Monday, April 21, 2008

Required Reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I may be a "Johnny-come-lately" here since this book was written in 2003 and has been on the New York Times best sellers list, but I just finished reading it and cannot rave enough to anyone who will listen. The author, Azar Nafisi, is an Iranian-born woman who was sent abroad to complete her studies as a child after her father was arrested for political reasons. She receives her doctorate in English and American literature from the University of Oklahoma and returns to Iran in 1979 to teach at the University of Tehran. She is enthusiastic and idealistic. The following year, Islamic extremists take over the universities and begin their purge. She recounts with horror and disillusionment how seemingly overnight the most private aspects of everyday life become subject to scrutiny under the Khomeini regime. Women are required to be veiled in public places and may not be accompanied by men other than their father, brother or husband; they are subject to being flogged and jailed if they are perceived as bearing the slightest trace of immodesty by the morality patrols that become part of everyday life; they are searched and at times subjected to the indignity of being examined to determine if they are still virgins. People's homes become subject to arbitrary searches for illegal satellite dishes or other evidences of Western decadence. Classic works of art, literature and film are banned. Dr. Nafisi is ultimately expelled from the University for refusing to wear the veil, and she begins to teach a private class to some of her most dedicated students in which they study forbidden works of classic literature.

The book is a memoir in which she describes her experiences, and those of the seven women in her class. In it she interweaves their stories and those of the works they read. She ultimately spends eleven years in Iran. There, she experiences the birth of her children and lives through the Iranian-Iraqi war and the death of Khomeini, before she and her husband make the difficult decision to leave the country that she loves despite her suffering there. Reading her work, one is provided with a literary review of many of the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Austen and James; learns about the history and politics of Iran; and, through beautifully written, poignant prose, experiences the frustration of these women who, because they live so far away, we easily can forget are so much like us. I finished reading this book a couple of days ago and still feel like I have said farewell to a close friend.

No comments: