Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Rating: 4 Stars
Reading Azar Nafisi’s entrancing memoir is like being granted a private audience with Scheherazade, the bewitching storyteller of the ‘Thousand and One Arabian Nights’. Azar Nafisi, however, is very much a product of her times, a proud, independent, female intellectual and academic from present-day Iran.
The unabashed literary leanings of this book are softened by an accessible style, and her vivid pathos and humor, as she describes living in a theocracy where religious ideology is used as a tool of political oppression. The tragicomedy is pervasive throughout the book, surfacing vividly in particular anecdotes – the film censor who is blind, the girls harangued by the morality police for eating their apples “too seductively”.
While the entire populace of the country has been victimized by the authoritarian rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nafisi is especially eloquent when she speaks of the indignities heaped upon the intelligentsia, and the daily humiliations and petty harassment that the women of Iran are subjected to.
The book is divided into four parts – Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen. The first part is rather tellingly named after a literary work, instead of the author himself. This particular work deals with the rape and imprisonment of a young girl by a predatory older man. The analogy works very well for the abuse of Iran by its self-declared leaders.
In the second and third, the author chronicles her experiences during the Revolution that deluged the country in the late seventies, the Iran-Iraq war, and her attempts to lead her life, and continue the work she so passionately loved with any semblance of normalcy.
In the final part, she returns to the original premise of the book – the book club that this talented Professor of Literature started, and to which she invited a select few of her most dedicated students. These seven young women (“my girls”), differing widely in social backgrounds and personal beliefs are each depicted with an unbiased and tender regard. They are what make this book resonate in the memory.
While Nafisi does have an academic’s tendency to sound pedantic, and the reader is very much her captive audience, she is a brilliant raconteur, gifted with the exquisite turn of phrase – “… when the objects had vanished and the colors faded into eight gray suitcases, like errant genies evaporating into their bottles…”
What she shares in common with Scheherazade is her belief in the redemptive power of imaginative narration to transform and liberate the individual trapped in a nightmarish reality beyond one’s control.