misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Nabokov and Gatsby (Parts 1 and 2)

Dear friends and students,

As promised, the next two to three blogs will be on Azar Nafisi's remarkable "memoir in books:" Reading Lolita in Tehran. This is the third or fouth time I've taught it; I also read it with a group of friends online and we posted regularly about it over a period of 8 weeks on Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo. And I am now listening to it read aloud, and brilliantly, by Lisette Lecat whose plumy-posh British accent (the kind the cliche is true of, you feel you could cut glass with it) brings out the elitism and anger in Nafisi's tone, the latter I had missed until now. One of my students tells me it's now been translated into 23 languages!; it's in I-don't-know-what-reprinting, and remarkably sports the same muted titillating cover illustration: see the girls in burka reading "that forbidden book,"

The truth is the book is about reading quite a number of banned or suspect and therefore dangerous books in Tehran,and the one Nafisi and her girls began with was Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet revelling in nature, lifting her face to the sky, something forbidden in Tehran even today

Tonight I'll summarize and comment on the author, general structure of the book, and Parts 1 and 2.

Everything we need to know at a minimum about Nafisi is included in this book. It's centrally a memoir of her life, and, as I've said numerous times on listservs, she is a witness rather like the women who wrote most of the memoirs of French revolution (see Marilyn Yalom's Blood Sisters) describing the experience of terror from the vantage of the upper class woman. Like most of them, Nafisi never admits that some form of socialism or strong economic reform and equality of opportunity was what was needed and the Shah never came near that; she also fails to explain why the Shah's secularism is and was such a threat to this traditional Muslim society. But because she did know and come from the relatively privileged sections of the educated and bourgeois public and was a woman and therefore ever at risk, she can tell a lot insightfully as long as you remember how much is omitted of what explains how a religious theocracy could take over.

Nafisi as a young married woman with her second husband, Bijan Naderi

A brief life: She was born in 1950 and is a daughter of the upper middle class who were doing well under westernization -- as were many people in other classes in Iraq. Her father was a mayor of Teheran at one point. He was imprisoned and probably his life in danger for a while. Like most other well-known Muslim women writers (part US, part UK, e.g., Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Jhumpa Lahiri) -- and many other literary Arab people writing in English today as well as African women who manage to publish (Tsitsi Dangarembga who wrote Nervous Conditions), Nafisi's education took place outside the Arab world, where there is a secular and scientific tradition available and women are allowed to learn it. Both Nafisi and Jhabvala were educated in England. She went to England in 1963 (age 13) but stayed much longer than originally intended: she returned in 1979, 17 years later. She attended college in the US, University of Oklahoma, where she did a dissertation on Mark Gold, a depression writer who was also a Marxist (p. 107) and wrote a famous popular biography, Jews without Money.

What it is to live in a country with no neutral public space: The revolution of Khomenei had occurred in 1980 (when Part 2 begins), there was a theocratic state, the law had returned to Sharia which is harsh and oppressive towards women; it also includes a strict moral code for men. This has the effect of isolating people and keeping them from interacting with one another outside their families. In the Arab countries religion and state jobs have never been separate from networking through religious groups. The family and religious authorities remain powerful that way.

There is not a public neutral realm such as we are supposed to have in the US where people's private lives and religion are to be kept out of the public realm where different kinds of people are to work together for business, progess, scientific and other kinds, for individual fulfillment (pursuit of happiness and property). Due to it we have had much of the progress technologically and socially we've had since the 18th century (the Englightenment which brought us the American and French revolutions among other things). US citizens don't have to worry or didn't if their scientific discoveries threaten a particular church's beliefs (as Galileo was forced to retract his belief that the earth went around the sun, that the earth moved).

An important reform which threatened these groups (religious and powerful people in a family network) was the attempt to secularize. That's what the Shah was doing, and that's what's meant by a modern world. It was to create a neutral space where people could get jobs and places in universities without religious and familial affiliations. A meritocracy. Individuals in a family could find jobs outside and without their family. Women need not bow to arranged marriages to get a position in life. For women the streets quickly became are a war zone of humiliation and physical punishment which can led to arrest and then much worse (flogged, fined, sometimes raped and then executed).

