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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

I had heard about this book from several friends and seen it at airport book stores many times. Yet for some reason I kept postponing the decision to read it. I wasn't comfortable with the hype around it and felt it might be another "Oprah Book Club" book (not that I have anything against Oprah). Post factum, I need not have worried.

Azar Nafisi taught English literature in several universities in Iran, before giving up on the Islamic Republic of Iran and moving to live in the US. During the last couple of years before leaving, in the mid-90s, and after having had to resign from her teaching posts, a group of seven of her former students used to gather in her apartment every Thursday to read and discuss literature. This book group forms the basis for Nafisi's memoir, in which she gives her personal views of life under the Islamic regime that took over her homeland in 1979.

Nafisi's passion for literature - an almost physical one at times - is not to be doubted. She divides the book into four sections, each named after a book or an author: Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen. In each section, she attempts to use the book/author as background for the wider narrative of her students' lives (and hers). As I have only read Lolita and a couple of Austen's books, I could not relate to every nuance and how the cited paragraphs related to the story being told. What fascinated me most were the "little" everyday stories about life in Tehran. Seemingly small and private episodes, when read together, shed a light on what life is like under the ever-watching eyes of the Ayatollahs.

An issue that runs throughout the book, one which obviously occupied (and occupies) the minds of many women in Iran, is the veil and robe. Nafisi succeeds in explaining to the reader what it means for a woman to "disappear" into the mandated clothing imposed by the regime and how liberating it feels to take off these clothes once indoors. She uses this issue to demonstrate how ridiculous religion can become when manipulated by the state and how pathetic some of the more fanatic proponents of these decrees can be when confronted with logical arguments. Through Nafisi's stories we learn how easy it is to be thrown in jail and executed; how the slightest comment or even body language against the regime leads to swift and painful punishment; how the government brain-washed hundreds of thousands of children to go to certain death during the Iraq-Iran war; and how impossible it was for universities to carry out their roles under the ever-changing rules imposed on them by the regime.

One aberration from the non-fictional narrative of Nafisi's book is the "magician", a male friend that Nafisi turns to in times of need, to get advice and direction. She never reveals the identity of this "magician" (the other characters are also not revealed, for obvious reasons, but at least they get a pseudonym) but he is clearly a great influence on her. Throughout the book I was intrigued by this character and was hoping to learn morea about him as I continued reading, But at the very end of the book, Nafisi writes: "I ask myself, Was he ever real? Did I invent him? Did he invent me?". I found this to be an unsettling and annoying ending. If the "magician" was indeed fiction, then how much of the "true stories" Nafisi tells us are indeed factual? I do not doubt that much of what she has written happened in real life, but this flirt with fiction in the book's epilogue was, in my view, unnecessary.

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