Reading Lolita in Tehran
- Duffin, Jacalyn
- Date of entry: Jan-25-2005
- Last revised: Feb-15-2007
The author reminisces about her experiences teaching English literature in Iran before, during, and after the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Chronology is not important and the book opens near the end of her sojourn in Tehran. A small group of young women who met when they were University students gather in her home to read and discuss English literature. They wear western clothes, remove their veils, and eat sweets. Some have been in prison. They conceal their simple purpose from fathers, husbands, brothers, because their gathering to read Western fiction would be construed as an act of defiance.
In four sections, two named for twentieth-century novels and two for nineteenth-century authors--"Lolita," "Gatsby," "James," and "Austen"--Nafisi constructs a series of flashbacks that describe the events of late 1970s to the 1990s in the inner and outer world of an academic woman. The books and writers used in the section headings have walk-on parts or starring roles that jar in this ostensibly alien context. Yet, they work surprisingly well for the women students, stimulating them to think in new ways about the situation in which they find themselves. Conversely, as the students assimilate the English and American writers into their world, we learn more about their Iran.
Born into a privileged, Iranian family and educated in both England and the United States, Nafisi sees the great changes in her beloved country as the encroachment of a retrograde, unthinking tyranny, hostile to women and to reason.
Myriad details of moment, garb, color, and food, evoke the everyday "feel" of protests and atrocities that are known in the west only through journalist’s reports. The long descriptions contrast sharply with the annoying lack of precision about several basic things. For example, the author withholds her age and the identity and the nature of her relationship with "my magician," a greatly admired man--perhaps a lover--who seems to exist on chocolate and philosophy.
Possessives and the first person singular are used liberally ("my students") to remind us that this is one woman’s story--notwithstanding the solace, but barely developed presence, of a husband, two children, and a mother. The decision may have been made to protect personal privacy. But the result also conspires to build a narcissistic tone, as if the author marvels at her own creativity, attractiveness, resilience, survival, and escape.
For readers of this database some of the most engaging passages describe the male students’ difficulty with literature that they perceive to be immoral (for its sexual content or for the agency it assigns women). In the social climate, the young men are utterly unable to accept great writing on its own terms. One wonders how they would react to Nafisi’s book and her portrayal of them. The wonderful device of a mock trial of Gatsby (pp. 120-136) challenges the students by going to the heart of the conflict of politics, religion, literature, and justice; it would work well as an excerpt and is worthy of emulation in our classrooms.