We see her working in the university of Teheran for a while -- the book works by flashbacks too. But as it opens it is 1995; she is now fired and has set up weekly secret meetings with a group of female students who showed a real love and interest in literature. Part I and IV take place in 1995: she and girls began with 1001 Nights, Scheherazade; then Pride and Prejudice or Jane Austen. When precisely they were reading Nabokov and Lolita we are not told. The young women are of different backgrounds, some "stricter" than others; some are married, some not; they bond through the experience and the books.

She did escape because she had the wherewithal to do it and the connections in the US to get another high ranking tenured position. Her politics are conservative. Her identification with the West is not disinterested altogether. She has had much personal advantage: she never asks where the revolution of these desperate people came from; it's just there, inexplicable like a hurricane. It comes from the abysmal poverty and despair and rage as and envy as a result. The religious groups with their power-hungry leaders took advantage of this. No social movement can grow in these religious dominated states; the reach of families remains controlling. No education to counter what they are told, or not enough.

Nafisi today, see her website and blog


The general structure and themes: Part I the first few pages we are in 1997 and Nafisi is about to leave and takes a photograph of six of the seven girls who formed part of her group. By page 4 we are in 1995 and the girls have formed their reading group and are reading Nabokov's Lolita, "Invitation to a Beheading" and "The Magician's Room."

Part II we are in 1980 and Nafisi returns to Iran as Khoumeni takes over from Shah: topics include her return after 17 years and sight of the airport, the first imposition of Sharia; her time as a student briefly in the UK and Switzerland then (longer) in the University of Oklahoma, where she married and wrote a dissertation on Mike Gold, depression writer, Marxist; analysis and fight in her classroom over Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, which she defends as ultimately about wealth as aspiration);

Nafisi as a girl waiting on a train station in the UK to go to boarding school

Part III; a couple of years later Iran and Iraq at war (she struggles with ever greater horrors and repression, they read Henry James's novellas and longer novels); Part IV, 1995 the first formation and first book, Pride and Prejudice, about the girls' lives and fates (as illuminated by the Austen oeuvre).

The book has three kinds of subject: 1) On the one hand the application of intelligence, feeling and work to make a book come alive to speak to the people reading it together. What the books meant individually, how they connected to what was happening about the readers, and how literature functions generally; 2) On the other, a portrait of daily life under despotism. Each of the four sections is presented so that a corresponding dominating author's work comments on it; and 3) Nafisi's own life as utterly subject adversely to the larger political changes going on around her. We could see the lives of her girls as told as either part of Topic 2 or 3.

The trope of the book is that of the heroic teacher or governess. As Ellen Moers says in her Literary Women this is is common in women's books. It's a displaced or partial mother role. Nafisi begins with a reference to Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where one of Miss Brodie's pupils snitched on her about her love life and Nazi politics and she was forced to resign her job. Nafisi says she wondered if any of her girls would betray her or the others and which one. In the event none betrayed her or one another. Other versions are Mary Poppins; or a narrator who is female and teacherly: Isak Dinesen.

The opening paragraph of Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran immediately introduces the reader to its subject matter: the study of (forbidden) literature with a group of seven female students in the privacy and secrecy of Nafisi's home, after she had been forced to resign from her academic post in Tehran in 1995. In a kind of ironic reversal, a male (he later turns out to be the liberal husband of one of the group), though reading with the same books, is excluded from the room, though as interested as the young women themselves.

Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie bought up. Miss Brodie (played by Maggie Smith in the movie) is about a teacher who looks upon books as deeply important in people's lives. She influences her students in all sorts of ways, some of them bad for the students and dangerous. One of them betrays her to the authorities for her politics (she is a Nazi) and sexual life (she is having an affair with at least one male teacher). She is fired.

An idyllic picture of Miss Brodie with her girls early in the movie:

At the close of Reading Lolita, Nafisi refers to another book by Muriel Spark, her semi-autobiographical Loitering with Intent. it's about how much fiction you have to put in an autobiography to make it dramatic; how you have to shape and point it. Again it's an ironic statement about the problems in writing memoirs. Miss Brodie had emphasized the particular importance of the liberty of the individual and the importance of the imagination in our lives in understanding ourselves and our worlds.

