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Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 368 pages, $23.95) Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, seems like a book club’s dream selection. It’s the story of an Iranian English professor who, frustrated by the lack of intellectual and personal freedom in Iran’s universities, decided to hold a private, women-only discussion group in her home to read Western novels. The book-jacket blurbs lead the reader to expect a heartwarming tale of how the novels helped the women triumph over totalitarian thinking; but this is not where the force of Nafisi’s work lies. Her achievement is not in capturing the power of fiction, but rather the power of fact; not in describing for us the beauty of Nabokov’s prose (easy enough for us, as Americans, to discover for ourselves in any public library), but in making vivid the brutality of life under the Islamic Republic. Nafisi wants to argue that reading matters, that the imagination is paramount, that her class provided its eight students with, in a borrowing from Virginia Woolf, “a space of our own.” Or, as Nafisi writes with dramatic flourish in her journal a few days before leaving Iran with her family to live in Washington, D.C., “I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination.” But in fact, Nafisi’s remarkable and moving memoir, taken as a whole, undercuts these sweeping claims for the power of the imaginative worlds literature conjures, because what is most gripping and enthralling about her story is not the separate, contemplative space that Nafisi and her students conspire to create, but rather the chaotic, threatening world outside it. That world is one peopled not by gentle readers, but by angry young men who set fire to themselves in protest, by “morality police” whose sadism rivals that of Mao’s Red Guards, and by people forced to wear literal (for women) and emotional veils to achieve any kind of personal safety. Laid against this powerful, fearful world, Nafisi’s ode to the imagination pales and fades. Like Shakespeare’s Richard II, Nafisi wants to use the power of the human mind to turn “this prison where I live unto the world.” Yet Hamlet better understood the hazards of such a course, admitting that “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.” Those “bad dreams,” for Hamlet and for even the most daringly imaginative among us, are the intrusions of reality upon the more perfect worlds that the best of authors can create. Each section of Nafisi’s book is named for one such author, a writer who, in her opinion, displayed a “faith in the critical and almost magical powers of literature.” Nafisi uses each of the four — Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen — as both a prompt for memory and as a touchstone to return to during the course of her narrative. Yet the true structure of the book depends on chronology: the first and last chapters detail the two years spent discussing life and literature with the students she comes to call “my girls,” and the two intermediate chapters explain the life Nafisi and her family led during the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the subsequent years of confusing and fluctuating demands of the Islamicists in charge of living and learning in Iran. The slightly peripheral role of the books Nafisi discusses turns out to be a good thing, because Nafisi as literary critic offers little new or revelatory. Indeed, if anything is original here, it’s Nafisi’s disturbing tendency to read all her authors in light of the problem that occupies and infuriates her — the political environment of Iran. For Nafisi, Nabokov’s depiction of the self-involved Humbert Humbert is “revenge against our own solipsizers . . . revenge on the Ayatollah Khomeini”; Gatsby’s dream of recreating his past with Daisy Buchanan is “similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream”; James’ villains are disturbing because they lack empathy, a lack which was also “to my mind the central sin of the regime”; and Austen’s “multivocality . . . is one of the best examples of the democratic aspect of the novel.” The problem with such readings, of course, is that they reduce these writers to opponents of the Iranian government. Nafisi has to be careful here not to commit the same sin that she sees in the fundamentalist attitudes of the regime, a “culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent — namely ideology.” If Nafisi rails against the propensity of many of her students to see nothing in these works but the immorality of the West, she herself must avoid seeing them as nothing more than proof of the immorality of her repressive society. Nafisi is aware of this difficult problem only occasionally. At one point, she writes with an unexpected passion that “ we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert, and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom but the sea. Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.” Yet given these forceful italics in the original, it’s hard not to feel that Nafisi protests too much. Fortunately, when Nafisi becomes unable to look beyond her own political perspective, others around her prove up to the task. One of the great assets of Nafisi’s memoir is that she brings to life the personalities around her, even when they disagree with her. This willingness to let herself be challenged may well be the legacy of the great teacher that Nafisi so clearly is, one confident enough to let each member of the class speak his or her own piece (even if, as in the classroom, Nafisi gets the last word). For instance, at one point near the end of the book, after Nafisi and her family have made the decision to move to America, her student Manna angrily accuses her teacher of encouraging all the women to emigrate: “[Y]ou set up a model for us . . . that staying here is useless, that we should all leave if we want to make something of ourselves.” Nafisi defends herself with “some irritation”; nevertheless, it can hardly be an accident that, a half-decade later, only Manna and one other student from the class’s contingent of eight remain in Iran. At another point, Nafisi is bitterly complaining to her friend “the magician” (of whom more later) about her student Sanaz, whose childhood sweetheart has called off their engagement. The magician replies, “How exactly does the jilting of a beautiful girl relate to the Islamic Republic? . . . Because the regime won’t leave you alone, do you intend to conspire with it and give it complete control over your life?” By letting voices of those who disagree with her into her story, Nafisi borrows a page from Austen, making her memoir, if not more democratic, at least more three-dimensional; a tale of several perspectives instead of just one. Again and again these more worldly outside perspectives war against what can sometimes seem the naïve or overly idealistic viewpoint of the author. The book’s struggle between the outer and inner, real and fictional, is as literal and as seemingly endless as the sleepless nights Nafisi spends during the Iran-Iraq war, camped out in the hallway outside her children’s bedrooms in case of a missile attack so that, she writes, “if anything happened, it