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Farhat Rams
Farhat Rams

Reading \"Lolita\" In Tehran: A Memoir In Books

Positive criticism of this readership often includes the book's depiction of great literature. For example, Margaret Atwood in her review in Amnesty magazine calls the reading "enthralling," while Heather Hewett of the Christian Science Monitor notes the book's "passionate defense of literature" that will "resonate with anyone who loves books, or who wants (or needs) to be reminded why books matter." Many comments and reviews alike note the importance of the existence of literature as a mode of refuge from tyranny and oppression, in turn giving faith to the voice of an individual. According to them, the influence of this book is two-fold. Firstly, it serves as a source of comfort for readers in hardships. Secondly, the book depicts the ways that literature speaks to readers according to the particularities of their circumstances and locations.[13]

Reading \"Lolita\" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books


Nafisi takes a job teaching at the University of Tehran's English Department in 1979, and there she focuses on teaching fiction from the twentieth century. The university is the center of political struggle in the new Islamic government, and she attends political demonstrations and meetings often when not teaching or preparing for a class. Devoted to literature, she tries to engage her students by making them think of the literature they read as subversive. She tells them to think about reading books as looking at the world in another way.

In her last two years in Tehran, Nafisi finds her greatest satisfaction as a teacher in the class she decides to hold at her home. Each Thursday morning, seven female students she has carefully selected meet to discuss great literature and its relationship to their realities. While Nafisi's memoir focuses on the discussions and the books, she also emphasizes the community that developed among the women. Her students were from diverse backgrounds, had different political beliefs, and varied in age, marital status, and personality. There was often conflict between them over the books, opinions, and life choices. Yet the women could be themselves in that classroom in ways they could not in general Iranian society. They took off their robes, veils, and chadors, and revealed who they were to each other and the professor. Each woman found acceptance and belonging, and was allowed to grow and develop intellectually and socially.

In addition to being a memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran also provides some literary criticism. Literary criticism is the interpretation, analysis, and judgment of literature, in this case great novels. Nafisi inserts her ideas about certain books in the text, primarily around the discussions of the books in her classes or with students, to highlight and illustrate her points. Occasionally, Nafisi offers a more in-depth analysis of a novel. For example, in the chapter 26 of "Part III: James," the professor interprets James's Washington Square and places it in the greater context of his books in remembrance of deceased former student Razieh.

Lolita (1955), a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, is one of the books read by Nafisi's students and analyzed in the memoir. It focuses on Humbert Humbert's sexual obsession with the twelve-year-old title character.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi.Random House, New York, my edition 2004, originally published 2003.Adult memoir, 358 pages including reading group guide.Lexile: not yet leveledAR Level: 8.4 (worth 25.0 points) .NOTE: Despite the reading level, this is an adult book not recommended for children.

Azar Nafisi conducted workshops in Iran for women students on the relationship between culture and human rights; the material culled from these workshops formed the basis of a new human rights education curriculum. She has lectured and written extensively in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture, as well as the human rights of the Iranian women and girls and the important role they play in the process of change for pluralism and an open society in Iran. She has been consulted on issues related to Iran and human rights both by the policy makers and various human rights organizations in the US and elsewhere. She is also involved in the promotion of not just literacy, but of reading books with universal literary value.

Blending memoir and polemic with close readings of her favorite novels, she describes the unexpected journey that led her to become an American citizen after first dreaming of America as a young girl in Tehran and coming to know the country through its fiction. She urges us to rediscover the America of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and challenges us to be truer to the words and spirit of the Founding Fathers, who understood that their democratic experiment would never thrive or survive unless they could foster a democratic imagination.

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi's living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.

