Friday, June 01, 2018

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran is memoir by Azar Nafisis describing the author's experience reading Lolita and other books of English literature in Iran during the time of the Islamic revolution. She was born in Iran, then educated in the United States and returned to teach in Iran right as the revolution was taking place. At first, the revolution looked like it would be a positive experience. However, it later became more totalitarian, eventually shutting down the university and leading to her leaving the country. She does note that even the participants in the revolution were complex people. (At one time, the more radical Islamists would defend her while the liberals were silent.) She brought with her some western sensibilities that she wanted to live in Iran. Alas, the revolution would spin from crackdown to liberalization leaving the life of a westernized intellectual precarious. (It was interesting that they would use "Switzerland" as the example of a lax moral state.) The youth were often the ones to provide the muscle behind the revolutionary effort. (Hmm... Are the professor shoutdowns the first step of that in the US?)
The history of the revolution is secondary to the life of individual people through literature. The book is divided into four sections, each based on an author or work of literature. The book provides excellent literary criticism by weaving the story of the people studying the work with the characters and themes of the book. Lolita is in part a story of oppression, but also one of willingly taking the "easy path". Forcing everyone to fully cover themselves can be just as offensive as forcing people to not be covered. Great Gatsby superficially glamorizes "immoral" behavior, but deep down it is condemning it. The subtleties are lost on censors. The works are all fiction. They are presenting tales of the conditions of people to help us today.
While the first two sections tended to focus on individual works, the last two where geared more towards authors' as a whole - Henry James and Jane Austen. Nafisi finds parallels in the human condition and subtleties of reaction within the current Iran. Women's rights are greatly restricted in the Islamic republic. Even some devoutly religious find issues with their identity. With everyone forced to adopt the headscarf and covering, the devout no longer are set apart physically. Courtship and marriage takes on a very different meaning. People are not supposed to even look upon the opposite sex, yet they still have the sexual urges. They complain about hypocrisy among those in power, yet are often reluctant to challenge themselves within or without of the confines of the rules. Those in power in Iran are often portrayed as reactionary buffoons. One student sets himself on fire after no knowing how to deal with life after the end of the Iran/Iraq war. In another case, an attempt is made to murder a group of authors by getting them on a bus and driving them off a cliff. However, in spite of this, there is a reference shown to the unifying force of the death of Ayatollah.
In the end, the author leaves Iran to come teach in the US. Many of her friends have also left Iran, while at the same time Iran had made some small steps towards liberalization.

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