by Azar Nafisi
Fri 6 Nov 09
Azar Nafisi is currently a professor of English Literature at Johns Hopkins University. Prior to 1997, she lived in Iran and taught English and American Literature at the University of Tehran, The Free Islamic University, and The University of Allemah Tabatabai.
Professor Nafisi possessed (and still possesses I imagine) a passion for English Literature, most notably the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James. In 1995, she resigned her post at The University of Tehran in protest of the law requiring women to wear the veil. Unbowed by what she considered to be a horrible repression of women’s rights, she invited several of her favorite female students to her home to begin what would become a weekly book club to read and discuss books that she so cherished but were banned by the new hardcore Islamic Regime as being decadent Western nonsense. In her home, protected from the “morality squads”, she and her students were free to remove their veils and simply be themselves without the burden of judgment from their repressive government. Nafisi writes lovingly of these sessions, with admiration for the courage of her students. To continually defy the authority of the Islamic Republic meant great danger for these women, a danger they faced on a daily basis; being caught wearing makeup, nail polish, or colorful clothing under their veils, allowing too much skin to be seen, or simply being in public without the accompaniment of a male relative. The women were forced to weave their lives through periods of harsh repression and, at times, a loosening of the strict codes dictated by the Ruling Council. The weekly book club allowed this group to escape into literature, and through discussions of it, reconcile their lives in a world not entirely under their control.
It was very difficult for me to read this book without being angry, angry that in my very lifetime, the rights and privileges of ordinary people have been suspended by government officials who, to a Western eye, seem to have been determined to return their country to the Middle Ages. I was a university student in Chicago at the time the early part of this book took place, and I find it difficult to imagine the kind of repression that occurred at various universities in Tehran. The book recalls the ascension (and eventual death) of Ayatollah Khomeini to become Supreme Leader of Iran after the Revolution, the ability of professors to teach what they wished openly only to have those privileges revoked and brutally suppressed. Student demonstrations against the policies of the Ruling Council were summarily put down with arrests, torture, and murder. One of the few ways to escape the madness was literature, and Professor Nafisi was determined to hold on to one of the last vestiges of sanity, both for herself and her students. Her classes were filled with believers and non-believers in the Regime, and the discussions were both lively and subdued. Many students were afraid to openly discuss class topics for fear they would be labeled as subversive, while others would cite the characters in the books as evidence of Western decadence. There is so much more to write that I could fill many pages with this review, but I’ll spare you my poor prose.
Some of the less angry moments in the book for me were discussions between Nafisi and her friend, the man she called “my magician”. The man was a stabilizing factor in her life, allowing her to release some of the pain she carried. During one meeting, over coffee and chocolates, when she was particularly bitter over the most recent edicts issued from the government, her magician declared “You should stop blaming the Islamic Republic for all of our problems”. This simple statement struck a chord, a realization that we all make our own problems. We have the power, in whatever society we live, to be individuals and free, at least in our minds.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to be free, if nowhere else but their mind.
You can find this book at Amazon: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.