Thursday, November 29, 2012

206. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran - A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2003; 347) tells stories of the lives of the author and seven of her students between the period when the Shah was overthrown and the 'Islamic Republic' was instituted to the period where the author finally left the country, in 1997. Through her narrative, she unfolds how civil liberties, especially of women and more generally of liberals, were drastically and suddenly parred down after the revolution. 

Azar Nafisi's decision to use the stories of other books to tell her story, drawing comparisons, analogies, and association, was fascinating; it was enlightening how one word - like poshlust - used by an author could have a reverberating effects on the lives of people far away from the centre of origin. In this way, Nafisi provided a deeper understanding of these books, of which Nabokov's Lolita is but just one. Azar compares life under the secular government and life under the Islamic government. One clear theme that runs through this memoir is the issue of Choice. For just as the Islamic government took away the liberties away from the liberals and forced strict religious tenets on the citizenry, so too did the secular government forced secularism on the people, jailing the religious folks who wouldn't succumb to not wearing the veil. This part of the story was dropped in passing, with as little development as possible. Except in one character. 

Nafisi talked about the superficial lives of the leaders and how they perceived everything Western as immoral and yet would, in the secrets of their homes, wallow in them or used them. In this vein, and in others, Azar's memoir is not different from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In both books, in addition to the sycophancy and hypocrisy of the people, people embarked on things they didn't wholly believe in, following the decrees of a few folks in authority.  

The fall from development to underdevelopment, resulting from religious fanaticism, was clear. Intellectuals who held contrary opinions to what the government was espousing, who couldn't subject themselves to the incessant and rapidly increasing decrees - like the author herself who would left the country because she couldn't bring herself to wear the veil - and decreasing freedom, left the country in droves. And it wasn't only the liberal intellectuals who sought to leave but also the youth, who had had a taste of the liberty that existed in the pre-Revolution days, were also uncomfortable with the suddenness of this change; even some Muslims lost the essence of wearing the hijab when its wearing became mandatory.

Azar shows, in this book, that revolutions may start small but when injected with the interests of different interest groups, it spirals into chaos; it slides along an incline increasing speed gradually into doom; into such a time when the revolutionaries themselves lose control and are unable to identify who is actually in control.

However, like most memoirs and quasi-memoirs of dissidents, America features strongly and positively, its society acting as the motif for the drawing of comparisons, and any reference to China and Russia is in the negative. Even when Nafisi mentioned the Gulf war, America was conspicuous in its absence; however this could be understood as she was writing a memoir about her events as she remembers them and not a historical book. Again, like all memoirs the interpretations of people's actions, emotions and thoughts were one-sided, based largely on the writer's perception of what they meant. 

Another problem with Reading Lolita in Tehran is its gallimaufry presentation of events, its lack of chronological order. It was difficult placing the events into specific time periods. She moved forward and backwards losing the reader in the process. It was as if she was working hard to lose the everybody but herself. Finally, the distinction between the different characters is not that marked. But since Azar was describing real people who lived, it could be assumed that the homogeneity resulted from the common struggle they were facing.

If you're interested in Memoirs, this is recommended; if not, this shouldn't be your introductory text. If you're a general reader, it is recommended.


  1. Nana, I bought a copy of this book at the Book Trust since I had quite a lot about it. I am yet to read it and your excellent review of it has made it more pressing for me to read it. I dare say that despite your unbiased misgvings I may find it interesting and jsut worth it. Regardless, I will review it, and let you know when I am done reading.

    1. Definitely. I would love to read your opinion on it. I was there - Book Trust - yesterday to get some few books.

  2. I agree that there are some problems with the book. It almost look as if the author wrote the memoir just for herself and not for the readers. This could explain the lack of distinction between characters (they are real people, not characters actually) and the confusion with the dates and the events (not everybody knows the political history of Iran, but the author certainly does).

    However, I loved how literature plays an important part in the lives of this women, and how she used literary criticism in a work of fiction (well, sort of, since it's a memoir).

    I think it's a unique book, and worth reading especially if you like literature. If you've read some of the books she mentions it's a pleausre to read how she discusses them.

    1. I agree with you Stefania... at the time I read the book, and nothing has changed in the reading front, I had read Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, The Trial,and Pride and Prejudice. I haven't read Nabokov's Lolita which I'm still looking to read some time.


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