusing. Perhaps it would have made more sense to someone more familiar with Iranian history than I am — and I probably know less about Iran than I should — but I was often confused about where in the timeline I was.
On a related note, I really wished Nafisi gave more background information about the Islamic Revolution and the events following it. Again, I am woefully ignorant about these matters, but that’s why I read — to become more informed and to learn about the world around me! I think Nafisi assumes her readers are familiar with this piece of history, but I was frequently confused. I know very little about the Iranian Revolution and its players, and I wish she better explained the different parties; she writes about Islamists, monarchists, Marxists, revolutionaries, reactionaries, fundamentalists, radicals, leftists, and the Mujahideen, and most of the time I had no idea what these terms meant in the context of the Iranian Revolution. I felt like I needed to do background reading in order to understand what was happening in this book!
Although this book wasn’t as focused as I had hoped, I did enjoy reading about life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. ‘Enjoy’ might not be the right word, since many of the things Nafisi writes about are horrific and would be unbelievable if I didn’t know things like that really happened, but many of her stories were truly fascinating. For me, the most interesting concept she writes about is the veil Muslim women are required to wear in public places. One of Nafisi’s students wore the veil as a religious statement long before the revolution, and it was interesting to me that she was angry about the new requirement; although she wanted to wear the veil, she wanted to wear it by choice, for her own reasons, not be forced into wearing it. If every woman is required to wear the veil, her wearing it has no meaning. It was a really interesting concept to think about.
I really struggled with this book, but I think someone with a better understanding of Iranian history and culture, armed with a more accurate description of this book than the back cover copy provides might enjoy it.