Friday, December 28, 2012

Reading Lolita in Tehran. By Azar Nafisi

There was a faded receipt left in the book, a few pages from the beginning. I couldn't read it all, but read this much: it was purchased new from a shop in San Francisco on August 16, 2004. The buyer paid $12.08 for it. Somehow the book found its way from SF to Jackson, New Jersey and eventually to me. It may be that I am the first to have actually read it.

I read about this book in various places when it first came out. It got good reviews yet I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to read it, although right now I am not sure why not. But when I had the chance to check it out I took it. Obviously it was not high on my list or I would have read it before now.

 The author is a professor of English literature, originally from Iran. She left with her family for the U.S. when she was 13 and returned thirteen years later. She arrived at a tumultuous time in Iran, during the time that Iran was changed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, hard-line religious fundamentalist.

While Nafisi was teaching at the University of Tehran, the laws gradually tightened around the populace, especially the women. While men were permitted to have more than one wife, including several "temporary" wives, women were required to be covered whenever in public, be accompanied by a male relative in many places, and whenever a couple had a child and then split up, the child automatically was given to the male.Women could not wear makeup or allow their hair to be seen.

And that was the least of it. There were arrests, imprisonment, and executions every day. A woman could be arrested for being too attractive, and what awaited her in prison can be imagined. One way that Nafisi found to deal with the restrictions was through English literature, possibly her greatest love. She taught classes on the great English writers, including Nabokov, Bellow, Austen, and others. She tried to reach her students through fiction, conveying how a fictional story can make you think and even break down prejudices and preconceptions.

Her students were not used to frank discussion and offering their own opinions.Some of them were "revolutionaries", dedicated to the current regime and distrustful of the characters in fiction, especially where morals were concerned. Nafisi refused to bow to the preferences of this type student by blacking out words like "sex", that might offend them. She insisted that fiction must be taken for what it is, and for where it comes from, and cannot be modified to suit one's religious beliefs. It became increasingly more difficult to teach during these times, with interruptions, bombings, students leaving for demonstrations or to join the army, and eventually Nafisi left the university.

Some years later, in 1995, she quietly formed a small class that met in her home, comprised of only women who were specifically invited to attend. These were young women who had showed a real interest (even passion) in literature and a mind capable of getting something from it. These weekly meetings became more than a class; they also revealed much about the students as well as about Nafisi herself. It was here that they discussed Nabokov's Lolita, among other masterworks. And related them to present-day Iran and the lives of women there. Nafisi is compelled to teach. She used this book as a means to reach us as well, to demonstrate what it means to discuss a work of literature. Thus we find out how she read Lolita, and Austen, and others.

Her view of Lolita is that it is the story of a dreadful pedophile who uses and destroys a 12-year-old girl. She feels for the girl, and not at all for Humbert Humbert. Her views are so damning that I was disturbed by them. I read Lolita several years ago and thought it was amazing. I had not expected to like the story of a middle-aged man with a 12-year-old girl. I was amazed that I developed sympathy for Humbert, even while I could not condone what he was doing. I also felt that Lolita was not a simple victim, but a strong character in her own right. That, of course, does not make it right that Humbert should have taken advantage of her. Still, to me, it makes the story remarkable in a different way from how Nafisi saw it. After reading her treatise on the subject I thought maybe I should read it again, but I didn't look forward to it (I rarely reread even my favorite books). My decision was to order a copy of the audio book. I will be able to listen to it while out and about and think while driving.

An interesting and rather odd part of this tale is the part of "the magician". Nafisi refers to this man this way, not because he performs typical tricks, but because he has a gift for helping others with their lives. Not a therapist but an insightful man who gives of himself while never wanting anything in return. Somehow Nafisi learns of him and during a bleak time in her life she calls him up and asks to see him. Thus forms a bond, at least on her side. The magician always is polite and kind. Offers a rare treat - chocolates - and tea, and listens. Makes comments. Helps her to see herself differently, and ultimately helps her develop "a plan". This is the type person I suspect most of us would dearly love to have in our lives: someone who just listens to us, knows us, understands us. There is nothing we want more than to be understood. Did he really exist? Nafisi poses the question later, but of course we aren't meant to take it seriously.

The story gives us an inside view of Iran during those difficult years (not that today life is a picnic there, but it is improving in some ways), into the effect of forced religious law (often having the effect of driving people away from their beliefs rather than the contrary), into the intimate lives of young muslim women, not allowed to express love except for their country's leader. The story also gives us insight into serious reading, really dissecting and thinking about great literature. I expect it would be a pleasure to be in classes like these, for those of us who value well-written words. It's a valuable book for these reasons. But I didn't love it. I couldn't get close to Nafisi. I felt she was pouring it on at times, telling rather than showing, and even making excuses for her lack of action during the revolutionary times. More than once, though, she points out that "we are responsible" for putting these people in office. But I wonder. How much power does one really have in a situation where dissent can lead to death? For whatever reason I did not warm to her. I also was confused by her way of jumping back and forth in time. Near the end she refers to the several years the group met at her house, yet it was only two years. I had to track down the dates to put it together. In spite of my misgivings I still came away with a new way of seeing, and that is what makes a good book.

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