Much of the memoir involves a book club that conducts literary analysis. Nafisi references many books, but focuses primarily on Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, and Pride and Prejudice. These novels can be assigned along with the corresponding sections in the memoir; at the very least, students should be familiar with the plots and themes. This bookish aspect of Nafisi's work is a great way to introduce students to intertextuality and deeper literary analysis. Class discussion can involve Nafisi's interpretations of the works, her students' responses, and how the novels highlight other events within Nafisi's story.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is presented as a memoir. Nafisi taught literature at a number of Iranian universities in the 1980s and 1990s, but eventually was forced out and/or left these positions. She begins her account in 1995, less than two years before she left Iran, when she gets together seven of her "best and most committed students" and begins to hold class again (having left the last of her academic positions) -- now in the privacy and relative safety of her house.This book group, and the books discussed, are the focal points of the memoir, but her account is more comprehensive, as eventually she recounts much of her life (and some of that of her students) in the Islamic Republic of Iran -- as well as a bit from pre-revolutionary times. The book is divided into four sections: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, and in each Nafisi uses the works and authors she discusses with her students to reflect on their situation in contemporary Iran, and to look back at what they all have gone through. The approach doesn't always work, but her passion for literature and the riveting stories she has to tell about recent Iranian life add up to an engaging read. The book club sessions easily move merely beyond the literary, as the small group gets involved in each others' lives and issues, eight Iranian fates (Nafisi's slightly different one included). But it is the description of her university courses that are more compelling. The more diverse student body -- which includes men -- and the more complex university setting, where religion and politics (institutional and national) intrude far more, make for considerably more interesting scenes. Among the highlights is the class where Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is put on trial. Nafisi's love for literature and books is clear throughout: she spends considerable time describing her bookstore-visits, her reading at various points, and her worries about the availability of certain texts (as decadent foreign works are, of course, eventually banned and booksellers trafficking in such work closed down). Also admirable is her love of literature for it's own sake. Starting her teaching career she says: "I was enthusiastic, naïve and idealistic, and I was in love with my books", which makes for a fairly winning combination. Nafisi's passion for literature is her greatest strength, but it is also her greatest limitation as a teacher (and reader). She describes a student disturbed by The Great Gatsby:The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds -- surely I could see ? I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual. Nafisi is unable (and/or unwilling) to see as novels as (convincingly) pragmatic, literature as engaged. She mentions a few "revolutionary" novels -- And Quiet Flows the Don, and Gorky's The Mother -- and seems hard-pressed to keep the contempt out of her voice. She actually did concern herself with such literature, writing her dissertation about Mike Gold (editor of the New Masses and an influential writer in the US in the 1920s and 30s) -- but in her descriptions ridicules his writing:What Gold had only dreamed of had been realized in this faraway country, now with an alien name, the Islamic Republic of Iran. "The old ideals must die ..." he wrote. "Let us fling all we are into the cauldron of the Revolution. For out of our death shall arise glory." Such sentences could have come out of any newspaper in Iran. Clearly, such writing deserves contempt and ridicule. Nevertheless, such examples (and other Zhdanovite glories) prove only that this is not the way to write literature that is, in the broadest sense, political -- and not that such writing can't exist, per se. (To offer only one example: Peter Weiss' masterpiece, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance).) But Nafisi's preference seems to be for passivity: enjoyment over engagement, literature allowing a getting-away from reality.Indeed, tellingly, most of the books discussed here at any length could fit right on any American small-town book club list (though admittedly they don't have the arc of a particular triumph over adversity favoured by Oprah), and, though there are subversive elements to many of the books (Nabokov's risqué Lolita especially), the politics of at least three of the four central authors are, by contemporary standards, extremely conservative. Nafisi writes a considerable amount about living in Iran (though she glides over some things too easily -- including the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a matter of some literary interest). She focusses on the post-1979 Iranian government and the outrages committed under it. Most specifically, she rails against the mandated veil-wearing (all women have be practically entirely covered when in public, except for their faces) and all the limitations that go with that. She does also mention some of the brutal repression and elimination of opposition and other undesirable voices that was and is common in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the lengthy (and arbitrary) jail sentences and executions (complete with pre-execution deflowering of virgins, to make sure that they won't be received in heaven). The regime she portrays seems more along the lines of the Soviet-totalitarian model than religious-idealistic, the laws tailored and applied to fit masters who have very odd notions of morality and justice -- considering it, for example, fine to lower the marriageable age of girls to nine, but punishing any adult woman whose neck might be visible in public, and willing both to send its sons to essentially senseless slaughter (in the Iran-Iraq war) and to ruthlessly murder those opposed to it. Nafisi doesn't describe much of the previous regime (and doesn't even mention that there was one before that), but even the few examples she does offer suggest that it isn't the ideology that's at fault (though religion and all-knowing god (always on the right side) are always a cozy, effective, and often popularly accepted shield to hide behind). Her father was mayor of Tehran, and was jailed (for no good reason) for four years by the Shah's regime, during which period her family was told "alternately that he was going to be killed or that he would be set free almost at once" -- tactics and an approach that sound identical