The third paragraph then suddenly jumps forward two years in time - there will be many such shifts in the book - to the now empty room and the packed bags of exile, but chooses to dwell on two strikingly and intentionally different photos of the same group. The first is of them all uniformly and indistinguishably dressed in the the black robes and head-dress forced on them outside; the second with them colourfully and individually dressed as they were in the private and paradoxically liberating, though enclosed, world of the 'room of their own'. Nafisi then goes to name and describe each one in turn, giving each one their individual personality and the reader a thumbnail sketch of their background (pp. 4-6). They also seemed to be providing a cross-section of various types of young Iranian women affected in different ways by the dictatorial regime, there seemed to be a merging of the individual and exemplary.

The theme of the class itself is described as being the relationship between fiction and reality, just as it would seem to be the theme of this book. In it Nafisi examines the shifting relationship between life writing and history, fiction and literary criticism. The sub-title, 'A Memoir in Books' points up the fact that the books discussed are attached to memories (subject of this term of writing about art is memory and imagination). Books are aide-mémoires, their contents affording parallels to events and emotions in the lives of Nafisi and her group and the discussion of them helping them to articulate and express what the outside regime would render inarticulate and silent.

Her choice of western writers for the group a significant one: Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, James and Austen. In her small literary group held in her own living room, she created a kind of intimate, but hot-house space, where art and literature were both oasis from and inner bastion against the often murderously fanatical, political, religious and cultural iconoclasts baying at and sometimes violently entering her door.

First an inner exile, later an outer exile herself, it's perhaps not so surprising then that she should turn to forced and voluntary exiles and aesthetes like Nabokov and James, Fitzgerald with his literature of 'double vision', or Jane Austen, who also commented with subversive irony on society's dangerous absurdities from her own living room. Flaubert's book, Madame Bovary was prosecuted for being amoral and he retreated from public life after that.

Fitzgerald satirizes seriously western culture; James shows what can happen to a girl who acts freely I study Daisy Miller with my students and show the film because if you agree with Nafisi's interpretation of Lolita, this is a short later 19th century version of the same story: misogynistic woman-distrusting mores impose on a girl their fantasies about her sex life and she dies for this. Austen is about women from a woman's point of view.


Part One: Lolita

Nafisi says she chose to put Lolita in her title because it is the one that was attached to the most memories, that became theirs: "This then is the story of Lolita in Tehran, how Lolita gave a different colour to Tehran, and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov's novel, turning it into this Lolita, our Lolita.

One of the word games played for light relief in the group was based on the oft-quoted opening line of Pride and Prejudice. It's a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. All the girls gave their version, but the one I remember is the most macabrely satirical one: 'it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Moslem in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a nine-year-old wife' - the regime had dropped the legal marriageable age for girls from 18 to 9. No wonder, too, that 'Lolita' should be such an issue and reference point.

Lolita is about the sexual appetite of an older man for a young powerless girl.

Nabokov's Lolita is not the only text she deals with in this section, but she does deal with it centrally: Her take on that character, Humbert, is that he projects his own dreams, wishes and sexual fantasies on the young girl he abuses (though that is definitely not Humbert's own word for it) to such an extent that she ultimately has no identity of her own - she becomes his construct. He robs her of identity and ultimately the independent, individual life she could have had in the same way as the mullahs forcibly expect women to live their own dream fantasy of the perfect submissive woman and in doing so steal their lives, too. As she says Humbert Humbert confiscates Lolita's existence as the regime wants to confiscate that of her and her girl students.

In the book Lolita has nowhere to turn. The religious leaders put women down becuase they have a fantasy they are all sexually voracious. Unfortunately. the movie version of the book doesn't see the irony and really presents Lolita as sexually voracious; Kubrick identfied with the unreliable narrator or villai protagonist. Unreliable narrator is someone whose judgement you should not trust. A villain protagonist is obvious in meaning.

