"Reading Lolita In Tehran"

Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I never appreciated so fully the country I was born in till I read this book. I expected from the title that it would be about a women's book group, and it is, but it is also much, much more than that. My eyes were opened to realities that I wish were not true, but they are, and I find I'd rather know the truth than have only some vague idea about life being difficult in other parts of the world. An impressive and moving story, this is Azar Nafisi's life in Iran and how she and "her girls" tried to find expression for their anger and frustration through a series of book studies.

I wish Reading Lolita In Tehran was required reading for all North Americans. I think it's an important book. Anti-Arabian sentiment is growing on this continent; our nervousness may be the inevitable fallout of the 9-11 attack but I'm afraid we're becoming paranoid to the point of racial prejudice. We need some insight into the other side of the story. In this book Nafisi tells us about people who are trapped and abused inside their own countries and who are as much the victims of Islamic fanaticism as those targeted by terrorists. It's important that we understand their innocence.

There is no freedom for anyone in Iran, but life is especially harsh for women. They are punished for things we don't even think about here: wearing make-up or nail polish, letting their hair show, speaking to or even looking at a man in public who is not a relative. Books that we take for granted are banned, people disappear and are never heard from again. There is flogging or imprisonment for imaginary infractions like "biting into an apple too seductively". Nafisi and a male friend were in a cafe one day when one of the "morality squads" raided the building and they had to separate quickly so they wouldn't be found together and risk arrest or worse. If the lives you and I live on this side of the world were suddenly transported to Iran, we would all be arrested a hundred times a day for what we consider trivialities.

The book looks at the struggle of women to hold on to some kind of personal identity and not drown in the feeling of irrelevance that comes with being forced to completely cover yourself in public and having every activity strictly controlled by law. The authour says that losing her freedoms, she "felt light and fictional....as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe". She gathered as many books as she could before the bookstores were shut down and private libraries raided. She says "If I turned toward books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat."  Studying some of the world's great novels with other women gave substance to their lives in a place that was trying to make women invisible.   

She started weekly meetings with several of the women who had been her students when she taught at the university. They met secretly in her home, reading books that were now illegal, and in discussing the characters in the books found an outlet for their own fears and resentment. The girls' families and backgrounds are written into the story with enough detail that the reader develops an attachment to them and begins to appreciate what they were going through. There were times when I was so grieved by the injustice and suffering they faced that all I could do was turn the book over in my lap and sit there till I could accept what I had just read.

The story takes us through the years of war with Iraq, so in addition to the horrors of Islamic rule, there was the frequent terror of bombs falling around them and worry for the safety of their families and homes. And there was always the relentless question in their own minds of whether they should try to leave and make a better life somewhere else or to stay and try to improve things in the country they knew and loved.    

The book moves back and forth from one time to another in a few places and that had me a little lost at one point, but only for a moment. It's well written, organized into sections according to the authour or title they were reading, and at the end there is a series of discussion questions for book groups. I think it would be a terrific book for a book club or for anybody at all. We need to hear what this author has to tell us. Go out and buy this book. Right now.


the dogs' mother said...

We had a multi-cultural Ed class in grad school. Oh, how we hated it. After our first class the instructor told us how she despaired of us to her sisters in her sweat lodge. It went downhill from there. (She asked me, as a Canadian born American, 'did I resent the term North American?')

One of the exercises we did was pretending to be a Islamic woman. We were paired up and my partner had to don a burka. The burka was musty and my poor partner had to dig out her inhaler. My job, as her partner, was to escort her everywhere and speak for her. Oh. Dear. My partner was as outspoken, and funny, woman you'd ever want to know. She would not shut up. She was not into the spirit of this exercise. At the end I re-introduced her to the class as the Ghost of 'Jean' - as she had been beaten to death, for being an uppity woman, shortly after the exercise began and therefore was no longer among the living.
The other pairings did not do much better, especially the 6'6" male classmate who was randomly chosen to be burka-ized.

My point --- this book sounds like it would have given us a MUCH better understanding of the culture than role playing - which I have always despised since I got experimented on as a child in the infamous blue eyes brown eyes fad.

Ordinary Reader said...

froggy....I know what you mean. I hate role playing and when anyone in any situation suggests it I cringe and then try to sneak out of the room. It's horrible. Thanks for stopping by. I'll visit your blog later today and have a look around. I'm so enjoying the people I get to "meet" through blogging.

Unknown said...

Have had this book on my mind for ages...after reading this, I know for sure I will go and get this book...thanks!

Ordinary Reader said...

Dear Zzhush - You won't regret reading this book-it is a phenomenal story. Thanks for stopping by!

Becca said...

Dianne- I just wanted to let you know that, yes, I do have fibromyalgia. Diagnosed in 2005. I will review fibro books from time to time, and, like you saw, have quite a few on the site already. I am always interested in hearing about good ones, so feel free to share with me when you find a good fibro book, too!

Anonymous said...

I read this book about five years ago and really loved it. I'm glad you did too!!!

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