to those of the Islamic Republic-regime. And this approach -- where brutality is the currency of choice, and democratic process and rational debate of little interest -- apparently transcends Iranian borders: in one of the most disturbing episodes in the book, Nafisi describes how when she lived in Oklahoma a student was suspected of being a SAVAK agent and lured by other Iranian students to a hotel, where they tortured him in their attempts to expose him. (The FBI was called in, but the victim didn't give his torturers up, out of some sort of perverted nationalist loyalty.) The absence of much historical context is problematic. Nafisi does walk readers through the Iranian revolution (and mentions some enthusiasm in joining in the overthrow of the corrupt regime), but there isn't much sense of what was being overturned: despite the fact that the her father was jailed by the Shah, she has little else to say about that regime's doings -- and offers practically no criticism. Her justified hatred against the small-minded clerics who have done so much damage almost seems to blind her to what the popular uprising was a reaction against. (At least in her descriptions -- of the classes she taught and students she had -- Nafisi does convey well the Iranian student-politics of that time, with (perhaps surprising for American readers) a very strong Marxist element right alongside the Islamic groups jostling for power, at least in the early days.) There are also personal issues that aren't adequately dealt with, in particular her early marriage, dismissed fairly easily and quickly:Later, I was insecure enough to marry on the spur of a moment, before my eighteenth birthday. I married a man whose most important credential was that he wasn't like us -- he offered a way of life which, in contrast to ours, seemed pragmatic and uncomplicated; and he was so sure of himself. He didn't value books (.....) The day I said yes, I knew I was going to divorce him. Male-female relationships are complicated throughout the book (dating isn't very easy in the Islamic Republic), but Nafisi prefers to wonder about her students' relationships rather than trying to explain this first, failed marriage -- despite the fact that her motives (and her urgency) in getting married so hastily (and despite her better judgement, from the sounds of it) seem clear manifestations of fundamental issues faced by all women Iran, before and after the revolution. Nafisi so easily condemns the later Islamic regime's ridiculous limitations on what women can do, and yet she herself specifically sought out and embraced such a terribly limiting option. Surely her rush to tie herself for life to a man "whose most important credential was that he wasn't like us" is much like the general rush to accept the change brought about by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his lackeys, simply because he promised something different than the brutal, corrupt, and in some ways very decadent regime of the Shah (and presumably many Iranians also knew as soon as they hailed -- or accepted -- the rise of Khomeini that they were going to divorce him, i.e. look for something new too.) Ultra-privileged Nafisi -- the one thing she was grateful for when her father was arrested was that it meant she didn't have to stay at her Swiss boarding school any longer -- never herself seems in much danger. She fights the good (and losing) fight at the various universities she teaches at, but even in challenging the authorities never puts herself in a position where she appears to be truly in danger -- unlike some of her students, who are jailed and even summarily executed. It is unclear from her account exactly how untouchable she was, but with her father mayor of Tehran (and jailed by the Shah), and her mention of a long Nafisi tradition, it seems she was in rather a different position than most Iranians, and even her students. The veil, of course, and all the limitations that came with it were a great (or, rather: horrible) equaliser -- and so it is also that that she focusses on. Of particular interest -- and not adequately explored -- is also the bizarre and shifting cultural policy in Iran, as well as other aspects of repression by the regimeWomen had to go veiled in public, but it was still possible to teach Lolita or The Great Gatsby; indeed, Nafisi even published a book on Nabokov in Iran in 1994. Compared to several other Islamic countries (notably Saudi Arabia) -- or even the Soviet Union -- there seems considerably greater tolerance in many cultural matters (though a description of a concert Nafisi and her family go to (where monitors make sure the crowd doesn't sway to the music or anything like that !) shows some strict limitations here too). Also: leaving the country -- and, in many cases, returning -- are a relatively simple matter (at least for the privileged classes) -- and among the more interesting discussions are the arguments for staying and going various students, friends, and family members make. The selection of books discussed is somewhat disappointing -- books of exile, or Lysistrata-like uprisings, more obviously addressing issues closer to home, would have seemed more apt for this particular group of readers. Too often, the books are seen only as escapes, food for the imagination, a respite from real life -- and, eventually, merely an excuse for a Kaffeeklatsch (which then allows her to dwell more on the admittedly interesting personal lives of her students). For Nafisi literature has a specific place and role, and she doesn't care to consider greater possibilities for it. Also noteworthy is the absence of discussion of almost any Persian/Iranian literature. Possibly this is because Nafisi was writing with an American audience in mind, and names like Sadeq Hedayat, Houshang Golshiri, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, and Simin Daneshvar (all authors whose work has been translated into English) mean nothing to such readers. Nevertheless, the omission is a glaring one. Even whenever she discusses what she reads, listing titles and authors, there are no Persian writers among them. It is only when she is no longer teaching and has had two children in quick succession, in a chapter that begins: "For a long time, I wallowed in the afterglow of my irrelevance", that she: "joined a small group who came together to read and study classical Persian literature." There's barely a page about this -- and it's all about poets who have been dead for centuries. Elsewhere the mentions are derogatory asides ("the so-called realistic fiction coming out of Iran", with no further elaboration) or say nothing about the literary works ("dissident writer Saidi Sirjani, who had the illusion of presidential support, was jailed, tortured and finally murdered").Only in the epilogue, when she is in America and she is teaching once again is there mention of a single Iranian novel, Iraj Pezeshkzad's My Uncle Napoleon ("one of my


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