The outer manifestation of this is, of course, in Iraq, the enforced wearing of the veil or purdah. Nafisi's own refusal to wear the veil at the university led to her having to leave her position there, but she saw this imposition as a political instrument of repression, not a religious one. On the other hand, she is careful to show respect for those women like her own family relatives and students who had worn and wear the veil from personal choice and religious conviction, and not as a flag or symbol of oppression, as it were.

Lolita is not treated as an erotic book in the least. To Nafisi, the centre of the novel is not eroticism, it's fantasy, power and control: the power to inflict one's own fantasy and dreamworld on others in order to control and abuse. One of most disturbing aspects of the novel itself to me was it's extension of this control and manipulation to the reader. The reader revelling in the pornography is being degraded and abused. They may of course not care. I suspect that Nabokov uses the ironic unreliable narrator (or villain protagonist) as a cover for himself to write pornography and his readers to read it. This is Wayne Booth's reading of the novel in The Rhetoric of Fiction.

I'm drawn more to the other texts, "The Magician's Room" and "The Invitation to a Beheading."

Let's look at what she says about "The Magician's Assistant:" read pp. 33-34. In the first a man retreats and creates his own counter-universe. That is what she is doing with her students. she meets a man or friend in the book who is an ex-university professor and lives just this way and supports many.

"The Magician's Room" is a parable about how literature can support you when no one else does. How can great works of imagination help us in our present trapped situation? p. 19. Scheherazade breaks cycle of violence by telling stories, p 19. S

She shows how the universities began to be places going through the motions. Read pp. 22-23. Going through the motions. I think this is what has happened to modern universities, turned into factories for producing certificates to that good job. The violin is the meaningful music in the void.

We in the US do live in a culture which popularly denies meaning and significance to literary works unless they make money by selling to masses of people through low means (sex and violence). p 25

A debased world of antifeminism: Women are to return to the home to be baby-machines and comfort women. Of course it's much worse here, p 28

This section includes the first story of torture, p 31. A long one of Sanaz, pp. 73-74 -- her crime was to go out in a mixed group of boys and girls. My guess is she's never been the same. She shows how her girls and she (and others in the regime) face a future without security and a fragile and disloyal present, p 39. Alas, I'm afraid this reminds me of aspects in the US today -- much milder but there. For example, ordinary life is one set up in a way that far from promoting close trust and affection, rather promotes authoritarian behavior, secrets, distance, manipulative, not kindness, tact, but relying on power. Result is outside in organizations one finds a persistent brutality, p 67

The central analysis and presentation of commentary on Lolita is placed on pp 40-44. She argues that the novel does uplift us; that it's a tragic novel and thus the center is a person who fought and the novelist who presents us with a celebration of insubordination against betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life, p 47

For myself I can't read Lolita and find it sickening and scary. Here is one still from the movie which does justice to the ugliness of Humbert's mind:

Chapters 18-22 take us back to the lives of her students. We have the story of police barging in and chasing a tenant; of Manna and Nima & the narrow minded professor, p 68; Sanz's story of arrest and torture, pp. 69-73 is the most harrowing section of this part. What happens is gradually the book deepens and stretches to show this kind of horrible experience occurring to many daily.


Part Two: Gatsby

This section has much more about the politics and public world of Iran. It takes us back to when she returned to Iran and taught in the university. Her teaching of Gatsby and a series of American books (including Huckleberry Finn) and Flaubert's Madame Bovary takes place in a classroom where there is at least one (and probably many more) hostile student. She ends up putting the book -- and herself -- on trial. I've read critics which are sceptical about this: doubting she did it.

The section traces the willingness of all sides to commit atrocities: Orwell said the thing to remember about atrocities is all sides do it, and all sides lie about it. So the leftist students in Oklahoma torture someone. We see people vying for power ruthlessly on all sides. We see that beyond ideology what fuels their behavior is a lust for power, to revenge obscure hurts and insults and not-so-obscure ones -- injuries from class and sexual and other humiliations and deprivations -- to control others.

