READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi

Nordeen Morello, Book-'Em

READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN(June 17, 2004) Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable combination of memoir and literary criticism by an Iranian born literature professor at John Hopkins University. Nafisi left Iran at the age of thirteen, was educated abroad, lived in the United States, and then returned to her homeland as a college professor when she was thirty, immediately following the overthrow of the Shah. She lived in Iran from 1979 until 1997, at which time she felt compelled to leave her country permanently.

The story is told in four parts -- Nabakov, Gatsby, James and Austen -- and focuses on the two year period (1995-1997) during which Nafisi gathered seven of her brightest female college students in her living room to explore "how these great works of imagination could help us in our own present trapped situations as women." The narrative encompasses Nafisi's personal reminiscences, as well as slices from each of her students' lives. Along the way, she offers a recapitulation of the 1979 revolution, which led to the creation of the Islamic Republic under the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Nafisi also undertakes a literary analysis of the major works her seminar explored and lets her young women share their very personal reactions to these books.

Book-'Em was extremely fortunate to have Farnaz Shemirani, an Iranian friend of one our book group members, as a guest at our discussion. Farnaz left Iran as a young child but has returned regularly to visit friends and family there. Her understanding of both cultures helped bridge the gaps in our knowledge and cleared up many areas of confusion. We were made aware of the Persian, not Arabic, roots of the Iranian culture. We learned of the value placed on education for women, the admiration of the Iranian people for the openness and freedom of America, and the distinction they make between the U.S. government and the American people themselves. In most instances, their government's "party line" is not the reality people live by in their daily lives, according to Farnaz.

Given the supposed distaste for "western decadence," this writer wondered about the contrast between the somber shrouding of the veil and the ornamentation concealed beneath. Farnaz graciously ignored the ethnocentricity of my question as she explained to the group that "make up and fashion are not western; they are feminine. What is western is adornment in public. In Iran, it is reserved for the private sphere."

Repeatedly with her students as well as her readers, Nafisi shares her philosophy: "Empathy is at the heart of the novel. It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else's shoes and understand the other's different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming ruthless." With these young women, she illustrates how many of the themes of western classics parallel life in a repressive society. The powerful effect "in Teheran" of what many of us here consider routine high school-assigned reading is quite moving.

Many members of our book group found Reading Lolita a challenge: "It's an effort to return to," one reader noted. Many also thought that the literary discussion was unnecessarily elaborate. Some readers felt at a disadvantage for not having read the works referred to, but those who were familiar with them did not believe it was essential to appreciate the book.

Despite these negative sentiments, the prevailing opinion of Book-'Em was that Reading Lolita In Tehran is a valuable and enlightening book. It portrays a life, especially for women, that is almost beyond our comprehension. We thank both the author, Azar Nafisi, and our cultural interpreter, Farnaz Shemirani, for allowing us the opportunity to walk in someone else's shoes.


FROM THE EDITORS: Find reviews contributed by other local book clubs at: www.larchmontgazette.com. We'd love to hear from other Larchmont book clubs and readers; email us at publisher@larchmontgazette.com.


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