Lorenzo Berardi's Reviews > Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
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Sep 25, 14

bookshelves: iranian, a-my-italian-library
Read in July, 2004

I hadn't read Nabokov's Lolita when I started this one.
What aroused my curiosity here was not the artfully chosen title of the novel, but its setting: the Islamic Republic of Iran, formerly known as Persia.

Truth be told, Iran has always interested me a lot, indeed.
Amir, my best friend during secondary school, had Iranian roots and he was (and still is) one of the most clever persons I know. I used to say that when Amir and I were 12 year old, we talked about topics I haven't found anyone to speak with for at least the following ten years. We were keen on discussing stuff such as modern architecture, classical composers, politics, computer science and so on. (but we didn't forget girls, of course!).
What a pity I've not been in touch with Amir over the last years.

Anyway.
Amir used to tell me a lot about Iran too and the same did a few years ago Ziba - a girl with Iranian roots - whom I met working as an estate agent.
Ziba and Amir described me life in Teheran countless times, each with their own different views, telling me about their relatives there, the rise of ayatollah Khomeini and the fall of the Shah, Reza Pahlavi. Sometimes they were quite critical towards Iran, sometimes not.

This book by Azar Nafisi gives an interesting portrait of the most turbulent period of Iran's history during the 1970s and the 1980s although coming from a sort of privileged narrator. The author comes from a rich Iranian family, she studied and then taught in the US so that some accused her to have abandoned her homecountry when the situation there got too hectic to bear.

The book itself has two layers of interpretation.
On the one hand, it aims to explain to young Iranians western literature, choosing perhaps not its greatest books (e.g. 'The Great Gatsby', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Lolita'). Mrs Nafisi recounts the private lessons she gave at her home talking about these forbidden novels with her students while sipping a cup of tea as if they were chatting in a reading club.
On the other hand, professor Nafisi's lessons show the rising difficulties of having a free life in Teheran during Khomeini's revolution. Those were the dogmatic years coming straight after the Shah's clumsy attempts to westernise the country. All in a sudden, after having sported jeans or miniskirts, the Iranian women had to hide their bodies from head to toe. And yet, many an Iranian lady, didn't stop to make themselves up although behaving more meekly and discreetly than they did before. Someone might say this behaviour was only vanity, but I believe it was the best way to declare and reaffirm their independence as women and human beings.

In this book there are many key moments about recent Iranian's history like the troubles at Teheran University, bloodsheds, the destructions of "dangerous" books, or Khomeini mass funerals which Nafisi describes better than a documentary. Sometimes "Reading Lolita in Tehran" looks like a counterposition between a secularist point of view and a strictly religious one, between a wide culture and a narrow fanaticism.

Although this book is not what I might call a masterpiece. it was one of the most interesting and mind opening reads I had over the last years.

(Review heavily corrected and partially changed in September 2014 as my written English, back in 2004, was no short than awful!)
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