would happen to all of us.” Armed with pillows, candles, and a book, Nafisi takes up her vigil, hoping to protect her children with her conscious presence at the same time she tries to lose herself and her fears in fiction. Sometimes Nafisi succeeds in retreating into “a thick Dorothy Sayers mystery, safe and secure with Lord Peter Wimsey.” But the outside world will not long be drowned out by the suspense of a mystery novel — the next morning Nafisi awakens to a bomb exploding — nor does Nafisi convince us that it should be. The book’s most powerful moments come when we read the excruciating details of real life in the Islamic Republic. Nafisi recounts tale after horrifying tale of brutality and violation. Her 11-year-old daughter, Negar, comes home from school one day in tears to report how the morality police came to her school to see if any of the girls’ nails were indecently long; when they find a guilty party, a girl raised in the United States and thus ignorant of the idea that short nails equal feminine virtue, they cut her fingernails to the quick until they bleed. Nassrin, a student in many of Nafisi’s classes over the years and one of the most compelling figures in the pages of this book, has even more harrowing stories. One day, while helping Nafisi file notes and papers, Nassrin almost casually mentions that her uncle, a pious man who wanted to keep himself “chaste and pure” for his future wife, relieved his frustrations by fondling his adolescent niece while tutoring her in Arabic. Another time, during the Iran-Iraq war, Nafisi is shocked to encounter several of her female students laughing and joking over the recent death of one of their male classmates. Her students explain that this man, one of the leaders of the Muslim Students’ Association, got a female friend expelled from university when he reported that the patch of skin he could see under her headscarf had “sexually provoked him.” Nassrin, who was jailed when only a teenager for being present at a student protest, contends that this same attitude was typical of her jailers, who executed one prisoner simply for being beautiful. But before they executed her, the devout guards raped her repeatedly; in fact, they raped all women the night before their executions, since they believed that virgins would go to heaven. One could pile up tale after tale like this, a list of crimes of the kind Nafisi quotes in an excerpt from an Amnesty International report about a young man executed for being too “Westernized.” Just as affecting, though, are the small details of the oppressions of daily life, of the lowered expectations that come from living in a society that prevents people the freedom to realize their dreams. The most powerful symbol of this is Nafisi’s friend “the magician,” a former professor, writer, and critic who gave up teaching because of the limits placed on his intellectual freedom. Prevented from creating in his own way, he provides a sympathetic ear and a critical eye for Nafisi and dozens of others like her: teachers, filmmakers, writers, painters, a whole host of friends who value his advice. It is this man who encourages Nafisi to teach again at a more liberal university after she has left the University of Tehran under pressure to wear a veil, he who endorses her idea of a private class for her most devoted students. And yet, for all his wisdom, the magician carries about him an ineffable sadness. He resists Nafisi’s romanticization of him; when she says that she wants to withdraw from teaching in protest as he has, he counters: “You are still making the mistake of using me as a model. I am not a model. In many ways I might even be called a coward. I don’t belong to their club, but I am also paying a big price. I don’t lose, and I don’t win. In fact, I don’t exist. You see, I have withdrawn not just from the Islamic Republic but from life as such.” Like the magician, Nafisi’s students are constantly bumping up against private sadnesses that are inextricable from the public policies of the government. Nassrin, for instance, survivor of the pious uncle and the sanctimonious jailers, appears most distraught, Nafisi observes, at the very moment when she should be at her happiest — when she is in love. But having found a boyfriend only confounds Nassrin, because it makes her realize how little she understands of normal life. “This is what we should be talking about in class,” she cries out to a somewhat puzzled Nafisi, “about how all of us — girls like me, who have read their Austen and Nabokov and all that, who talk about Derrida and Barthes and the world situation — how we know nothing, nothing about the relation between a man and a woman.” Nassrin’s fellow students feel the same keen distress at the segregation of the sexes that makes normal friendships, much less healthy romance, impossible. At one point, Yassi, the youngest of Nafisi’s students, declares that the only man she can ever love is Austen’s Mr. Darcy. At another, Mitra goes on vacation with her husband to Syria, and comes back not elated but angered by the freedom she felt there: “[W]hat shocked her most were her sensations in the streets of Damascus, where she had walked freely, hand in hand with Hamid, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. . . . She was angry for the years she had missed, for her lost portion of the sun and wind, for the walks she had not taken with Hamid.” For Nafisi, such confessions seem doubly wrenching: Not only do her students have to cope with the restrictions of the current regime, but also, because of their age, they can barely imagine a world that is different. She writes: “My generation . . . had a past to compare with the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away. But . . . [t]heir memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had.” By the end of the book, these kinds of conversations — about freedom and limitation, opportunity and lack thereof, love and fear — invade and threaten to overpower the class’s literary discussions. While Nafisi’s descriptions of the women’s intellectual arguments almost always fall flat, her accounts of their fights about how to live, where to live, crackle with immediacy and passion. In these exchanges we see the women trying to figure out how they can — even whether they should — try to bear the kind of life the Islamic Republic prescribes for its female citizens. The same passionate debates about the future of Iran and its citizens continue today, long after Nafisi and her students have made their own choices. The recent demonstrations in Tehran and across the country have been led by people like Nafisi and “her girls,” students who’ve learned to think for themselves and to question. It’s impossible to know at this moment what the outcome of the debate will be, what future Iran will choose for itself. But after reading Nafisi’s touching book, one hopes that perhaps, someday, Reading Lolita in Tehran will be read in Iran, by young people who can only conjure the world of the Islamic Republic through the same route Nafisi and her students used to try to escape it — the evocative power of literature. Beth Johnston is a lawyer and writer in Cambridge, Mass.

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