Content Warning: mentions of the injustices suffered by women in the Islamic Republic of Iran, such as marital rape, physical violence, gynecologic exams to prove virginity; anxiety resultnant of war-time bombing; the government praising death and war.
Because I believe the synopsis of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi is misleading, I want to begin my review with it:
Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov.
The memoir begins with Nafisi and seven students 1995. I thought the memoir would be about a former college professor risking life and liberty to give a liberal education to Iranian women who otherwise could not attend school due to an oppressive regime. But, then memoir jumps around. On page 150, the year is 1981. Seven pages later, it is 1980. On page 177, it is 1987. And so on. Nafisi tries to explain the Iranian Revolution and its pre-war society. For me, the biggest help to making sense of the Iranian Revolution was having read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi several times in the past. Basically, Iran was very liberal until a revolution that took Iranians back to the glorious past (sound familiar? #MAGA?) when even a single strand of a woman’s hair showing meant she could be imprisoned.
Further confusion stems from the inconsistent use of quote marks. Mostly, there are none, nor is there a new paragraph when a new person speaks. Typically, when someone talks for more than one paragraph, there is no quote mark at the end of the first paragraph, but it appears again at the beginning of the next to indicate the person is still speaking. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, that doesn’t always happen. At one point, I thought I was in Nafisi’s head until I read “Could you please turn to the last page?” It was then I realized the author was faithfully reproducing a class lecture.
Much of the book reads like sitting through a class, with Nafisi talking for pages on end. I lost interest easily; I’ve sat through literature classes and didn’t need a reproduction of the plot and key themes of Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice. While entire classroom lectures are on the page, Nafisi can’t manage to research the name of a Bertolt Brecht poem, claiming, “I wish I could remember the poem better, but there is a line toward the end something like. . .” There are several instances of faulty memory that could be bolstered by Google.
I did read the entire 343-page memoir because occasionally, Nafisi would note interesting points about life in the Islamic Republic of Iran that supplemented my knowledge from Persepolis. For instance, Nafisi’s grandmother was a devout woman who had always worn the veil, even when Iran was liberal. The grandmother resented her veil being turned into a political symbol, thus preverting her relationship to God. In addition, college professors were meant to reinforce the message of the government. Imagine a society so one-minded that even scholarly work must reflect the word of the goverment.
While very little time is devoted to the secret class with seven female students, and much time is given to plot discusions of famous novels, once in a while a point would be made to connect literature to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a college class, a student argues that outside of literature, we only know one aspect of a person, whereas books let us inspect all sides. She argues, “But if you undersand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them.” Later, looking at Pride and Prejudice, Nafisi notes, “. . .there are spaces for opposition that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist.” Both examples are commentary on the government’s eagerness to jail, torture, and murder people, especially women, for perceived differences.
Nafisi makes a connection between the revolutionary leader Khomeini and Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert. Both had a dream that he tried to turn into a reality, and the result was the death of reality and the dream. These are the sorts of revelations I would expect to happen in her secret Thursday class, but most of the time with her seven students is spent discussing wearing the veil, finding husbands, and dreaming about the United States. Overall, I felt the synopsis was misleading, as most of the book is spent outside of the secret class and in the past. The class wasn’t the protest against a totalitarian regime that the publicity for Reading Lolita in Tehran suggested.
Honestly, I wish I would have quit this book and moved on to something else from my reading challenge. I spent 11 days working to get through Nafisi’s book.