As the section opens, we see Nafisi, whose family had suffered under the Shah's regime, go back during a brief window when she and her friends believed the revolution would mean a new dawn and a better way of life for all, something which soon turned out to be wrong. She is made to feel a stranger in her home, an alien from the time she lands. She joines the liberal and left-wing groups who join Khomenei thinking to gain broader support. They were just being used for the moment, and she soon quits.

There starts to be an Orwellian, 1984-type quality to this section, when Nafisi is teaching Twain and Hemingway at the university of Tehran, while groups of people are demonstrating outside the American Embassy. Read paragraph on p 102. When you read something in the newspaper, you suspect the opposite is true. Section includes fates of many colleagues: put in bags, shot, stoned. Did happen. To teach is to risk betrayal by students who will run and tell the authorities on her.

Nafisi thus teaches Gatsby to her class at The University of Tehran during a period of great political turmoil. The Marxists and strict Muslims seem to be battling it out, and everyone is anti-American and anti- the deposed Shah who was supported by the Americans. When a student tells Nafisi that he is "telling her for her own good" - what threatening words those are - that she should not be teaching Gatsby because the novel is immoral, Nafisi decides to put the novel itself on trial. Her classroom then becomes every teacher's dream: total involvement, but this is for real and scary. Nafisi herself defended
the novel, and as she says, "This after all was not merely a defense of Gatsby but of a whole way of looking at and appraising literature_and reality, for that matter." With students as prosecutor, defending lawyer and jury, the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran versus The Great Gatsby was opened.

Daisy and Gatsby (the movie sympathetic to Gatsby); Daisy and Tom (the movie shows how they are US ideals)

The prosecuting student calls Gatsby a rape of Islamic culture: adultery goes unpunished, Gatsby is a liar and charlatan, and there is no exalted model for women. Only Wilson is OK because he becomes the punishing god. The rest of the book illustrates the decadence of American culture and materialism. He ends with a great line: "This is the last hiccup of a dead culture!" The key here is the student reads the book literally. Any mention of anyone bad must form an example for readers to imitate.

The defense attorney, a woman, takes Gatsby back to literature and asks if a novel can be judged "...because the heroine is virtuous? Is it bad if its character strays from the moral Mr. Nyazi insists on imposing not only on us but on all fiction?" She then directs the class to the text and Fitzgerald's characters. She shows how Jordan, Tom, Daisy are dishonest and careless. She ends by characterizing the dream: "The dream they embody is an alloyed dream that destroys whoever tries to get close to it. So you see, Mr. Nyazi, this book is no less a condemnation of your wealthy upper classes than any of the revolutionary books we have read."

When Nafisi, herself is called to defend the novel, she presents the theme as the loss of dreams. Empathy is at the heart of the novel, p 111. We are to read metaphorically. p 141 where we can see underlying pattern for Loman and Gatsby. Representatives of wealth and power are the most dishonest.

The last pages of the section are Nafisi's experiences in the turmoil - ducking bullets, witnessing the university becoming more repressive, a feeling of loss. Demonstrations take the place of classes with mob rule holding sway. At one of the last faculty meetings, Nafisi is defending her right not to wear a veil. In autobiography: the magician of Part I turns out to be a professor who was pushed into quitting, forbidden to teach great books, he left, pp. 138-39.

She fast forwards to being in the U.S. and getting faxes and e-mails from former students who tell her of murder of new students, the children of the first revolution. She imagines a conversation with the student who defended her against the Islamic Revolution years earlier. In this conversation she asks him, "Tell me, old sport-what shall we do with all these corpses on our hands?"


The truth is the US at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere is also adding to the number of corpses every day (as one of Graham Greene's characters in The Ugly American says). What one has to be careful of is not to say this does not happen here at all. Existences are confiscated by the thousands and thousands in US prisons; one can rebel in the US but only in the right way (don't risk treason charges or be a socialist); many are left invisible and unemployed by the privileged and powerful who control places, behavior and money -- and women are at a real disadvantage. So while we are not a state which practices terror directly on its citizens, our hands are not clean to people outside and inside the borders of the land.

Tags: 20th century, politics, women's memoirs

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