Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

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.

reading lolita in tehran

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.

persepolis.jpg

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.

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31 comments

  1. Sorry to hear that this wasn’t more fulfilling. The premise sounds really interesting, and I might have liked to learn more about life at that time, in that place, and the experience of teaching that secret class. It’s a shame that didn’t seem to be the focus of the book.

  2. It’s been so long since I read this that I don’t have clear memories of it. But I gave it four stars on Goodreads so I must have liked it! 🙂 (I think because I’m part Persian I really enjoy reading anything set in that place.) I wonder if it spoke to you differently because you are a college professor. Also, expectations of books really can make or break a reading experience. Incidentally, why didn’t you quit it?

    • I’m stubborn.

      It was really the leaps in time and the reproduction of college classes for pages on end that struck me as weak. The author notes that Iranian students are taught to memorize lectures and that one of her students copied all of the author’s lectures word for word. Thus, there are likely verbatim reproductions if Nafisi’s classes.

  3. Interesting – I’ve heard many good things about this one and been intrigued by it. Having been through plenty of lit courses in real life I feel little desire to read about them in books! But I agree that Persepolis is great!

  4. I also found this an extremely frustrating book. The author didn’t seem to have made up her mind what kind of book she wanted to write. The result was a mishmash. Every time it got to something I thought interesting it would veer off in a different direction . Agree with you that this was a misleading blurb.

  5. Sounds like the author didn’t really know what she was trying to do with the book. I doubt if I could have stuck it out, so well done, or sympathies, for getting through it. Ha – on a facetious note, gotta admit, if my government ever decides to ban all literature, Lolita wouldn’t make the list of books I’d be fighting to keep… but I’d risk anything to smuggle in an illicit copy of P&P… 😉

  6. I know this book review isn’t about Persepolis, but how did you like that one? It’s been on my TBR for a while and I’m kind of contemplating a graphic novel binge. Sorry to hear this one took some effort to get through. I’m not sure how I’d feel about having to read whole lectures in the middle of the narrative.

    • It took me a while to “get” Persepolis because I didn’t know about the Iranian Revolution, but once I learned, I thought the graphic novel was great. There are two of them; you can buy and read them together.

        • Here’s what you basically need to know: Iran was very liberal. No scarves, people went to college, etc. all under Reza Shah. Then, a revolution started. When I think “revolution,” I think positive change. However, in the case of Iran, the revolutionaries wanted to shut down universities that didn’t teach the conservative agenda of the government. They wanted women to wear veils (not a single hair showing!) and hated all things Western. It started to go down in 1977, and by 1979 Reza Shah was out and the “Islamic Republic of Iran” was the new thing. I’m not sure what Iraq was up to, but they saw the Iranian revolution as a chance to take, and they did. Iraq bombed the crap out of Iran.

  7. THANK YOU! “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.” – yes. This was an ideal book for me, based on the blurb, but it was so confusing and plain dull that I gave up on it. I’ve felt vaguely guilty about that ever since, and indeed, when I saw your review pop up in my blog reader, thought, “Oh, she’ll explain why I should like this” – so I was so pleased to find back-up for my opinion instead, from you and others!

    • Did you feel guilty because the book is about women and oppression? I think that’s why a lot of people praise it. The subject matter is a good reason to seek out the book, but not to keep reading. It’s like I tell my creative writing students: just because your poem is about your feelings doesn’t mean it’s good. That makes them MAD, but it IS an introductory course. They’re still learning.

      • I felt guilty because this is exactly the kind of book I usually love to read and I felt like I was dismissing the women and their oppression and their struggles by putting it aside. Thank you for encouraging me to unpack that. And I agree with what you say – and love what you say to your students! I wish more people would say that to more writers of all kinds right at the start!

  8. Sorry to hear this was such a slog for you! I felt pretty similarly about it. I’d not yet read Persepolis and had to do a lot of googling to try to figure out what was going on, when I’d been hoping the author would provide a better introduction to the history she was discussing. And I was also disappointed by how much of the book focused on analyzing classic texts instead of on the author’s experiences.

    • I had to Google a ton when I read Persepolis, too. She explains the history, but there is SO. MUCH. I’m from the United States. It history is short, so the expanse of Iranian history is nearly overwhelming to me.

  9. Okay, based on your review and all the comments, I will be reading Persepolis and not Reading Lolita in Tehran. I might, however, decide to pick up a copy of Lolita someday just to see what all the fuss is about. 🙂

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