Sunday, May 13, 2012

Memoirs: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a multy-layered memoir written by an Iranian professor of English and American literature. The author, Azar Nafisi, was educated in the United States, and taught in Iran from 1979 until 1995.
The first strand of the narrative tells of how, after resigning from her teaching position due to its many restrictions, Nafisi conducted a clandestine literature seminar in her home each week, attended by seven of her best and brightest female students.

Through their discussions of such classic Western novels as "Lolita", "The Great Gatsby", "Daisy Miller" and "Pride and Prejudice" (all of which had to be photocopied because the books were outlawed), the young women learn about each other and themselves, and most importantly, how to exercise some degree of freedom in a totalitarian state.

In addition, Nafisi weaves her own life story around the history of Iran during the tumultuous period of the revolution, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the war with Iraq. Nafisi also reveals how her life could be inextricably linked with the books she is reading. For example, she wonders if the 19th century novels she read during her pregnancy could have affected her daughter's personality.

Nafisi left Iran in 1997 to pursue an academic and literary career in America. in her Epilogue, she lets the reader know what had transpired in the lives of her students between 1997 and the time of publication.

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is an original, intelligent and eye-opening book. Not only does it show how a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, it paints a vivid and often disturbing portraits of the repressive regime that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Book excerpt

Chapter I

"In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women--to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction. One persistent male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he, Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about the books we were reading.

I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me. Nassrin once responded mischievously, You yourself told us that in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ. Manna pointed out that I was no Miss Brodie, and they, well, they were what they were. She reminded me of a warning I was fond of repeating: do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth. Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own recommendation and choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but perhaps Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.

A couple of years after we had begun our Thursday-morning seminars, on the last night I was in Tehran, a few friends and students came to say good-bye and to help me pack. When we had deprived the house of all its items, when the objects had vanished and the colors had faded into eight gray suitcases, like errant genies evaporating into their bottles, my students and I stood against the bare white wall of the dining room and took two photographs.

I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing against a white wall. They are, according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head scarves, covered except for the oval of their faces and their hands. In the second photograph the same group, in the same position, stands against the same wall. Only they have taken off their coverings. Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same."

About the author

Azar Nafisi is best known as the author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which electrified its readers with a compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how it affected one university professor and her students.  Earning high acclaim and an enthusiastic readership, Reading Lolita in Tehran is an incisive exploration of the transformative powers of fiction in a world of tyranny.  The book has spent over 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  Reading Lolita in Tehran has been translated in 32 languages, and has won diverse literary awards, including the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense, the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the 2004 Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award, an achievement award from the American Immigration Law Foundation, as well as being a finalist for the 2004 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir.  In 2006 she won a Persian Golden Lioness Award for literature, presented by the World Academy of Arts, Literature, and Media.

Azar Nafisi is a Visiting Professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature, and teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics.  Azar Nafisi held a fellowship at Oxford University, teaching and conducting a series of lectures on culture and the important role of Western literature and culture in Iran after the revolution in 1979. She taught at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and Allameh Tabatabai before her return to the United States in 1997 – earning national respect and international recognition for advocating on behalf of Iran’s intellectuals, youth, and especially young women. In 1981, she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil and did not resume teaching until 1987.

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