Kali's Reviews > Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
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Jan 03, 09

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in January, 2009

An uncommon approach to memoir writing, the events in the author’s life are informed by and intertwined with great works of 19th & 20th century literature. Nafisi is a professor of literature in Tehran who records her experiences at the time of the revolution. She claims that she is more of a rebel than an activist. This is true within her context. However, as a citizen who attends organizing meetings & protests & loses her job because she defies oppressive laws, her civic involvement is miles ahead of the average North American or European. She stresses the point that she and her countrymen & women must shoulder the blame for what happened during and after the revolution, because they allowed it to happen. As one of her friends says, “people get what they deserve”. That immediately brought to mind the long nightmare of the U.S. under Bush. The U.S. is now in a shambles because people allowed it to happen. Imagine if the mass of people who poured into the streets to celebrate Obama’s victory had been out there demanding impeachment all the while that the Bush regime has been destroying the Constitution, deregulating the economy, & committing impeachable offenses to get us into wars of conquest! Another parallel I couldn’t help but notice is how the Islamic regime in Iran & the Bush administration use the same types of justification for torture & the instatement of Orwellian laws.

Nafisi makes a distinction between Islam as a spiritual path & Islam in the service of a political ideology. She criticizes the hijacking of the religion in the name of political goals. Reading her descriptions of the Islamic regime, I was struck by how much fundamentalist Muslims & fundamentalist Christians have in common. The same obsession with policing women, sexuality, and the imagination. The same stark, humorless, black & white view of the world, leaving no room for subtlety or ambiguity. If right wing Christian fundamentalists took over a western nation, it would probably be a scenario similar to what happened in Iran (goodbye Harry Potter, birth control, & evolutionary theory). I lived in three predominantly Muslim countries for a total of nine years & as a female I definitely chafed under some of the restrictive aspects of those societies, but never experienced anything like what the women in this book have to live with. As the narrative progresses, more rights are taken away & new discriminatory laws are imposed until the simplest pleasures, like feeling wind & sun on your skin, or socializing with friends become impossible. Scattered throughout are memorials to the dead and testaments to women and men whose potential has been thwarted. I’ll be thinking about these people for a long time.

Some goodreads reviewers dislike this book (NOT a novel, by the way), complaining that the story is hard to follow, the literary analysis is mediocre, etc. I found it quite engaging & easy to follow, with accessible characters. I don’t particularly go for non-contemporary literature. I find pre-feminist settings to be suffocating & have only read 2 of the books Nafisi included. So I can’t make a very informed comment on her analysis, but it worked for me. She conveys her love of literature with such passion that I considered reading some of her beloved novels. My focus on politics in this review actually goes against the author’s frustration with the inability of some of her students to read the literature for its own sake. She always comes back to the importance of the imagination as vital to human integrity and survival.

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message 1: by Skaidra (new)

Skaidra What a great synopsis/discussion! I read this book with added interest because I really like Nabokov. (I think Lolita is the great American novel. But that's just an aside). Still the idea of Nabokov in Tehran tickled me. It's funny how an existence under totalitarianism and appreciation for irony are such strange bedfellows in almost every place it occurs. I take the points here well. However, I did not see so much shouldering blame. Like the rise of Chavez in VZ, I can see why people were dissatisfied before. However, the 'solution' could bear far more discussion. I did like her endless descriptions of the mountain through the window.
Right after reading this book I read an article about Iran in a travel magazine. It was well written. The author called Iran the 'as-if' state. People live 'as-if' they are free in the small pockets of relief they can find. Sometimes I think when people accommodate too much though, living as-if, you end up with a demented reality in which nothing will change--where everything transpires with a wink and a nod behind closed doors. Anyhow; for another look at being a woman under institutionalized, totalitarian fundamentalism (a different creature from personal beliefs I think...) the Fall of the Imam is a really soul-shaking read.

Kali Skaidra wrote: "What a great synopsis/discussion! I read this book with added interest because I really like Nabokov. (I think Lolita is the great American novel. But that's just an aside). Still the idea of Na..."

It's true that the author's husband & magician point out that she blames the regime for everything. Maybe the “people get what they deserve” meme wasn't as prominent in the story & it was my personal reaction to it that gave it added importance. I have a close friend from Iran (she actually went to Koti in India after the revolution & may have lived there around the time we did) who has talked to me about the 'as-if' theme you read about in the travel article.
It's funny you mention VZ, I sometimes fantasize about moving there. One thing you can say for Chavez- in VZ stay at home moms earn social security because the value of their work is included in calculations of GDP/GNP. One of the western world’s favorite subsidiary of the patriarchy, capitalism, depends on the unpaid labor of women in the home for its existence. If that work were included in the actual economy as wages the whole lousy setup would fall apart. Not that it’s not falling apart anyway. (& not that I'll ever be a stay at home mom)

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