The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 24, 2003

An eulogy to books that heal & sustain
M. L. Raina

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi. Random House, New York. Pages 368. $23.95

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in BooksPART literary and part political commentary, I commend this book on three counts. It proves teeth-gnashing feminists wrong about the alleged baleful influence of male writing. It indicts Iranian clerics for suppression of women in the name of Islam. And, what is to me a very special pleasure, it celebrates the great works of literature and recognises their power to heal and sustain. Madame Bovary`85offered a shared community’, asserts Nafisi at one point.

Dismissed from her post as professor of English and now exiled in America, Azar Nafisi fashioned a novel mode of defying the ayatollahs: she held secret classes of select women students in her Tehran house, looking over her shoulder for possible intrusions from the moral police.

Like the heroine of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening who read Emerson to confirm her liberation from marital constraints, they read Lolita, already banished from her university syllabus for its ‘immorality’, and saw in it the plight of young women dominated by male tyrants. Similarly, in their readings of other classics, they found echoes of their own sexuality chafing under religious anathemas.


In an atmosphere where "teaching is a guerrilla warfare", Nafisi used canonical literature "in order to provoke her students into thinking about their own lives". And think they did, and quite engagingly at that. They came to her secret classes dressed in the prescribed veil but once inside the professor’s secure house, threw it off. Then would follow heated discussion about the texts and their relevance to their personal lives. In the process they would reveal their own anguish with the Islamic codes.

One of the key episodes in the book is the ‘trial’ of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby conducted before her ouster. We have the Islamist Niyazi ranged against the secular interpreter Zarrin, with professor Nafisi providing textual evidence. The arguments move from open denunciation of the novel to its strong defence with uncommitted students in between.

This scene encapsulates the intellectual strategy of the book inasmuch as it keeps the text in the centre of the class and registers varying responses from the participants. There are similar scenes when Henry James and Jane Austen are read — scenes that bring out the best and the worst among Iran’s embattled students. After each discussion the professor applauds the ‘democratic’ nature of the novel, its multiple points of view fighting the monolithic impositions of the cultural police.

She comes through as an eloquent teacher offering original insights into classic novels. Her scrupulous reading methods, unburdened by her feminist beliefs, capture the intricacies of the works in question, as evidenced by her reading of Gatsby and Daisy Miller.

Henry James described art as "a human complication and social stumbling block." Azar Nafisi’s role as a literature teacher has been to bring home this truth to her students and to relate it to her own experiences as a woman. That is why she does not feel comfortable with her teaching alone. She narrates her career as an activist, a friend and mentor as well as a challenge to her less sympathetic students. Her handling of Bari, Nahvi and Ghomi, reluctant students of her pre-dismissal class, brings out in the open the conflict between orthodoxy and pluralist thinking. But Nafisi is as tolerant of them as she is enthusiastic about her own small band of acolytes.

Nafisi is a riveting raconteur. She sees comic absurdity in grim situations, as when she describes her colleague Laleh’s brush with the university bosses over the veil. Or when she and her housekeeper try to hide her illegal satellite dish from the moral police. Or when she and Laleh celebrate the latter’s dismissal with a sumptuous dinner. Such a gift for self-deprecation saves her from being overwhelmed by her predicament.

Her narrative acquires the fluency of a practiced novelist as she records the tragi-comedy of teachers like herself facing the onslaught of obscurantism and calumny (fundamentalist students denounce her as ‘adulterous Nafisi’). The ‘trial’ of Gatsby itself is a Dickensian rendition of serious concern about the fate of great writing.

Her descriptions of her family and, particularly, of her shadowy ‘magician’ who steers her life at every step, mark significant minor epiphanies in this heart-felt literary-academic memoir.